It has been 136 long days since the Milwaukee Brewers recorded their final out of the 2017 baseball season, but the offseason is finally over and pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale Baseball Park today to start training for 2018. Slingin’ David Stearns certainly didn’t disappoint this winter, making two major additions in the outfield in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Outside of a few other supplemental moves - the signings of Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Albers, and Boone Logan - the core from last year’s 86-win squad returns largely intact. Expectations have been raised as Milwaukee looks to build upon their success from last season and get over the hump into the postseason in 2018.
It all starts in Spring Training, and here are a few of the storylines that the Brew Crew Ball staff will be watching intently for the next six weeks:
eddiematthews: Who is on second?
I went into looking at second base with the preconceived notion that having 2016 Jonathan Villar man that position would be the Brewers’ best option. That would leave Sogard as the primary backup at second and short, and Hernan Perez the primary backup at third and super utility.
In 2016 and 2017 Villar had a combined walk and strikeout percentage of 37.2%. Unfortunately, his walk rate fell from 11.6% to 6.9%, while his strikeout rate climbed from 25.6% to 30.3%. In any case, Villar has a Steamer projection putting him at .250/.323/.399, OPS .722. His 2016 OPS was .826, so he will have to considerably outperform that projection to climb back to his lofty 2016 numbers.
If you look just at last season, a platoon of Sogard and Perez would give you a slash of .275/.402/.372 (.774) vs. righties (Sogard), and a slash of .316/.342/.447 (.789) vs lefties (Perez). Villar’s numbers against lefties were much worse than against righties. A Sogard/Perez platoon with Villar as the back up infielder at short and third would also leave Hernan available for some starts at third or the outfield (really? aren’t there like 8 outfielders on the 25 man roster?). So unless Villar is hot this spring and forces his way into a full time job, the Sogard/Perez platoon might be the way to go.
Jaymes L: Braun’s on first?
With the additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, there seems to be too many cooks in the outfield kitchen. With (at least) six guys capable of being major league regulars, some creative thinking will be necessary to get everyone enough at-bats if nobody in the group is being traded.
That led to the Brewers (finally, to some) considering playing Ryan Braun at first base -- at least part-time. They admitted they’ll be trying the idea out this spring, with the idea of possibly playing Braun at first against left-handed pitching, essentially forming a soft platoon with Eric Thames while playing in the outfield the rest of the time.
Braun’s first attempt at infield defense during his rookie year was historically bad. You could make an argument he was the worst third baseman in modern baseball history, but most of the 26 errors he made (an impressive amount, considering he didn’t start the season in the majors) were on throws, not routine grounders. The idea with moving Braun to first is that he can still move around enough to make a play on balls hit near him, and he should be able to catch most of what’s thrown his way.
Of course, as fake Ron Washington once told Starlord (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzDYgRc6eic), first base is still incredibly hard to learn if you’ve never played it before. It’ll be interesting to see how Braun adjusts to having to blindly step back to step on the base, stretch for one of Orlando Arcia’s off-balance and slightly-errant throws, and read the ball off the bat. One of the things Braun had to adjust to when he briefly moved from left field to right was the shift in perspective, since he had come up always playing on the left side of the field. Now he’ll have to do it again, this time on the infield.
Braun’s ability to pick up the position -- and do it quickly -- may end up playing a role into decisions on Domingo Santana’s or Brett Phillips’ future with the organization. No pressure.
Kyle Lesniewski: How will the rotation shake out?
Last year at this time, the Milwaukee Brewers had two starters clearly set in their Opening Day rotation - Zach Davies and Junior Guerra. This spring, the team heads to camp with three rotation spots sewn up between Davies, breakout hurler Chase Anderson, and free agent signee Jhoulys Chacin. As things stand now, there are five pitchers set to compete for the final two slots in the starting five: the fallen ace Guerra, swingman Brent Suter (the group’s only southpaw), old friend Yovani Gallardo, top prospect Brandon Woodruff, and former Indy baller and grocery stocker Aaron Wilkerson.
Suter posted a 3.42 ERA in 81.2 innings last season and has a career 3.40 ERA in 36 MLB appearances, but the soft-tossing lefty’s profile may be better suited to long relief. Gallardo was once one of the top pitchers in franchise history but he has managed only a 5.57 ERA in 51 appearances the last two seasons and is on a non-guaranteed contract. Guerra hurt himself on Opening Day last season and never looked quite right, eventually losing his spot in the rotation and getting relegated to the minor leagues for a month before finishing with a 5.12 ERA and ugly 2.3 HR/9. He’s only one year removed from his #2016BrewersAce year, however, and is coming off a resurgent winter ball performance where he produced a 2.69 ERA over 77 innings with improved velocity. Wilkerson and Woodruff both showed promise at times last season and have successful minor league track records, but the fact that both have minor league options remaining may hurt their chances to make the Opening Day roster if David Stearns looks to keep as much depth around as possible. Plus...
-JP-: Are more moves coming?
As spring begins, several big names remained unsigned in free agency. While the Brewers have shown that they are more than content going into Spring Training with the roster that they have built, there are still players out there that can help this team in the upcoming season. Whether it is the addition of a pitcher (Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb), an infielder (Neil Walker, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas), or maybe another surprise player, there’s still a lot that could make this team better in 2018. The Brewers will start camp with the players currently in-house, but camp could play a big role in what the Brewers decide to do. There’s also still the trade market that could be explored as well. Could the Brewers pull off a trade for a player like Chris Archer? That could happen if camp doesn’t go well. If some players struggle in camp, will the Brewers make a signing? If prices suddenly drop and a player becomes cheap, does that motivate the Brewers to make a move? It’s hard to think that the Brewers are 100% done with player acquisitions. What else do they have planned this spring?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs