Nine minutes is all the Washington Nationals had the league in the 2019 National League Wild Card game, but those nine minutes were all at the end of the contest, and they were the ones that meant the most. Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader let up a bases-clearing single to 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto, and when the ball squirted underneath the glove of rookie right fielder Trent Grisham, all three Nationals came around to score, putting the game at its final score, 4-3.
After the Brew Crew overcame the loss of MVP Christian Yelich to a freak season-ending fractured knee cap, the team turned on the burners, made up a huge difference in both the divisional and wild card standings, and forced their way into a winner take all, loser goes home one-game affair in our nation’s capital.
As debilitating of a loss as it was, the silver linings from the season and the playoff game can be noticed everywhere.
Craig Counsell, who was hired back in 2015, now is the NL’s longest-tenured manager, and his handling of a small market, financially-capped franchise has been nothing short of excellent. Using the bullpen to his advantage and timely power-hitting, Counsell has taken this team to playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in over 30 years.
In terms of how the roster looks, this offseason is going to be a very important part of how this team looks for next year and beyond. Key free agents, like Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, are looking to cash in on the under-market-value deals that they signed earlier, which may price themselves out of the Brewers’ budget.
Other role players, like Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Drew Pomeranz, and Eric Thames, all could return to this team, and their smaller deals will provide this team with better financial flexibility. Of all of the facets of this team that need improvements, their starting rotation is the one that is need of most work, which just so happens to also be one of the most expensive facets of running a professional baseball franchise too.
Their $140+ million budget in 2019 was the highest in the history of the team, and if they want to compete again in 2020, it will have to be up near that amount, if not higher. Owner Mark Attanasio seems to be willing to shell out the big bucks to put a competitive team on the field, but how much he is willing to spend is still up in the air.
While this team will never realistically be able to take on a potential deal for Gerrit Cole, who is looking for something well over $200 million, there are a few second-tier starters that they could be very interested in once free agency opens.
They were rumored to be heavily in on Dallas Keuchel before he signed with the Atlanta Braves, and his performance for the Braves has been impressive, so while he will most likely be looking at a yearly AAV starting around $20 million, the Brewers could swoop in if the market decides to freeze out certain players yet again.
Their first priority, even with starting pitching being a more pressing need, is to resign Grandal, especially after the historical season that he put together. The former Dodger came to Milwaukee amid scrutiny for his postseason performance last year for LA, and all he did was put that behind him and absolutely show out.
A victim of the cold-shoulder free-agent market last year, Grandal found his way to Milwaukee on a one-year deal that has a mutual option for 2020 that he will most likely decline to help maximize his value in free agency. Publicly he has said that he would love to return to Milwaukee, but with having missed out on his payday this past offseason, money may speak a bit more to him now over team loyalty.
General manager David Stearns would be smart to go after Grandal early and hard, and if they can secure his services for another four seasons at around $18 million per season, that should be considered a win for this small-market franchise.
The bullpen was the biggest tool this season and integral to the team’s success, so getting Corey Knebel back and healthy is a top priority. Pomeranz looked like a new pitcher coming out of the pen in a shutdown role, and he would be a cheaper option to help boost the pen back to the level that it was in 2018.
Other ancillary pieces need to be figured out too, as they are in need of a starting first baseman, third baseman (if they do not resign Moose), a better offensive shortstop (Orlando Arcia has ranked towards the bottom of most important offensive stats the past few seasons) and bench pieces. 2018 savant Travis Shaw fought through some really tough offensive slumps this season, and while his numbers were never really that good, he has been a solid player for the Brewers and just needs to find his groove again – he could be the team’s starting first or third baseman when Opening Day 2020 comes around.
Even with having lost much earlier in the postseason than planned, the Brewers have the pieces in the right places to make sure this team gets back to the promised land. While never an easy journey, having a solid manager and a smart general manager is exactly the building blocks a small-market team needs to survive.
Oh, and Yelich will make a full return from his injury in time for spring training – this team is dangerous and the rest of the league should watch their backs come 2020.