If you were to take a random human being off the street and accost them about which team just barely missed the playoffs in 2017, I highly doubt they would be able to immediately respond "the Brewers."
The few moves that have been made during this glacial offseason have been largely dominated by teams that finished behind the Brewers in the National League Wild Card race -- the Cardinals and the Giants -- but few have discussed the actual team that finished only one game behind the Rockies in the playoff chase. The Brewers won 86 games last season, the 10th-most in franchise history, finished comfortably ahead of the Cardinals and were one Rockies' slip-up away from a Wild Card play-in game. They won 13 more games last year than in 2016, a breakthrough larger than, say, the Yankees or even the Rockies, two teams considered the biggest surprises in the sport. We should all be talking about Milwaukee.
We are not talking about Milwaukee. It's a little early for 2018 predictions -- largely because there are 143 free agents still out there and no one has any idea what everybody's rosters are even going to look like -- but despite the Brewers' big leap forward last season, a young core, a booming farm system and a front office considered among the brightest in the game, you don't get the sense that many are projecting another upward swing for the Brewers in 2018. Most of the preview magazines hitting the stands have the requisite NL playoff quintet of the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, D-backs and Cardinals. Fangraphs' projection system is extremely down on the Brew Crew, at 73-89, somehow worse than the Orioles and the Pirates, a team that just traded its best pitcher and best hitter. You mean to tell me that the Brewers finished 11 games ahead of the Pirates in 2017, and they're projected to be below them in 2018? What's going on?
With the news that the Brewers might be the "mystery team" in on Yu Darvish, I thought I might take a look at the Brewers. Is Fangraphs right, and last year was just a blip? Or is this a team on the rise? Let's look at the arguments for both.
Arguments against the Brewers
1. The rotation is bound to regress. The key to the Brewers' success in 2017 was more its rotation than its lineup: The team had four above-average starters in Zach Davies, Brent Suter, Jimmy Nelson and especially Chase Anderson, who, had he thrown enough innings to qualify, would have been in the top five in both ERA and WHIP. But Nelson had offseason shoulder surgery -- though his recovery is ahead of schedule -- and Anderson, at 29, is a question mark with only last season as a better-than-league-average starter. Davies won 17 games, but with a K/BB ratio of only 2.55 -- he actually struck out fewer batters per nine innings than Matt Garza -- he has a thin margin for error. You can see why the Brewers would be kicking the tires on Darvish. Even with a good staff last year, nobody here scares you. And the bullpen seems noticeably weaker without Anthony Swarzak and Jared Hughes.
2. Eric Thames was a big part of the offensive resurgence, but not in the second half. And they need him. Thames had the team's second-highest OPS-plus, behind Domingo Santana, but his numbers cratered in the second half, and he was often unplayable against lefties. Expecting him to match last season's numbers in his second go-around through the league may be unreasonable. Santana is a potential budding star, and Travis Shaw looks like he can hold down third base for a few years, but otherwise, many of their young players haven't reached expectations, namely Lewis Brinson (who had only five hits in 55 plate appearances last year), the inconsistent Keon Broxton and Jonathan Villar, whose offense also cratered in 2017. They're counting a lot on Brinson maturing this year, or getting lighting in a bottle later in the season with Corey Ray, but otherwise, this offense doesn't look like it'll be any better than last year.
3. The Cardinals and the Cubs are being more aggressive. The Cubs had as disappointing a season as you can possibly have when you reach the NL Championship Series, and the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. They are both highly motivated this offseason and acting accordingly, with the Cubs loading up on bullpen arms (and likely to be in on every free-agent starter left) and the Cardinals bringing in Marcell Ozuna and eying the free-agent market, as well. An argument could be made that the year for the Brewers to sneak into the playoffs was last year, when the Cubs were wobbly and the Cardinals were inconsistent. Both teams should be better in 2018, which is a problem when the Brewers have to play them a combined 38 times.
Arguments for the Brewers
1. Santana might be a star, and Brinson might be even better. Santana was way up in every offensive category last season and could conceivably be a 30-30 guy if the Brewers decide to use him as such. There have been reports that the Brewers, with a crowded outfield, have been shopping Santana, but that seems … odd. Santana is only 25 years old and under team control through 2021. He seems precisely the type of player you build around while you see if Broxton can get it together and if Brinson and Ray can become even bigger stars. If he can improve again in 2018, it not only lengthens the lineup, it gives the Brewers potential to trade from their surplus of outfielders for pitching help, or maybe even another infield bat.
2. They're not terrible anywhere. This could actually be a little bit of a negative, considering when you're mostly average about everywhere, it makes it difficult to upgrade at a particular position. But when you look at the Brewers, you'd like to see maybe better production up the middle, but otherwise, they don't have a ton of soft spots in their lineup. In a league in which not a lot of teams are necessarily flooring it for a playoff spot, simply being average everywhere gives you a high floor. Last season, 86 wins brought Milwaukee within one game of a playoff spot. This roster, particularly if additions are made, could conceivably get to 86 again, and maybe even a little more.
3. Motivation. Brewers general manager David Stearns has shown his own level of aggressiveness in improving the Brewers' roster, even bringing in Stephen Vogt late last year, who was pretty handy down the stretch. The Darvish rumors speak to a franchise that might be willing to take a leap, particularly with a rabid, fiercely loyal fan base. (Despite playing in one of baseball's smallest markets, the Brewers were in the top 10 in attendance in 2016.) The Brewers absolutely want to avoid what happened to the Pirates, where they built up a new core but had to dismantle that core before they ever really got a chance to go all the way. A step backward slows up the whole Brewers process, which is almost certainly why you see the Brewers sniffing around Darvish and Jake Arietta. You can see the Brewers imagining themselves as the 2015 Cubs, adding a Jon Lester to show that they are serious about contending. They certainly have the sort of front office that's eager to take the next step forward.
The Brewers were close last year, closer than anyone realized, closer than many teams who fancy themselves contenders in 2018. We'll find out soon if last year was the peak, a fluke … or a start of something new entirely.
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