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The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers season in review: A Pleasant Surprise

No one expected the Brewers to be a contender this year, but they blew everyone’s expectations out of the water.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The 2017 season was expected to be another losing season. While the Milwaukee Brewers had finished trading away most of their pieces of value, their prospects were not quite ready to step up to fill the void yet. This was expected to be a placeholder year, and the plan was to just get some experience and prep for 2018 and beyond. However, the year went much better than anyone expected.

The 2016-2017 Offseason - Filling in the Gaps and Holding Space

Following the 2016 season, the Brewers were still in a period of rebuilding. There were only a few players that remained from the last competitive team, and the resources to trade away were small. The team was ready to move into the next phase of rebuilding, though not ready to compete quite yet. It meant that it wasn’t time to splurge on free agents yet, so the goal was just to fill spots until prospects were ready.

Free agency started off quietly, with just a few waiver claims to fill the time. The time approached to offer contracts to their arbitration-eligible players, and one tough decision was in regards to first baseman Chris Carter. Despite leading the league in home runs in the 2016 season, Carter’s production was such that a contract wasn’t a guarantee, but the Brewers didn’t have any obvious internal candidates to replace him. It came as a bit of a surprise when the Brewers decided to non-tender Carter, and he chose free agency. The spot was filled quickly, though, as the Brewers signed Korean first baseman Eric Thames to a deal the next day.

The other big moves of the offseason came via trade. During the Winter Meetings, the Brewers made a trade with the Red Sox, sending reliever Tyler Thornburg to Boston for four players: third baseman Travis Shaw, shortstop Mauricio Dubon, RHP Josh Pennington, and PTBNL (later announced as infielder Yeison Coca). The other trade came a week later, as the Brewers sent catcher Martin Maldonado and pitcher Drew Gagnon to the Angels for catcher Jett Bandy. Both Shaw and Bandy turned out to be important players to the 2017 team, and the three prospects from the Red Sox further deepened the Brewers farm system.

After that, the Brewers filled in the rest of the major league openings with smaller moves. Neftali Feliz and Tommy Milone were signed to major-league deals. Jesus Aguilar was claimed off of waivers. The Brewers would also claim some other players off waivers, as well as sign several to minor-league deals. It set up the team as they prepared for Spring Training.

Lost via Free Agency: RHP Blaine Boyer, LHP Chris Capuano, 1B Chris Carter

Traded Away: RHP Tyler Thornburg, C Martin Maldondo, RHP Drew Gagnon

Acquired via Trade: 3B Travis Shaw, SS Mauricio Dubon, RHP Josh Pennington, INF Yeison Coca (as PTBNL), C Jett Bandy

Free Agents Signed: 1B Eric Thames, RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Tommy Milone

Claimed via Waivers: OF Adam Walker, RHP Blake Parker, RHP Steve Geltz, SS Ehire Adrianza, 1B Jesus Aguilar

Lost via Waivers: OF Rymer Liriano, OF Adam Walker, RHP Blake Parker, RHP Steve Geltz, SS Ehire Adrianza

Rule 5 Draft: LHP Caleb Smith acquired & traded, LHP Miguel Diaz lost in draft to Padres

Minor League Contracts (starred players invited to Spring Training): RHP Luke Barker, RHP Ryan Webb*, RHP Tim Dillard, LHP Andrew Barbosa*, C Rene Garcia*, SS Ivan De Jesus Jr.*, RHP Forrest Snow*, RHP Hiram Burgos*, LHP Andy Oliver*, 2B Eric Sogard*, OF Luis Valdez, RHP Wilmy De Jesus, C Cody Decker, RHP Joba Chamberlain*, SS Nick Noonan

Spring Training - Fighting for Roster Spots

Entering Spring Training, the Brewers had invited 58 players to camp. Many of those players were the standard roster filler to help get through the preseason, but there were also many in camp trying to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. Opportunities were available, and it was just a question of who would step up and take advantage.

One of the major battles entering the spring was in the starting rotation. Only Junior Guerra and Zach Davies were guaranteed rotation spots, and five pitchers were in the running for the other three spots: Chase Anderson, Matt Garza, Jimmy Nelson, Tommy Milone, and Wily Peralta. It was a tough competition in spring training, but eventually shook out. Garza injured his groin in spring training and started the year on the DL. The bullpen needed a LHP so Milone was placed in the bullpen. That allowed the other three pitchers to take the rotation spots, though they were not expected to have long leashes.

