Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers. We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper! We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends). This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom. Now, let’s play some pepper!
73-89, fourth in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper
The seasons come and go, but it feels like of late it’s always been a struggle up in The Good Land. The NL Central always seems to have teams waxing and waning and it could be that the Brewers are about to start back up the ladder. Whether they’ll do it with their biggest name, Ryan Braun, is a question to be asked.
Hey, that’s what I did! We’ve got three Milwaukee bloggers to give us information about the club. I’ll note that soon you’ll find my answers to some Cardinals questions posed by Enrique over at The Brewers Bar, so be on the lookout for that as well as checking out all these guys. (Kyle and Jaymes still show up on the Disciples of Uecker masthead, but it seems most of their work now is at Brew Crew Ball.)
C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?
BCBK: This was a pretty good winter for the Brewers. They didn’t really need to do much other than keep the ball rolling on building to the future. I’m a big fan of the Tyler Thornburg deal – if Travis Shaw is a 2 WAR third baseman, he essentially replaces the lost WAR that what we might’ve expected from ~70 innings of Thornburg and comes with two additional years of control. Beyond that, Mauricio Dubon has been praised as an organizational top 10 prospect since coming back in that trade and could provide MLB value in the not-so-distant future, and Josh Pennington is the hard-throwing wild card in the deal.
It doesn’t look like there’s much of a market for Chris Carter, so in hindsight it may have been wise to cut bait rather than pay him some $9 mil in arbitration. The projection systems seem to love Eric Thames, and if he can even be a useful platoon bat at first base he’ll earn his keep on a 3 year, $16 mil deal.
Neftali Feliz was the big bullpen signing and figures to be the closer after the trades of Thornburg, Jeffress, and Will Smith last year. The club seems to think his home run issues last year were a bit of an aberration, so if he pitches well in the first half he’ll likely become a trade candidate. The club has also added some interesting arms on minor league deals, including Joba Chamberlain, Forrest Snow, and Andrew Barbosa. My only real complain about the winter was leaving Miguel Diaz unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, which allowed the Padres to pick him first overall and add a potential 50-60 OFP arm to their system.
BB: Since the Brewers are in the middle of a rebuild, it would have been tough for them to have a bad offseason. Brewers fans’ expectations are realistic at this point, so we weren’t planning on any splashy free agent signings. We will have to get used to the fact that the few familiar faces still on the club – Ryan Braun, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza – could well be traded by mid-season if they aren’t injured or miserably underperforming. Longtime role players like Tyler Thornburg and Martin Maldonado were traded in the offseason, and homerun/strikeout title holder Chris Carter was non-tendered.
But the offseason wasn’t just about guys leaving. The Brewers signed a guy out of Korea named Eric Thames who seems like a low-risk first base option for a non-competitive team. They also picked up reliever Neftali Feliz, who I suspect is a time-server that won’t be part of the future, but he could eventually be tradeable for someone who will be part of the future. One of the players the Brewers got in the Thornburg trade, third baseman Travis Shaw, is expected to see a fair amount of playing time in 2017.
Coming into spring training, principal owner Mark Attanasio said, “This year will inform us as to where we are on the timeline for competing.” Given the position the Brewers are in, it’s hard to be very disappointed or excited about any offseason moves. We’ll see what happens.
BCBJ: It’s hard to tell whether it was a good offseason for the Brewers, mostly because it was such a quiet one. They didn’t do much, outside of a couple of minor free agent additions in Eric Thames and Neftali Feliz. For the most part, they stuck to the minor league free agent pool, trying to replicate the success they found last year when they picked up Junior Guerra out of obscurity and he became one of the best starters in their rotation.
It is a little surprising to still see Ryan Braun wearing a Brewers uniform, but I don’t know if I’d go as far to say I wished they did trade him. He may not be an MVP candidate anymore, but he’s still an extremely good hitter, and since the Brewers’ rebuild has gone so well to this point, they don’t need to trade Braun just for the sake of trading him.
