AnalysisNL Central

Has the Brewers’ Window Closed?

Milwaukee missed the playoffs for the first time in four years despite the addition of a third wild card, and it’s time we start asking questions about how they will move forward. This team went into the 2022 season boasting perhaps one of the best 1-2-3s in a rotation with the best closer and relief corps in baseball. The offense just had to work as intended, and in years past it had with a lineup that relied heavily on platooning. But a lot of that fell apart this past season. 2022 set the Brewers back in a big way and now has management assessing their options for how they should move forward with a smaller budget than most teams and a core that isn’t getting any cheaper or younger.

Problems Up Top

While a fair amount of this blame can be placed on many players who underperformed, this was also one of the first years we saw Milwaukee and their front office make some ill-fated moves that were very uncharacteristic of what we’ve seen in the past from Matt Arnold and David Stearns.

There’s no mentioning this past season for them without talking about the Josh Hader trade. On paper, the move might’ve been smart. Cashing in on Hader’s trade value while it’s at its highest was the right thinking, but the execution was all wrong. Instead of asking for an MLB-ready bat that could’ve helped their offense, the Brewers opted for quantity over quality and paid the price. The two prospects, Ruiz and Gasser are fine, but their profiles don’t suggest the type of all-star player they had in Hader. The bounceback candidate Dinelson Lamet was DFA’d immediately following the trade, and Taylor Rogers probably did more to hurt the team than help them, with his seven-blown saves and ERA above 5 down the stretch. This was the only notable deadline deal they swung, and it would spell their fate out as they fizzled out of the postseason race with a season-ending series in Miami that they choked away, which would be the nail in the coffin.

After a stretch that saw Milwaukee make some of the best front-office decisions in baseball in the past years that have made them such a consistent contender, doubts now arise about Arnold and Stearns and their capabilities moving forward. To make matters worse, a bad sign that showed already following 2022 was the news that David Stearns is stepping back into a more advisory role, signaling to many that the doubt could be creeping in with Stearns and his longtime team. The New York native has been linked to the Mets several times in their search for a more permanent GM than Eppler, as president Sandy Alderson looks to hand the reigns over sooner than later. He would be perfect for the Mets job and also in Houston where they just departed with their championship-winning GM, James Click. Any team would be lucky to have a brain like Stearns working for them, and it is now turning into a matter of not if he will stay in Milwaukee but how much longer before he gets poached by another team. Matt Arnold who has been Stearn’s assistant GM since 2015 is more than ready to take over but the writing is on the wall for Milwaukee. The man who built their entire winning core looks ready to move on to a shiner and newer team, a move that could soon usher in a new era and look for the Brewers.

The “Yeli” Sized Problem

The next question we move onto is what to do about Christian Yelich. The scenario with him is not one that fans haven’t seen: a consistent MVP candidate gets a large contract as a reward for his services and commits to a city to play the rest of his days there, only to never put up production nearing the MVP performances he had. 

Is Christian Yelich still a good player? The simple answer would be yes. A 2.5 WAR lefty outfielder with a consistently high walk percentage would be a solid starter for any team, but teams don’t hand out 9-year, $215M contracts for solid starters. The Brewers are already penny-pinching enough, and a team that has question marks all over the roster must be wondering what to do about Yelich and his contract.

The straightforward direction would be to keep him and watch as his projected trajectory and value plays out to be like Alex Gordon while earning $26M a year. The Brewers know that he’s probably not going up from here and the best solution might be just eating their losses and letting him ride out his time. They could try convincing some team to take him with the hope of a return to that MVP-level performance, but that will also most likely mean them paying for most, if not all the remaining money. Whichever way they go next will include them having to carry Yelich with them for the foreseeable future, so it’s now just a question of if he will be on a rebuilding or contending team during that time.

The Clock is Ticking on Key Players

To put it plainly, the Brewers do not win without Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Willy Adames. The three of them are integral pieces and consistent team WAR leaders that keep them winning. The only problem is that all three of them are under team control for only two more seasons before they will hit free agency, and I think Milwaukee has realized that two top-20 starters and a franchise shortstop are a bit out of their price range. Of course, I assume they’ll try to offer an extension to some of them, but if any of them have capable agents, they know that the real money for them is on the open market. So in a sense, Milwaukee’s now reached the crossroads for their competitive window because of these star players.

Committing to winning with them for the next two years and building around them could net winning seasons if they play their hand right, but miss out on the playoffs and they are then faced with three departing marquee free agents for whom they got no trade value. On the flip side, they could cash in their chips right now and trade Burnes, Woodruff, and Adames for top 100 prospects that’ll make an impact in the near future and integrate them with a young group that already features Luis Urias, Garrett Mitchell, Brice Turang, and Joey Wiemer, to name a few. The pitching would be well stocked still with Peralta and Ashby leading the way, but it comes down to if the Brewers think they can win while playing Moneyball. The Hader trade left a bad enough taste in their mouths by trading away a star in his prime, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Brewers do go through with trading away any of these three.

Personally, I think they should try a combination of the two. Keep two out of the three stars, and cash in on one of them. These next two years they have with this core have the potential to put together playoff-caliber squads, and chances like those don’t always come around too often. By keeping two-thirds of their most important players, while keeping an eye on the future by getting prospects for the other one, the Brewers would position themselves well to both win now and later.

The Brewers have yet to make any of these large franchise-altering moves yet, but they have possibly signaled their direction early on with the Hunter Renfroe trade. Renfroe was set to make around $11 million in arbitration, and in a move that could be seen as concerning to many Brewers fans, they decided that was too much for a player that was worth nearly 3 WAR with 29 homers. One of the many signs of an upcoming rough offseason for teams is when they start selling clearly valuable pieces because they’re slightly expensive. It usually lets fans know that the team is looking to shed payroll and sell helpful pieces instead of adding them. And with other key players like Kolten Wong earning around $10 million, this trading trend could very well continue.

Star players don’t like being a part of a team that trades the supporting cast away, as it foretells the team’s attitude toward winning, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Burnes, Woodruff, or Adames wants out of Milwaukee soon. Much like how a badly injured animal is circled by vultures waiting for its demise, Milwaukee is limping into the offseason with every team in the industry wanting to take advantage of a possible firesale of star players.

With uncertainty in the front office, an albatross of a contract in Yelich weighing them down, and crucial decisions needed to be made on the team’s stars, the Brewers must choose to either gamble on their current core or strip down the main parts and try again in a few years time.

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