Playing Pepper 2022: Milwaukee Brewers

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Brewers during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Milwaukee Brewers
95-67, first in the NL Central, lost in the NLDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Brandon Woodruff (5.7)
Top hitter by bWAR: Willy Adames (3.5)

If it wasn’t for the Brewers, the Cardinals would have smooth sailing to another divisional title.  Milwaukee is having a moment, though, taking two of the last four NL Central titles and coming just two games short of St. Louis in 2019.  Three of five seems definitely within the reach of the Brew Crew, especially with that rotation.  Will they get there?  Let’s talk to some folks.

Contributor Site Twitter
Sarah Witherspoon Wisconsin Sports Heroics sarahspooon
Jack Stern Brew Crew Ball baseball7310

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Milwaukee’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Sarah: In terms of the offseason, Milwaukee was fairly quiet in terms of obtaining players. Obviously we got Andrew McCutchen right before Spring Training and Hunter Renfroe earlier before the lockout even happened. I don’t think anyone was a fan of the lockout–we were really uncertain what would happen with baseball. I was kind of hoping we would keep Daniel Vogelbach around, but you know, he’s with the Pittsburgh Pirates now; So we’ll see him, but not in a Brewers uniform, sadly.

Jack: With most of the players from last year’s 95-win team returning, the Brewers were not expected to make many major moves over the winter. The only notable departure was right fielder Avisail Garcia, who left in free agency to sign with the Miami Marlins. Midseason acquisition Eduardo Escobar also signed with the New York Mets.

The Brewers killed two birds with one stone by acquiring Hunter Renfroe from the Red Sox to take over in right field while sending Jackie Bradley Jr. and his remaining salary back to Boston. Shortly after MLB lifted the lockout lifted and announced the universal DH, Milwaukee signed Andrew McCutchen to fill that role and serve as a backup in the corner outfield spots. The team has touted the former MVP as a major acquisition, but his age and dramatic platoon splits make him best suited for a part-time role against left-handed pitching. They also traded for Mike Brosseau to add some infield depth, re-signed setup man Brad Boxberger, and took fliers on bullpen arms like Trevor Gott, J.C. Mejia, and Jose Ureña.

Overall, Milwaukee’s offseason played out how I expected it to. I particularly love how they are approaching their bullpen. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, so instead of splurging on prominent high-leverage guys, I’d much rather stockpile as many buy-low arms as possible and see if a couple of them can have a breakthrough season. Like most fans, I wanted the Brewers to add a big bat to complement their elite pitching core, but I didn’t expect it to happen. The current front office’s approach has typically been to enter the season with a strong run-prevention unit and a questionable lineup; at the trade deadline, they assess the state of the team and determine if upgrades are necessary and worthwhile. The roster they’re about to break camp with certainly fits that mold.

C70: The last two years have not been kind to Christian Yelich. Can he get back to his top form or is that contract going to be a bit of an albatross?

Sarah: It’s been a toss-up the last two years with Yelich. Listening to interviews, watching press conferences, you can tell that he even thought he wasn’t playing his best and I think everyone can agree to that. I was a little skeptical last season about if we made the right decision with extending him, but I’m a full Yelich believer and I always am wishing the best for him. I think this season will be a turnaround, especially with a new hitting coach, new eyes on him to see where he can improve the most. I’m thinking positive for him this year.

Jack: I’ll start by pointing out that Yelich’s 2018-2019 run was always going to be the peak of his career. It’s hard to top (or even sustain) a 170 wRC+!

I think that Yelich’s 2020 struggles were largely a product of the strange nature of that season. Many other stars did not look like themselves during that period. It’s also worth noting that Yelich’s strikeout rate dropped from 31% in 2020 to a more reasonable 24% last season.

I did a deep dive on Yelich’s 2021 season early in the offseason, and I came away from it fairly optimistic. Many fans and analysts blamed his struggles on his approach, but the data did not lead me to that same conclusion. While Yelich was more passive and hit more ground balls in 2021 than he did when he was an MVP-caliber player, his offensive profile was nearly identical to what it was when he was a Marlin. Yelich posted a 122 wRC+ over five seasons in Miami but just a 101 wRC+ last year. What was different? Firstly, Yelich was one of the unluckiest hitters in the sport on line drives. Secondly, poor timing often made him late on fastballs, producing swings and misses and foul balls on hittable pitches. I think the timing issue can easily be tied to the back problems he dealt with last season. The bad luck on balls in play will take care of itself.

ZiPS projects Yelich for 22 home runs and 2.9 fWAR this year. I’m willing to bet that he finishes closer to 30 home runs and 4.0 fWAR. If he can maintain that level of production for the majority of his contract, it will be a good deal for the Brewers. Scouts at camp have reported that Yelich looks far more comfortable and at ease in the box, which is a great sign.

C70: Will Corbin Burnes get a long-term contract this season, even though he has two arbitration years left?

Sarah: As you probably saw, the Brewers were able to reach a deal with Corbin Burnes for $6.5M. In my opinion, I think it’s a little low. He just won the Cy Young Award, I think he’s due for a big pay-day! It would be the smart idea for the crew to extend him if they plan on staying the best pitching staff in all of baseball. But, I don’t think this season is the season for his extension.

Jack: Once again, I’m going to point to a piece that I wrote during the offseason that deals with this question. The short version is that I think Burnes’ asking price would be higher than the Brewers are comfortable with, and it makes far more sense for them to spend on offensive upgrades to support Burnes while they already have him under club control for a few more seasons.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Sarah: I’m always hopeful in Brice Turang. He’s seen a little bit of spring training action, but he was unfortunately optioned to Minor League training camp. I think a lot of our prospects have a lot of potential, our farm system seems to be training these athletes well. I am also excited for the breakout of Joey Wiemer. He had himself a season in the minor leagues, and while it’s shooting for the moon to see him make a major league debut this year, it would be interesting to see where he goes in terms of playing.

Jack: Every year, a new young pitcher seems to break into the major leagues and give the Brewers big innings down the stretch. In the past, it was Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta, all of whom have since become elite starting pitchers. Last season, it was southpaw Aaron Ashby. Ethan Small, another left-hander, will be next up.

Small was Milwaukee’s first-round pick in 2019, and he made it all the way up to Triple-A last season. He’s not a hard thrower, but a deceptive delivery and late life on his fastball make it tough to hit when thrown up in the zone. Small also features an excellent changeup. Those two pitches are enough to make him effective out of the bullpen, and he could be a solid starter if he refines his breaking ball. Craig Counsell has said in camp that he expects Small to make starts for the Brewers this year. My guess is that we’ll see him up by late July or early August and working in the flex role that the Brewers typically use to acclimate their pitching prospects to the big leagues.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Sarah: Seeing how they’ve done so far in spring training, it makes me very optimistic for the regular season. I firmly believe that they’ll hold the NL Central division title, and *hopefully* make a World Series appearance, I think they’re definitely due for a visit. 

Jack: This team features a very similar construction to the 2021 group, so I am once again forecasting 93-96 wins and a first-place finish in the NL Central. The big three atop the rotation are for real, and Josh Hader and Devin Williams have firmly established themselves as two of the game’s best relievers. Back-end starters Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer are due for some regression, but I think that a Yelich rebound, a full season of Rowdy Tellez at first base, and the addition of the DH will make up for any slight steps back on the pitching front.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Brewers Twitter accounts to follow.

Sarah: Any of the Brewers writers for Wisconsin Sports Heroics (@WISportsHeroics) are going to be my top picks for accounts to follow!

Jack: Will Sammon (@WillSammon) is the Brewers beat writer for The Athletic. He always provides thoughtful and well-written commentary on the team. Tim Muma (@Tim_Muma) was formerly one of my colleagues at Brew Crew Ball and is now writing for the new Brewer Fanatic site. Tim is a great baseball mind who isn’t afraid to question certain decisions or strategies. He does a great job of blending the numbers with visual analysis and the human elements of the game, which makes for great content. Former Brewer Vinny Rottino (@VinnyRottino) joined the cast of Brewers Live on Bally Sports Wisconsin last season and has also taken over as host of the Locked on Brewers Podcast. Vinny’s experience as a player and scout, plus his understanding of analytics, shine through in all of his work.

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