As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Keegan Geisler takes a look at the Milwaukee Brewers!
Looking over the 2020 Brewers, there really isn’t a better way to frame their year, other than: “Wow, all those players can’t really be that bad, can they?” In 2021, the Crew is aiming to build on the success of their pitching staff, while hoping that the offense can return to form.
2020 Record: 29-31, 4th in the NL Central
Team MVP: Corbin Burnes (2.11 ERA, 2.03 FIP, 2.4 fWAR)
Team Cy Young: also Corbin Burnes
The fact that the team MVP and Cy Young both went to the same pitcher is a pretty clear sign that the offense is going to be key to a 2021 resurgence. While there’s some evidence that such an improvement is likely, the bats have been the biggest question mark for the Brewers for a few years now, and the upcoming season is no different.
2020-2021 Off-season Review
Key losses from 2020:
- OF Ryan Braun
- INF Jedd Gyorko
2021 looks to be the first time in 14 years that Ryan Braun doesn’t suit up for the Brewers. Despite his age, before 2020, Braun had never posted a wRC+ or OPS+ below 100, and there’s reason to believe he still has some gas in the tank. Chances of Braun signing a new contract took a hit when negotiations between the Player’s Union and the MLB stalled before agreeing on a universal DH, making Braun a player without a position. Braun has stated that, at time of writing, he doesn’t intend to play in the 2021 season, so it looks like the franchise player torch has well and truly been passed to Yelich.
Gyorko is the only really notable loss from the grab-bag of one year contracts the Brewers handed out in the previous off-season. He posted good-but-not-great hitting numbers last year, and ended up being the anchor for a lineup that never got going, raising some question marks at the decision to void his club option when the roster lacked a true corner infielder, especially at first base.
Notable Free Agent Additions:
- 2B Kolten Wong – 2 yrs, $18 M, with a 2023 club option
- CF Jackie Bradley Jr. – 2 yrs, $24 M with an opt out after 2021
- A paper bag full of minor league deals
Historically, the Brewers have been opportunists on the free agent market. If a player doesn’t get paid what they deserve, chances are the Brewers are willing to give them about 80% of that number once Spring Training rolls around. This occurred with both Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr., with both players providing elite defense, and JBJ coming off his best offensive season since arguably 2015. Last year, the Brewers signed a barrel full of players who can play all over the field. The potential platoon advantages of lineup flexibility never manifested in 2020, and the Brewers were not ranked favorably by some defensive metrics, hanging around the 35th percentile in UZR and DRS. This off-season, we instead saw signings of two standout defenders at their positions, who we can expect to spend the vast majority of their innings staying put. If Keston Hiura can play first base passably, the Brewers’ defense will go from a weakness to a strength.
- Acquired a lonely tumbleweed, drifting through an old mining town long past its glory days (for a player to be named later)
- Acquired Derek Fisher from the Toronto Blue Jays (for cash or a player to be named later)
At least in free agency the Brewers made one notable signing; between the general malaise this off-season and their vastly depleted farm system, there wasn’t going to be anything like the Nolan Arenado trade from the Crew. Fisher fits the mold of a lot of the other players the Brewers pick up—he hasn’t shown he can hit MLB pitching, but has enough draft pedigree to get another shot with another team.
2021 Projected Roster
Bold denotes changes from 2020
1) Lorenzo Cain, RF
2) Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
3) Christian Yelich, LF
4) Keston Hiura, 1B
5) Kolten Wong, 2B
6) Omar Narvaez, C
7) Orlando Arcia, SS
8) Luis Urias, 3B
9) Brandon Woodruff, P
The Brewers rarely run the exact same lineup day-to-day, so any of this kind of projection is a bit of a crapshoot, but there are a few keystones. First, Yelich is going to hit between second and fourth in any game he’s playing. He has batting-title contact skills and upper-deck power, so he gets the good ABs. Hiura hasn’t run out his welcome yet, and probably starts the year hitting behind Yelich unless his 2020 collapse hasn’t quite finished collapsing yet. Cain and Wong are your OBP hitters, and one of the two will probably occupy the leadoff spot on a regular basis. Then after that, you make a big pile out of the other hitters platoon numbers. Brandon Woodruff being allowed to hit again could very easily improve on the Brewers’ DH numbers from last year, as ominous as that sounds.
Avisail Garcia, OF
Manny Pina, C
Jacob Nottingham, C
Daniel Vogelbach, 1B
This is subject to a lot of change, but Pina really started to look like he found his bat last year, and he’s continued that momentum in the few Spring Training games we’ve seen as of time of writing. The signing of JBJ pushes Avisail Garcia to the bench section here, but Craig Counsell said that there is no intention to consider any of the three of Cain, Garcia, and Bradley Jr. as “fourth outfielders,” so we will definitely have a rotation of outfielders riding the bench.
1. Brandon Woodruff, RHP
2. Corbin Burnes, RHP
3. Josh Lindblom, RHP
4. Brett Anderson, LHP
5. Freddy Peralta, RHP
Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser, and Brent Suter will likely all get starts this year, because, as usual, the pitching staff will be fluid outside of the known performers. Lindblom started to pull it together at the end of 2020, and will look to get closer to the kind of pitcher he was in Korea. Woodruff finally got over the hump in his last few starts, and Burnes is looking to get back into the Cy Young conversation and fully move on from 2019.
The rotation from the Brewers is, on paper, around league average, with great things possible from Woodruff and Burnes, but a lot of question marks on days 3-5. That said, all of the starters on the roster have some kind of unrealized potential, and if things break as well this year as they did poorly last year, the staff could absolutely hang with the best of the National League. (Ok, not with the Padres and Dodgers, but come on.)
Josh Hader, LHP
Devin Williams, RHP
Brent Suter, LHP
Eric Yardley, RHP
Drew Rasmussen, RHP
Eric Lauer, LHP
Ray Black, RHP
Adrian Houser, RHP
There are a lot of other pitchers that will almost certainly get innings in 2021, like Justin Topa, J.P. Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, and the recently-signed Brad Boxberger, but it remains to be seen who exactly will make the active roster to start the season. We obviously expect a good season from Hader, and Williams should still be able to throw his ridiculous screwball-changeup, but even beyond them, there are some high-potential arms in the bullpen. In particular, Rasmussen has a high-velocity, high spin rate fastball, a slider with 6.9 inches more movement than league average, and a solid curveball. The results weren’t there last year, but if I had to pick the next big deal reliever to come out of the Brewers’ system, it’d be him.
FanGraphs Projected Record:
80-82, Tied for 2nd in the NL Central
PECOTA Projected Record:
89-73, Winning the NL Central
90-72, Winning the NL Central
Realistically, predicting 90 wins over 89 is hardly a notable difference, but I did want to show that I think the Brewers have a solid chance to outperform their expectations. The Cubs have massive holes in their pitching staff, the Cardinals are massively top-heavy, the Reds just haven’t shown they can be a good baseball team, and the Pirates, well, they’re in full on 2018 Orioles mode, and a 110 loss season is in their range.
Any part of the Brewers roster could under perform, and injuries could definitely derail a number of their players, but unless we get another 2020 where the whole offense collapses, I think the Brewers look like the strongest team in the division, and good enough to contend.