2017 was a great year for Brewers fans. With a roster that was projected to lose about 90 games (or, according to some projections, even 100), the Brew Crew went above and beyond expectations, emerging as a surprise contender and staying in the race until being eliminated in game 161. Thanks to breakouts from Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Manny Pina, Jesus Aguilar, Eric Sogard (in the first half), Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, Brent Suter, and a big first month from Eric Thames, the Brewers finished with a winning season, going 86-76. That's a long list of names, and Milwaukee was pretty fortunate that all of these guys broke out in the same season. Assuming they can repeat their performances from last season or come anywhere close to it, the Brewers could be poised to spend another season in the playoff race. But, the Brewers did fall short of the playoffs. Why did that happen? The Cubs turned it on in the second half. The Rockies and Diamondbacks also had great seasons to secure the two Wild Card spots. This means that the Brewers will either have to rely on the Rockies or D-Backs falling back into mediocrity, which isn't likely, or they'll have to take more steps forward themselves next season. What can be done for next season that could improve this team and hopefully push them into the playoffs?
1. A Change in Approach
I don't like our approach, and I believe it was one of the biggest reasons we couldn't reach the postseason in 2017. This is something I have discussed in great length multiple times. This lineup has one method of scoring: home runs. That's not good enough. The teams that make the playoffs and have success in the playoffs are the teams that not only hit the long ball, but know how to manufacture runs and come up with clutch hits. Part of the problem is that this team strikes out at a record-setting pace. It's not exactly the strikeouts themselves that are the biggest problem; people point out how a strikeout with a runner on first base is better than a double play ball. The issue is when our hitters are striking out, which is all the time. There is no change in approach, regardless of who is on base. Everyone in this lineup is a free swinger (except Eric Sogard and Neil Walker, both of whom are free agents), and they'll swing for the fences no matter what the situation is. If there's a guy on second base with nobody out, you absolutely have to put the ball in play in that situation. If you strike out, it's an out, and that runner does not advance (unless there's a dropped third strike). If you put the ball in play, that runner has a chance to advance to third base. You also have a chance of getting a hit if that ball finds a hole. You don't need to swing for the fences; just focus on hitting the ball. You can still swing hard, but try to focus on making contact. I'm not saying that you should stop hitting home runs; what I'm saying is that you should go up to the plate with a clear goal based on the situation, and the goal shouldn't always be to hit one 500 feet.
2. Trade Eric Thames
My opinion on Eric Thames is not a popular one (I have yet to find someone who agrees with it, and any arguments against it are perfectly reasonable), but I'm sticking to my argument. It would be in the best interest of the team to let Eric Thames go. I was unimpressed by Thames's lack of consistency in 2017, and I'd be okay if he's not around next season. We all remember how he took MLB by storm in the first month of his return in April, hitting .345 with 11 round-trippers. After that, he was bad. He was bad for an extended period of time. In his next 91 games (May through August), Thames hit an ugly .207 while striking out 31% of the time. He still hit 17 home runs in that stretch, but that's not enough to justify the low batting average. His 92 wRC+ in that span pegged him as a slightly below-average contributor on offense. Thames was able to boost his final batting average back to .247 thanks to a strong September to finish his season, but he was still pretty bad for a four-month stretch. Before you try to poke a hole in my argument by saying it's unfair to take out two months, let me explain that the reason I make this argument is because of the night-and-day contrast between the April numbers and the stats from May through August. Here's something else to consider: Thames's production (or lack thereof) from May through August is pretty similar to the numbers that washed him out of the league in the first place.
Eric Thames, May-August 2017: 91 games, .207/.316/.432, 31% K%, 92 wRC+
Eric Thames, 2011-2012: 169 games, .252/.299/.431, 24.2% K%, 96 wRC+
Yes, Thames's overall 2017 numbers looks solid. But a closer look shows that he hasn't really improved since his last MLB stint. The only thing that Thames has really improved is his walk rate. That's it. His power production is about the same. His batting average has gone down. His strikeout rate has gone up. Sorry Eric, but learning how to draw walks isn't going to turn you from an MLB washout to a quality MLB regular. A trade should go down this offseason involving Eric Thames, and if David Stearns can't work one out, then I wouldn't be opposed to a DFA happening. Chris Carter was let go last season. There's no reason that the same thing can't happen with Eric Thames. If you refuse to let Thames go, regulate him to backup duties at first base. It shouldn't be too hard to remember the four-month stretch (in other words, the majority of the season) where Thames was basically an automatic out but was hitting at the top of the order anyway.