C70: What’s going to be the strong point of this team?
BCBK: The strong point of this team looks like it’ll probably be the offense. It seems apparent that former MVP Ryan Braun will once again anchor the middle of the lineup after posting 30 homers and a .900+ OPS last season. Jonathan Villar broke out last year and will shift to second base in 2017, and both Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton looked like they could be potentially above-average regulars when healthy last year. The club will be counting on positive contributions from new acquisitions Thames and Shaw at the infield corners and both appear to be capable, and hopefully Orlando Arcia can show some improvement on his relatively meager offensive production during his first two months in the big leagues last summer.
BB: Young players who surprise us with their moxie and make the most of their opportunity will be the strong points. Last year, Jonathan Villar emerged as a capable leadoff hitter and led the league in stolen bases. (Villar also led the league in being caught stealing by miles, but hey.) Pitcher Zach Davies had a solid first full season in the majors, and 31-year-old rookie Junior Guerra surprised us all by being the Brewers’ best starter.
There are numerous unproven players who could blow our minds in 2017, such as Orlando Arcia, Yadiel Rivera, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Andrew Susac, Lewis Brinson, and Josh Hader, to name a few. Who will step up? Enquiring minds want to know…
BCBJ: I think the lineup could be sneaky dangerous. Jonathan Villar is coming off a breakout season and Keon Broxton is coming off of a ridiculously hot second half of the season after he made some mechanical adjustments in his swing. If both can hit the way they did to close last year, that’s a dangerous 1-2 punch to have hitting in front of Braun. I’m a big fan of Domingo Santana’s power potential, and Travis Shaw’s power should play well at Miller Park, too. If Eric Thames can be a league-average bat, that’s six pretty good hitters in the lineup.
C70: There always seems to be a buzz about Ryan Braun being traded. Is that something that is realistic or just a lot of internet rumor?
BCBK: It doesn’t appear as though Ryan Braun is going anywhere. The best shot may have been last year at the non-waiver deadline, and the trade to the Dodgers that everyone expected coming into this winter never really materialized. There haven’t been any real substantive rumors about Braun all winter, and now that the Dodgers have brought in Logan Forsythe, I’d say it’s a safe bet Braun starts 2017 with Milwaukee. He gains full 10-5 no trade rights at the end of May, so the Brewers may very well have another four years of Braun to look forward to.
BB: Apparently the Brewers were minutes away from trading Braun to the Dodgers in August, so it would seem to be more than rumor. Still, there are a number of things standing in the way of a Braun trade, primarily his no-trade protection on all but six teams. Although it came close to happening a few months ago, it seems unlikely, but you never know. If Braun is traded this year, I have a feeling it will be like the collapse of the Soviet Union – obvious that it was going to happen in hindsight, but it will be surprising at the time.
BCBJ: Braun was reportedly very nearly traded to the Dodgers for Yasiel Puig and Brandon McCarthy at the end of August last year, but the teams couldn’t agree on a final deal before the deadline that would’ve kept Braun eligible for the postseason. Since then, though, there hasn’t been any legitimate rumors that a deal with the Dodgers or anyone else was close. Braun does have a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to all but a handful of teams, and he’ll get his 10-and-5 no-trade rights in May.
Braun says he loves Milwaukee and he’s started a family there now, so he may be reluctant to accept a deal elsewhere. He also likely knows he won’t get the kind of fan support he gets now in Milwaukee anywhere else. If he does end up getting traded, I would expect it to be to a team in California that’s contending for a championship.
C7o: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?
