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Milwaukee Brewers health check: 2018 season preview, outlook for 2019 and beyond

Taking a look at the near and distant future of the Cream City Nine.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After rebuilding seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Milwaukee Brewers took a significant - and unexpected - step forward as an organization in 2017. The club won 86 games and narrowly missed their first playoff berth in six years by one measly game. Last year’s success, along with what looks like a weak National League in 2018, helped to convince ownership and the front office that this past offseason was the right time to flip the switch from rebuilding to competing.

The Brewers were responsible for perhaps the single most newsworthy day of the offseason on January 25th. Up to that point, Milwaukee had made a few low-key additions, but nothing that yet that had really signaled their intentions for the upcoming year. But that evening, new broke that the Brewers had dealt four prospects — including org #1 Lewis Brinson — to the Miami Marlins in exchange for star outfielder Christian Yelich. Within about another hour or so, word of a second major transaction leaked out — the club had inked Lorenzo Cain (who was originally drafted by Milwaukee and debuted with them in 2010) to a five-year, $80 mil contract, the largest free agent deal in franchise history.

Milwaukee’s offense started off hot last season, but by the end of the year they had slipped back to the middle of the pack. The position player group finished with a 99 wRC+, which was 9th in the NL, and they scored their 732 runs scored during the season tied them for 10th on the Senior Circuit. They did tie with New York for the most home runs as a team at 224, and also led the NL with 128 stolen bases. But Milwaukee’s cumulative 25.6% strikeout rate limited their offensive upside, as the .249 team batting average and .322 OBP both ranked in the bottom third of the league. In fact, the Brewers broke their own MLB record for most strikeouts in a season with 1,571.

The additions of Cain and Yelich should bring more balance to a lineup that has been filled with three-true-outcomes type players since the beginning of GM David Stearns’ tenure. Neither player struck out in even 20% of their plate appearances last season, and both posted on-base percentages higher than .360. The pair of players should also help shore up Milwaukee’s porous outfield defense, which ranked 18th in baseball with -6 Defensive Runs Saved last season. Both Yelich and Cain have been well-regarded defensively on the grass, including a Gold Glove in left field for Yelich back in 2014.

With those two in the fold, on a given day Milwaukee’s starting lineup will be able to feature as many as seven players who posted better-than-average wRC+ totals last season. As things stand now, Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, and Eric Sogard are all slated to play major roles in 2018 and will be looking to build off of their offensive success last season. Orlando Arcia, Manny Pina, and Stephen Vogt were all about average at the plate for their respective positions, while Jonathan Villar and Hernan Perez will be looking to bounce back from down years at the plate.

Things are a little less settled on the pitching side. While the bats faltered down the stretch last season, it was Milwaukee’s arms that helped keep the team in the pennant race. Pitching coach Derek Johnson helped coax a 4.00 ERA out of his pitching staff, which ranked 9th overall among the 30 MLB teams. Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, Zach Davies, and Corey Knebel all made major improvements while Josh Hader debuted in the MLB and quickly evolved into a dominant fireman out of the bullpen. Unfortunately Nelson, the team’s ace, went down with a torn labrum while running the bases in September and had to undergo surgery. He’s only started throwing again in Spring Training, and while Johnson speculated that Nelson could be back as soon as June, that timeline seems pretty optimistic. Hopefully Jimmy can return at some point during the summer, but it’s up in the air as to how effective he’ll be after a major surgical procedure.

With Nelson on the shelf, most of the rumors that were floated out during the winter involved possible starter upgrades like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, or Chris Archer. But none of those moves came to pass, and instead Stearns and company focused more on value plays for the pitching staff. Their most notable outlay was a two-year deal for Jhoulys Chacin that guaranteed him $15.5 mil, and they also signed Wade Miley (MiLB deal with camp invite) and former franchise stud Yovani Gallardo (non-guaranteed MLB deal). Chacin will slot into the rotation alongside Anderson and Davies, while Miley joins a group that includes Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff, and Aaron Wilkerson who are all fighting for the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation.

In the bullpen, six spots already seem sewn up between Knebel, Hader, Jacob Barnes, Jeremy Jeffress, and free-agent signees Matt Albers and Boone Logan. With manager Craig Counsell leaning towards an eight-man pen, that essentially leaves one more spot available. Gallardo, Oliver Drake, Taylor Williams, Jorge Lopez, Tyler Webb, and non-roster guys like JJ Hoover and Radhames Liz are among the arms battling for that final spot.

Even after a record offseason - Milwaukee added roughly $145 mil in future commitments to their ledger, the busiest winter in club history - their projected payroll for 2018 only sits in the $87-88 mil range. That’s a marked increase from their ~$60 mil payrolls in 2016 and 2017, but the club has spent as much as $110 mil previously under the ownership of Mark Attanasio. That would hypothetically give the Brewers some $20+ mil in remaining payroll space, but the front office seemed unwilling to commit some of that excess to Jake Arrieta (PHI) or Lance Lynn (MIN) and they aren’t jumping at the chance to go get Alex Cobb, who still sits unsigned on the free agent market. Though the rotation looks underwhelming (and I personally would have liked to see another addition) the track record that Stearns and Johnson have developed during their time in Milwaukee of identifying and mining value from under-the-radar arms is cause for some optimism heading into 2018.

Even after their busy offseason, Milwaukee still has plenty of payroll flexibility going forward. Their farm system did take a hit, but between the prospects and controllable players already in the MLB, there is a strong base of talent in the Cream City. Milwaukee possesses three top-100 prospects according to MLB Pipeline; Keston Hiura and Corbin Burnes have yet to reach the big leagues but both have made strong impressions during their first MLB Spring Training camp, while Brandon Woodruff showed flashes of his potential in eight MLB starts last year and is seen as a future mid-rotation building block. Other notable prospects include Brett Phillips, Lucas Erceg, Luis Ortiz, and Freddy Peralta, among others. On the whole, Pipeline currently projects 10 of Milwaukee’s minor leaguers to become average-or-better regulars at the game’s highest level.

The Milwaukee Brewers appear to be in good shape to contend not only in 2018, but for the next several seasons. They didn’t “mortgage the farm” and have a strong base of long-term talent at both the MLB and MiLB levels. Even after committing a record amount of money to improve the roster, Milwaukee still has plenty of payroll flexibility both now and down the road. As a franchise, Milwaukee doesn’t have much of a history of success with only four playoff appearances, one pennant, and no World Series rings during their 48 years in existence. But the outlook for the foreseeable future of the ball club looks as healthy as it’s ever been, and perhaps within the next few years us Wisconsinites will finally have a World Series title to celebrate.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs