At the rate Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns is going, he’s about to acquire a new nickname.
One year ago, Stearns pulled off a stunning daily double, remaking his outfield by signing free agent Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich on the same day.
Last week, Stearns was at it again, surprising everyone by signing Yasmani Grandal, the best available catcher on the free-agent market, to a one-year, $18.25 million contract (pending a physical examination).
We all know how last year’s deals worked out for Stearns: With Cain and Yelich performing brilliantly at the top of the batting order, the Brewers won the National League Central Division title and came within one game of the World Series.
Grandal will be a significant upgrade for the Brewers at the catching position, at least offensively, as they try to build on their 96-win season from a year ago. With only a one-year deal, Grandal figures to be highly motivated after his free-agent market failed to materialize this winter.
After the Brewers were knocked out of the playoffs in October, Stearns warned people that this offseason might not match last year’s in terms of blockbuster moves. Signing Grandal was a good start, but it likely also signaled the end of the team’s major offseason moves. Adding a veteran second baseman to bridge the gap until uber-prospect Keston Hiura is ready for the majors remains a strong possibility, but unless you think, say, Josh Harrison is still an impact player, the heavy lifting is over.
Including Grandal, the Brewers have 20 players under contract for next season at $112 million, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The franchise record for highest payroll on Opening Day is $104 million in 2015.
Though team owner Mark Attanasio has always been willing to spend money when the time was right and Stearns is a general manager who remains open to any and all possibilities, it doesn’t seem likely the Brewers will spend significantly beyond their current mark.
Trading Eric Thames and his $6 million salary remains a possibility after the team acquired outfielder Ben Gamel in a trade for Domingo Santana, but the Brewers have made a practice of keeping funds in reserve for in-season acquisitions. That policy paid off last season when they added veteran pieces Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez and Joakim Soria during the second half of the season.
With that in mind, the Grandal signing makes it unlikely that Mr. January will be able to give his starting rotation the one thing it has been missing, a genuine No. 1 starter, a bona fide ace who could give the Brewers seven or eight strong innings every fifth day and relieve the stress on what remains one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Such a pitcher would make the Brewers one of the most complete teams in the majors. Barring another major surprise, though, the Brewers will go into the season using the same pitching plan as last year, which isn’t a bad thing. Manager Craig Counsell mixed-and-matched his starters (except for Jhoulys Chacin) all season and developed a bullpen usage plan that went against conventional baseball wisdom but proved to be extremely successful.
Still, one wonders if Counsell can re-create that level of pitching success this season, in part because the Brewers got lucky with bargain-basement veteran starters such as Chacin and Wade Miley. Counsell also worked in impressive rookies Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes as needed when Zach Davies and Brent Suter missed time due to injuries and Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra ran out of gas.
It should be noted that Counsell’s innovative use of his bullpen was particularly effective in September when the rosters were expanded and he had plenty of relievers to choose from. Without an ace to give the bullpen an occasional rest day, Counsell might be hard-pressed to play his bullpen games on a day-to-day basis for six months.
Stearns tacitly acknowledged he was looking for a top-of-the-line starter this winter when the team was mentioned as a trade possibility for Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber and Sonny Gray. The guess is their teams were asking for one of the Brewers’ future cornerstones — Hiura, minor-league outfielder Corey Ray or one of the Woodruff-Peralta-Burnes threesome — in return.
Stearns was smart to pass on any such deal. Those young pitchers could be the backbone of the rotation for the next five years and losing one of them wouldn’t be worth having Bumgarner for only one year.
The one wild card for the Brewers is Jimmy Nelson, who missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery late in the 2017 season. Nelson had developed into an ace when he was injured, but the Brewers would be foolish to count on him for anything this season after doctors had to rebuild his shoulder. Nelson is set to hit the ground running in spring training, but anything the Brewers get from him will be a bonus.
The free agents remaining on the market are underwhelming, so the Brewers won’t find an ace there. Miley and Gonzalez are among the best of those still available and, while both pitched well for Milwaukee last year, neither is the ace the Brewers need.
That means Milwaukee’s pitching plan will be similar to last season. It worked then, so that’s not all bad, but people have come to expect miracles from Mr. January.