BCBK: I was ahead of the game last year by predicting Junior Guerra’s breakout (#2016BrewersAce), but there are two rather unheralded guys that have been generating some hype this winter. Zach Davies has been hailed as potentially the next Kyle Hendricks and lead the league in command last year according to Baseball Prospectus’ new CSAA statistic. He posted a 3.92 ERA last year so he’s not exactly coming out of nowhere, but he could improve upon that already solid level of run prevention. The other is Keon Broxton. Everyone in Milwaukee is talking about Lewis Brinson’s impending arrival in the bigs, but he’ll have to get past Broxton first, who hit 9 homers and stole 23 bases in just 75 games last year before breaking his wrist in September. His exit velocity last year was among the best in the big leagues after a midseason mechanical adjustment with his hands, and if he can carry over that success (and keep his K’s in check) it wouldn’t be outrageous to hope for a 100-110 OPS+ with plus defense in center field.
BB: I would think that all Brewers other than Braun are unheralded as far as baseball fans outside of Milwaukee are concerned. That said, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Keon Broxton, who didn’t get a hit until May 21 last year, but improved with regular playing time and is projected to be the Brewers’ starting center fielder in 2017. He’s a fun player to watch, particularly when he’s robbing a homerun from Anthony Rizzo.
BCBJ: I mentioned him before, but Keon Broxton has the potential to be a really exciting player. His overall stat line from last season (.242/.354/.430, 9 HR, 23 SB) may not look all that impressive, but after returning from the minors and fixing his swing, he hit .293/.399/.538 in the second half. That’s a .937 OPS from a guy who’s also a great defensive centerfielder and is dangerous on the basepaths. Is he going to put up a .900 OPS over the course of a full season? Probably not. But he still has a chance to be a very valuable player for the Brewers this year and in the future.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?
BCBK: I’ll pick the Brewers to go 77-85 and finish fourth in the division.
BB: I’d prefer not to speculate on the Brewers’ 2017 record except to say I’d be over the moon if they got to .500. I’m hopeful they can finish fourth and avoid ending the season in last place.
BCBJ: Most of the projections seem to have the Brewers in the 75-77 win range, and that probably sounds about right. I will say, though, that there are a lot of young guys in the lineup that have the potential to truly break out this year, which might push them close to 80 if they can get a little lucky. That would put them pretty squarely in third place in the division, in my opinion, but that also depends on a largely unproven pitching staff producing a few surprises.
On the other hand, I could also see the pitching staff bursting into flames — especially the bullpen — and the Brewers finishing worse than their 73-89 mark from last year. There’s a wide range of possibilities for this bunch.
C70: Who is your all-time favorite Brewer and why?
BCBK: I’ve always been very partial to Geoff Jenkins, and I do love Ryan Braun. But when I really think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever lived and died with a player as much as I did during Junior Guerra’s 20 starts last year. I’ve got his jersey hanging in my closet, and I hope that when I’m wearing it to Miller Park on April 3rd that it’ll be during a well-earned Opening Day start for the 32 year old. The guy was pitching in Italy a couple year’s ago, for goodness sakes, and he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in over 120 innings last year! How do you not root for a story like that?
BB: Prince Fielder. After losing interest in the Brewers during the 90s and early 00s, I became a fan again in 2007 thanks to a core of young players led by Fielder. I saw plenty of great Fielder moments from 2007-2011, and one that stands out is his 14th inning walk-off homer against the Rockies on May 20, 2011. The Brewers were scuffling in the early part of 2011, and that comeback victory was an emotional turning point in what would end up being an NL Central winning year. Unfortunately, they went on to be knocked out of the playoffs by a team whose name escapes me at the moment…
BCBJ: Ben Sheets. That curveball was incredible, and it’s rare you can see a starting pitcher have that much success with just two pitches. He was really, really good for some really, really bad teams during his career and never complained about it or signed elsewhere. By the time 2008 came and the Brewers were finally making a postseason run, his body gave out. He tore ligaments in his elbow during the last month of the playoff race and still kept pitching (during a contract year, no less!), knowing the Brewers needed every win they could get. He ended up having to miss the playoffs, but he gave up his body — and ultimately his career — to help get the team there. He missed all of 2009, then pitched parts of two seasons after that but was never the same.
Appreciate all the guys helping us out with this NL Central rival. We’ll get to see these young guys a lot over the coming years!