The Yasmani Grandal signing shows why the Brewers might be the most opportunistic team in MLB these days
The signing is just another case of the Brewers pouncing on the moment conditions turn in their favor
The Milwaukee Brewers with All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal, filling one of the team's biggest needs and cementing the Brewers' status as arguably the most opportunistic team in the majors over the past couple years.
Despite reports that the Mets offered him a four-year deal worth more than $50 million, there are multiple factors which could help you understand why Grandal couldn't find any other takers anywhere near that universe of bidding. It starts with the qualifying offer tendered to Grandal by the Dodgers, which would automatically force the team signing the veteran catcher to give up a high draft pick to acquire his services. That qualifying-offer system is one of many subtle ways in which teams have successfully tamped down player salaries in recent years.
If you're someone who believes optics matter most on the big stage, then you probably watched Game 1 of the NLCS, the one that saw Grandal become the first catcher in postseason history to rack up two errors and two passed balls in the same game. Grandal's defensive struggles became so acute, his home fans started booing him later that series, and manager Dave Roberts eventually chose the less-heralded Austin Barnes as his starting catcher. The negative defensive reputation Grandal earned in those playoffs reinforced teams' concerns over Grandal's league-leading 43 passed balls during the past four seasons. Faced with the prospect of giving up a high draft pick, those shortcomings proved too much for most teams to handle.
The Brewers had no such qualms. They recognized that Grandal perennially ranked among the best catchers in baseball at framing pitches for strikes. They also saw a hitter who made up for often low batting averages with a strong batting eye and solid power numbers. In fact, while J.T. Realmuto was the clear leader among catchers last season, Grandal checked in at No. 2 by Wins Above Replacement.
So Milwaukee pounced. Rather than sweat the lousy optics of a ball or two trickling through Grandal's legs, or the hypothetical pain that might come five or six years from now when a would-be draft pick might've made the majors, the Brewers recognized the momentum they built last season, that Grandal is one of the best catchers in baseball, and that catcher was a position of need, and they got their guy. How do we know general manager David Stearns was a Grandal fan despite the catcher's flaws? Maybe it was because that horrific, indelible game that saw Grandal lay an egg on national TV during the NLCS happened against ... none other than the Brewers.
Count Grandal as just the latest example of a player the Brewers were able to acquire below market value, by embracing that player's strengths and using his weaknesses as an avenue to a heavy discount. That's become arguably the defining trait of this franchise over the past few years.
The Brewers hired Stearns at the end of a 2015 season that saw them go a miserable 68-94. But rather than go the Astros' route and lose 106 or more games three years in a row (with 0.0 local TV ratings to boot), Milwaukee immediately began improving, erasing much of the pain that typically comes with a rebuild.
This was no easy task, given that Milwaukee is one of the smallest markets in Major League Baseball with revenue streams lagging well behind those in Houston, Chicago and other recent rebuilding locales. Forbes' annual study of MLB team valuations ranked the Brewers 24th in revenue, at $255 million for 2017. Despite that modest revenue stream, Forbes estimates the Brewers' profit at $67 million for that season, the seventh-highest mark in all of baseball.
It wasn't hard to explain that apparent disconnect: No team spent less on payroll in 2017 than the Brewers did. Keep your expenses at rock-bottom levels and you can turn fat profits, even when fans are buying fewer tickets, hot dogs, and nacho hats.
Indeed, that's one of the biggest incentives for teams to rebuild. Sure, you can parlay lousy records into high draft picks. Yes, trading away older players and hoarding younger ones often gives you a better chance to succeed in the future. But rebuilding also offers a convenient excuse for owners to rake in gobs of money, without actually trying to win games. The Astros and Cubs offered prime examples of what successful rebuilds can look like -- so why try to do anything other than strip your costs down to as close to zero as possible, lose a boatload of games, and smile your way to riches while you wait?
The Brewers pulled off the cost-stripping part perfectly. And if anything, Forbes' estimates might have been conservative, given the ancillary revenue streams available to teams, such as the $50 million-per-team payout that resulted from Disney's purchase of a majority stake in the MLB-created streaming company BAMtech. While teams larded their balance sheets with huge gobs of cash, player salaries somehow ticked slightly lower in 2018.
That kind of trend sets up two obvious scenarios. One, it pisses off the players' union, to the point that a labor stoppage in 2021 can't be ruled out if things don't change soon. And two, the stinginess of teams across baseball -- even big-market clubs using the luxury tax as another dodge to avoid paying up for talent -- allows bolder teams to swoop in and acquire premium talent, often at discount prices.
Milwaukee is one of those bold teams. Though they remained a bottom-10 payroll team in 2018, the Brewers have still upped their payroll significantly since that 2017 campaign, and the money that they've spent has been well invested.
The smart shopping actually started a bit earlier, during Stearns' early days at the helm in Milwaukee. In December of 2016, the Brewers hauled in four young players in exchange for reliever Tyler Thornburg. One of those four was Travis Shaw, a power-hitting third baseman who launched 29 home runs in his first 210 games in Boston, only to be declared expendable by a Red Sox team with organizational depth at that position. Shaw immediately broke out in Milwaukee, cranking 63 home runs over the next two seasons while also improving his batting eye and other facets of his game.
That same winter, the Brewers nabbed muscle-bound slugger Eric Thames, poaching him from overseas on a cheapie three-year deal that cost just $16 million. This time, the discount factor was Thames' previous employer; MLB teams had limited history acquiring players from Korea Baseball Organization teams, putting the Brewers in position to land a bargain. They did exactly that, as Thames ostensibly earned the entire value of that contract by Memorial Day of his first season in Milwaukee, pulverizing opposing pitchers before the league started catching up to him.
The following winter is when Stearns and company really went to work. Choosing to avoid the big-ticket starting pitcher landscape that would end up producing busts like Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, Stearns instead sought to find inefficiencies in the market.
To that end, he signed right-hander Jhoulys Chacin in December 2017. The cost was a mere two years, $15.5 million, with other teams figuring that Chacin's 32 starts and solid 3.89 ERA were a product of luck and pitcher-friendly Petco Park, and that the right-hander's mediocre strikeout rates would come back to haunt him, especially if he pitched in a more favorable park for hitters. Two months later, the Brewers landed lefty Wade Miley on an even cheaper deal. Why did Miley cost just $2.5 million on a one-year contract? Because teams obsess over more recent results and often forget about the past, in this case frowning on a pitcher who'd posted ERAs well over 5.00 in the two most recent seasons, but with much better results (and impressive workloads) beforehand.
Both signings paid off in a big way. Chacin became the Brewers' dollar-store ace, delivering a league-leading 35 starts with a 3.50 ERA. Miley only managed 16 regular-season starts but made them count, flashing a tidy 2.57 ERA, then supplementing that performance with 14 ⅔ excellent innings in the postseason.
Neither Chacin nor Miley could have found that much success with middling stuff and so-so K rates, if not for an excellent defense playing behind them. This was where the Brewers did their best work. In signing free agent Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract, Stearns arguably, for once, paid full retail price to get what he wanted. But Cain's Gold Glove-caliber defense played up even more for the Brewers than for other teams, precisely because Milwaukee had chosen not to spend big bucks on strikeout monsters in the rotation. Find cheapie pitchers who put the ball in play, surround them with all-world glovemen like Cain (the Brewers went on to finish second in the league in Defensive Runs Saved), and you get more than you bargained for and more than you paid for.
Stearns' coup de grace required spending prospect capital rather than financial capital. As stingy as many teams have become with their pocketbooks, many have been even more tight-fisted with their best minor-league talent. With age curves shifting to suggest that players now peak in their mid-20s, and the best prospects offering the promise of six years of team control at discounted rates, it's become more difficult to pry Baseball America favorites away from other teams. The Brewers picked up on that prospect hysteria and exploited it, sending a four-player package led by top outfield prospect Lewis Brinson to Miami for Christian Yelich.
If Yelich were merely a sweet-swinging mid-20s outfielder with a couple of increasingly expensive seasons left until free agency, that would be one thing. But at the time of the trade, Yelich offered five years of potential club control for the low price of $58.3 million. By making Brinson the centerpiece of the trade, then, Miami was hoping that he could one day become a player whose skills might rival Yelich's, and that day would come really soon, before Brinson crept too close to free agency himself.
The Brewers didn't fret the theoretical value of the players they were giving up. They got excited for the present-day value of the player they were acquiring. That Yelich broke out with a monster season that ended in him storming to the NL MVP award and Milwaukee very nearly winning the pennant was pretty close to the perfect outcome.
By aggressively acquiring Grandal while other teams got gun-shy, the Brewers might've done it again. Except maybe this time, their newest pickup will get to squeeze the final out of the World Series.
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