MILWAUKEE -- On a Friday the Brewers had hoped to host a workout ahead of the National League Championship Series, president of baseball operations David Stearns instead met the media to look back at the team’s early exit against the Braves and look ahead to an uncertain offseason.
“This year the disappointment is a little bit higher, frankly, for all of us than we’ve had previously -- even with some of our tougher exits,” Stearns said. “And that’s not a bad thing. It means we had really high expectations here this year. It means that we thought we had a really good team; we did have a really good team. We had a team that performed at a very high level and for a long time. And when all of those things happen and the season ends, it hurts.”
Here are three takeaways from Stearns’ session.
1. Staffing decisions, options, medical matters are first on the agenda
Coaches typically work on year-to-year contracts, and Stearns said there were front-office meetings planned over the next seven to 10 days to evaluate manager Craig Counsell’s staff. That is sure to include a discussion of the Brewers’ offensive shortcomings during stretches of the season, particularly early in the year and again late, including in the NLDS against the Braves, when the Brewers batted .192 as a group, got shut out twice in four games and struck out 48 times.
Then, five days after the World Series, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Avisaíl García will decide on their options -- Bradley has a player option and García a mutual option (the player always goes first). Stearns expressed confidence in Bradley’s track record despite a 35 wRC+ in 2021, lowest in more than two decades for a player who had more than 400 at-bats in a season.
“There’s no question he’s a better player than this, Stearns said.
Meanwhile, two players are moving forward with medical matters. Stearns said reliever Devin Williams had a follow-up appointment with his hand surgeon in St. Louis on Thursday and is ready to begin rehabilitation from a fractured hand he suffered after punching a wall. And infielder Keston Hiura will have a minor procedure to clean out some loose bodies in his throwing elbow.
Stearns said Hiura could shift into a multi-positional role next season depending on the makeup of the team, including some play in the outfield.
“I think there's a skill set that can play out there,” Stearns said. “I think he can catch fly balls. So, that's not something we've dug deep into, but as we look towards potential multi-positional players, that's probably something that we'll talk about as we go forward.”
2. They don’t know exactly what went wrong for Christian Yelich.
“I don’t. I think if we did, if Christian knew exactly what happened, it’s easier to solve,” Stearns said. “It’s certainly frustrating for Christian. He commented after Game 4. And I know you guys who are around him regularly know that, how hard he’s working to try to get himself right. I still believe in the player. I certainly believe in the person. I believe collectively we will be able to help him figure this out. But do I have a specific explanation? I don’t.”
Yelich’s annual salary rises to $26 million next season as the 29-year-old enters his seven-year contract extension, so there is urgency from both sides to figure it out. Stearns noted Yelich’s rising ground-ball tendency but also said the ball-strike discernment was as good as ever, and cited underlying metrics, including hard-hit rate, that give the Brewers optimism.
Stearns ruled out health as a factor in Yelich’s struggles, saying, “There were no physical limitations” after Yelich returned from his early-season back injury.
“The fate of the Milwaukee Brewers is not on Christian Yelich’s shoulders,” Stearns said. “It’s not exclusively on one person. We’re all involved in this, everyone in the organization is involved with this, and we all take our share of ownership.”
3. They have fewer holes to fill than past winters.
The Brewers’ notable free agents are starter Brett Anderson, relievers Brad Boxberger, Hunter Strickland and Daniel Norris, catcher Manny Piña, infielder Eduardo Escobar and right fielder García if he declines the option. But they have prospect Aaron Ashby poised to take Anderson’s spot, Luke Maile under control as a backup catcher, Luis Urías having proven he’s a viable everyday third baseman in place of Escobar, and Tyrone Taylor having emerged as a bona fide Major Leaguer in the outfield.
“We’ve got a core here that we expect to be our core for years and that is what gives us optimism going forward,” Stearns said. “It starts with our pitching staff. Those guys had a tremendously special year. Knowing how dedicated and motivated that group is, I think they're pretty inclined to do everything they can to take it a step further and really leave no doubt as to what is the best starting staff in baseball right now.”
He added, “It's a comforting feeling to know that if we wanted to, we could return our entire starting rotation.”
In contrast to that relative certainty is the uncertainty of baseball’s offseason as the league and players negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that has the potential to change roster construction -- if a universal designated hitter is adopted -- as well as the systems by which players are compensated. The Brewers have a number of key players eligible for salary arbitration, including first-timers Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer, Willy Adames, Urías and Rowdy Tellez.
“It’s certainly unusual going into an offseason where you’re not entirely sure what the rules are going to be going forward,” Stearns said. “Our expectations are that we’re going to treat this offseason normally until we’re told not to. We’re going to play by rules that are currently on the books, and if those rules change we’ll adjust.”