Meanwhile, a competition was also building in the bullpen, as several pitchers in the system fought for major-league jobs. Four spots were basically guaranteed at the start of camp (Neftali Feliz, Carlos Torres, Corey Knebel, Jacob Barnes), leaving only three or four spots available in the bullpen. It was a brutal competition for those spots, with a lot of broken hearts. Michael Blazek was upset when he was sent down. Joba Chamberlain didn’t make it through camp. Most of the pitchers ended up being sent down or released, with only Jhan Marinez added to the list of players who earned jobs. The spots came down to the final couple of games, and the last three pitchers standing were Taylor Jungmann, Rob Scahill, and Tyler Cravy. They assumed they were playing for two jobs, but were shocked when only Jungmann made the team. Cravy even made some comments about how unhappy he was, which he would later apologize for. The move made sense when the Brewers signed RHP Jared Hughes the day before the season started, and he claimed the final spot in the bullpen.

One other storyline that dominated spring training was what the Brewers were going to do with second baseman Scooter Gennett. With the development of several players around him, Gennett didn’t really have a spot on the team anymore. Second base had been claimed by Jonathan Villar, and with Orlando Arcia covering shortstop and Travis Shaw at third, the infield was basically spoken for. Gennett played some outfield in spring training, hoping to find a spot somewhere on the team. Unfortunately, the spot just wasn’t there, and with no team interested in trading for Gennett, the Brewers placed him on waivers, where he was claimed by the Reds.

There were some happier stories in the spring as well. Manny Pina made an Opening Day roster for the first time after spending twelve years in the minors. Jesus Aguilar fought his way to an Opening Day spot even though the Brewers already had Eric Thames as a first baseman. In total, nine players made their first Opening Day roster. It was going to be a young team this year, but one with a good amount of potential.

April (13-13) - The Eric Thames Show

The season started off on a sour note for the Brewers. In his Opening Day start, Junior Guerra injured himself while batting and ended up on the 10-day DL with a strained right calf. This put Tommy Milone back into the starting rotation, and began a period of bullpen roulette. Taylor Jungmann only lasted a few days on the roster before being optioned. Brent Suter and David Goforth saw some time in the majors before the Brewers acquired Oliver Drake from the Orioles. Tommy Milone was a disaster in the rotation, and only made it three starts before Garza returned. Even after that, it continued into the bullpen, and he would be designated for assignment on May 1.

There were some bright spots on the pitching side. Chase Anderson opened with a 2.10 ERA/2.99 FIP in his first five starts. Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes formed a potent combo for the back end of games. Unfortunately, the rotation was a bit of a mess behind Anderson. Zach Davies (6.57 ERA/4.29 FIP in 5 starts) and Jimmy Nelson (5.34 ERA/4.52 FIP in 5 starts) struggled to start the year. Wily Peralta was a bit of a disaster himself (5.19 ERA/6.00 FIP in 5 starts). Matt Garza actually helped stabilize things a little towards the end of the month (3.38 ERA/4.38 FIP in 2 starts), but it was a turbulent time for the pitching staff. Then, there was Neftali Feliz (5.91 ERA/5.88 FIP) and Jhan Marinez (5.73 ERA/6.34 FIP), who were given more time despite their April struggles.

Of course, the talk of the team (and of baseball) at the time was Eric Thames. He came into the league and just crushed the baseball. In his first 24 games, he hit 11 home runs and put up a batting line of .345/.466/.810 (218 wRC+). David Stearns looked like a genius for finding him. Thames wasn’t the only position player thriving, though. Ryan Braun (144 wRC+), Manny Mina (157 wRC+), Jett Bandy (159 wRC+), Hernan Perez (123 wRC+), and Travis Shaw (108 wRC+) all also started hot. The only down spots on offense were Keon Broxton (53 wRC+) and Jonathan Villar (53 wRC+), who both had very cold starts to the year.

In total, it was a surprising start to the year. The Brewers managed a .500 record and were within a game of the Cubs. Though there was plenty to fix, it was a good beginning.

