Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team. It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams. We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well. Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.
Everyone said they didn’t have enough pitching. Even at the deadline, when they added more offense, experts were sure that the Brewers would eventually cave given the apparent lack of arms. Instead, Milwaukee got stronger down the stretch, caught the Cubs, then took the division in a tiebreaking game. Do they have that kind of magic in store again this year? Kyle Lesineski from Brew Crew Ball (and @brewerfan28 on Twitter) gives us the lowdown on the other divisional power the Cards will have to worry about.
C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?
Kyle: I was pleased with how the Brewers handled their offseason overall. They needed to upgrade the offense after struggling to score runs throughout long stretches last season, and they did so in a major way at two positions. Milwaukee was 23rd overall with a 75 wRC+ from the catcher position in 2018, so they added Yasmani Grandal, who posted a 125 wRC+ last year and ranks as one of the top pitch framers in the game. The club finished 29th with an abysmal 68 wRC+ at second base, so they went out and re-signed Mike Moustakas and his 105 wRC+. I would’ve preferred that they added someone who actually has some background playing second base to be their second baseman, like a Jed Lowrie or Marwin Gonzalez. But the club feels strongly enough about Moustakas’ fielding ability and their defensive shifting strategy that they believe he’ll be passable at the keystone, which should be good enough as long as he hits.
C70: Nothing like going out and bringing in the player that will win the MVP. What are your expectations for Christian Yelich this season?
Kyle: What a joy it was to watch Yelich last season. My baseball fandom hadn’t yet begun when Barry Bonds was doing his thing in the late 90s and early 00s, but I imagine that’s about what Yelich’s second half of the season was like. It would be an awful lot to ask of Yelich to repeat what was the second-best season in franchise history by wRC+ (166), but he appears to have truly elevated his offensive game, specifically his ability to hit for power, to the next level since joining the Brewers. His ZiPS projection calls for a .901 OPS and 28 home runs in 2019, and though that would be a “step back,” I think it’s a pretty reasonable expectation.
C70: All year long “experts” claimed the Brewers didn’t have enough pitching but they had enough to win a division. There’s been no significant additions this winter, so do they still have enough pitching for this year?
Kyle: I do think that the Brewers will have “enough” pitching to compete again this season. They did let Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez both walk, which was a little confounding based on the supremely cheap deals both players wound up signing in free agency. But for perhaps the first time in my lifetime, this organization is flush with young, legitimately talented pitching. The decision not to add in a major way to the rotation was based mostly on giving Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta the opportunity to take their next steps forward and entrench themselves in the big leagues. All three were major contributors down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, and all three should feature prominently in the rotation this season, perhaps as early as the Opening Day roster. PECOTA pegged all three as breakout candidates this season. The real wild card is Jimmy Nelson, who appears to finally be nearing a return from 2017 shoulder surgery. He’s thrown a couple of Cactus League outings so far and has been up to 95 MPH in his first action in 18 months, also showing good breaking stuff while striking out 7 batters in 4.0 complete innings. He’s still a little ways away as he is just beginning to work on an every-fifth-day schedule to build up his pitch count and stamina, but optimism is building that he’ll be able to contribute in a positive manner this season.
C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?
Kyle: The Brewers finished with the best record in the National League last season, and I anticipate them being similarly competitive this year. PECOTA projects them to successfully defend their division title, but I think it will be a dogfight all year long. On paper, the NL Central is arguably the toughest division in baseball. Each team is actually trying to win, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see all five squads finish with 80+ wins. I think that the race will ultimately come down to the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers, and probably won’t be decided until late in September. I do expect the Brewers to at least make the playoffs in 2019, although I’m not yet sure if it will be by winning the division or if it’ll be a Wild Card berth.
C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?
Kyle: I think the biggest question will once again be in regards to the pitching, but it is how the bullpen pitchers will bounce back after being relied upon so heavily and pitching so late into the year in 2018. Neither Josh Hader nor Corey Knebel had ever pitched in the MLB postseason before, and though both have looked good so far this spring, their usage patterns in the season’s early going will be something to keep an eye on. There are already some concerns about Jeremy Jeffress, who was removed from his first Cactus League outing after three pitches when his fastball was topping out at 83-84 MPH. The front office has said there is no structural damage and he’s only dealing with “shoulder weakness,” but he has yet to get back on the mound since then. He’s been going through a strengthening program and playing catch and the org doesn’t think this will be anything that holds him back long-term, but at this point he seems unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. In my opinion, Craig Kimbrel would be a nice addition here…
C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?
Kyle: I love watching the way that Craig Counsell manages his ballclub. His style totally jives with me as one of those “sabermetrics and numbers” guys. He almost never leaves his starters in too long, usually pulling a guy after five good innings and letting the cavalcade flamethrowers in the bullpen do their thing. He’s not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to things like lineup optimization, including putting a guy like Eric Thames at lead-off on occasion because of his ability to get on base even though he’s more well-known for his power and isn’t the type of speedster you’d typically see at the top of the lineup. There is all the shifting and almost every game there is at least one late defensive switch, so you always have to pay attention if you’re scoring at home. Plus, he is constantly praised by the players within the clubhouse for his outstanding coaching and leadership skills, and his ability to unite the team under one goal. And the fact that he’s a Milwaukee native just makes it all that much more special.
Appreciate Kyle dropping by and dropping the knowledge. This NL Central battle is going to be wild!