With Opening Day just around the corner, fans can taste baseball in the crisp spring air. In just nine days, the smells of hotdogs and brats will waft through the Miller Park grounds as the Brewers’ faithful eagerly await their club’s defense of the NL Central crown. As always, Opening Day will begin with the introduction of the team’s first 25-man roster. Who will toe that first base line at Miller Park on March 28th? Here’s my thoughts on the first iteration of the 2019 Milwaukee Brewers, with italics indicating I project them to make the Opening Day roster:
The Locks: Yasmani Grandal, Manny Piña
The Candidates: Erik Kratz, Jacob Nottingham
Craig Counsell put all questions to rest regarding the catching situation at the start of spring training: Grandal would be the starter, and Piña the backup. That still appears to be the plan, barring an injury to either of those two. While Kratz has done everything in his power this spring to earn a roster spot, his .222/.250/.481 slash during spring training is likely not enough to convince Counsell into keeping a third catcher, especially given his love for positional versatility and an eight-man bullpen. Kratz has no minor-league options remaining, so he will need to pass through waivers to stay in the Brewers’ organization. If he is lost to another club, it should be considered a meaningful loss, as he is a clubhouse leader and a more than capable back-up should either Piña or Grandal get injured.
Nottingham will be optioned to Triple-A San Antonio, where he will continue his development as a prospect. His role will become much more important if Kratz is picked up by another team.
The Locks: Jesus Aguilar, Orlando Arcia, Mike Moustakas, Hernan Perez, Travis Shaw, Eric Thames
The Candidates: Tyler Saladino, Corey Spangenberg
The locks are all returning from last year’s club, with Aguilar-Moustakas-Arcia-Shaw being the starting unit. Perez is the Brewers indispensable super-utility man, as he can play all seven positions in the field. While the Brewers certainly prefer not to deploy him in center field, he can play there if needed, and his defense at each of the other six positions is at least average.
Thames, who many considered to be a trade candidate at the outset of the offseason, earns his roster spot as somewhat of a utility man in his own right, as he is predominantly a power-hitting first baseman but can play a passable left and right field. He has had a monster spring, and will form a semi-platoon at first base with Jesus Aguilar.
Saladino is nearly certain to not make the cut – he simply does not offer any difference-making qualities that warrant creating a spot for him on the roster. He will provide minor league depth in case an injury arises, with this being his final option year. Spangenberg on the other hand has a real shot to make the roster as a utility man, as he swings a left-handed bat and has displayed some positional versatility this spring. However, I think he will not start 2019 in the big leagues, losing out to an outfielder we will discuss shortly, though we will certainly see him in Milwaukee at some point this season.
The Locks: Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich
The Candidates: Ben Gamel
Braun, Cain, and Yelich form one of the elite outfield batteries in not just the National League, but all of Major League Baseball. Their individual success this season will be directly correlated to the team’s overall success.
Gamel is likely to be the last man to make the roster on the position-player side. In my opinion, it comes down to him and Spangenberg, with Gamel getting the nod due to him being a natural outfielder. Both Gamel and Spangenberg have swung the bat adequately in spring training (.758 OPS for Gamel/.783 OPS for Spangenberg), and Gamel checks two boxes by being a left-handed hitter and a capable defender at all three outfield positions.
However, if there is one spot we could see some Opening Day shenanigans similar to the Ji Man Choi situation last year, it would be here. If Stearns and Counsell feel for whatever reason that Spangenberg gives the Brewers a better chance to win on Opening Day than Gamel does, then they could simply have Spangenberg open on the MLB roster and option him down to the minors once he serves his purpose. It’s not likely, in my opinion, but it is within the realm of possibility.
The Locks: Jhoulys Chacin
The Candidates: Chase Anderson, Corbin Burnes, Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff
The Brewers rotation was as wide-open as could be entering Spring Training, with the only 100% lock being Chacin. To sum up the rest of the group, Anderson and Davies struggled in 2018, Burnes and Peralta are the young hot-shot arms looking to stick, Woodruff is wedged between having more value as a reliever or as a starter, and Nelson is still rehabbing from surgery that took place in 2017. Let’s dissect that a little bit.