3. Move Ryan Braun (and others) to First Base
How would the Brewers replace Thames? It's pretty simple, actually. They've got in-house options. Jesus Aguilar could get an extended look at first base. He's got more natural power, and he's got a nicer swing. He stays on the ball better than Thames does. He's also more durable than Thames, who dealt with leg issues for basically the entire season. However, he did have an obvious platoon split in 2017, hitting lefties better than he hit right handed pitching. Aguilar doesn't have to be the full-time first baseman, because the Brewers have Ryan Braun. Not only do the Brewers need to find ways to get Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson in the lineup next season, but Braun has been dealing with health issues in recent seasons. Moving him to a less physically demanding position at first base could solve both of these problems. Braun's injury issues led to him having one of the least productive seasons of his career, hitting just .268 with 17 home runs, a far cry from his days as an elite slugger. The long time franchise icon is no stranger to the infield, beginning his career as a third baseman. Braun doesn't have to make a full time move to first just yet, but would spend the majority of his time on the field at the cold corner. Domingo Santana, who has a strong arm but it not a good defensive outfielder, could shift from right field to left while Brett Phillips handles right. Travis Shaw, a first baseman for most of his professional career before converting back to third base in 2016, could also get some action at the other infield corner. Stephen Vogt is also capable of playing first and is probably the worst-throwing catcher in the league, but he doesn't hit much and would be more of a fallback option there in the event of an injury. Braun should order a first baseman's glove and start doing some infield drills this offseason, and then play 10 or so games at first base in spring training, after which he'll be first on the depth chart at the position.
4. Cut Ties With Keon Broxton
Broxton has been an extremely streaky hitter, and that might be an understatement. Torrid stretches where he hits over .400 for seven games are followed by 3-50 slumps. Add that to the fact that he strikes out nearly 40% of the time and that Lewis Brinson doesn't need any more seasoning in Triple-A, and Broxton looks like he could be done with Milwaukee. Broxton has an option remaining, but ideally David Stearns would be able to deal him for a lottery-ticket prospect. Getting rid of Broxton, who turns 28 next season, opens up center field for Lewis Brinson. Now you have a lineup that looks something like this:
CF Brinson (who hopefully establishes himself at the top of the lineup by the end of 2018)
Against a left-handed pitcher, Aguilar plays first base and Braun moves back to the outfield, with Phillips heading to the bench.
5. Sign a Few Pitchers
With Jimmy Nelson out for what has been described as a "chunk" of 2018, the Brewers will need some rotation help. Chase Anderson is positioned as the staff ace after a breakout season, with Zach Davies following him. After that, there is uncertainty. Brandon Woodruff will likely get a spot after flashing some great potential this season, but it remains to be seen how much of a step forward he'll take next year. Josh Hader may move to the rotation, but he's been such a huge weapon out of the bullpen that he might remain there for one more season. Brent Suter's change of style and pace compared to most pitchers makes him effective, but hitters figure him out by their third at-bat, preventing Suter from pitching deep into games. Aaron Wilkerson pitched well in his last start and figures to compete for a spot in camp, but turns 29 next season and has made just two MLB starts. Taylor Jungmann had a great season in Colorado Springs, but was an absolute mess in his last two big-league stints. It's evident that the Brewers need to sign a starting pitcher. There's a good chance that they'll also need to sign a reliever with Anthony Swarzak set to depart in free agency. A setup crew consisting of Jacob Barnes, Jared Hughes, and Jeremy Jeffress isn't awful, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence either. Addison Reed, Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio, Mike Minor and Jake McGee are among the best setup pitchers on the market this offseason. Left hander Kevin Siegrist was a quality setup man in 2015 and 2016, and is a good bounce-back candidate after a rough 2017 season. Yusmeiro Petit put up a quality season as a multi-inning fireman with the Angels, and could be cheaper than the bigger name relievers. Petit also has plenty of experience as a starter, and the Brewers could opt to stretch him out should they sign him. There are plenty of options to choose from, and the Brewers will need a deeper bullpen if they look to make a playoff run. There aren't many appealing options as far as starters go, with CC Sabathia being one of the only quality mid-rotation starters who won't be looking for a massive contract. Alex Cobb is a potential option, but the Brewers would likely have to overpay (as they did with Matt Garza) if they want to get Cobb in a Milwaukee uniform. Aggressively pursing Sabathia and/or Cobb would be in the best interests of David Stearns this winter. A buy-low signing like Tyler Chatwood (who has always had much more success away from Coors Field) wouldn't be a bad idea either.