Sometime around the middle of last season, the Milwaukee Brewers led the NL Central Division. There were a bunch of articles written and they were mentioned on all the big sports networks.
But even as sportswriters started paying attention, there was this general undertone that it was a mirage. Surely, Chicago would shake off its World Series hangover on time to take control. As late as August, folks still predicted the Brewers young team would fade in the stretch.
So, when the Cubs did regain first place, we all reveled in our predictions and went back to watching the three-way battle for first in the NL West.
As the Rockies started falling off the pace, I wrote an article wondering if the Cardinals could steal the second wild card. At the time, they were three games behind the Brewers.
When all was said and done, the Brewers were still three games ahead of the Cardinals. They also missed tying the Rockies for the wild card by a single game.
Not many people outside the greater Milwaukee area seemed to notice.
Start of something big?
Brewers general manager, David Stearns, traded or cut most of his veterans and built up his minor league system as part of a multi-year plan to build Milwaukee’s first championship baseball team.
He was among the baseball fans who did not expect much from the Brewers. But as he watched his troops battle on, he realized his timeline was accelerating.
The team was far from perfect. Second base was a problem with Jonathan Villar struggling and Eric Sogard injured. Stearns plugged in a veteran, obtaining Neil Walker from the Mets in August.
That was not quite enough, but it was a sign of what was to come.
About that mirage
The risk of accelerating a rebuild is obvious. What if the Brewers’ young core played over their heads in 2017? What if they regress? There is a lot to be said for sitting tight, staying on course, and waiting until the season starts to consider any major moves.
Stearns and coach Craig Counsell believe what they saw was real. The Brewers are that close to a playoff team.
They didn’t break the bank on anyone. In fact, Stearns’ frugal practices and refusal to pay for past history could be why Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are not part of the Brew Crew.
Building a team on the cheap can be difficult in Milwaukee because of its reputation as a rather boring and nondescript environment to live.
Stearns was up to the task. He took advantage of the Marlins’ latest fire sale to add a young (and contract-controllable for years) All-Star in Christian Yelich.
He also convinced Lorenzo Cain that Milwaukee was more exciting than Kansas City and convinced him to spend the next five years manning the Brewers’ outfield. The $80 million probably helped that conversation along.
More conservative contracts went to Jhoulys Chacin, who will be in the starting rotation, as well as Boone Logan and Yovani Gallardo, who looks likely to be a long relief man.
And the rest of the team?
Ryan Braun comes back for his 12th season with the Brewers. His production slacked off a little bit last season and there are those who would prefer to see one of Milwaukee’s outfield prospects get playing time with Cain and Yelich.
Braun has been taking fielding practice in left and right field, third base, and first base this spring. No matter how Counsell utilizes his veteran, if their biggest concern is getting Ryan Braun into the lineup, they must have some pretty good players.
Stearns dealt some top prospects to land Yelich, but the Brewers’ system is still stocked with potential call-ups should anyone falter.
Fans are dismayed that Stearns is not pursuing Alex Cobb. Brewers’ ace Jimmy Nelson is expected to remain on the injured list until July, but the GM is adamant the Brewers have enough pitching.
He believes the Brewers might have the most under-rated pitching staff in the majors. Last season, their starters boasted the fifth-lowest ERA behind four playoff teams, while the relief corps ranked sixth.
So, the call is…
Milwaukee has to see a few things to go their way to make the playoffs. Chicago got better and is the consummate favorite to win the division.
St Louis had what their fans considered a disastrous season in 2017. They still finished only three games behind Milwaukee. They added Marcell Ozuna. Their lineup has the potential to put lots of runs on the board which they might have to if their shaky pitching rotation doesn’t hold up.
Even if the Brewers hold off the Cardinals, they must deal with the other teams for the wild-card spots. The Phillies and Braves could be this season’s Brewers as rebuilds progress. A healthy Mets pitching rotation could put New York in the mix, too.
The National League West expects to take both wild cards. The only question is if the Giants can push the Diamondbacks or Rockies out of one spot.
That is exactly what I think will happen. Milwaukee will do well to match last season’s record, but 86 wins will fall just short of a surprising Rockies team and the resurgent Giants. St Louis will be looking for a new manager after finishing with 80 wins.
Milwaukee will join the Phillies, Braves, Rockies, and Padres as regular NL playoff contenders soon. This season, the Brewers fall a bit flat.