Our winter of discontent is over, and actual, real, games-count baseball will be played Thursday. Drink it in, people.
The Milwaukee Brewers open up the 2018 campaign in San Diego, where the Padres may take a lot of the baseball-viewing public by surprise by being better than most think. Just don’t expect that to show in the standings come September after a season of getting beat up by the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies. And the Brewers, despite bold moves in an otherwise timid offseason, enter the season seemingly as postseason afterthoughts. (We’re still staring directly at you, Fangraphs, and your horrible projections for ’18.)
And now, three bold predictions for the 2018 Brewers:
- The Brewers will end up in first or second place in the division, but not below the Chicago Cubs. The St. Louis Cardinals underachieved in 2017 and the Brewers’ inability to hit or get on base in the clutch killed their postseason chances, including rolling over to the Cubs in a backbreaking late September four-game series. The Cardinals needed a big bat and got one in Marcell Ozuna, while the Brewers addressed their feast or famine offense by acquiring Christian Yelich and bringing Lorenzo Cain back home to Milwaukee. The starting pitching wasn’t the issue for the Brewers, it was the bullpen. More on that later.
Meanwhile, why many baseball pundits persist in handing the division to the Cubs is a mystery. The Cubs enter 2018 with an uncertain pitching rotation, an iffy bullpen and Willson Contreras can’t run out to the mound every other pitch anymore. Joe Maddon still isn’t a very good manager. Yes, the Cubs will be good, but the tables will be turned and they’ll be on the outside looking into October. While all three clubs will likely beat up on the rudderless Reds (Joey Votto notwithstanding) and Pirates, The Cards and Crew will take wins away from the Cubs, and I believe–reasonably, and naked homerism notwithstanding–the Brewers win the division in a season-long slugfest. Don’t be surprised if it only takes 90-92 wins to claim the NL Central.
- The back end of the Brewers’ rotation isn’t going to be the problem; Zach Davies will be. Davies was a cornerstone in Doug Melvin’s thinly-veiled attempt to salvage a legacy, as the return from the trade that sent Gerardo Parra to Baltimore. Zach Everlasting uses a change as his bread-and-butter pitch, but he has routinely struggled controlling that breaking stuff, leading to first-inning struggles, short outings, pitch inefficiency and just plain getting hammered from foul line to foul line. When it’s working, it works really well. When it’s not, he taxes the bullpen.
While perhaps not a fair comparison, the struggles with the change remind me of watching Chris Capuano struggle with his back-door cutter and hiding arm troubles that derailed his career. To be clear, there is no obvious indication that Davies is concealing structural issues, but when finesse pitchers lose that finesse, it’s typically because there’s something physically wrong. Davies’ future rides on pitching healthy and pitching well in 2018.
- If Ryan Braun starts in more than 125 games this season, the Brewers won’t succeed. Braun is the elder statesman in the clubhouse, yet his legacy is mixed amongst Brewers fans. On the one hand, Braun has rewritten significant portions of the Brewers record books and has said and done all the right things since 2013. On the other, his legacy was irreparably tainted because of, well, you know. He’s been asked to move positions all throughout his career (shortstop to third to left to right to left and now will play some at first) and he has been harangued by injuries throughout, from intercostal muscle strains to a balky back to thumb and wrist issues. Braun should be playing, but he should be playing less, particularly with the offensive firepower around him this season. If he starts more than 125 games, it means either the outfield hasn’t worked out as planned, or Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar aren’t getting the job done or some combination of the two. The Brewers shouldn’t have to rely on Braun in 2018 and, if they are, it’s because something has gone wrong. What contributions Braun makes this season should be considered a bonus rather than essential: in fact, I would count on Stearns thinking this way when getting Cain and Yelich this winter, retaining Domingo Santana and keeping Ji-man Choi, albeit briefly, on the Opening Day roster. The more options he has, the less he runs the risk of taxing or relying on Braun to have to do too much.
Enjoy Opening Day, everyone. Come catch the fever.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.