COVID-19 did a number on baseball, sports in general, and the world at-large. In fact it continues to wreak havoc. Nonetheless, Major League Baseball is ready to go for 2020, and it will be a sprint to the finish line as teams look to play like their in the playoff hunt late in the season at the very start. Could the Milwaukee Brewers be perfectly situated for that type of scenario?
Last season, the Brew Crew finished 89-73 and captured one of the NL Wild Card spots for their second straight playoff appearance. They finished just one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals. To get there, the Brewers had a 42-29 record after the All-Star break, and outside of the final series in Colorado, a September for the ages that saw them go 20-7.
Milwaukee’s playoff run ended abruptly and unfortunately as Josh Hader loaded the bases in the eighth inning of the Wild Card game with uncharacteristic wildness setting the stage for what happened next. The Nationals’ Juan Sota laced a Hader fastball that rookie Trent Grisham overran in ran right field. Grisham’s aggressiveness cost him and the Brewers the game and a NLDS birth as the ball bounced past the injured Christian Yelich’s replacement. The tying and eventual game winning run scored for Washington, and Milwaukee’s season was done.
While the 2019 season ended as a disappointment, they had a season that will be looked back upon fondly. With a shortened 2020 season upon us, will Craig Counsell and the Brewers be able to return to the playoffs for a record third time in a row is the big question?
Right now baseball pundits seem to be picking every other team except the Brewers (and Pirates) to win the NL Central. Cincinnati has all of the new additions. The Cubs still have their core in place. The Cardinals are the Cardinals and they have to be in contention, right? They are every year. Yet no one is on the Brewers. In fact projection systems have them finishing as low as fourth in the division.
This will be a season unlike any other as a playoff flavor will exist at the very start. It seems to be a bit of a slight to have the Brewers projected fourth, especially for a team that has excelled down the stretch over the past two seasons, generally has a really good bullpen, has a manager that has a month now named after him because of September success, and arguably the best player in the National League.
The projection systems are dinging the Brew Crew for their losses in personnel more than anything else. The losses of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas are particularly painful. And their replacements are not to their level, not even close.
Yet the Brewers have done their best to reload. What they reloaded with was not Grandal and Moustakas types, not by a long shot. However Omar Narvaez is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. Coupled with Manny Pina, the catching position could be pretty good.
Third base is a huge question mark. Moose was a solid third baseman that was a “glue” guy for the clubhouse in 2018 and 2019. What his presence has been replaced with are a lot of guys that seem to okay players. Some combination of Eric Sogard, Brock Holt, Ryon Healy, and Jedd Gyorko are the new guys in town (though technically Sogard has been around before). None of that equals Moose, but look for Counsell to put them in the best possible situation to succeed. Luis Urias could also be an option at the hot corner, especially if Orlando Arcia can keep control of the shortstop position and finally level of production that his potential suggests. Holt and Sogard can man shortstop too.
The good news is that everyone of these guys can play multiple positions with Holt and Sogard being true super-utility men. Versatility is always an asset, and the Brewers will use it to squeeze out every bit of value they can get to be in position to win baseball games.
As for the rest of the infield, first base and second base seem pretty solid. The combination of Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison, and Ryan Braun at first base should be pretty good. It will certainly be upgraded defensively when Smoak is out there. A healthy Braun is an offensive upgrade at the position every time he plays. Could LoMo blasts his way into significant playing time? A second year of Keston Hiura at second base could very well see him break out to an even greater capacity at the plate. Urias could see a time at second base too when Hiura needs a day off or is the DH.
The outfield is going to be a huge asset with Yelich, Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Avisail Garcia, and Ben Gamel covering those duties. It looks like Logan Morrison may get some time in the outfield too. With Yelich, Cain, Garcia, and Gamel, the Brewers have an athletic and strong defensive outfield. They are not shabby with the bats either.
The bullpen still has Josh Hader, but the question marks begin to add up after that. Corey Knebel will be back, but will he return to form right away? Can Brent Suter continue to be dominant as a 2-3 inning guy out of the bullpen? Who goes to the bullpen out of Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and Eric Lauer? Might one or two of them become value adds in such a role? Does Alex Claudio return to a ground ball machine? Do David Phelps and Justin Grimm find past form? Can one, some, or all of these untested arms emerge from Bobby Wahl, Devin Williams, Drew Rasmussen to Ray Black, J.P. Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, and Eric Yardley? Could Josh Lindblom or Brett Anderson see time in the pen too? A lot of question marks, but a lot of possibilities as well.
The starting rotation looks solid at the top, if unheralded, in the form of Brandon Woodruff. What happens behind Woodruff is hazy. Adrian Houser is set to take a rotation spot along with the aforementioned Josh Lindblom and Brett Anderson. Houser in particular has a chance to emerge with a slider-sinker combination that has looked really sharp in camp.
Now are they strong enough to compete with more heralded pitching staffs. The fifth spot is between Peralta, Burnes, and Lauer, although illness and injury to Lauer and Brett Anderson have settled things in the short term. Burnes and Peralta will be in the rotation for the start of the season. Could this group emerge to create a stellar group? Look for the Brewers to be very creative and successful with their starters in 2020.
The Brewers could be very good once again, but a lot of uncertainties have turn out positive for Milwaukee. If one, two, or more of the young starters emerge to team with Woodruff, the starting rotation could turn into a major asset. The bullpen could be a bit more suspect than it was in 2019 as Knebel is coming off injury, the rest of the bullpen is untested or has not put together consistency over time, and Hader is coming off a confidence busting playoff debacle. Nonetheless, Counsell and his group of pitching gurus will likely have them up to speed.
Third base is the critical and weak position for the Brewers with shortstop being a potentially close second (Caveat: Orlando Arcia has played really well in camp). Eric Sogard, Brock Holt, and Jedd Gyroko have had fine seasons in the past, but relying on them to play third base with adequate production could prove problematic. The Brewers also cannot have another below 50-65 wRC+ season out of the shortstop position. At least one of Urias and Arcia have to mature to their potential. Otherwise the position player group looks solid to MVP caliber.
Looking at the trend of Craig Counsell’s ability to manage this ball club, especially in playoff oriented environments, the Brewers should once again be in contention. There is a lot that needs to fall into place. The Brewers do have to face the Cubs seven times on the road vs. three times at home, and they take on the Minnesota Twins 6 times. That is not the team from the A.L. Central that you want to face the most. Those are disadvantages in terms of schedule.
At the same time, the Brew Crew play the Reds seven times at Miller Park vs. three times at Great American. The Brewers also have four of their six off days in September. That should help them down the stretch if they are in contention. And if they are in contention, look for the Milwaukee Brewers to be extremely dangerous. With the playoffs expanding to 16 teams, it will be much easier for a team like Milwaukee to make the playoffs. As long as everyone stays healthy, the club’s combination of star power and depth around the diamond could make them a force to reckon with.