The Milwaukee Brewers captured 102 victories in 2018. 95 of them came during the regular season, then one more tie-breaker at Wrigley Field in Chicago to capture the National League Central Division championship. They swept the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS and took the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink in the Championship Series, getting all the way to game seven.
And then, it was all over.
2018 ended abruptly with something that fans in the Cream City haven’t had to deal with much of during the history of their baseball team - playoff heartbreak. A 1-0 lead after the first inning of game seven eventually turned into a gut wrenching 5-1 defeat as Clayton Kershaw recorded the final three outs to send Los Angeles to their second consecutive Fall Classic. Milwaukee, on the other hand, fell one game shy of ending a World Series drought that has spanned multiple generations dating back to 1982.
But the home team that begins the 2019 season at Miller Park today is one that sits firmly within its “contention window,” filled with players that know just how good they are together and what is expected of them from the fans. The theme throughout this spring for the mostly-intact roster from last season has been “unfinished business.” It will be a daunting task to meet and exceed the bar that the Brewers set last season, but they’ll be fielding a much more daunting lineup than the one that took the field for a good chunk of 2018.
Back in action is defending MVP Christian Yelich, along with Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, and Ryan Braun. Mike Moustakas’ desire to return to Milwaukee was so strong that he reportedly spurned at least one multi-year offer in order to re-up with Milwaukee on a one-year deal and attempt to move up the defensive spectrum to second base, something that is nearly unprecedented for a player over the age of 30 who has never played the position before. And, jumping on the wagon for 2019 is Yasmani Grandal, who also inked a high-AAV, one-year deal to become Milwaukee’s primary backstop. On any given day Craig Counsell will trot out a lineup featuring seven hitters that posted OPS+ marks of better than 100 last season, with two more skilled hitters — Ben Gamel and Eric Thames — available off the bench. It is certainly reasonable to expect a scoring boost over last year’s average of 4.63 runs per game, which ranked a mere seventh in the National League.
Pitching — namely an elite bullpen — is what carried the Brewers to success in 2018 and looked again like it would be the team’s greatest strength this season. But some unfortunate news in the waning days of camp have thrown the relief corps into a state of disarray. Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel, both of whom have made an All-Star team in the last two years, will begin the year on the Injured List. Jeffress’ shoulder weakness isn’t believed to be too serious, and the team expects him back by the end of April. Knebel’s outlook is far more dour — he has re-aggravated the UCL in his right elbow that was partially torn and successfully rehabbed in 2014. There is no timetable for his return as the team gathers a spate of medical opinions on how to proceed, but Tommy John surgery is on the table. Even if he doesn’t end up needing to go under the knife, Knebel figures miss at least multiple months of the season.
That leaves only 1⁄3 of the “Electric Dudes” available as the season starts — reigning NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader. After him is a bevy of uncertainty. Level heads can agree that there is certainly upside potential in a group featuring hard throwers like Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, and Junior Guerra. It isn’t hard to squint and foresee bounce back seasons from Matt Albers and Chase Anderson, who could see his stuff play up in a move to the ‘pen. New additions Alex Claudio and Alex Wilson look solid. And in the minors, there are plenty of useful, experienced depth options like Adrian Houser, Aaron Wilkerson, Jake Petricka, Josh Fields, Deolis Guerra, and others.
It is certainly an intriguing group, but it isn’t one that we can confidently say will be “good” or come close to matching last year’s cumulative 3.47 ERA, which was fifth-best in baseball. The same thing can be said about the starting rotation. The Brewers got a combined 21 starts of ace-level run prevention between Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez last, two proven veterans who the team let walk in free agency. David Stearns and company have elected to go with a youth movement in the starting rotation in 2019, lining up Freddy Peralta (22), Brandon Woodruff (26), Corbin Burnes (24), and Zach Davies (26) in the starting five after Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin. The Brewers have to be feeling confident in their young, unproven trio of Peralta/Woodruff/Burnes after not seriously pursuing any additional starting pitching depth this past offseason, and why not? Each of those three showed extended glimpses of their high ceilings in the big leagues last season and were touted as top prospects for a few seasons before that.
When it comes to the arms, though, there’s a reason that the phrase “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect” — or TINSTAAP — was coined so many years ago. Remember how exciting it was to when vaunted prospects Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, and Johnny Hellweg were all making starts for the Brewers in 2013? That didn’t end up working out so well. But this front office regime seems to have developed a knack for identifying desirable skill-sets and then developing and improving pitchers, plus there is Counsell’s deft handling of the staff to avoid over-exposing arms, making sure everyone is in the best possible position to succeed. Even with the uncertainty about the youth in the rotation and roles in the bullpen, the track record for this front office and field management staff help to inspire confidence that the overall performance will at least meet the threshold of “league average.”
There are 162 games to be played over the next 187 days, and the Milwaukee Brewers should win plenty of them once again in 2019. They may end up doing it in a far different manner this time around, bashing their way to victories with an intimidating lineup while overcoming what could be a dubious pitching staff. They will face stiff competition from a division stacked with improved contenders, and the club won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year while wearing the crown as reigning NL Central champions.
Here’s to hoping that our beloved Menomonee Valley Nine provides us with even more memories in 2019 than they created last season, and that this year is finally the one that ends with a World Series trophy being hoisted at Miller Park instead of players and fans having to deal with another bout of postseason heartache.