MILWAUKEE -- “We’re going to be good,” Craig Counsell said.
“Trust the process,” Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said.
“We are happy with our team,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said.
Those were some of the takeaways from last month’s Brewers On Deck, where club officials expressed a bullish outlook about 2020. The franchise will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its move to Milwaukee while chasing a third consecutive postseason berth.
It doesn’t take long on Milwaukee sports radio or in social media circles to learn that a vocal contingent of fans isn’t so sure. Many point to a drop in payroll -- down approximately $25 million, or 20%, from last year’s club-record figure Opening Day -- and the departures of high-profile players like Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames as reasons for pessimism. Why, they ask, did the team cut payroll coming off consecutive postseason appearances, including a 2019 season in which more than 2.8 million fans paid to attend games at Miller Park?
“Bucks will win more games than the Brewers this season!” one fan wrote on Twitter.
Another fan wrote, “We've trusted the process, where's the championship?”
If there is one overarching storyline as Brewers pitchers and catchers report next week, it is that divergence of opinion between what the Brewers themselves think of the team they have assembled, and the view of at least one outspoken segment of fans.
It won’t be answered during six weeks of Spring Training; instead it will take all six months of the regular season to determine which contingent is right and wrong.
“Our models, which have been quite accurate the last several years, including 2017, when we really surprised everybody, say we’re a really competitive team,” Attanasio said.
Few times in Brewers history has the club undergone turnover like this winter. Of the 25 players on the roster for last year’s National League Wild Card Game, only 12 remain, and that includes left-hander Alex Claudio, who was let go as a free agent and then re-signed in cost-saving move. Only four of the 10 pitchers on the Wild Card roster are back. The departures include 2019 All-Stars Grandal and Moustakas, plus Thames, ace reliever Drew Pomeranz and starters Jordan Lyles, Zach Davies and Chase Anderson. Lyles departed as a free agent. Davies and Anderson were traded in moves that resulted in freeing payroll space.
Of course, one player notably absent from the Wild Card roster is back. Christian Yelich, sidelined Sept. 10 by a fractured right kneecap, said he is back to full strength and ready for the start of his third season in Milwaukee after finishing first and second in NL MVP Award balloting the past two years, respectively.
Second baseman Keston Hiura is poised for his first full big league season after a promising debut last year. Lorenzo Cain’s legs are healthy again after a disappointing 2019. Ryan Braun is ready to see some action at first base heading into what could be his final season in a Brewers uniform.
And Stearns made a slew of moves to fill in around those mainstays. He made trades to acquire catcher Omar Narváez from the Mariners and infielder Luis Urías and pitcher Eric Lauer from the Padres. The Brewers also one of the most active teams in free agency, signing nine players to Major League deals (though one of them, pitcher Deolis Guerra, was subsequently waived and claimed this week by Philadelphia). The Brewers were sixth in free agent spending this offseason among the NL’s 15 teams, according to an analysis by the website MLB Trade Rumors.
Among the newcomers: Outfielder Avisaíl García, starters Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom, first baseman Justin Smoak, third basemen Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard and reliever David Phelps. All have had significant professional success. All carry significant question marks. Essentially, the Brewers opted to spread their risk over a pool of players rather than betting big on one or two.
“We have to have performance, there’s no question about it,” Counsell said. “We have to have people step forward. We have to have young players step forward. We have to have unproven players step forward. I think we probably have more guys in a place to step forward this year than in years past, and I’m really excited about that.”
Expect more players to be added. Key to the Brewers’ strategy was leaving flexibility for additional moves during Spring Training or before the Trade Deadline. The payroll is “fluid,” Attanasio said.
“We have managed the team for 15 seasons now in a fiscally responsible way so that we can take advantage of opportunities when they come around,” he said, citing the Brewers’ five-year, $80 million deal with Cain in January 2018. “If you look over the last 20 years at teams that have overspent to a point of fiscal irresponsibility, one of two things happened, or both: The team ends up in a tailspin for several seasons, and/or ownership can’t maintain, and you have to have a transition. …
“If there are significant opportunities at midseason, we will be able to take them now. There may be. There may not be.”
Counsell is among the many NL Central observers who expect the Reds to be more formidable in the aftermath of an aggressive winter spending spree. The defending division champion Cardinals made few moves, but arguably remain the division favorites. And while the Cubs were financially hamstrung from making many moves, they still have the core of their 2016 World Series championship team in place.
The Brewers, after playing to within one game of the World Series in 2018 and falling in last year’s NL Wild Card Game to the eventual World Series champions, are still trying to get back to baseball’s biggest stage.
“There’s been a lot of change, but I think they’ve gone a good job of adding a lot of good players,” said Braun, who is entering the final year of his contract. “I think our depth 1-26 to start the year will be a strength with all of the guys they’ve added. I feel good about the group they’ve put together, and I think everybody else does, as well.”