If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed. Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Brewers, even if some specific items may be affected.
If things had gone a little differently in Colorado the last weekend of the season, the Brewers might be sitting on back-to-back divisional titles and it could have been the Cardinals dealing with the eventual World Champs in a winner-take-all game. It feels easy to sleep on the Brewers but when you have the talent that is Christian Yelich on your side (the memory of him destroying the Cardinals in early season games last year is still fresh), you can never be counted out. What can we count on in 2020? Let’s find out!
|Reviewing the Brew
|Brew Crew Ball
C70: Every year, the conventional wisdom is that the Brewers need more pitching and every year, the Brewers seem to do just fine with what they have. Does that look to be the case again this year?
Sarah: Yes and no. It seems to be this pattern that the Brewers are either struggling in their bullpen or they aren’t. The bullpen last year proved to be strong and although we lost a couple of strong arms this year, I believe that the acquisitions we’ve made in the off-season are going to help just build the strength of who’s already in there. Plus, we have people finally coming off the injured list that could be seen as some key aces, so there’s that as well.
Kyle: The Brewers’ preference when it comes to building a pitching staff under the David Stearns regime seems to have been to hunt for bargains on the free agent market during the offseason, see what they’ve got during the early part of the year, then reassess during the season as needed. That appears to have been the approach once again this past winter. Stearns dealt away rotational stalwarts Chase Anderson and Zach Davies and let in-season acquisitions Jordan Lyles and Gio Gonzalez walk in free agency, all with the apparent goal of cutting costs. To replace those missing innings, he signed Brett Anderson to a one-year deal for $5 mil, gave Josh Lindblom the longest contract he’s ever given a free agent starter (three years, $9.125 mil) after he dominated in Korea, and brought in Eric Lauer as a part of the return when trading away Davies. They’ll join returning stud Brandon Woodruff and breakout hurler Adrian Houser, with Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes looking to bounce back from rough 2019 campaigns as part of the starting pitching depth. Can Anderson stay healthy? Can Lindblom’s success overseas translate? Will Woodruff and Houser be able to build on last year’s successes? Will Peralta and/or Burnes be able to establish themselves in the big leagues? The starting pitching depth appears to be built on a preponderance of “ifs.”
C70: Cardinal fans are glad to see Jedd Gyorko back in the division. What’s the plan for him and what are the expectations?
Sarah: I haven’t really looked into Gyorko as much as I should be. He was ridden with injuries last season, which is why I believe Stearns was able to sign him for dirt cheap on a one-year contract, but that could just be my own opinion. As of right now, I don’t really see what direction the Brewers are planning to take Gyorko as they just signed back Eric Sogard and he could be the key player at 3B but it’s possible that Gyorko and Sogard could be sharing time at the hot corner. I don’t believe that expectations are set very high for Jedd Gyorko, given his previous season, but there’s always room for improvement for players and he’s been doing decent in spring training.
Kyle: As things stand right now, Gyorko appears ticketed for the weak side of a platoon with Eric Sogard at third base. Jedd was obviously a useful player for the Cardinals from 2016-18 before cratering last season while battling injuries, and the Brewers’ hope is that being fully healthy will allow him to return to something approaching that level. Gyorko only tallied 102 plate appearances last season and was hampered by a very low .212 BABIP on the way to a truly awful 36 wRC+. But he also struck out at the highest rate of his career (23.8%) and posted a career-low .076 ISO, which was likely influenced by career-worst marks of 18.5% infield fly ball rate and a 27.9% soft contact rate. Gyorko is another member of the roster who can be classified as a big “if”, but at this point, it doesn’t appear as though he is being counted on to play a highly significant role. The possibility does exist, though, that if he is healthy and performs, he could earn some major at-bats at the hot corner.
C70: Is there one player that you think will surprise folks this season?
Sarah: Freddy Peralta. I think he’s looking to make a comeback season, and this season is the one to prove himself. He’s got an arm on him, and he definitely proved that in the winter league. The way that man can pitch is crazy, and his fastball is something else. I would be very satisfied if he was in our starting rotation, and wouldn’t be surprised if that were to occur this season. Plus, he just got his big five-year extension, so it’s obvious that the staff in Milwaukee see the potential that fans are seeing in him as well.
Kyle: Justin Smoak is a popular bounce back candidate around these parts. The Brewers chose to part with popular first baseman Eric Thames after the year, declining his seemingly reasonable $7.5 mil option to save some cash and sign Smoak for a one-year and $5 mil guarantee (his deal includes a 2021 club option). Smoak was a roughly league-average player for Toronto last season, finishing with a 101 wRC+ and 22 home runs in an even 500 plate appearances. But he also dealt with a career-low .223 BABIP despite strong hard-hit and exit velocity rates. His expected weighted on-base average of .366 (86th percentile in MLB) far outpaced his actual wOBA of .323, and Smoak actualized wRC+ marks of 133 and 121 in 2017-18. He is extremely shift-able as a slow-footed, pull-heavy hitter and will never sport very high BABIPs, but even a bounce back to his career mark of .266 could help give a big boost to his batting line.
