The Milwaukee Brewers have been busy.
The Brewers — in need of a roster rebuild after a plethora of free agents and non-tendered players moved on — have signed six free agents to major-league contracts (three to minor-league deals), made three (two significant) trades and claimed two players off waivers so far this offseason. And there’s still plenty of time for more moves to happen.
However, as per usual, Milwaukee Brewers fans are complaining that general manager David Stearns hasn’t done enough to improve the team. The free agents they’ve signed aren’t the type to make the team a playoff contender, they say. Fans, by nature, are unhappy and restless and want fast results. But the moves Stearns has made so far are his typical under-the-radar deals that could pay off in a huge way in the end.
The Brewers non-tendered a couple of interesting, bounce-back candidate players (I’ll never get over letting Travis Shaw walk), freeing up a considerable amount of money. As the roster stands now, FanGraphs projects the Brewers to carry a payroll of $107 million. The team’s payroll was around $134 million in 2019, meaning the Brewers have the capacity to spend more and sign/trade players while taking on more money. Whether they do that remains to be seen, but I’ve learned not to doubt Stearns’ operation. You shouldn’t either.
So let’s go in order by time of acquisition and learn about the new players who will soon be donning the new and improved Milwaukee Brewers uniform.
INF Luis Urias
On November 27, the Brewers traded Zach Davies and Trent Grisham to San Diego for Luis Urias and Eric Lauer, the former being the main prize for Milwaukee.
Urias has long been a top prospect in the Padres’ farm system. In 2018, the shortstop slashed .296/.398/.447 in Triple-A and followed that up with a .315/.398/.600 line in 2019 for his Triple-A squad. He has superior bat-to-ball skills, though his short time in the major leagues has been a disappointment. Over 302 plate appearances, the 22 year old owns a 79 wRC+ with a meager .318 on-base percentage. Luckily for the Brewers, those 302 plate appearances qualify as a small-sample size, and that, coupled with his young age, really doesn’t mean much. He’s proven he can hit at a high level in the high minors, and at the very least, he’s an immediate upgrade over Orlando Arcia — who was the worst hitter in baseball last year. Urias will likely spend most of his time at shortstop, though Stearns has said he is more than capable of handling third base, which is still a hole the Brewers should work on filling.
Urias and Keston Hiura have the opportunity to spearhead Milwaukee’s infield for years to come, and if Urias turns out to be the hitter he was in the minors with just a little more power, he could ultimately become a star.
LHP Eric Lauer
By trading away starting pitcher Zach Davies and Chase Anderson — reliable, consistent hurlers if nothing else — Milwaukee’s already thin rotation became even more of a weak point. And that’s why getting Eric Lauer in the Padres deal was significant. Urias was the big get in the in the trade with San Diego, but Lauer should be considered more than just a throw-in, especially considering he’s slotted to be in the starting rotation.
Lauer is just 24 years of age with 261 innings under his belt. The southpaw has a career 4.40 ERA and 4.35 FIP and has made more than 20 starts in each of his two seasons. In his second year, Lauer raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate while forcing more ground balls. Home runs were an issue, however, as he gave up too many, and the move to Miller Park won’t be any more friendly to him. Strikeouts and keeping the ball on the ground will be crucial to his success in 2020.
Lauer and Davies are similar in many ways, so replacing one for the other doesn’t really hurt or help the Brewers rotation in any immediate way. But it could turn out to be a solid, long-term investment; Lauer is under team control until 2024, while Davies will become a free agent after the 2021 season.
The Brewers needed a catcher and the Mariners were selling one. Acquiring Omar Narvaez for minor-leaguer Adam Hill and a Competitive Balance draft pick was a no-brainer for Milwaukee and a bit of a head-scratcher for Seattle.
Narvaez will be tasked with replacing Yasmani Grandal‘s 2019 production, and while that may seem like a big leap, the two have very similar offensive skill sets. Here is how they’ve fared over the past two seasons:
Narvaez: .346 wOBA, 120 wRC+
Grandal: .356 wOBA, 123 wRC+
Narvaez should be able to replicate Grandal’s production with the bat, but his defensive skills are lacking. He’s been graded as one of the worst pitch framers in the game and struggles throwing out runners, but the Brewers are confident they can turn him into at least an average defensive catcher. But this is why having Manny Pina — who will likely see much more playing time in 2020 — as a backup is important.
