With the catching market moving swiftly so far this offseason, was there urgency to get that done before baseball’s annual convention?
“Not necessarily,” Stearns said. “Our priority is to build a team by Opening Day. We've got plenty of time and really, the timing of this was because we got to a deal that we thought made sense for us and really that's dictated timing.”
That’s been Stearns’ message to fans so far this winter: be patient. Since the untimely end of their season in the National League Wild Card Game, the Brewers have broken down the roster with a series of outright releases, trades and non-tenders just this week. Even with trades for Narváez from the Mariners and infielder Luis Urías and pitcher Eric Lauer from the Padres, the Brewers are poised to depart for the Meetings with eight openings on their 40-man roster and only six players with salaries cemented for 2020.
Even if it looks a bit like a rebuild at this early date of the winter, it would make little sense for the Brewers to go in that direction now -- not with Christian Yelich in his prime.
“I expect us to invest in players throughout the course of the offseason,” Stearns said, “and having a little bit of payroll flexibility doesn't hurt that.”
The Brewers addressed catcher but have major needs on the pitching staff (starters and relievers) and at the corner infield spots as the Winter Meetings begin. The positional vacancies have generated significant interest, but the pitching ones appear just as acute. The Brewers have Brandon Woodruff returning atop the rotation and like what they acquired in Lauer. But no spots appear assured after that, because so many of the other candidates (Adrian Houser, Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes) may fit better in the bullpen.
It should surprise nobody that Stearns declined to offer his feel for whether the free-agent market or trades were more likely to help fill the club’s remaining needs.
“It's a little bit too early to tell where the most productive discussions will occur,” Stearns said. “I do think that, at least from a conversation standpoint, I will be very active next week. It's always difficult to know whether anything gets done at the Winter Meetings, but I do think it will be a busy week for us from a discussion standpoint and continuing to understand what's on the market.”
Who might they trade?
The Brewers dealt from an area of depth when they sent young outfielder Trent Grisham to the Padres along with pitcher Zach Davies for Urías and Lauer. With Ryan Braun entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, it might be tough to trade more outfielders. The middle infield may now offer the best option, as Urías gives the Brewers the option of exploring offers for shortstop Orlando Arcia, who remained with the team when he agreed to a $2.2 million contract on Monday, a salary that checked in below what Arcia was projected to earn in arbitration. Arcia is still only 25.
Milwaukee’s biggest trade chip is Josh Hader, the National League Reliever of the Year each of the past two seasons. Dealing him would leave a cavernous hole at the back of the bullpen, but entering the first of his four arbitration years (Hader qualified this offseason as a Super Two) his value may never be higher, so it behooves the Brewers to listen. Depending on the return, such a trade could leave the Brewers scrambling for relievers, as Jeremy Jeffress is gone and the other member of the trio that proved so solid in 2018, Corey Knebel, is coming back from Tommy John surgery in early April.
Prospects to know
Trades for the likes of Yelich in January 2018 have thinned a farm system that sits near the bottom of MLB Pipeline’s rankings, but Thursday’s swap of No. 24 Brewers prospect Adam Hill and a Draft pick for Narváez proves that it is still possible to do business.
Brice Turang is the Brewers’ No. 1 prospect now that Keston Hiura has graduated to the big leagues, and with Hiura all but certainly off limits, Turang may be the Brewers’ most available prospect. Corey Ray (No. 4), an athletic outfielder and another former first-round Draft pick, has been a popular name in recent years, but he is coming off a tough 2019 season in which a hand injury hampered his production. No. 10 Brewers prospect Antoine Kelly is one to watch, as he has the power arm and extreme spin rates that clubs covet, but he carries a lot of risk because of command concerns.
Rule 5 Draft
The addition of a 26th spot on the active roster next year has the potential to impact teams’ strategy in the Rule 5 Draft, as a selected player must remain with his new team for the entire following season or be offered back. Stearns said it wasn’t clear whether the Brewers would make a pick.
Perhaps more intriguing is whether the Brewers will lose notable players that day (Thursday, just before the Winter Meetings adjourn). They opted to leave No. 3 prospect Zack Brown, their Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2018, unprotected. Also available to other teams is No. 14 prospect Lucas Erceg, a corner infielder, and No. 18 prospect Braden Webb, a pitcher.
By virtue of their winter purge, the Brewers currently have $51.95 million committed to 2020 salaries. Their four arbitration-eligible players, including Narváez, project to add just more than $13 million to that total, though Hader’s salary is complicated to estimate. Salaries for their pre-arbitration players will push the figure higher.
So, Stearns has significant room to spend, provided the Brewers push the payroll back to the record level ($120-$125 million, depending on the accounting) at which they began last season. Will the total be that high again? Club officials never say in advance, as the strategy is always dictated by opportunity and not some arbitrary number. Fans are rightly curious to see where this goes.
One question: Any talks of Hiura playing some first base? -- @ZekeBones34 on Twitter
The answer is still no, but first base is sure to be a topic of discussion at the Winter Meetings. The Brewers think Hiura can stick at second and that they can find a modestly-priced player or two for the opening at first base created by last year’s trade of Jesús Aguilar, the surprising decision to decline Eric Thames' club option following the season and the decision to non-tender Travis Shaw.
Stearns has not ruled out re-signing a player like Thames or Shaw, and he also said the Brewers remain in contact with Braun about positional versatility. According to Stearns, Braun is open to first base if moving there makes the team better.