Opening Day is just a week away, and the 2017 season will have plenty of storylines for the Milwaukee Brewers as their rebuilding effort continues. Here are just a few to keep an eye on:
Can Eric Thames succeed in his return to MLB?
Thames was one of the Brewers’ few big signings this winter, agreeing to a three-year deal worth $16 million and a team option for a fourth year. He'll be making his first at-bat in a major league game in 5 years when he steps into the box on Opening Day. His last appearance? October 1st, 2012. After a career batting line of .250/.296/.431, Thames had to go overseas to find work.
He signed in Korea and immediately became Barry Bonds, hitting a combined .348/.450/.720 with 124 home runs in three seasons. Now he's hoping the adjustments he made in Korea will carry over stateside.
It won't be easy, though. Not only is he coming back to face the best pitchers in the world, but the guys he's facing pitch with a much different mentality than what he got used to over the past few years while overseas. Thames has talked about how the breaking-ball and off-speed heavy pitching style in Asia helped him become a more patient hitter, but will he now be able to catch up to guys throwing in the mid-90s?
He’s also seen a heavy dose of shifts used against him this spring. While teams in Korea also shifted against him, the extreme variations used by some teams in Arizona over the past month were unexpected. There will be an adjustment period for Thames, but the big question is how much of a leash the team will be willing to give him -- especially if Jesus Aguilar makes the roster and continues his hot hitting from this spring.
How will the starts be split between the catchers?
For the first time in a long time, the Brewers won't head into Opening Day with a clear #1 catcher. A three-way competition this spring hasn't answered many questions, other than we know Manny Pina -- who was out of options -- has already been told he's on the 25-man roster. The front office, which values versatility on the bench, isn't likely to keep three catchers. That means one of Jett Bandy or Andrew Susac will start the year in Colorado Springs (or in Susac's case, possibly on the disabled list).
But once the competition is cut down to two guys, how will Craig Counsell divy up the playing time? He's already said that there won't be a clear "starter" and "backup" this year, but hasn't said much beyond that.
If the decision on who will play more is being made based on production, Pina is probably the answer. Aside from his recent power binge, he also finished last season with a respectable .254/.346/.394 line in 33 games, and a change to his swing mechanics may be leading to a late-blooming career.
Bandy has struggled to consistently get anything going with the bat this spring, but has looked very good defensively and has the same kind of accidentally-run-into-one power Martin Maldonado had. Susac was struggling even worse than Bandy before going down with his neck/shoulder injury.
While Pina seems to have a leg up now, making decisions based on spring results doesn't always pan out, and it may be a month or two before a clear pattern develops with how Counsell is using his catchers.
Is David Stearns done trading pieces away?
An argument could be made that the Brewers' rebuild is heading into a different phase this season, going from firesale to young player development. Outside of Ryan Braun, there isn't an obvious trade candidate on the roster unless David Stearns gets surprised with an offer for someone he wasn't necessarily shopping.
After this winter, long-term options seem to be in place at first base (Thames) and third base (Travis Shaw). Orlando Arcia isn't going anywhere at shortstop, and there's little incentive right now to move Jonathan Villar. In the outfield, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana are both young and cheap, and a wave of prospects is knocking on the door.
If Stearns is going to continue Slingin' this year, it might be with his pitchers. If Junior Guerra can show he wasn't just a one-year wonder, interest in him could pick up in the middle of the season as contenders look to add pitching. Neftali Feliz is on a one-year deal and could end up getting dealt in July or August if he performs well.
Other than that, there aren't a ton of obvious trade pieces. Wily Peralta is young enough that the Brewers likely won't want to give up on him just yet, though the Rangers may reportedly have some interest. Zach Davies isn't untouchable, per se, but someone would have to get really stupid to put together a package the Brewers would accept. Matt Garza is terrible and the Brewers would have to add something else to the deal just to get a bag of balls in return.
If Braun doesn't waive his no-trade protections, it could end up being much quieter on the trade front than we've gotten used to.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference