In an NL Central filled with middling teams, the Brewers are definitely the chaotic neutral. They have some really good players, but they have flanked them with really bad players. What you want to do is replace your bad players with better players, and the Brewers barely did that in the offseason. While star reliever Josh Hader was reportedly shopped around, Milwaukee failed to make their organization significantly better, for either the present or future.
Offseason additions: OF Jackie Bradley Jr., 2B Kolten Wong, OF Derek Fisher, RHP Brad Boxberger, 3B Travis Shaw, RHP Jordan Zimmermann, UT Tim Lopes.
Offseason subtractions: OF Ryan Braun, LHP Alex Claudio, 1B Justin Smoak, IF Jedd Gyorko, RHP Corey Knebel, OF Ben Gamel, IF Eric Sogard.
Trade Deadline 2020 summary
Traded: RHP David Phelps.
2020 record: 29-31
2020 placement: 4th
2020 WAR leader (batter): Jedd Gyorko
2020 WAR leader (pitcher): Corbin Burnes
Even though he finished 6th in Cy Young voting, Corbin Burnes didn't get the respect he deserved for what he did in 2020. Burnes struck out 88 batters in just 59.2 innings with a 2.11 ERA. It was a huge improvement from his 8.82 ERA in 2019. Burnes gave up on his fastball, a pitch that got crushed in 2019, and threw his sinker and cutter a lot more. The cutter had a 2919 rpm spin rate, just 10 more than his slider, which had a .103 average against and a 60.3% whiff rate. Not to be overshadowed by Burnes, Brandon Woodruff also had a great season, striking out 91 with a 3.05 ERA and a 0.991 WHIP in 73.2 innings. Woodruff also had a 2.86 xERA while limiting batters to an average exit velocity of 86.7 mph and a .197 xBA. Adrian Houser was a productive swingman in 2019, but struggled in the rotation last year. He struck out 44 batters in 56 innings with a 5.30 ERA. Houser's strikeout rate decrease by over seven percent, but he still limited batters to an 86.3 mph exit velocity. One issue was a major increase in H/9, up to 10.1 from 8.2. Soft-tossing lefty Brett Anderson had 32 strikeouts in 47 innings for a 6.1 K/9, which was actually his best since 2017. Anderson had a 4.21 ERA, and only had a 5% BB rate. His 48.1 hard hit percentage was his worst in the Statcast era. Anderson primarily throws a sinker, a pitch that batters hit .316 against in 2020, but it helped lead to a 59.6% groundball rate. Former KBO star Josh Lindblom returned to the MLB for the first time since 2017. He struck out 52 batters in 45.1 innings with a 5.16 ERA. Lindblom finished with a 4.10 xERA and a 3.87 FIP, and his slider had a 43.5% whiff rate and a .148 average against. Lefty Eric Lauer lost his spot on the roster after he allowed 16 runs in 11 innings. His cutter was a plus pitch, but batters went 9-for-19 against Lauer's fastball.
The back end of the Milwaukee bullpen was the highlight of the Brewers 2020 season. Devin Williams won Rookie of the Year, and received not only Cy Young votes, but even an MVP vote. Williams was amazing, allowing just one earned runs in 27 innings for a 0.33 ERA, while striking out 53. Batters had a .108 xBA, a .181 xSLG and a .164 wOBA against Williams, who also limited hard contact and throws an elite changeup. His great season distracted from Josh Hader, who is still great despite a little bit of a down season. Hader had a career worst 3.79 ERA, but he led the league with 13 saves, and struck out 31 in 19 innings while walking more batters (10) than allowing hits (8). Despite a very high 14.7% barrel rate, Hader had an 85.4 mph average exit velocity and a 26.5% hard hit rate. Brent Suter's fastball has an average velocity of just 85.4 mph, but he struck out 38 batters with a 3.13 ERA in 31.2 innings. While Suter only throws his change-up 13.6% of the time, the pitch had a .209 xBA against and a 52.6% whiff rate. Batters also had an 84.5 mph average exit velocity against him. Another soft-tossing reliever is Eric Yardley, who was claimed off waivers from San Diego in November of 2019. Yardley had a 1.54 ERA in 23.1 innings, but he walked 10 batters. Batters went 2-for-21 with 10 strikeouts against Yardley's slow curveball. 24 year old strikeout specialist Freddy Peralta had a 3.99 ERA out of the bullpen, striking out 47 in 29.1 innings. Batters had a .179 xBA against Peralta, who had a 3.11 xERA. His curveball had a 54.3% whiff rate. Non-roster invitee Brad Boxberger has a good chance to make the team after posting a 3.00 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 18 innings, despite below-average analytics. Boxberger's 5.17 xERA and 10.1 BB% were both well in the bottom half of the league. 30 year old Justin Topa battled for years in the low-levels of the minors and independent ball to finally debut in 2020. He throws a sinker with a ton of movement that averaged 97.5 mph. Topa struck out 12 batters in 7.2 innings, allowing two earned runs. Drew Rasmussen was a first rounder by the Rays in 2017, but didn't sign with them, but later signed in the sixth round with the Brewers in 2018. Rasmussen had 21 Ks in 15.1 innings last year, with a 5.87 ERA but a 3.37 xERA. His fastball had a 35.8% whiff rate, and averaged 97.6 mph. Flamethrower Ray Black only appeared in three games in 2020, but his velocity was down a lot, by 2.5 mph, to 95.7. In 2019, the pitch had a 98.2 mph average velocity and an elite 2612 rpm spin rate.
The Brewers are expected to enter 2021 with a similar catching structure as they had last year. Omar Narvaez is a really good pitch framer, but he was awful offensively last year. Narvaez struck out 31% of the time, with a .172 xBA, an 81.6 mph average exit velocity, and .562 OPS. This was a massive disappointment after back-to-back 119 OPS+ seasons, including a 22 home run campaign in 2019. Backing up Narvaez should be another switch-hitter, Manny Pina, who is great behind the plate, and is quick to throw to second base, with a pop-time under two seconds in 2019. Pina only appeared in 15 games last year, but he posted a 0.5 bWAR with a .744 OPS. His main competition is Jacob Nottingham, who also had a 0.5 bWAR last year. He hit four home runs with a .736 OPS in 20 games.
Former top prospect Keston Hiura was great in his rookie season of 2019, but flawed as well. Those flaws outweighed the strengths in year two, as Hiura struck out 85 times, more than anyone else in the league. Hiura hit 13 home runs, but with a .209 xBA and a .707 OPS. While his average exit velocity and hard hit percentage decreased, Hiura still hit barrels, at a 14.2% rate. He was never a great defender at second base, and will now move to first. That is because former rival Kolten Wong was brought in via free agency. Wong is a great defender, and won his second consecutive Gold Glove in 2020. He can also steal bases despite not having exceptional sprint speed. He had just a .061 ISO and a .311 xSLG. Shortstop Orlando Arcia had his best offensive season yet, hitting the ball harder, cutting down on his strikeouts to a 16.9% rate, and finishing with a .734 OPS. Arcia's .279 xBA was a 60 point improvement on his .219 tally in 2019. He is also a good defender, with one out above average in 2020. The favorite to start at third base is non-roster invitee Travis Shaw, who hit over 30 home runs for the Brewers in 2017 and 2018, before completely falling off in 2019. Shaw spent 2020 in Toronto, and rebounded a little bit. Shaw had a .717 OPS, and while he lowered his strikeout rate, it was still a high 27.8%, and his 8.9 BB% was a drop-off from 2018-19. 23 year old Luis Urias is also an option at third base. A former Padres top prospect, Urias has a .635 OPS in his career, and hit .147 against breaking balls in 2020. One area of his game that does not need improvements at the moment is defense, as Urias had two outs above average at third base, and two at second base, while also playing shortstop. Power hitter Daniel Vogelbach hit 30 home runs and was an all-star in 2019, but went 5-for-57 with the Mariners and Blue Jays before the Brewers picked him up. Vogelbach found his stride in 19 games for Milwaukee, hitting four home runs with a .328 average and a .987 OPS. One part of his game that never disappeared is his ability to walk, with a 14.7 BB% in 2020. Jace Peterson can play any position you want him to, and he had a .749 OPS in 26 games. His OPS was so high because of a 24.6% BB rate.
Christian Yelich was all over the place in 2020. He hit 12 home runs with a .205 average and a .786 OPS, with a 30.8 K%. But, Yelich also walked 18.6% of the time, and more than double the amount of any of his teammates. Yelich had an average exit velocity of 94 mph, and a hard hit percentage of 55.6%. He was also weak in left field, with -3 outs above average. Defensive star Lorenzo Cain opted-out of the season after just five games. Cain finally won his first Gold Glove in 2019, with 16 outs above average. But, he had a .697 OPS and has lost a step. Either Cain or newly-signed Jackie Bradley Jr. will move to right field despite both being exceptional defenders in center. In just 55 games, Bradley had seven outs above average. He had an .814 OPS with a career low 22.1 K% and a career high 10.6 BB%. Bradley's 118 OPS+ was his best since he had the same number in 2016. Avisail Garcia's last four seasons have gone good year, bad year, good year, bad year, so maybe we will get a good year from him in 2021. Garcia hit just two home runs in 53 games with a .659 OPS. His 9.7 BB% was a career high. He may not be ideal as a fourth outfielder considering he is not good defensively. A 2nd round pick way back in 2012, Tyrone Taylor has an .813 OPS in his AAA career, and an .860 OPS in 37 MLB games.
The way the NL Central is looking, there is a slim chance that two teams from the division make the playoffs. So, if the Brewers want to get in, they will have to win the division. Second place is more manageable for them, as the improved Cardinals will win, and the Brewers will miss the playoffs.