It has been 138 long days since the Milwaukee Brewers were swept by the Dodgers in the Wild Card round of the expanded National League playoffs, but the offseason is finally over as pitchers and catchers report to American Family Fields of Phoenix to begin training for the 2021 baseball season. Slingin’ David Stearns and company were quiet for most of the winter before a flurry of February activity brought the team into sharper focus in the days and weeks before the start of camp. The addition of slick-fielding Kolten Wong was the splashiest move, but if the Brewers want to make a fourth straight postseason in 2021, they’ll need bounce back campaigns from several players all over the roster.
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:
Freddy Peralta has been an up-and-down pitcher throughout his young career. In the shortened season that was 2020, Peralta was actually pretty good. Yet since his debut in Colorado, Peralta has tantalized Brewers’ Nation with his promise. Fastball Freddy could be a special pitcher, not just a good one. Is this the season he emerges ala Corbin Burnes in 2020, or will 2021 be another season of inconsistency? Plus will he pitch as a starter, reliever, or some hybrid? Questions abound about Peralta, but if he approaches his talent level in 2021, he might be the linchpin that makes this year’s Brewers’ a legitimate contender.
The Brewers’ outlook for 2021 improved dramatically when they signed Kolten Wong to play second and moved Keston Hiura 90 feet to the right. Will Hiura hold it down defensively? He’s inexperienced at first and hasn’t developed into the defender the Brewers hoped for, but separate him his litany of throwing errors, and he’s a capable defender who should be able to cover the bag at first. For those of you concerned about his height, he’s got one inch on Prince Fielder. More importantly, can Hiura return to the kind of offensive production expected from the cold corner? He had a royally disappointing 2020 at the plate, but after being called up in 2019, hit .303/.368/.570 with 19 home runs and 49 RBIs across his first 84 major league games. Those kind of numbers hold up at first base across a season. If Hiura can replicate that success this year, we might see the team’s first repeat opening day first basemen in more than a decade in 2022.
Earlier this month, Ryan Braun said he wasn’t currently interested in playing. Currently. But how long until he gets that Favre-ian itch to play again? If Braun’s farewell was the 2020 season, it will always feel not quite right. Braun himself has said he wishes his goodbye could be in front of the fans that have largely supported him throughout his career, even through poor choices in judgment (if you’re being kind) or outright attempts to skirt the rules of baseball (if you’re being blunt). Braun has always said he only needs a couple weeks’ worth of spring training swings to get up to speed for the season. So what happens when he sees his former teammates hit the field in the coming weeks and start playing games in March? Does he get the desire to come back? Maybe the question is actually what happens when (and probably not if) MLB suddenly decides the NL will have the DH again this year sometime in March. If that’s the case, it’ll be #RyanBraunForever.
Last season, Lorenzo Cain played in the first five games of the Brewers’ season. Then, a COVID outbreak in the Cardinals postponed a complete series for the Brewers, and during those days, Cain re-evaluated the risks of playing. He decided to play it safe and sit the rest of the season out. When Opening Day arrives on April 1, it will have been eight months since Cain played in a regular season game. It’s the longest period of his career where he hasn’t played in major league games, since his 2016 season ended in early September. Cain turns 35 in April, and he will have to get back up to full game speed over the spring. Can Cain get back to his previous form? How will the months off affect him? He’s still the best the Brewers have for center field, and after the trouble on offense by the team in 2020, having Cain back and playing well would be a big boost to the team.
Coming off the shortened season, one of the biggest questions not only for the Brewers but around baseball will be how all the innings of a 162 game season will be filled on the pitching side of things. Rather than making 30+ starts and pitching 150+ innings, starters worked less than half of their normal loads in 2020. Brandon Woodruff led the team with 73.2 innings pitched last summer. There are going to be workload restrictions this season, that’s just a fact of life. But how will they be navigated? The Brewers did a favor to their depth by re-adding lefty Brett Anderson, but opportunities will also exist for guys like Josh Lindblom, Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta, Brent Suter, Eric Lauer, and even Alec Bettinger or Dylan File (among many others) to pitch meaningful innings. Will we see tandem starters? A six-man rotation? I’m looking forward to finding out how Stearns and Craig Counsell get creative in deploying their pitching staff.