2009 pitching and hitting projections are coming in and optimism seems to be a bit low around the Brewer fan community for next season-- not just here, but in general. Even though watching a crappy baseball team is a lot of fun, I think there's plenty of reasons to think the Brewers could very well be a 88-90 win wildcard team again next year. It's not likely, but bear with me here. I see four possibilities/situations that could surprise us next year.
We and most professionals projected last year's Brewers to win about 88 games at the start of the year. They won 90 with a half year of Sabathia and no Gallardo, and the offense was significantly worse than expected, although some pitchers, like Bush, performed better than expected.
So let's start with the assumption that the Brewers are an 84-86 win team, without Sheets or Sabathia, if they just sign a lefty 3B to platoon at third with Hall and stick with the roster as it is right now.
1. An 84-86 win team can definitely fluke its way into 88 or 90 wins. It's happened before and it will happen again. The 2007 Diamondbacks were outscored by 20 runs and won 90 games and the NL West, and teams like the Twins this year can win a lot of games by being very "clutch" throughout the year (not that it means anything going forward, but a team can certainly be more clutch than usual over the course of 1 year).
Now I'm not saying it's a good idea to bank on a fluky year. And there's also the possibility that you get a 06 Brewers type year where everyone gets hurt and nothing goes right, and your 85 win team does not crack .500. But it's silly to give up already when the possibility does exist.
2. This year the Brewers were able to stay alive in the Wildcard race up until July with the exact team they have right now, except with Ben Sheets pitching with Gallardo injured. If Gallardo covers similar production to Sheets first half last year (a stretch, certainly, because Sheets was dominant) we're right back where we were at the deadline in 08. Melvin has shown a willingness to pay premium prospects for a rental two years in a row now, provided he can get draft picks for the player, and there's no reason to believe he wouldn't do it again. There aren't a ton of appealing options right now, but we all know how fast things can change.
3. Fielder dropped .120 points of OPS, Braun dropped .110, and Hart dropped .130 from 2007 to 2008. Their 2008s could have definitely been expected regression from stellar 2007s, but there's hope that all three could return to higher production levels, and there's the eternal possibility of the long-awaited breakout from Weeks. The current pitching staff plus a group of mashers like we had in '07 could find its way to 88-90 wins and the wildcard.
4. We're not done with the offseason yet, heck, we didn't even start it. Given the status of the team and the points laid out above, I think it's a fantastic year to take a gamble on a risky starting pitcher, like a short, rich deal to Sheets or a trade for someone like Erik Bedard. The reward could be huge. A 3-4 win improvement could mean we're the wildcard frontrunners, and a potentially dominant pitcher plus our Yovani and Manny combo could work in October. We're not in a position where a cheaper, more reliable option-- say, Jon Garland or Paul Byrd, who could provide 1 or at best 2 wins above our replacement starter-- would be worth it, because that doesn't get us in the "expected" playoffs.
So that's the pitch. Don't expect 90 wins again, but don't expect another year of painful attempts at mediocrity or rebuilding-- even if Sabathia isn't re-signed. Blind optimism does us no good, but that doesn't mean we have to give up on the team before they even start.
Other changes will be coming this offseason. Let's wait them out and assess the team then before we decide whether or not the playoffs are impossible. Remember, the playoffs were impossible last year, too.