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MLB Opening Day: Storylines to follow for the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers

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How much first will Braun play? What of Jimmy Nelson?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers-Media Day Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Today begins the 2018 Championship Season, and according to most projections your Milwaukee Brewers should be in the thick of playoff contention throughout the regular season. No one knows yet exactly how the season will shake out, but the Brew Crew Ball staff will be keeping an eye on the following storylines throughout the 2018 campaign:

Jaymes L: Just how many starts does Ryan Braun get at first base?

Braun may not be anywhere close to comfortable defensively, but Craig Counsell is apparently comfortable enough with him there to announce he will be the first baseman against left-handed starting pitchers.

But what happens if Eric Thames falls into a slump? Do the Brewers throw some starts Jesus Aguilar (or Ji-man Choi’s) way? Or would they slowly transition Braun into more of a full-time first baseman as a way to keep Domingo Santana in the everyday lineup?

What if Santana struggles to start the year, or Lorenzo Cain gets hurt? Does that throw out the Braun-at-first-against-lefties plan?

It doesn’t sound like any of the players involved in the first base mix know exactly what the plan is. How that affects everything from production — Thames and Aguilar are the types that need regular playing time to stay sharp — to morale in the clubhouse is something that will be worth keeping an eye on as the season moves along.

-JP-: Can Jimmy Nelson return to his previous form and boost the Brewers?

As the season begins, it’s arguable that the most important pitcher to the Brewers won’t even be with the team to start the year. Jimmy Nelson is still recovering from shoulder surgery and is at least a few months away from returning to the team. While his recovery has been going well so far, there’s still a long road ahead before he’s cleared to return to game action. Even if he does return, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back to where he was last year.

Earlier this offseason, Brad Ford wrote about other pitchers that had shoulder surgery and how their recovery from it went. Results have been mixed, which that just adds to the concern about when he returns. If the Brewers want to make a run this season, a strong boost from Nelson will likely be needed. There will be plenty to watch as he recovers. Can he return to his previous velocity? Does he still have the same level of control? Is he throwing his pitches well? These questions and more will have to be answered.

If Jimmy Nelson can return to the rotation completely healthy, he should be a nice midseason boost to the team. Coming off a year where he recorded a 3.49 ERA and 3.05 FIP, along with a 10.82 K/9 rate, getting that back into the rotation every five days would be very welcome. While there’s no guarantee Nelson can get back there, if the Brewers get a completely healthy Nelson back, their chances for a postseason bid get a major boost.

Ben Reagan: Will the acquisitions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich change the overall structure of the offense?

In a totally unscientific way I deduced the statistics of the players I know are displaced by Yelich and Cain and averaged the rest of the lost plate appearances to last years’ team stats to give us an equal number of plate appearances for 2017 and pseudo 2018, including LoCain and Yelich. If that made sense.

Anyways, here are the differences for each year:

The Brewers will pick up only four walks/hit-by-pitches, but will increase their hit total by 66. Doubles will go from 267 to 280; triples will remain the same (22); home runs will drop from 224 to 207. Team batting average will go from .249 to .263; OBP will go from .322 to .337; Slugging will go from .429 to .436.

With these changes, the Brewers would move from 11th in the league to fourth in batting average, 10th to third in on-base percentage, and from 10th to fifth in OPS. These are significant improvements.

These numbers assume no regression for the rest of the offensive side of the ball, either. The remaining players will do pretty much what they did last season, at least on an amalgamated basis. It’s possible that the projections are correct and most of the Brewer hitters will perform at a worse level than last year. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll get better! Hey, it happens.

Oh, and the Brewers set a major league record last season with 1571 K’s. According to my rough calculations, the offensive changes bring the team in at 1338. They drop (climb?) from first in the National League in fanning to ninth.

Will these changes result in more runs scored? I’d say yes; there will be more base runners and the lineup will make more consistent contact with runners in scoring position. The plan looks good. But the best-laid plans of mice and men - or baseball teams - often go awry.

Kyle Lesniewski: How will the pitching rotation perform?

Despite what seemed like endless amount of speculation and rumors, Slingin’ David Stearns did not add a “big name” pitcher to his roster during the offseason, much to the surprise and chagrin of many fans and talking heads. The Brewers are gambling on their own internal scouting and analysis when it comes to evaluating arms; throughout the winter, Stearns indicated that none of the rumored targets would “move the needle” for the pitching rotation based on the prices that were being thrown around.

As JP alluded to above, the loss of Jimmy Nelson throws things even more up in the air. The team will rely on Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin as their “proven” starters in the beginning of the year, with the four and five spots going to Brent Suter and Brandon Woodruff in the early going. Junior Guerra, Aaron Wilkerson, and Wade Miley could eventually be in the mix to get starts as well, and later on in the summer we could see prospects like Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, as well as the possible return of Nelson. Will that group be able to provide enough effective innings for Milwaukee to compete? Even if the rotation ends up being about average, is that going to be good enough to win a playoff series? Will an external acquisition need to be made at the trade deadline?