It has been 116 long days since the Milwaukee Brewers were eliminated in game seven of the National League Championship series, but the offseason is finally over as pitchers and catchers report to American Family Fields of Phoenix to start training for the 2019 baseball season. Slingin’ David Stearns didn’t need to do much to shore up a team that won 96 games last season and will return most of its key contributors, but he did make one splashy move this past winter, signing top catcher Yasmani Grandal to a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2020. After making the postseason for the first time in seven years, the challenge for Milwaukee will be to build upon that success in 2019 and hopefully get over that last hump and into their first World Series since 1982.
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:
Jaymes L: What do we see out of Jimmy Nelson?
Despite some national voices still saying the Brewers need another starting pitcher, you could argue there are more quality arms in camp than there are rotation spots, and that’s before you even consider the possibility of Jimmy Nelson pitching for the Brewers in 2019.
We’ve long tried to temper expectations on the former ace, saying it’s hard to count on him for anything until we see him do, well, something. Nelson started throwing bullpen sessions at the end of last year and has already gotten a session in since arriving in Maryvale. But does he still have that fastball that was averaging almost 95 mph in 2017? Does he still have the nasty break on his curveball? After not throwing competitively for more than a year, how is his location, remembering that before 2017, walks and pitch efficiency were a big problem for him? All of those questions have to be answered before he’s considered for the 25-man roster, and that may not happen before Opening Day.
David Gibson: How will the pitching staff shake out?
The front office as well as the coaching staff of the Milwaukee Brewers place greater value on their pitching than do others in the baseball industry. Outlets that are projecting the Brewers to have sub-.500 records or to finish in the middle of the NL Central certainly reinforce that notion. Young arms that have been undervalued as prospects, veterans who have come to the Brewers and made improvements because of Milwaukee’s advanced approach, the return/bounce back potential of former quality pitchers, and the sheer pitching depth promise optimism. But the question is, who are the 12 or 13 pitchers that emerge and begin the season on Milwaukee’s 25-man roster? Barring injury, there are only a few locks in the bullpen (Hader, Knebel, Jeffress) and one in the rotation (Chacin). On top of that, what happens to the pitchers that don’t make it (minors, trade, release)?
-JP-: How will the playing time at second base work out?
Entering spring training, the one position that doesn’t have a set starter is second base. During the Brewers On Deck event, one of the comments made is that the Brewers are waiting for Keston Hiura to take over at second base. However, Hiura is likely still a year away from being ready, as he has not played above Double-A so far in the minors. That leaves the Brewers with a position battle to settle in spring training. Going into camp, three players are set to compete for playing time at second base: Hernan Perez, Cory Spangenberg, and Tyler Saladino. None of the three were impressive offensively last year, though a potential platoon could emerge in spring. In 2018, Spangenberg had a 101 wRC+ against RHP, and Perez had a 104 wRC+ against LHP. That would set up for a good platoon at second should the Brewers want to go that way. In addition, Perez’s positional versatility will give him a very strong chance of being on the team. Meanwhile, Saladino (who has a minor league option) appears to likely be the odd man out when the team heads north to Milwaukee. But with a strong spring, he could push his way into the playing time conversation as well. All three will try to prove themselves, and it will be the one position battle to watch.
Brad Ford: More additions to come?
Free agency has been abysmal. Due to this, there are still relevant players out there on the open market. I’m curious to see if David Stearns will take advantage of the the surplus of players remaining available to help improve the team even further. We’ve already seen the team use the poor market to its advantage by signing Yasmani Grandal to a one-year deal. Can Stearns and company take advantage of player and agent impatience again to sign someone like Marwin Gonzalez?
Kyle Lesniewski: How does Ryan Braun look?
Ryan Braun had a down season last year, by his standard, posting a career-low 105 wRC+ with 20 homers and 11 steals across 125 games. But he’s spoken at length this winter about how he and the front office feel that a lot of his ‘struggles’ can be attributed to bad luck; the Hebrew Hammer posted the highest hard contact rate and line drive rate of his career and was among league leaders in Statcast metrics like xBA and xwOBA, which use exit velocity and quality of contact to determine how a player “should have” performed based on how well they hit the baseball, stripping away opposing defenses and “luck.” Braun decided to take matters into his own hands this winter, working with a private hitting coach to make changes to his swing for what he says is the first time in his career. The alterations will be subtle, he assures us, but the goal is to join the fly ball revolution and ultimately put more baseballs over the fence, where luck and defense won’t be a factor. If the changes take, could we perhaps see a Ryan Braun closer in production to the form he showed in 2015-16? How big a boon would that be to Milwaukee’s already formidable (on paper) offense?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs