Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio is fond of saying general manager David Stearns has an agnostic approach to player acquisitions, which is to say he is open to anything and everything without previous bias or preconceived notions.
This is how free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal came to be signed by the Brewers to a one-year, $18.25 million deal Wednesday evening, perhaps the most surprising transaction of this MLB off-season. Stearns saw an opening that couldn’t have been foreseen and pounced on it, committing the kind of money the team rarely has done.
Stearns has not commented on the deal because it will not be official until Grandal undergoes a physical exam, presumably in the next few days. But when he does talk about it, expect him to say it was a unique opportunity to upgrade his 2018 playoff team in a key area that he just couldn’t pass up.
Attanasio had to give his backing, which meant taking his opening day payroll far beyond the previous high level of $104 million in 2015. The Brewers already have committed $112 million to 20 signed players for 2019, and have another $6 million or so on the books in deferred salaries and option buyouts.
Attanasio promised Stearns when their association began after the 2015 season that he, too, would take an agnostic approach to his payroll, with the willingness to stretch it if unique opportunities arose. And Grandal’s availability certainly fit that criterion.
When Grandal predictably turned down a $17.9 million qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers to hit the free-agent market, he had every right to expect a big pay day. Yes, he has had issues blocking balls but easily was the best catcher on the market, with left-handed power teams covet and a reputation for handling pitchers with great finesse.
Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year offer for nearly $60 million from the New York Mets in the early going, seeking a higher average salary. But, much like last winter, the free-agent market has not remotely resembled the teams’ free-spending ways of the past, and Grandal risked being left out in the cold.
Stearns had been looking at catching upgrades all winter. Like many teams, he coveted Miami’s J.T. Realmuto, available in trade but only at the cost of a sizable package of top prospects. And let’s face it. After trading Christian Yelich to the Brewers last winter and watching him become the National League MVP, the Marlins probably would ask even more of Milwaukee in a trade than other teams or face more fan backlash.
The Brewers met at the winter meetings with free agent Wilson Ramos, who instead signed a two-year, $19.5 million deal with the Mets, a team that remained on the hunt for catching help after Grandal spurned them. With Grandal still up for grabs, the Brewers made their one-year offer, allowing the player to save some face by at least getting more than LA’s qualifying offer.
First, Stearns had to convince Attanasio that Grandal was worth being paid the highest salary on the team. The boss agreed these opportunities don’t come around that often, and after the Brewers missed the World Series by one game in 2018, Attanasio was primed to make a bold move.
“Mark is always willing to stretch if the situation or the talent warrants it, and frankly, this is a year that warrants it,” Brewers chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger told mlb.com last week during the Billy Joel concert announcement.
While some fans blanched at the salary the Brewers are paying Grandal – and, yes, it is a lot – the deal made perfect sense for both sides. For Grandal, 30, he gets the AAV (average annual value) he wants and can go back on the market next winter, without being attached to a qualifying offer and the requisite draft-pick compensation (the Brewers will forfeit a third-round pick for signing him).
For the Brewers, they get a significant upgrade at catcher – one of the few weak spots on an otherwise loaded club – and a highly motivated player. Holdovers Manny Piña and Erik Kratz are fine defensive receivers and capable of delivering big hits on occasion but do not have the offensive pedigree of Grandal, who has slugged 73 home runs the past three seasons despite playing home games in spacious Dodger Stadium and many other games in pitcher-friendly venues in the NL West.
Grandal is a switch-hitter but most of his pop is from the left side – he hit 20 of his 24 homers vs. righties last season. Why do the Brewers covet left-handed power? Check how it has worked out with Travis Shaw, Christian Yelich and Eric Thames at Miller Park, and you’ll have your answer.
If Grandal does disappoint, it’s only a one-year commitment for the Brewers, not a budget strangler for seasons to come. It also allows for another year of development for catching prospect Jacob Nottingham, who got his first taste of the majors in 2018 and should be ready to contribute significantly by 2020. It certainly won’t hurt Nottingham to watch Grandal close-up in action this spring, either.
Piña is signed for $1.6 million for this year and Kratz for $1.2 million (not fully guaranteed), so the Brewers can hash all that out in spring training. In the meantime, the Brewers have made themselves much better at a key position, leaving them to pursue second-base help while also monitoring the pitching market.
As it stands now, the Brewers are headed for an opening day payroll of about $125 million, not including the additional bookkeeping teams take into account such as performance bonuses, call-ups, etc. It remains to be seen if Stearns feels compelled to move other contracts, such as Thames’ $6 million salary, before the season begins.
Boosting the opening day payroll is significant for the Brewers because Attanasio always tries to keep some financial flexibility for late-season moves if his team is in the thick of the playoff race. That approach allowed him to add players such as Mike Moustakas, Joakim Soria, Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop (yeah, yeah, I know) for the stretch run last season.
Adding Grandal doesn’t mean the Brewers will make up that one victory they needed to advance to the World Series last year. They got incredibly hot at exactly the right time in late September, blowing by the Cubs in an extra game No. 163, sweeping Colorado in the NLDS and stretching the Dodgers to seven games in the NLCS. Amazing what a 12-game winning streak can do for you at that time of year.
The NL Central, the only division with four winning teams in 2018, figures to be even tougher this year. Not happy about missing the playoffs three years in a row, St. Louis has made bold strokes by adding Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. Heck, even the last-place Cincinnati Reds have gotten serious by changing managers, coaches and much of their roster.
The Grandal move shows the Brewers aren’t messing around, either. A unique, unexpected opportunity came around, and they seized it.