The Brewers Might Have Almost No Financial Flexibility This Winter

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The Brewers Might Have Almost No Financial Flexibility This Winter

Chicago Cubs

When the Chicago Cubs surprised some around the league with a deep postseason run back in 2015, we all knew it was just the beginning of their competitive window.

Guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber didn’t start the season on the Opening Day roster and guys like Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ were a year (or two!) away from debuting. Meanwhile, back in 2015, the Cubs had only just begun to really break the bank on free agents, as they had not yet committed to Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, or Yu Darvish (three of their top four – active – expenditures).

When you threw in the (then) still-excellent farm system and almost no exiting players of consequence, it was VERY easy – and, ultimately, accurate – to call the upswing.

But what about the Milwaukee Brewers, who themselves made a surprising run deep into the postseason this year after wresting the NL Central away from the Cubs?

The 2018 Brewers remind me of the 2015 Chicago Cubs in a lot of ways. And although they won one fewer regular season game than those Cubs, they managed to take the division in the process, before losing in the NLCS (again, like the Cubs).

But UNLIKE the 2015 Cubs, the 2018 Brewers had some older stars, some exiting free agents, and a whole lot less financial wiggle-room to address developing needs. Moreover, despite what I believe to be a common misconception, the Brewers current Minor League system no longer carries the weight it once did, and can’t stack up against the Cubs 2015 squad after some notable trades last winter.

Indeed, right now, the Brewers have one top 100 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, but the Cubs had 5 back in 2015, and that’s excluding Ian Happ (6th in the Cubs’ system), Willson Contreras (10th), Dylan Cease (11th), Eloy Jimenez (14th), Jeimer Candelario (20th), Christian Villanueva (22nd), and Victor Caratini (23rd) who all missed the top 100 cut (my God that farm system was loaded, even after Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber debuted).

Now, to be sure, the Brewers don’t have to be as good or better than the 2016 Cubs to win the NL Central in 2019, but I do think it serves us to see the differences in their starting point – especially as we begin to look at their roster and financial situation going forward. Speaking of which …

Notable, Pending Free Agents

  • Gio Gonzalez – 0.5 WAR
  • Wade Miley – 1.5 WAR
  • Curtis Granderson – 0.9 WAR

As you can see, the Brewers aren’t losing a ton of volume via exiting free agents this offseason, but Miley’s impact in the second half was disproportionately significant. Moreover, the Brewers weren’t paying these guys any real money that goes off the books, while the guys who are sticking around figure to be getting some notable raises. (Note: unlike with the Cubs discussion yesterday, “actual” payroll seems to matter a lot more to the small-market Brewers than payroll for luxury tax purposes, since they are not likely to come anywhere close to the luxury tax cap.)

For example …

Under Contract

  • Ryan Braun: (-$1.0M)
  • Lorenzo Cain: +$1.0M
  • Christian Yelich: +$2.75M
  • Jhoulys Chacin: (-$2.0M)
  • Chase Anderson: +$1.75M
  • Eric Thames: +$1.0M
  • Matt Albers: neutral

Total: +$3.5M

Arbitration Eligible (w/estimates)

  • Jonathan Schoop: +$2.5M
  • Corey Knebel: +1.85M
  • Travis Shaw: +$3.93M
  • Stephen Vogt: +$0.685M
  • Jimmy Nelson: neutral
  • Hernan Perez: +$0.775M
  • Zach Davies: +$1.928M
  • Erik Kratz: +$1.5M
  • Xavier Cedeno: $+0.95M
  • Domingo Santana: +$1.4276M
  • Manny Pina: +$1.4399M
  • Dan Jennings: +$0.250M
  • Tyler Saladino: +$0.435M

Total: +$17.67M

Guys with Options*

  • Jordan Lyles: $3.5M option (+$2.75M if picked up)
  • Jeremy Jeffress: $3.175M option (+2.05M)
  • Mike Moustakas: $15M mutual option (+$9.5M)
  • Joakim Soria $10M mutual option (+$1.0M)

*If none of these options are exercised, the Brewers will owe $2.25M in buyouts.

So if they want to return the team they had next year – without adding a single player – their natural, contractural and/or arbitration raises – without any options picked up – would increase their actual payroll by roughly $21.17M. And given how good Jeremy Jeffress was this season, you can guarantee his option will be picked up, tacking on another $2.05M to the year-to-year increase.

Indeed, Cots Contracts is reporting an actual payroll of $90.9M in 2018 but an estimated payroll of $109.275M in 2019 (a bump of about $19M). While MLB Trade Rumors is projecting something closer to a $25M payroll bump.

These are all rather quick estimations – with plenty of variables excluded – mind you, but the broader point remains: the Brewers 40-man payroll is expected to reach a level it has been at only once in team history (2014, $110M). And that’s with no additions and none of their options picked up. In other words, the Brewers are heading into the offseason with an expected payroll at the highest of heights for their organization, historically.

So even if the Brewers ownership and front office is feeling especially froggy after a near trip to the World Series – and they do – I’m just not sure how much actual payroll space they’ll have entering the offseason (let alone accounting for midseason additions). Non-tendering Schoop to save $10 to $11 million may be in the plans in order to create at least SOME room to maneuver.

From the sound of it, GM David Stearns is preparing his fanbase for a quiet winter: “Another rewarding aspect is we genuinely believe we are set up to succeed going forward. We return the vast majority of the core of this team. We return that core for multiple years going forward.” Trades could always alleviate some financial pressure – Stearns did mention that he can imagine showing up to Spring Training with a different looking roster in ways they don’t yet envision – and some returning, injured players could help out, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re staring at a $18-$25 million increase before signing a single player (or accounting for midseason additions).

They likely will not be able to add significantly from the deeper end of the free agent pool in a loaded class.

I wonder if a 33-year-old Lorenzo Cain will have another career year?

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami is the butler to a wealthy werewolf off the coast of Wales and a writer at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter at @Michael_Cerami