Playing Pepper 2018: Milwaukee Brewers

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Milwaukee Brewers
86-76, second in NL Central
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Last year’s Pepper

The Cardinals were expecting to be in a three-team race for the NL Central last year, but Milwaukee wasn’t the team that they were expecting to be part of it.  We all kept waiting for the Brewers to come back to earth and while they didn’t wind up winning the division after leading early, they still were able to force the Cards into their first third place finish in quite some time.  Are they for real?  That young talent and active offseason seems to go against any “one hit wonder” thoughts.  We’ve got Kyle here today to help us delve into that.

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Kyle Lesineski Brew Crew Ball brewerfan28

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Kyle: I certainly think that the Brewers improved their roster this offseason. The club went out and acquired two star-caliber players in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Outfield was considered an area of depth entering the winter, but David Stearns chose to upgrade in center field (where the group of Keon Broxton, Brett Phillips, and Lewis Brinson combined for 80 wRC+ and 1.3 fWAR last season) by bringing in Cain, who has been a premium defender throughout his career and is coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career. He’ll be 32 soon and signed a five-year, $80 mil deal so Milwaukee must feel confident about how he’ll age. Yelich, on the other hand, is a prime-age star who is still under control for another five seasons thanks to the early-career extension he signed with Miami a few years ago. Another strong defender, Yelich won a Gold Glove in left field in 2014 and will man that position regularly in 2018. He’s no slouch at the plate, either, owning a 121 wRC+ over his career while averaging ~4 fWAR per season over his four-and-a-half year career. Many have speculated that the move from Marlins’ Park to Miller Park could be a boon for Yelich’s offensive game, although he’ll probably have to start hitting a few more fly balls to see the power boost that fans around here are hoping for.

Those moves led many to believe that a trade of another outfielder was coming, but to this point that hasn’t happened. So that leaves last year’s breakout star Domingo Santana in right field and moves former MVP Ryan Braun to a sort of utility position. He’ll spend time in left and right, and is working on adding a new position to his arsenal this spring – first base. Braun has said in the early part of camp that he’s “not remotely comfortable” at the position yet, but his manager isn’t worried that he will be able to play the position passably once the regular season starts. The club hopes he can see about 50 games there while splitting time with Eric Thames. Around the infield looks mostly the same as last season, with Orlando Arcia and Travis Shaw manning short and third, some combo of Jonathan Villar/Eric Sogard/Hernan Perez at the keystone, and Manny Pina getting the bulk of the starts behind the plate. The bullpen looks like a strength behind Corey Knebel and Josh Hader along with new additions Matt Albers and Boone Logan. The biggest question mark is the starting rotation. Most figured that would be Milwaukee’s #1 need to address in the winter after the loss of Jimmy Nelson, but Stearns and company elected to target a few pitchers on value contracts – Jhoulys Chacin, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley – and rely on the team’s statistical and scouting analysis and the tutelage of Derek Johnson to try and get the most out of those players and their other internal arms. I personally would’ve liked to see an addition along the lines of a Darvish or Arrieta, but alas.

C70: Chase Anderson seemed to come into his own last season. What’s next for him?

Kyle: Anderson broke out in a big way last season, becoming only the sixth Brewer starter since 2000 to toss more than 100 innings in a season while posting an ERA below 3.00. He missed about seven weeks with an oblique strain he suffered while batting (can we get a DH please?) but still managed to lead the pitching staff in Baseball-Reference’s RA9 based version of wins above replacement, checking in with 4.2 bWAR. The Brewers even gave him a modest contract extension after the season, buying out his next two years of arbitration with club options for the each of the two seasons after that. Anderson’s biggest improvement was the addition of a couple miles per hour on his fastball, which helped him strike out a career-best 8.5 batters per nine. He also made greater use of his cutter and curveball, giving him a true four-pitch mix to confound batters with. Peripherals like FIP and DRA saw Anderson’s work last season as more of a mid-rotation starter than a true ace, but the Brewers don’t necessarily need him to duplicate last season to be successful. If he can continue to limit home runs like he did last season and finish the year with an ERA around 3.50 or so, that would be plenty enough production from Chase.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Kyle: I think that one thing folks around Milwaukee are underrating is the depth that the team possesses around the diamond. Milwaukee boasts arguably the strongest outfield group in the game, with Santana/Yelich/Cain/Braun backed up by Keon Broxton (20 HR, 21 SB last season) and Brett Phillips (a top-100 prospect per BP and BA). The infield is full of versatility, with Thames able to cameo in the outfield, Shaw able to cover first, Villar and Sogard able to cover third and short in addition to second, and super utilityman Hernan Perez who can play anywhere on the diamond. Craig Counsell used around 130 different starting lineups last season, and he’ll almost surely use that many again this year, if not more. As for the pitching staff, what the club lacks in front-line potential, it makes up for in depth. In the early going the club will use Anderson, Chacin, and Zach Davies as their top-3 starters, and ace Jimmy Nelson will return sometime this summer – perhaps as early as June, per the club – from his labrum surgery (although it’s no guarantee that he’ll be as effective as he was last year prior to the injury). Beyond that group is a secondary tier of back-end depth that should allow the team to stay competitive in games – Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Wade Miley, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, and top prospects Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. Sans Miley (who is on a MiLB deal as an Article XX(B) free agent) each one of the pitchers from that secondary group has minor league options, allowing Milwaukee to shuffle them back and forth to the minors depending on effectiveness. It’s a staff built to stave off attrition throughout the year. Owner Mark Attanasio stated that “According to analytics, we are going to score a lot of runs. That’s not a surprise. And our pitchers are going to perform at well-above replacement value.” I’d say that’s a pretty good summary of where the team should be overall.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Brewers to do well?

Kyle: The player who needs to perform well this year for the Brewers to succeed is Chase Anderson. With Jimmy Nelson on the shelf and no sure thing once he comes back, Anderson looks to be the de facto leader of the starting rotation – which was surprisingly one of the best in the NL last season. Davies and Chacin figure to provide useful production, but Anderson will need to prove that he can be something close to the guy he was last year, versus the 4.00+ ERA back-end starter that he was for the first three seasons of his big league career. If Anderson can post an ERA of around 3.50 or better, it would go a long way towards increasing Milwaukee’s chances of breaking their postseason drought.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Kyle: It’s arguable that the Brewers overachieved last season on the way to 86 wins, but the moves completed this offseason should help raise the “true talent” level of the team. I’m thinking something around 85-87 victories would be a reasonable estimate and keep the Brewers right in the thick of Wild Card contention. And if they overachieve again this year like they did last year, then maybe they can give the Cubs a run for their money in the race for the NL Central.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Kyle: You should have asked whether Josh Hader will be a starter or reliever, and the answer is perhaps both this season. Craig Counsell has shown that he like to be creative with his pitching matchups, and now that there is a true LOOGY in the bullpen in Boone Logan, CC will be able to deploy Hader in whatever fashion he sees fit so he can mow down hitters with his dangerous fastball/slider combo. That figures to be most often working multiple innings in a relief outing, but he could also be used in a setup capacity, or even a short start based on the opposing team’s lineup. There will be points throughout the year that Milwaukee employs a four-man rotation based on off days and spot starters are always needed throughout the long season on short notice. Hader doesn’t figure to go much longer than 3 innings in a given appearances, but he could be the guy who leads off a “Johnny Wholestaff” game in addition to one of the arms shutting teams down later in games.

Really appreciate Kyle spending some time with us today.  The Brewers aren’t going to be able to sneak up on anyone this season but that may not really matter!

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