Playing Pepper 2021: Milwaukee Brewers

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Milwaukee Brewers
29-31, fourth in the NL Central, lost in Wild Card Round
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For the first time in their history, the Brewers made the playoffs for a third consecutive year.  Sure, they were expanded and sure, they were under .500, but it’s history nonetheless and you gotta know folks are going to always refer to it as such.  Can they go for a fourth, though?  (Which, interestingly, would tie the amount of times they were in the playoffs from their inception until 2017.)  We’ve got folks with opinions so let’s hear them!

Blogger Site Twitter
David Gaspar Reviewing the Brew dgasper24
Jack Stern Brew Crew Ball baseball7310

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

David: That season was certainly rough for the Brewers. There was a lot of optimism heading in, but after Lorenzo Cain opted out, and pretty much the entire offense went into a slump, optimism waned quickly. Some fans may have taken it as the team taking a legitimate step back, but I think it was just a one-off down year with a bunch of odd circumstances. I liked the DH rule change, as it certainly makes things easier on Craig Counsell getting some of his position players in the lineup and some rest from the field. Not a fan of the runner at 2nd in extras or the 7 inning doubleheaders. Following was a little tougher last year since there was no way to go to games and little access to the players.

Jack: I think we were fortunate to get a season because we appeared to be extremely close to not having one at all. Not only was there uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, but disputes between the owners and the players union were playing out publicly. When baseball finally returned, several established players performed well below their typical norms, including Christian Yelich. There were understandable factors behind that, such as the start-and-stop nature of the season, no access to video during games, and no fans to provide the adrenaline boost that some players thrive off. For those reasons, I expect many of the game’s stars who slumped in 2020 to return to their normal selves. One thing that surprised me was that once the season got underway, it felt relatively normal. I desperately missed going to baseball games, but the viewing experience on TV was not much different than it is in a normal season. As for rule changes, I was happy to see a universal DH in action, but I was not a fan of starting extra innings with a runner on second base. 

C70: Longtime Cardinal Kolten Wong now mans the keystone for the Brewers. What were your thoughts on bringing him in and what do you expect from him?

David: I loved bringing in Kolten Wong. He was always a pain in our side when he played for the Cardinals, coming up with big hits and big plays always at the worst possible time for us. So not only is it a net positive for the Brewers that he’s no longer on the Cardinals, he gets added to the Brewers roster and now can come up with those big hits and big plays for Milwaukee. I’m expecting him to help anchor a very strong defensive unit for the Crew and some solid production near the top of the lineup.

Jack: Since most of us armchair GMs were focused on offense after the Brewers struggled to score runs in 2020, Wong’s addition came as a bit of a surprise. However, he represents a massive upgrade at second base. Keston Hiura—who is now shifting to first base—was arguably the worst defensive second baseman in the game, whereas Wong is arguably the best. His smooth glovework has already been on display in spring training, and it’s refreshing to see. Wong’s bat may be barely league-average at best, but he does provide some help in two areas in which the Brewers needed a boost: getting on base and putting the ball in play. When I discovered that Wong ranks 8th among all second basemen in fWAR since the start of the 2015 season, I realized that the Brewers added a solid player. I’m expecting more elite defense and a slightly below-average slash line (solid OBP, but limited power). His overall performance—somewhere in the 3.0 WAR range—will be valuable to this team. 

C70: Josh Hader was a little less dominant last year. Was that just a factor of the fluky, small sample season or is there a little concern?

David: I think the fluky, shortened season played a role in those results for Hader. He really only had two bad outings. On August 29, he walked five batters in a row and gave up two runs. That outing accounted for half his walks all season. On September 12, he gave up four runs in one inning. If you take out those two outings, Hader had a 1.05 ERA. In a normal year, things would’ve evened out, so I’m not too worried about Hader. 

Jack: Hader did not allow a run (nor any hits) over his first nine appearances of the season, and he was relying on his slider far more often than in years past. Naturally, the narrative was pushed that Hader had become a much better pitcher by developing a secondary pitch. However, I noticed that he wasn’t putting guys away with his fastball, and the numbers backed it up. 34.8% of Hader’s two-strike fastballs resulted in strikeouts in 2019; that figure was cut in half last year to 17.2%. His average fastball velocity was down by one mile per hour, and its whiff rate dropped by about seven percentage points. His slider was doing the heavy lifting, and his heater went from being one of the most dominant pitches in baseball to an average one (0.1 runs per FanGraphs and .316 opponent xwOBA per Baseball Savant). This is not a sustainable recipe for success. The positives are that Hader looked more like the vintage version of himself late in the season, his 2020 sample of 19 innings was extremely small, and he is just turning 27 years old next month. I wouldn’t say there’s a serious level of concern, but there are definitely a few things to monitor this season.

C70: How strange is it going to be to not see Ryan Braun out in the outfield and perhaps not in a Brewers uniform at all?

