What a difference a week makes for the Milwaukee Brewers.
At this time a week ago, Brewers fans, along with the fans of about 25 other Major League Baseball teams, were waiting for their favorite club to make a move—any move—to break up one of the slowest winters in recent history. General Manager David Stearns and company crammed an entire offseason’s worth of excitement into about 90 minutes on Thursday night, however, pulling off one of the winter’s largest trades (a five-player deal bringing former Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich to Milwaukee) and signing the winter’s largest free agent contract to date, a five-year, $80 million deal to bring outfielder Lorenzo Cain back to town.
Despite committing more money to Cain than the franchise paid its entire roster in 2016 and 2017, however, the Brewers have publicly stated that they have the payroll flexibility to make more moves. That begs the question: What’s left to do?
On the position player side, despite some needs, it would be tough to make room for another contract at this point. The Brewers already have four outfielders that would be everyday players on most teams in Yelich, Cain, Ryan Braun, and Domingo Santana in addition to Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips. In the infield, Travis Shaw returns to attempt to repeat as Most Valuable Brewer, Orlando Arcia seems likely to play most days at shortstop and Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar are both back to share and/or compete for playing time at first base. There is probably some room to attempt to upgrade at second base, but the organization also already has three players on major league contracts at that position (Eric Sogard, Hernan Perez and Jonathan Villar) and they likely only have room on the Opening Day roster for two of them at most.
That leaves the pitching staff as the most likely candidate for an upgrade. The Brewers have already invited 26 pitchers to Major League spring training in a couple of weeks, but on Sunday, Craig Counsell told reporters that just three of them are firmly established in the rotation: Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and newcomer Jhoulys Chacin. Beyond that, the final spots will go to some combination of highly regarded prospect Brandon Woodruff, 2017 Opening Day starter Junior Guerra, frequent 2017 fill-in Brent Suter, reclamation project Yovani Gallardo, and 2017 September call-up Aaron Wilkerson. An upgrade is feasible here, to be sure.
It’s possible some of the pitchers from that latter group will end up in the bullpen alongside Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, Jacob Barnes, and Josh Hader (who appears to be out of consideration for a starting role for now). Assuming the Brewers opt to keep recent free agent addition Boone Logan, there aren’t many spots available there either.
It seems plausible the Brewers could deal from a position of strength, using their glut of outfielders as a trade chip to strike a deal with a team that can afford to part with starting pitching. In fact, it’s hard to believe the Brewers would have made the deals they made for Yelich and Cain without having at least a framework in mind for how to resolve the ensuing roster and playing time crunch. Their most likely trade candidate is Domingo Santana, however, and recent reports would suggest potential suitors aren’t impressed with his lackadaisical style and one-dimensional skill set. Despite the fact that Santana is only 25, is under team control through 2022, and hit 30 home runs last year, it appears likely the Brewers will either have to sell low on him or keep him around and do their best to find playing time for four outfielders.
If the Brewers can’t fill a spot in the starting rotation via trade, they could also consider the free agent market, where an array of options are still available. In nearly any other offseason, the Brewers would be a long shot at best to be the highest bidder on a pitcher like Yu Darvish, but with many of the usual big spenders seemingly content to sit this winter out, they’re perhaps less unlikely than usual to be able to make a play on him. Even if the Brewers can’t dominate the free agent market by signing Cain and Darvish this winter, veteran starting pitchers Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are all also available—likely at lesser price.
In reality, the most likely scenario for the next few weeks might feature the Brewers making only minor moves or no moves at all. Mark Attanasio and company are now already committed to paying Cain about $38 million after his 35th birthday, and it would be reasonable if they were reluctant to add a similar arrangement for any of the big-ticket free agent pitchers. Similarly, if the market for Santana really is as down as reports would indicate, then it could make sense to wait until spring training is underway and see if an injury creates a need for a potential suitor.
The Brewers have suddenly had an active offseason, one that makes them likely to be a trendy pick as “winners” when national analysts start to make such evaluations in the weeks ahead. They may also be done for this winter, though, and it would be understandable if they were.