May (15-12) - Life without Ryan Braun

Before the season started, many people would have said that the Brewers would be in big trouble this year if Ryan Braun missed an extended period of time. That was the exact situation the Brewers faced in May, when Ryan Braun strained his left calf on May 11 and had to go on the DL. Who would step up to fill Braun’s place on offense? As it turned out, the Brewers were more than capable of filling his spot.

Several players began to step up with Braun out. Travis Shaw (133 wRC+ in May) and Jesus Aguilar (175 wRC+) began to emerge for the Brewers. Eric Sogard earned a call-up and had a monster May in his limited playing time (226 wRC+). Keon Broxton (127 wRC+) and Domingo Santana (132 wRC+) also stepped up in the outfield. Eric Thames began to cool down, but was still respectable on offense (107 wRC+). The team even put together a four-game winning streak in May while Braun was out. In total, the Brewers offense was more than capable of replacing Ryan Braun. Unfortunately, struggles continued for Orlando Arcia (61 wRC+) and Jonathan Villar (63 wRC+), who were still trying to figure themselves out.

If the Brewers had known how good their offense could be, they may not have tried to rush Braun back. He returned from the DL on May 21, even though his calf was not fully healed. That ended up hurting him as he reaggravated the injury and went back on the DL on May 26, and the Brewers slid a little with a five game losing streak during this.

On the pitching side, the team still searched for answers to deal with uneven performances. Wily Peralta’s time as a starter finally came to an end as the Brewers pulled him from the rotation following three more disastrous starts. Zach Davies (4.13 ERA/6.22 FIP) was still struggling to find his command. Jhan Marinez’s time came to an end as he was designated for assignment. Meanwhile, Jimmy Nelson (2.28 ERA/2.51 FIP) turned around his April with a very strong May. Corey Knebel (0.71 ERA/1.34 FIP) continued to dominate in the bullpen, though he remained behind Neftali Feliz (4.38 ERA/5.75 FIP) as Feliz continued to struggle in the 9th inning. Chase Anderson found some success in the month, though his numbers (5.61 ERA/4.64 FIP) didn’t really reflect it.

When the month came to an end, the Brewers found themselves in a surprising situation. They actually had a 1.5 game lead in the division two months into the season. Many blamed it on the struggles of the Cubs over anything else, but the fact was that the Brewers were a division leader at the end of May.

June (15-14) - Here Come the Prospects

June is a significant month in baseball, as it marks the time when prospects are past the Super Two cutoff. This means that waves of prospects flood into the majors to make their own impression on the league. This was no different for the Brewers, as the flood gates opened and the prospects began coming up.

On offense, Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson each got their first call-ups, as well as some limited playing time with them. It wasn’t much; Phillips got 11 PA in the month, and Brinson 31 PA. However, it was the start of their major-league careers with the Brewers, and a big step for both of them. Meanwhile, over in the bullpen, Josh Hader made his debut and through six appearances, he had not given up a run (even though he also had a 4.84 FIP). It was enough to convince the Brewers that they needed him in the bullpen now as a reliever, and he began his dominance for the team.

Ryan Braun was still recovering from his calf strain in June, and the offense continued rolling along without him. Travis Shaw (153 wRC+ in June) continued to establish himself as the leader of the offense, even while missing some time following the birth and early surgeries for his newborn daughter. The offense saw a good number of offensive performances, with several players in the 110-120 wRC+ range. Keon Broxton, Manny Pina, Eric Sogard, Domingo Santana, and Jesus Aguilar all continued to impress. Orlando Arcia began to figure things out on offense, and Jonathan Villar also saw a bit of a turnaround with his time a little more limited. During this, Eric Thames fell fully back to earth (68 wRC+), and Jett Bandy was completely lost (-47 wRC+), which ended up sending him to the minors as the Brewers acquired Stephen Vogt off waivers. Braun would eventually return at the end of June, and appeared much better in his first few games off the DL.