David: It’s incredibly strange to think of. Braun has been the one constant for so many years around Milwaukee. However, he may not be completely gone just yet. His wife posted on Instagram that he’s not leaving for baseball season “at least for now” and Trevor Plouffe said on his podcast that Braun might be thinking about a return around July. It’s still weird not seeing No. 8 in the lineup nearly every day, but he may not be done quite yet. However, with the addition of Jackie Bradley Jr. finding room for Braun on the roster may be tough and Cain may take Braun’s role as the elder statesman that needs a few more rest days than before.

Jack: Braun is perhaps the most notable player in franchise history after Robin Yount. He is the Brewers all-time home run leader, ranks second in team history in OPS+, extra base hits, total bases, doubles, and ranks third in plate appearances, hits, slugging percentage, OPS, runs created, and walks. On top of that, he has delivered some of the most memorable clutch home runs in the team’s history. As of now, Braun has stated that he has no desire to play, but he has not officially retired. It’s going to feel different without him manning a corner outfield position and holding down a spot in the middle of the order, but the last few seasons of Braun’s career coincided with the rise of Christian Yelich as a legitimate star, allowing for a smooth transition to a new face of the franchise. In short, many fans will miss Braun, but the Brewers should be just fine without him. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

David: My expectation is another postseason berth, and hopefully they can get hot at the right time and make a deep run in the postseason to hopefully a World Series. I think they match up pretty well with the Cardinals and the two teams are the favorites to win the Central. The division is weaker than it was last year, but the Brewers haven’t really taken a step back themselves. They traded away Corey Knebel, which could hurt, but he also wasn’t a big impact player in 2020. He can be really good, but the Brewers also saw Devin Williams burst onto the scene, plus they have Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa who are just as hard throwing as Knebel with just as nasty offspeed stuff. The bullpen will still be dominant, plus they added Wong and Bradley Jr to the lineup, and Travis Shaw could lock down 3rd base, which was a trouble spot last year. Other teams in the division got worse while the Brewers clearly got better overall. This pitching staff is vastly underrated. They don’t have too many household names but these guys are nasty.

Jack: Pitching and defense will carry this team. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Adrian Houser are all gifted young arms leading the rotation, and Josh Lindblom shouldn’t be ruled out for a bounce back season. Freddy Peralta, who was fantastic as a multi-inning reliever last year, looks like the favorite for the fifth starter opening. In the bullpen, Devin Williams is the reigning NL Reliever of the Year, Brent Suter is an effective jack-of-all-trades, Justin Topa has shown promise with his absurd upper-90’s sinker, hard-throwing prospect Drew Rasmussen debuted last season, and Hader is still present as the closer. On top of that, the Brewers continue to develop promising pitchers in their minor-league system, including prospects Ethan Small and Aaron Ashby, who have impressed this spring and could make an impact down the stretch in 2021. The additions of two elite defenders in Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. make this club much stronger in the field and will only benefit their stable of promising pitchers. Offensively, the Brewers failed to add an impact bat, and they are instead banking on a handful of internal bounce backs (Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura, Omar Narvaez, and Avisail Garcia come to mind). The bats will probably be underwhelming, but this club is strong enough in other facets of the game to be above .500 and firmly in the fight for the NL Central division title. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

David: I would give this organization an A. Since David Stearns took over, he has done a fantastic job running the team. They’ve made the playoffs three years in a row, a franchise record, and they were legitimate threats in two of those seasons and the only season they weren’t had a bunch of extenuating circumstances. They’ve developed a stud homegrown pitching staff for the first time in seemingly forever, and there’s a lot of exciting talent all around this roster. The farm system has produced some key players such as Keston Hiura, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta in recent years, and although they get a knock for their farm system not currently producing players and some big hitters stalling out in the upper minors, they have some really good talent further down that should be ready to produce at the big league level starting later this year and definitely into next year. 

Jack: I would give them a B. Under the David Stearns regime, the Brewers have done a strong job of developing pitching internally and putting together solid staffs even if national pundits don’t seem to acknowledge it. On the flip side, they have struggled to put together strong lineups to surround Yelich, and 2020 turned out to be a colossal failure in that regard. The Brewers failed to add an impact bat in the offseason to address their collective shortcomings at the plate, especially after they lost out on the Justin Turner sweepstakes. They wound up settling for a Travis Shaw reunion at the hot corner (at the time of this writing, he has an opt-out date approaching, but I expect him to make the roster). I have always had a soft spot for Shaw and even suggested that the Brewers sign him after Turner announced his return to the Dodgers, but the reality is that he was a last resort option in a third base market that was uninspiring by the time Turner was
gone. Returning to the positives, Stearns and Matt Arnold are smart executives, and Craig Counsell is one of the best managers in baseball. This organization is not close to being perfect, but they’re in a good place overall.

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