I expect the Brewers to give Davies a chance in the rotation to start the year, with Anderson being either demoted to the minors or sent to the bullpen. Both have experienced success in Brewers’ rotation in the past, but both have also struggled to ERAs that are over 7.00 this spring. Anderson has been working through an adjustment in his delivery, and I do not think the Brewers want to have that situation in their starting rotation until it is completely ironed out. Davies profiles as a back-end arm, so long as he can keep the Brewers in games and hold ERAs in the 4.20-4.50 range, he should be serviceable.
With the younger guys, I predict that Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff will all earn rotation spots. The Brewers repeatedly stated last year that the plan for Burnes was to gain experience in the bullpen in 2018 and move to the rotation in 2019, and given the other options available to the Crew I see no reason for them to stray from this plan. He likely will combine moments of brilliance with moments of frustration in the first couple of months, but by the time the stretch run comes along I expect him to be a solid number-three starter.
Woodruff has looked much more polished this Spring and finished the year strong in 2018, so he is a sure bet to be in the rotation at this point. Peralta has showcased his electric stuff over spring training, and that he has a much higher ceiling than Anderson with a similar floor, I think he will earn the fifth rotation spot.
Unlike 2018, the Brewers start off 2019 by playing seven games in seven days, so there is no possibility for them to start the year with a four-man rotation.
Nelson is slated to continue his rehab by starting the year in Triple-A San Antonio. He has looked good this spring and is the closest thing the Brewers have on paper to being an ace, so once he is ready to go, he is certain to be inserted into the rotation.
The Locks: Matt Albers, Alex Claudio, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel
The Candidates: Chase Anderson, Jacob Barnes, Junior Guerra, Adrian Houser, Jay Jackson, Jake Petricka, Aaron Wilkerson, Taylor Williams
Disabled List: Jeremy Jeffress, Bobby Wahl
The bullpen picture is fairly straightforward at this point for the Brewers. Craig Counsell said that Albers will be on the Opening Day roster, betting on the possibility that his 2018 pre-arm injury performance will re-emerge in 2019. Hader, Knebel, and Claudio (acquired from the Rangers) will form a high-leverage trio that will hopefully welcome back Jeffress soon.
To fill out the four remaining spots, Barnes, Guerra, and Williams have the experience and past performance to have solid footing in making the roster. For the final spot, it comes down to Chase Anderson, some low-leverage arms (Wilkerson and Houser) and non-roster invitees Jake Petricka and Jay Jackson. I don’t think Petricka or Jackson will make the roster due to that necessitating their addition to the 40-man roster, and Houser and Wilkerson do not offer enough upside to justify a roster-spot over Anderson. While Anderson has the edge for the final spot in my opinion, the Brewers could instead opt to keep him in the minors to get him back on track as a starter. If he is put in the bullpen, it may be difficult to stretch him back out to being a starter this year, should he be needed in that role. He could provide good value as a long relief man if kept in the majors.
The bullpen is also the position group most likely to see an outside addition (usually via waivers) prior to Opening Day. We have seen this in each of the past three seasons with Carlos Torres (2016), Jared Hughes (2017), and Dan Jennings (2018). If David Stearns sees an arm on the waiver wire he deems more valuable than his in-house options, he will scoop that player up. An acquisition of this type will become even more likely if Corey Knebel ends up being placed on the disabled list with his elbow injury.
In addition, there have been reports that the Brewers are targeting Craig Kimbrel on the free agent market. Adding one of the top relievers in the game would put this group over the top, while also providing a more than adequate patch for the high-end talent lost to the rotation in Burnes and Woodruff.
Based on my above analysis, this is the final projection for the Brewers’ Opening Day Roster:
Catchers (2) – Yasmani Grandal, Manny Piña
Infielders (6) – Jesus Aguilar, Orlando Arcia, Mike Moustakas, Hernan Perez, Travis Shaw, Eric Thames
Outfielders (4) – Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Ben Gamel, Christian Yelich
Starting Pitchers (5) – Corbin Burnes, Jhoulys Chacin, Zach Davies, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff
Relief Pitchers (8) – Matt Albers, Chase Anderson, Jacob Barnes, Alex Claudio, Junior Guerra, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Taylor Williams