On the pitching side, some pitchers began to assert their roles on the team, while others fell out of the picture completely. Jimmy Nelson (2.88 ERA/2.94 FIP) and Chase Anderson (1.56 ERA/2.98 FIP) began a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Matt Garza (4.97 ERA/3.99 FIP) and Zach Davies (4.50 ERA/4.69 FIP) kept the rotation somewhat stable, though Junior Guerra (6.00 ERA/8.64 FIP) seemed lost. The Neftali Feliz experiment came to an end on June 14 as he was released, and Corey Knebel officially took over the role of closer. The bullpen Wily Peralta trial (15.95 ERA/4.52 FIP) was a complete disaster, and Peralta ended up on the 10-day DL with a calf strain on June 21. Jacob Barnes fell out of favor in the bullpen (6.75 ERA/5.22 FIP). Brandon Woodruff was supposed to get a start as the next big prospect up for the Brewers, but an injury during warm-ups of his first start sent him to the DL. The big blow of the month came at the end, when Chase Anderson injured his oblique during an at-bat and went on the 10-day DL.

Even as all of this was going on, the Brewers continued to lead the division. They held a two-game lead at the end of the month, and it was starting to look like this team may not be leading by a fluke.

July (12-13) - Surprising Contenders

With the final push to the All-Star Break in progress to start the month of July, the Brewers continued to establish themselves as true contenders in the league. Not only did they put together a five-game winning streak to finish up the first half of the season, they did it against some of the contenders (Cubs and Yankees). Finishing the first half at 50-41, the Brewers had a 5.5 game lead in the division. There was no way to ignore this team anymore. The Brewers were true contenders.

With Ryan Braun back, the offense kept clicking. Travis Shaw (158 wRC+) was a true force in the lineup, and Domingo Santana (154 wRC+) was also establishing himself the same way. Ryan Braun (118 wRC+) came back and helped hold down his spot in the lineup, and Eric Thames (124 wRC+) recovered a bit as well. Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson made appearances on and off the roster throughout the month, and gave fans optimism for the future in their times up. Unfortunately, second base became a bit of a trouble spot, as both Eric Sogard (-43 wRC+) and Jonathan Villar (35 wRC+) were struggling, though Sogard’s struggles may have been related to his ankle injury that placed him on the DL.

Over on the pitching side, some players continued to establish themselves while others completely played their way out of the lineup. With Chase Anderson on the DL, Brent Suter entered the rotation and covered for Anderson well, posting a 1.50 ERA/2.42 FIP in five starts in July. Jimmy Nelson (3.23 ERA/2.96 FIP) continued his strong season, and Zach Davies (3.23 ERA/3.57 FIP) was recovering from his early season struggles. Even Matt Garza (1.65 ERA/4.32 FIP) was respectable in the month. Unfortunately, injuries continued to hit the rotation. Junior Guerra went on the DL with a right shin contusion, and after he returned, his results continued to suffer (5.85 ERA/6.56 FIP in June), and he was sent down to the minors. Matt Garza also went on the DL with a leg strain at the end of the month. Wily Peralta returned and got two more appearances out of the bullpen, but his results were completely terrible and he was finally designated for assignment on July 29.

Overall, the bullpen was faltering a little bit. Josh Hader (1.54 ERA/2.81 FIP) continued to establish himself as a dominant reliever, and Corey Knebel (4.15 ERA/3.16 FIP) still had success as the closer. However, several pitchers were struggling in the bullpen, and the Brewers went through many relievers (Rob Scahill, Tyler Webb, Paolo Espino, Michael Blazek) trying to find some stability, but not finding much at all.

The Brewers also began to struggle overall as a team coming out of the All-Star break. They had a six-game losing streak shortly after the second half began, dropping them out of first place in the division as the Cubs began to take over. With contention a real possibility this season, GM David Stearns decided to make a few moves, though he stuck to not selling the farm to do it. A few days before the trade deadline, he acquired reliever Anthony Swarzak from the White Sox for outfielder Ryan Cordell. Then, at the deadline, he acquired former closer Jeremy Jeffress for Tayler Scott. It was what the Brewers needed at the time: An infusion for the bullpen to help stop their slide.

August (15-12) - Working Through the Struggles

The Brewers struggles continued into August as they tried to keep competing. Though the month started with them winning 4 of 5, they followed it up with a six-game losing streak, falling to .500 at 59-59. They managed to put together a four-game winning streak after that to avoid falling below .500, though the surge of the Cubs meant it was difficult to catch up.

The offense continued to struggle through the month. Jonathan Villar (146 wRC+) showed some promise in his limited time, and Stephen Vogt (149 wRC+) finished the month strong after returning from a knee injury. However, no other Brewer recorded a wRC+ over 113 or a fWAR over 0.3. That was part of the reason that the Brewers acquired Neil Walker on August 12, and he stepped in right away and helped keep the offense somewhat stable.

