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One thing to keep in mind this offseason is that you need to change the lens through which you’re viewing the winter’s transactions. With the revamped schedule format of 2023, you can’t necessarily use the old thinking when it comes to the moves that teams make. For instance, look at the Brewers’ trade of Hunter Renfroe to the Angels: he’s expected to make around $11 million in arbitration next year, so the Brewers dumped him despite the fact he hit .255/.315/.492 with 29 homers in a year where offense and dinger rates were terrible for people not named Aaron Judge and Kyle Schwarber. Renfroe’s hit a combined .257/.315/.497 with 60 long balls the past two seasons 269 games, will be just 31 in 2023, and, by OPS+, was Milwaukee’s leading hitter this past year.
To put it another way, even ESPN’s Buster Olney chided the Brewers for what is an obvious salary dump:
The Hunter Renfroe deal is a salary dump: An organization pitching-starved, pitching-thin gives up three arms to the Brewers, who had been shopping Renfroe aggressively; he could make $11m in arb in '23. The expectation among rival teams is that Kolten Wong will be the next to go
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 23, 2022
The Angels knew they needed more in order to compete, so, now that they won’t need to face off against the Mariners and Astros so often, and won’t be able to feast on the pathetic A’s as regularly, they went out to grab more to beef up for their games against other teams — maybe they’re taking a page out of the defending NL champion Phillies’ book, and adding more and more offense to make their potential pitching woes less of an issue. The Brewers, on the other hand, have looked at how the schedule is changing — fewer intradivision games against the lowly clubs of the NL Central, and more against the competency found elsewhere in the league — and have decided it’s not worth it.
Milwaukee went 86-76 in 2022, seven games back in the NL Central and one single game out of the third wild card spot. They had a +37 run differential, which isn’t great, but could be improved upon. Now, they’ve dealt Renfroe to the Angels, and as Olney stated, it’s expected Kolten Wong, who just so happened to have been second on the team in OPS+ at 118, is next to be shipped out. The Brewers had a decent rotation base, and an offense that needed a couple of holes filled, but instead of improving upon any of that, they appear to be punting their better pieces elsewhere and reloading.
It’s not a terrible idea, to reload and wait for later, but it’s not exactly a good one, either. The rest of the Central is only likely to get better with time, not worse, in the sense they have nowhere to go but up: the time for the Brewers to try to do something with what they’ve got is now. It’s unclear what exactly is stopping them from going for it now other than a desire to avoid spending. The 2022 season featured a record (for the Brewers) payroll of $131 million, the first time they were ever over $100 million on Opening Day, and while it was set to go up for 2023, it wasn’t going anywhere the Brewers couldn’t handle. Especially not if they were able to make it to the postseason and partake in the extra revenue that creates.
The Brewers won 86 games, while the Phillies, the club that finished a single game ahead of them in the standings, went to the World Series. The Padres, the club that finished just three games ahead, faced the Phillies in the NLCS. The Brewers are maybe a little worse than their record, sure, but they didn’t actually crush any of the other Central clubs in 2022, either: they went 13-6 against the Reds, who lost 100 games, but 11-8 against the other 100-loss team, the Pirates, 9-10 against the Cardinals, and 9-10 against the 88-loss Cubs. The difference between the Cardinals and Brewers was essentially the performance against fellow NL Central clubs. They weren’t all that far off, is what I’m saying, but now that Renfroe is on the Angels and Wong is likely to end up elsewhere, Milwaukee has probably punted on giving it a go in 2023.
And since you can no longer say, “well, anything can happen when you get to play the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds 19 times per year each,” you can claim the punt with more confidence at this date. I’ll grant that maybe the Brewers feel they could better use the money they would have spent on Renfroe (and Wong, who is owed $10 million in 2023) elsewhere, but it’s hard to see how. Again, offense was down in 2022, and both of these guys managed to hit, anyway, with Renfroe doing so in a more significant and dinger-heavy way with 29 bops in just 125 games. Combined, they were going to cost around $21 million in 2023. That’s not very much at all!
Again, it’s early in the winter, but these are the kinds of behaviors you have to pay attention to now that the schedules are more balanced than they used to be. How will clubs in the garbage divisions react to no longer facing off against said garbage as often as they did? The Brewers appear to be taking a step back, which would mean one less team giving competing a shot in a league where that sort of thing is already in short supply.