If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition. (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.) Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper! This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams. Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper! If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!
The Brewers have been the toughest competition for the Cardinals the past few years, part of the cycle of the NL Central that always sees someone rise to challenge the Redbirds, then usually fade away while another team takes a whack. Are the Brewers still in the challenging phase or starting to slip? Let’s talk to the people that know them best!
C70: What did you make of the Brewers’ offseason and what do you think of how the team stands as we get ready for the season?
Jack: The Brewers made several savvy moves this offseason. My favorite was selling high on Kolten Wong to bring in Jesse Winker and Abraham Toro from the Seattle Mariners. Winker is reportedly in much better health after undergoing surgery to correct neck and knee issues that plagued him in 2022, and I expect him to be a big bat in the heart of the order against right-handed pitching. They also acquired a legitimate power bat in William Contreras to lock down the catcher position long-term. Most importantly, the Brewers addressed their greatest weakness from the 2022 season by adding more starting pitching depth in the form of Wade Miley, Janson Junk, and Tyson Miller.
However, this team’s most glaring flaw is a lack of reliable right-handed bats in the outfield, something they did very little to address. Winker, Christian Yelich, and prospects Garrett Mitchell and Sal Frelick all hit left-handed. Brian Anderson could see some time in right field, but he has reverse splits for his career. By failing to sign someone like Wil Myers, AJ Pollock, or Trey Mancini to bolster that group, the Brewers settled for a solid offseason when they could have had a great one.
C70: Devin Williams scuffled a little bit when he first took over the closer role but seemed to right the ship quickly. What is it going to be like with him as the closer and who takes over his setup role?
Jack: Williams is no stranger to high-pressure situations, so I expect him to be just fine in the closer role. Even before the Brewers traded Josh Hader, Williams had a pair of stints as the de facto closer earlier in the summer while Josh Hader was away caring for his newborn son. I don’t expect Craig Counsell to designate an exclusive setup man in front of Williams, but Matt Bush and Peter Strzelecki are the leading candidates for high-leverage work before the ninth inning. The Brewers also acquired Javy Guerra in a minor trade with the Rays in November, and while he has a limited track record, I like his stuff and think he could work his way into some big spots.
C70: Keston Hiura has had a roller coaster career. What do you think the club gets out of him this season?
Jack: I don’t expect Hiura to make the team out of spring training, and I’ve held that position since the start of the offseason. There were signs in 2022 that the club’s faith in Hiura had wavered. Despite making significant swing changes last year, he struck out at a career-worst 41.7%. While gaudy power production allowed him to post a solid 115 wRC+, Craig Counsell restricted him to a part-time role even when the Brewers could have used more thump in their lineup. While the Brewers never admitted it publicly, they likely believed that Hiura’s swing-and-miss problems meant his performance would not be sustainable in a larger sample. As of this writing, Hiura is slashing .156/.229/.219 with a 43% strikeout rate in spring training and is once again trying to change his swing. Between his ongoing strikeout problems, reverse platoon splits, and lack of a position, the end of the line is rapidly approaching.
C70: Out of those that may make their debut or have limited MLB experience, who do you think will have the most impact on the Brewers?
Jack: The Brewers have a stable of outfield prospects who figure to get chances on this year’s team, but Sal Frelick is the only one I believe can step into a big-league lineup and hold his own out of the gates. Frelick doesn’t have a ton of power, but his excellent plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills give him the highest floor of Milwaukee’s emerging prospects. Garrett Mitchell will get first crack at the starting gig in center field, but I think he will cede much of his playing time to Frelick by the All-Star break.
C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?
Jack: The best-case scenario is that the Brewers get strong performances from their prospects, bounce-back candidates, and starting rotation to lead them to a division title and World Series championship. In the worst-case scenario, those prospects and bounce-back candidates struggle, and the Brewers launch a soft selloff at the deadline involving Corbin Burnes, Devin Williams, and potentially Willy Adames. I think the most likely scenario is a return to the playoffs that falls short of a title. The Brewers will have an excellent pitching staff and a bounce-back from Winker, allowing them to win the division in a close race with the Cardinals. I think this team can get to the NLCS, but I don’t expect to see them in the World Series.