With the offense as a whole struggling, the Brewers needed the pitching staff to step up, and many of the players did. Zach Davies (2.06 ERA/2.83 FIP) and Jimmy Nelson (5.05 ERA/2.88 FIP) led the rotation and both put together very strong months. Corey Knebel (0.00 ERA/1.59 FIP), Josh Hader (2.38 ERA/2.54 FIP), and Anthony Swarzak (3.18/3.16 FIP) formed a new strong back end of the bullpen. Chase Anderson returned from the DL on August 20 and needed a little time to get back into form, but was also strong. Brandon Woodruff (1.62 ERA/4.12 FIP) helped cover in the rotation while Anderson was out. There were two weak spots in the rotation, though. Brent Suter (8.16 ERA/7.69 FIP) started to show some cracks in his three starts. Of course, that was nothing compared to Matt Garza, who had a disaster August (7.67 ERA/7.71 FIP in six starts).

Though all of that, the Brewers were still in the race at the end of August. Though the deficit was 3.5 games in the division and 2.5 games in the wild card, it was better than almost everyone expected before the season.

September/October (15-12) - A Final Push

As September began, the Brewers recalled several players, including Taylor Williams to make his major-league debut. Aaron Wilkerson also got his first chance in the majors this month, getting a call-up on September 15. The Brewers needed every bit of help they could get to get through the month, and many of these prospects would be invaluable in this push.

In the rotation, different issues turned the rotation into a jumble of pitchers to get through the last month. In total, nine different pitchers “started” a game in September. One of the issues coming into the month was Matt Garza, whose August was so bad that the discussion had begun to take him out of the rotation. He got one more start against the Reds on September 7, but that was it for him. He got two relief appearances in the last three and a half weeks of the season to end his Brewers career.

Jimmy Nelson came into the month strong and continued that trend, putting up a 0.00 ERA and 1.91 FIP in two starts. Unfortunately, his season came to an early end due to a baserunning injury, causing a rotator cuff partial tear that could cost him part of 2018. Most of the starts went to Chase Anderson (2.06 ERA/3.13 FIP in 6 starts), Zach Davies (4.23 ERA/4.24 FIP in 5 starts), Brent Suter (2.42 ERA/2.93 FIP in 5 starts), and Brandon Woodruff (6.84 ERA/4.52 FIP in 5 starts).

Meanwhile, Josh Hader (3.31 ERA/2.61 FIP), Anthony Swarzak (1.72 ERA/2.84 FIP), and Corey Knebel (4.38 ERA/4.54 FIP) continued to hold down the back of the bullpen. Jeremy Jeffress proved to be a valuable addition as well, putting together 14.2 strong innings to help finish the season. Overall, the pitching staff was pretty good, though they had some rough ends to games, especially in the last week and a half. Three walk-off losses in a row from the bullpen hurt quite a bit, and winning one or two of those could have made a big difference towards how the season ended.

The offense also did all they could to try to keep the Brewers in contention. Domingo Santana (165 wRC+) put together a massive September, hitting eight home runs with a batting line of .301/.383/.663. Brett Phillips (121 wRC+) also stepped up in limited time, potentially helping to take the center field job going into 2018. Eric Thames also put together a strong month (159 wRC+), and Neil Walker (132 wRC+) also continued to prove his value. Unfortunately, several other players struggled through the month, recording over 4 runs in just 10 of 28 games in September & October.

As the Brewers fought to stay in contention, it became a month of small streaks. The team had four different streaks of three wins in a row, but also had two losing streaks of three in a row. The Brewers were swept in a three-game series in Cincinnati, but then won three in a row at Wrigley Field. At one point, the Brewers had won 9 of 11 games, but then they lost three games in a row on soul-crushing late inning runs. They managed to stay in contention until game 161, when another crushing loss to the Cardinals ended the Brewers chances of making it to the postseason.

Even though many would want to call this season a failure based on how it ended, looking at the overall picture, it’s a much better view of the season. The Brewers found many new contributors for the future of this team, and the proved that they are ready to compete. There’s plenty to look forward to in 2018 now. Many pieces are in place, and it’s just a matter of filling the openings at this point. It’s a good time to be a Brewers fan, and the next year will hopefully be a fun ride.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs