After finishing 2018 with the best record in the National League and–stop me if you’ve heard this before–one win short of the World Series, the Milwaukee Brewers begin the season Thursday with a vastly-improved division and a particularly tough first-third of the season.
The Brewers have doubters, from fans of rival clubs to their own fans around Wisconsin and the perpetually-skeptical, big market-minded baseball media, as though they have something more to prove. They do, but they don’t.
When the Brewers schedule was first released in early January, Brewers fans everywhere swallowed hard.
Teeing off the season with the St. Louis Cardinals for four games is no easy feat, especially when it’s followed by immediately hitting the road for Skyline time with the vastly-improved Cincinnati Reds, and then turning around and facing Chicago Cubs at home. But by the time they’re ready to depart the midwest for the first time in the regular season, they’ll be 10 games deep in the division and a series away (vs LAA) from looking at 13 straight against the Cardinals and Dodgers, before closing out with the Mets and Rockies.
Yes, before the first month is complete, the Brewers will have played the Cardinals ten times; the Dodgers, seven.
The second month isn’t any easier, finishing a four-game series with the Colorado Rockies and then hosting the Mets and Nationals capping off 12 straight days with games. After an off-day, they run the gauntlet on the road against the Cubs, Phillies and Braves. After that, the schedule loosens up a bit, but the competition doesn’t: a pair against the Reds, another Phillies series but at home, then trips to visit the popular sleeper pick Minnesota Twins and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Perpetually suffering from insecurity or little brother syndrome, the Brewer *ahem* faithful began vocalizing their doubts on social media, as though this Brewers club vastly overachieved last season as opportunists or something. It’s a daunting start to any season, to be sure.
Crap. It’s a good thing they’re good.
The Brewers rotation isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Just not necessarily in this way.
Jhoulys Chacin and Zach Davies return from last season’s rotation. Davies, beleaguered by injuries last season, appears ready to rebound from a lost 2018 and has a lot to lose with pitching prospects already banging at the major league door—and numerous others primed to in the near future. Chacin, the rotation anchor, at least until Jimmy Nelson returns, picked up his dominant stance where he left off in 2018, even for spring standards. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta have been tapped to round out the rotation. Woodruff, who emerged late last season and at last consistently showed the stuff that made him a top organizational pitching prospect, gets a well-deserved spot, while Burnes, who emerged as a long-relief, high-leverage stopper in 2018, finally gets a chance to show off as a starter.
Peralta, who only really has two pitches (fastball and curve) and is working on a changeup, will need to keep leaning on that change-in-progress to ensure he doesn’t hit the mid-innings with batters timing up the fastball as they did last year. Peralta can command swings-and-misses and is in the black relative to ERA/FIP, but he–and the other starters, to be sure–will need to demonstrate an ability to work into the back-third of ballgames.
Despite enjoying a superior status just last season, the bullpen is the biggest area of concern entering 2019. With Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel already suffering injuries and newly-acquired Bobby Wahl shelved for the season, the bullpen features Josh Hader (who is already doing Josh Hader things), Matt Albers (who himself suffered a lost 2018 between injury and ineffectiveness), Chase Anderson (jettisoned to the bullpen after struggling through 2018 and not showing appreciable signs of improvement this spring), two new Alexes (Alex Claudio and Alex Wilson) and no real closer. This wasn’t a problem last season, with the three-headed monster in Jeffress/Knebel/Hader, but if the Brewers are going to survive and or thrive in the first third of the season, they’re going to need the starters to get to the late innings and for someone in that bullpen other than Hader to develop killer instinct.
There is cause for concern, but no reason to panic.
Offense shouldn’t be an issue for the Brew Crew, as they’re returning the entire team that played in October.
Mike Moustakas and Travis Shaw flipped defensive spots and have been tearing the cover off the ball in spring. Christian Yelich never cooled off in the winter, and his swing continues to bear no small resemblance to one of the greatest hitters of all time. Ryan Braun can’t possibly keep hitting line drives right at defenders as he did last season. Jesus Aguilar looks like he has rebounded from a post-All-Star break slump and is taking the ball the other way with authority. Newcomer Yasmani Grandal figures to benefit much as Yelich did by moving to Miller Park and the more offense-sympathetic NL Central. Orlando Arcia remains an x-factor, but has shown signs of improvement at the plate as he did in the postseason run. Lorenzo Cain remains a fixture at leadoff.
If that’s not enough, if there’s an injury in the infield, Keston Hiura‘s ML-ready bat is just biding time. Under the supervision of new hitting coaches Andy Haines and Jason Lane, this roster realistically has franchise record-setting potential at the plate.
Craig Counsell continues to be the dugout mad scientist. He’s earned a level of immunity from skeptics with his Manager of the Year-caliber 2018. Haines and Lane fill the role left by Darnell Coles, who, fairly or otherwise, bore the brunt of criticism from the lack of clutch hitting in 2017 and the general dropoff the Brewers suffered in the back half of 2018.
Derek Johnson took advantage of an out clause in his contract to leave for Cincinnati and their completely renovated rotation. Johnson’s work with the Brewers pitching staff was nothing less than marvelous, and Chris Hook, who is familiar with the organization from his decade with the Brewers’ A and Double-A clubs, will be counted on to fill the sizable shoes Johnson left.
No one said 2019 would be easy. It’s more difficult to defend a title than it is to pursue it, and the Milwaukee Brewers are staring down perhaps the highest stakes in a season since 1983. They have both everything and nothing to prove.
It’s a good thing they’re good.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.