The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers came out of nowhere and went from a team mired in a rebuild to a team fighting for the playoffs in the last weekend of the regular season. 2018 is different.
After the additions of all-star outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain the Brewers signaled the rebuild was over and consistent competitiveness was the new expectation. Last year the stories to look out for included position battles indicating future progress down the road. “Which starters prove to be consistent for future season success” or “which minor league has a surprise year” could have been a few.
That future, which fans and the organization were eyeing, is now upon us.
Not enough bats to go around
There is no way to look at the offseason acquisitions of Yelich and Cain other than this: the Brewers got better. At this years mid-summer classic there is legitimate potential the Brewers could field three All-Star outfielders.
Right fielder Domingo Santana burst onto the scene in 2017 slugging 30 homeruns and 85 RBIs. It was a career year for the 25 year-old.
Thirty-four year-old Ryan Braun also has some pop left in his bat, as long as he stays healthy. In only 104 games last season Braun had 17 homeruns, 52 RBIs and a modest .336 on-base percentage.
Yelich, who will man most of the starts in left field, has a career batting average close to .300 and has been close to 100 RBIs the last two seasons. Batting in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup means we should only see those numbers grow. The veteran Cain slots in as the everyday center fielder and a true leadoff hitter, something the Brewers have been missing for multiple seasons now.
Cain and Yelich are starting every day they are healthy. That is a given. Finding regular at-bats for Braun and Santana becomes the issue. Braun has been working at first base in Spring Training, but has said he is nowhere near comfortable with it yet and moving him there would only take at-bats away from Eric Thames who has 30+ homerun potential.
It’s a good problem to have, but it is still a problem. The Brewers don’t have enough bats for how many good hitters they now have on the roster.
“The Brewers’ probable starter is TBD”
Get used to hearing this. It will more than likely come up more times than you would like if you’re a Brewers fan.
The Brewers already did not have a named fourth or fifth starting pitcher and now, just a couple days away from Opening Day, likely number-four starter Wade Miley went down with a groin injury. Now Brent Suter, who was going to be the fifth starter as more of a bullpen starter/swingman, will slide into the fourth spot.
Options left for the Brewers are thin. For the meantime, Craig Counsell has announced Brandon Woodruff as the fifth starter. On Saturday, the Brewers announced a slew of cuts and options down to minor league camp, one of the casualties was former Brewers number-one starter, Yovani Gallardo.
Another former Opening Day starter, Junior Guerra, will begin the year in Triple-A.
So, what does this mean? The starting rotation is extremely fluid. Some weeks the team will be able to stick with a four-man rotation, other weeks they may opt for a bullpen/swingman start or they may end up making a midseason trade for another starting pitcher.
Either way, there will be many games in which the Brewers will not be choosing a starter until the day of.
All aboard the Pineapple Express
When Jonathan Lucroy was shipped out and the Brewers were left without a stud catcher, eyes shifted to prospects and glossed right over Manny Piña.
After a slight breakout in 2017, no one will gloss over the “Pineapple Express”. He came out of the gates firing on all cylinders and spent the better half of the season hoovering close to a .300 batting average.
He also shined on defense, posting the sixth-best catcher ERA with 3.80. He also posted a solid .356 caught stealing percentage. Piña ended the season with a 2.6 WAR.
Veteran catcher Stephen Vogt, who the Brewers claimed off of waivers last season, was supposed to start the season platooning with Piña. A shoulder injury will keep him on the DL until May, at least.
This should not worry fans. Last season, Vogt regressed tremendously after back-to-back All-Star seasons in 2015 and 2016. He flashed power occasionally, but hit for a lackluster .233 average and an on-base percentage of .285.
Allowing Piña to settle in as an everyday catcher could allow for the Brewers to get the most out of the position.
Jimmy Nelson’s return
With a 3.49 ERA, 199 strikeouts and a minuscule amount of walks, Jimmy Nelson was solidifying himself as a stud ace and the Brewers’ clear number-one pitcher. Late in 2017, he was carrying the Brewers towards a playoff appearance.
A shoulder injury ended those hopes and now Nelson’s bright future is in question. At the earliest, he could return in July.
The story to watch for is not if Nelson will return this season, but what form of him the organization is going to get. If he returns to anywhere near what he was in late 2017, it would be like trading for a top pitcher without losing any prospects.
If he struggles in his return, it could prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in a potential NL Central or Wild Card race.
Time to drink up the Hader-ade
In 2017, relief pitcher Josh Hader was electric. Whether it was striking out Bryce Harper so bad that Harper got ejected or a .156 batting average, Hader was must-watch TV.
Over 47 2/3 innings of being the setup man or pitching in long relief, Hader posted a 2.08 ERA and 68 strikeouts.
This Spring has been more of the same from the left-handed pitcher. Over nine innings, Hader has only given up three runs but has struckout 17 holding opposing batters to a .182 batting average.
With the questions left in the starting rotation, the bullpen will need to carry the team in the later innings and hope the offense shows up. For his part, Hader will probably always give the Brewers a chance.
Is hitting more important than pitching?
Do you trade for the top hitter or the top pitcher? Do you draft the top pitcher or the top hitter? What do you prioritize, the hitter who can hit the best pitching or the pitcher who can strikeout the best hitter?
If the Brewers do not add any pitchers, either via trade or free agency (please David Stearns do not sign John Lackey), they might be able to answer these questions.
They have the hitting. Thanks to the additions of Yelich and Cain, the Brewers lineup will be stacked. Likely eight-spot hitter Orlando Arcia flashed great potential both defensively and offensively last season. For a good part of the season his batting average was north of .300 and he finished the season with a .324 on-base percentage.
Arcia is the eight spot hitter. That bodes well for the team’s offense. Pitching, like we have already established, is a much bigger question with only three solid starters in place and Nelson coming back in July in possibly diminished form.
If the Brewers are in the playoffs come October without having added a starting pitcher, offense is what will have pushed them there.