The former Mariners catcher is just 27 years old and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2022. He’s displayed high on-base capabilities in each of his four professional seasons, and last year he hit a career-high 22 home runs on his way to a 1.8 WAR season. For how good of a hitter Narvaez has proven to be, he doesn’t hit the ball all that hard, which questions the sustainability of his above-average bat. His average exit velocity of 85.4 mph in 2019 ranked all the way down in the eighth percentile.
Orlando Arcia somehow hit the ball with more oompf than Narvaez last season. Yet, it’s Narvaez’s launch angle that has helped him find success. His launch angle ranked among the top 60, tying with the likes of Nolan Arenado and Eugenio Suarez, which allowed him to hit for power and find gaps. His lack of exit velocity is something to keep an eye on going forward, however, and it’ll be interesting to see if Narvaez can show the same home-run power in the friendly confines of Miller Park that he displayed in Seattle without hitting the ball with much authority.
RHP Josh Lindblom
Lindblom is an interesting player, and someone who, like Eric Thames, reinvented himself in Korea. Before making his way overseas, Lindblom was a struggling major-league pitcher. In 114 innings that only included six starts, Lindblom left Major League Baseball for Korea with a 4.10 ERA and 4.27 FIP. He was worth 0.4 WAR over that time period.
However, he found almost immediate success in the Korean Baseball Organization — the highest level of baseball in Korea. In 72 innings in 2017 as a starting pitcher, Lindblom posted a 3.79 ERA. The following year he finished with a 2.88 ERA and then a 2.50 ERA in 2019. He comes to America as the reigning MVP of the KBO League and a two-time winner of its Cy Young Award equivalent. In such short time, Lindblom went from an outcast to the most dominant pitcher in Korea, which is why the Brewers quickly pounced when Lindblom expressed interest in returning to the United States. The Brewers gave Lindblom a three-year, $9.125 million deal — that could eventually be worth $18 million with incentives — hoping he’ll be a fixture in their rotation for the next few seasons.
Lindblom doesn’t throw relatively hard — his fastball averages around 91 mph — but his spin rate on his four-seamer and sinker is up there with top major league pitchers, a quality the Brewers were surely aware of and interested in. He’ll likely slot in Milwaukee’s rotation behind Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser.
The Brewers found success when Thames returned from Korea, and they’re hoping for similar results with Lindblom, who will be a fascinating case study in 2020.
LHP Brett Anderson
The Brewers signed Anderson to a one-year, $5 million deal to be the team’s fourth or fifth starter. I like to call him the Alex Claudio of starting pitchers.
They both make their living without striking out hitters. In fact, Anderson’s 12.1% strikeout rate was the lowest among qualified starters in 2019, while Claudio was the owner of the seventh-lowest rate among qualified relievers. Though to make up for their lack of punch outs, they force ground balls more often than not, which is undoubtedly why Stearns was drawn to Anderson. Any pitcher who can keep the ball on the ground in Miller Park has a decent shot at success.
Other than his ground-ball rate, though, there’s nothing really exciting about Anderson. He’s thrown over 100 innings just once since 2015, and that was this most recent season. The 31-year-old has dealt with injuries throughout his career and can’t be expected to remain healthy through all of 2020.
The Brewers plan on using him as a starter, but I think he could end up being more useful in the bullpen. Yes, $5 million is a lot to pay for a middling reliever, but he could fill a Chase Anderson-type role and could ultimately be an effective ground-ball pitcher out of the bullpen. With the way the Brewers use their pitchers, don’t be surprised if Anderson is deployed in multiple ways.
Maybe the most surprising move by the Brewers this offseason, the team agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal with Avisail Garcia. Critics questioned the move because an outfielder didn’t seem like it should be on top of Milwaukee’s wish list, but Stearns goes after good players, and doesn’t let their position dictate his interest. And Garcia is just that; a good player. He is an outfielder capable of playing all three positions, a hitter with strong Statcast marks and a runner with top-flight speed.
Garcia is coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 20 home runs, and posted a 1.8 WAR and a 112 wRC+ in his first and only year with the Tampa Bay Rays. The 28-year-old is just two years removed from a 4.2 WAR and 138 wRC+ season with the White Sox, during which he slashed .330/.380/.506.