Personally, I also like the potential of Wisconsin-native JP Feyereisen in the bullpen, as well. The 27 year old owns a 2.49 ERA across 307.2 minor league innings with 10.9 K/9 versus 3.7 BB/9, a riding fastball that sits 93-96 MPH along with a slurve and a changeup, all of which rank near the top of the minor league spin rate leaderboards. PECOTA is a big fan of him, projecting him for an 86 DRA- this season, which is the third-best Deserved Run Average among all active Brewers that were projected.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Sarah: I don’t really have high expectations for the crew this season. I mean, a back-to-back postseason berth is pretty amazing for the Brewers, as we’ve seen them struggle overall as a team in recent years. PECOTA has them finishing fourth in the division behind the Cubs and Pirates, which baffles me, honestly. I think we could easily finish second in the division. Who knows? Maybe we could take the division again? 2018 was an amazing year, and I think Brewers fans will love to bring the pennant home again. But, that all depends on how the Brewers want to perform. Many have their doubts on how they’ll do since we lost some key players in our lineup, but I believe that the acquisitions we have made in the off-season are going to pay off in the end.
Kyle: After an offseason that was largely spent spinning the wheels, I am not altogether optimistic about what the Brewers will do in 2020. The Christian Yelich extension is great for the city and organization, but that deal helps mask the fact that the front office still managed to cut payroll by some 20+% from where it ended last year, showing little urgency regarding the fact that Yelich will earn only $12.5 mil in 2020 and $14 mil in 2022 before the new money on the extension kicks in. One might think that the fact that the superstar player will still be working under a laughably low salary for the next two years would be a reason to invest more heavily in strengthening other parts of the roster, but instead the theme of the winter seemed to be “David Stearns makes 19 moves to make his team slightly cheaper and slightly worse.” The Brewers do project to contend in a heavily contested NL Central this season, and I expect only a few games to separate the top four teams — Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee — when things are all said and done. Honestly, any spot from first to fourth place wouldn’t surprise me for this Brewers team, but I think they’ll hang around and at least be in contention for a Wild Card berth as the regular season winds down.
C70: What’s the main topic Brewers fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Sarah: Who’s going to make the 40-man roster is something I see floating around the Brewers fans community. We have had many non-roster invitees playing in spring training that have really shown themselves to be major league worthy, it’s almost becoming difficult who’s going to stay on the roster and who’s going to be designated for assignment. We saw it with Brock Holt; once Holt was signed on with his one year contract, Taylor Williams was designated for assignment. Which wasn’t really something that came as a surprise, but it wasn’t the first person people thought was going to be DFA’d. I think just trying to determine who can help make the team a playoff contending team is what really circulates through people’s minds, as I’m sure that Brewers fans are hoping for another postseason appearance.
Kyle: With Josh Hader entrenched in the back-end of the bullpen, I think most national outlets assume that the relief corps will once again be a strength of the team in 2020. To be honest, though, things seem a little tenuous when it comes to how Craig Counsell will bridge that gap from the starters to the end of the game. Here’s that word again — “if.” If Corey Knebel can come back healthy and effective from Tommy John surgery. If Brent Suter can continue the excellent work he exhibited down the stretch after returning from his own elbow surgery. If David Phelps can continue regaining velocity and effectiveness after coming back from Tommy John midway through last season. If Alex Claudio can be more than a lefty specialist with the new three-batter rule. If multiple names from among the unproven group including Feyereisen, Ray Black, Bobby Wahl, Angel Perdomo, Eric Yardley, and Devin Williams can step up in a big way this year. We’ll see!
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Sarah: Just seeing how it plays out, honestly. I don’t really have anything that’s super exciting to watch out for. Knowing that Christian Yelich is staying in Milwaukee for up to ten more years was something that fans weren’t really expecting to happen at least until after Braun hung up his glove and called it on his career. I am just anxious to see how the lineup is going to go and how our bullpen will perform. I think it’s going to be a great 2020 season, despite the flack that the Brewers are receiving, both on the athletic side and the front office end of things.
Kyle: Honestly, I am really just looking forward to baseball being played in some capacity at some point during the 2020 season. We obviously have no idea now when games will even be played, with the official word from MLB being at least April 8th and speculation from over the weekend suggesting that it might not be until May before the regular season action starts up. Regardless of how well the Brewers might perform this season, I am just looking forward to once again having a new game to talk about everyday. Obviously that comes secondary right now to making sure that as many precautions as possible can be taken against the spread of COVID-19 while teams work to keep their players, other employees, and their families all safe.