MILWAUKEE -- Brewers chairman and principal owner Mark Attanasio had a simple message during Sunday’s “Brewers On Deck” for the fans who are surprised, disappointed or downright angry that the team has pared payroll in the wake of consecutive postseason appearances.
“I’d say trust the process,” Attanasio said.
At the moment, the Brewers’ projected payroll is down more than 20% from the $125 million or so on Opening Day last season, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, a club record pushed higher by one-year deals for free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal and infielder Mike Moustakas. Both were 2019 All-Stars, and both were among the Brewers’ slew of offseason departures, some by virtue of free agency (Grandal, Moustakas, Jordan Lyles, Drew Pomeranz) and some by choice via declined options (Eric Thames), non-tenders (Junior Guerra, Travis Shaw) or trades (Chase Anderson, Zach Davies).
It has been a jarring level of turnover for a team that played within one victory of the World Series in 2018 and within two innings of knocking off the eventual World Series champion Nationals in the 2019 National League Wild Card Game. Rather than spend big on a few prominent free agents, president of baseball operations David Stearns instead allocated money around this offseason while adding 13 players from outside the organization to the 40-man roster since season’s end. Of those newcomers, only one -- pitcher Josh Lindblom -- signed for more than two guaranteed years. And only one -- outfielder Avisaíl García -- commanded a financial guarantee of more than $10 million.
As a result, the Brewers are poised to go into the season with three everyday players -- Christian Yelich in one of the outfield corners, Lorenzo Cain in center and Keston Hiura at second base -- and a loose platoon everywhere else. The remade starting rotation has three newcomers in Lindblom, Brett Anderson and Eric Lauer. In the bullpen, the Brewers made no high-profile additions to a group headlined by Josh Hader, and are instead relying on comebacks for Corey Knebel (elbow surgery) and Bobby Wahl (knee surgery).
The approach has some fans worried that the team is poised to take a step back in an NL Central battle with the Cardinals, Cubs and newly-fortified Reds.
“The process has proven to be eminently trustworthy for the past several seasons,” Attanasio said. “We believe we’re going to win a lot of games. Obviously, we have flexibility to add players in-season.
“By the way, I’m one of those fans [who questions spending]. But you make a bad signing and you say, ‘Why did you do that?’ We’re trying to be competitive every year. I think we’re on the path to do that, and now for several years. Virtually every contract we’ve signed, we have an option on for more than a single season. We have signed players for two seasons with an option for a third season. So, we have the ability to keep this team together and not have turnover for next season, if that’s what we decide to do. …
“We believe this process keeps us fundamentally competitive, both for this season and other seasons, and maintains flexibility.”
Attanasio made those comments backstage at “Brewers On Deck,” the team’s annual fanfest in downtown Milwaukee. The question of player payroll did not come up when fans had an opportunity to quiz Attanasio, Stearns, assistant GM Matt Arnold and manager Craig Counsell during a public forum.
Stearns hasn’t closed the door on further signings or trades. The Brewers’ projected Opening Day payroll is currently just shy of $97 million, per Cot's. The website calculated last year’s figure at $122.5 million.
“Where David decides to spend and commit resources, it’s got to make sense in a lot of ways,” Counsell said. “It’s not just to get to a certain number. It’s got to make sense, right? Where opportunities happen, I don’t think you know. And I don’t think it’s the same every year. I think we’re sitting in a very good spot. I think we’re ready to pounce on any opportunity that comes available to us. I think David and Mark would tell you the same exact thing.”
Said Attanasio: “One of advantages, and frankly, I think one of the strengths of our baseball operations group is they don’t set a paradigm and try to meet it. They look at what opportunities are in front of them and try to address them. The two previous offseasons, we had some significant free-agent opportunities that we took. This year, we didn’t have anything that where the opportunity was we didn’t really have a fit. So, they addressed the roster in a different way.”
Will the volume approach pay off?
Fans may be skeptical, but Brewers officials think it will.
“We talk a lot about analytics,” Attanasio said. “Our analytics group every year does an analysis of how many wins we could have. I’m not just glibly saying as an owner, to sell tickets, we’re going to be competitive. 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.”
Counsell made a more direct prediction.
“We’re going to be good,” he said.