Garcia will see a lot of time in the outfield when Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun need days off, or in Braun’s case, when he plays first base. It’s clear that Garcia is an upgrade over Ben Gamel and could even be better than Cain if Cain repeats his abysmal 2019 campaign. Expect Garcia to set a career high in home runs (granted he sees enough at-bats) and be an exciting patroller of the outfield.
INF Ryon Healy
As the roster is currently constructed, Ryon Healy and Eric Sogard will platoon as the team’s third basemen, and before you freak out and jump off a building, it’s reasonable to expect that situation to change before Opening Day on March 26. The Brewers signed Healy to a one-year deal after he was non-tendered by the Athletics. The 27-year-old infielder was limited to 47 games in 2019, as he spent most of the season dealing with a hip injury. He had hip surgery in August but should be ready for Opening Day or shortly thereafter.
Healy is known for his power and not much else. He has 69 career home runs in 401 games and owns a career 102 wRC+. He doesn’t get on base and his defense is atrocious, and yet, I liked this move by the Brewers. Healy hits home runs and is someone with three minor-league options remaining, which gives the Brewers flexibility with how they use him. This is a no-risk move that could turn out to be great if Healy can be a league-average hitter. And like I said before, it’s likely he won’t be an everyday player, but he’ll have an opportunity to be a very useful bench bat.
INF Eric Sogard
Guess who’s back, back again? Eric Sogard — aka Nerd Power — makes his return to the Brewers after being one of the worst players in Brewers franchise history in 2018. Think I’m over exaggerating? In the team’s history, there have only been four players (minimum 100 plate appearances) who have recorded a worse wRC+ than Sogard’s mark in 2018.
Yeah. Sogard was historically bad that year. But he proved enough in 2017 (1.1 WAR, .393 OBP and 109 wRC+) and 2019 (2.6 WAR, .353 OBP and 115 wRC+) to earn a $4.5 million contract from the Brewers. Why they couldn’t afford to pay that to Travis Shaw is beyond me, and I’ll take my hatred of that decision to my grave.
As of now, Sogard will play third base, though his lack of power makes that an odd fit. Usually the hot corner is considered a power-bat position. He is, however, capable of playing multiple positions, and the Brewers crave versatility, so this could end up being a nice signing. Sogard will have to hit like he did last year, though, to justify his $4.5 million contract.
1B Justin Smoak
The Brewers inked 33-year-old Justin Smoak to a one-year, $5 million deal with a 2021 club option to become the team’s primary first baseman. This is my favorite move the Brewers have made this offseason, and it paints a pretty clear picture as to why the Brewers declined Eric Thames’ $7.5 million club option, a move I found puzzling at the time.
Smoak is coming off a down season that was injury-riddled. He posted a 101 wRC+ and hit 22 home runs, both of which were considerably lower than his previous two seasons. He did, onm on the positive side, manage a career-high 15.8% walk rate, which was the seventh-highest mark in baseball. That’s why his .342 on-base percentage was so much more impressive than his .208 batting average. It’s a good thing we don’t care about batting average, right?
Smoak is a switch-hitter with most of his power coming from the left side, making Miller Park the perfect place for him to hit. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he bombed 30+ home runs in 2020. He’ll likely platoon at least a little with Braun, but Smoak should take the majority of reps at first base. He has equal if not more power than Thames and has a much better eye at the plate and fewer holes in his swing, and he comes on the cheap side. Smoak could easily be a 120 wRC+ hitter for the Brewers, making an already potent offense even more explosive.
Here’s a fun fact about Smoak: Since 2010 (Smoak’s first year in the league), he has 35 home runs in the ninth inning. That’s the most in Major League Baseball. Get ready for some walk-off dingers at Miller Park.
The Brewers haven’t nabbed a front-line starter or a top-tier hitter so far this offseason, but they’ve nicely rebuilt a team that saw so many valuable players leave. Replacing Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Drew Pomeranz isn’t an easy task, but Stearns has worked his magic and found relatively cheap players who could put up similar production.
The team still has room in its budget to make more improvements. And hey, Josh Donaldson is still out there. Just saying.