As 2018 comes to a close, the upcoming year shines a new light on the Milwaukee Brewers. The past few seasons have been full of positives for the Wisconsin organization and it will be difficult to top them in 2019.
The past year saw the Milwaukee Brewers trade for the future MVP Christian Yelich and sign their second best player in Lorenzo Cain. It also saw Milwaukee take the National League Central banner for the first time since 2011, earn the top record in the National League, and come within one game of going to the World Series.
The Brewers rolled out the red carpet in Milwaukee in 2017. That season was the first sign of success, with the Brewers increasing their winning percentage from 2016 to 2017 from .451 to .531. This would lead to the aggressive moves that dominated the following off season and put them in the position they are now, atop the National League.
Now, going into 2019, the Brewers have a lot to like on the horizon. Here are just a few of the things to look forward to in the upcoming year.
The continued youth movement
The Milwaukee Brewers enter 2019 with a group of solid young players that are in prime positions to contribute. One of the most intriguing players is Orlando Arcia, the 24-year-old slick-fielding shortstop.
Arcia had a solid year in 2017, making strides at the plate for a prospect that was originally seen as a minus with the bat. His weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 86 was below average overall, yet was still in the top 15 among all shortstops. An average year at the plate plus solid play in the field added up to a wins above replacement of 1.4. That’s not bad for a kid who could barely legally drink.
He followed that up with an extremely disappointing year with the bat, leaving many to wonder whether he was the future up the middle. Well, Arcia answered those questions with an impressive postseason campaign. He showed hidden power with three home runs in 34 plate appearances and finished with a slash line of .303/.324/.576.
It’s such a small sample size that I’d recommend not investing all of your money in his stock. And yet, this could be Arcia showing his 2018 regular season was an outlier in his young career. At 24-years-old, its not crazy to think he can marginally improve on his 2017 and eventually become an above average hitter with an above average glove for his position.
At the other middle infield spot comes two young prospects in the minor league system. Many have heard of Keston Hiura, the 22-year-old second basemen who most recently ranked 30th in MLB.com’s prospect rankings. He is projected to develop into a solid hitter at the plate with power. If he isn’t traded for a game changing pitcher this off season, the Milwaukee Brewers could get a look at the second basemen of the future soon.
The other middle infield prospect is Mauricio Dubon, a 24-year-old who can play either shortstop or second base. While not regarded as highly as Hiura, Dubon seems to be on track to see the majors quicker than his counterpart.
Dubon already progressed to Triple-A last season and was producing at the plate until a leg injury ended his season early. He has shown improved power each year in the minors while continuing to display a quality hit tool. Although his walk rate is trending in the wrong direction (1.8% in 2018 in only 100 plate appearances), his strikeout rate seems steady at the 13% range. Dubon could make noise in Milwaukee if he is able to recover from his injury and impress the organization early in the season.
Young pitching about to emerge
Aside from the infield, the Brewers’ have loads of young pitchers. Each of Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and Brandon Woodruff are 25 years old or younger and knocking on the door of the starting rotation.
Woodruff was very impressive last year, though pitching mostly from the bullpen. His quality strikeout and ground ball numbers are necessary for success in Miller Park and he produced in each category in both the regular and postseason. He finished a strong regular season with an impressive postseason start against the Dodgers in the NLCS, striking out eight and giving up two runs in five innings. Woodruff could be a sneaky breakout candidate if his numbers can translate from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
A year behind Woodruff in age, Burnes is also looking to make a name for himself in Milwaukee this year. Burnes came up in a bullpen role last year and filled Twitter up with some NSFW videos of absolutely filthy pitches.
Burnes was embarrassing some hitters with his stuff in 2018. After a solid debut this past year, I’m excited to see him potentially make a leap this upcoming season. The 24-year-old right hander has the opportunity to slide into the starting rotation and occupy a spot for years to come.
Last comes the youngest of the group, Peralta. The undersized righty announced his presence with a 13-strikeout debut in Coors Field last year. He would go on to struggle a bit after that, but spent a decent amount of time in the rotation, making 14 starts total in 2018.
It’s well known that Peralta has major strikeout potential. However, his control is an issue as he finished with a 12.5% BB%, which would have been highest among all qualified starters. If Peralta can cut down on the free passes while not sacrificing too many strikeouts then he could lead this rotation alongside a potentially healthy Jimmy Nelson.
Youth is aplenty in Milwaukee. The young players have the opportunity to take over at positions of need and make strides for a championship contending organization. Naturally, with many potential young contributors in the rotation, next comes pitching.
The rest of their pitching staff is solid
I’m going to cheat here a little. Why? Well, for starters, baseball is changing.
Literally, baseball is changing for starters.
Starting pitchers are throwing a lot less, non-closing relievers are all the rage, and the Tampa Bay Rays temporarily lost their mind. Or they began a revolution. It’s all still kind of confusing.
Let’s take a deeper look. Pitchers going deep into games struggle significantly, with even the best pitchers not producing as well on their third time through the lineup. This provides the natural transition from forcing the starter to go deep into games to turning to the bullpen instead.
This was evident, not only in usage last year, but in postseasons’ of years past. The Kansas City Royals trademarked this in their two World Series runs, relying heavily on filthy, hard throwing relievers.
Now, the Milwaukee Brewers (along with other intelligent organizations) have adopted this and succeeded with it. Milwaukee rode a starting staff headlined by Jhoulys Chacin and Junior Guerra to a top five team earned run average. Oh, and they led the league in ERA in September and October, maybe dispelling some notion of bullpen overuse coming back to hurt them.
Along with that dominant bullpen in 2019 comes the prospect of more. As discussed earlier, there are multiple young starters coming up in the organization that have a chance to take the next step. The possibility of a young core of Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff taking over three of the five spots in the rotation is a major leap from what last year provided.
In addition to the young trio are Chacin and a potentially healthy Jimmy Nelson.
Chacin surprised Brewers’ fans with a productive year last season, finishing with a strong second half and a brilliant postseason. His underlying numbers are a little worrisome, especially when he was considered an “ace” for what was a weak rotation. Yet, the improvement between the two halves of 2017 gives hope that he can provide a passable 150 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Next comes the wildcard, Nelson. He was having a breakout season the last time we saw him (2017) and looked like he was going to lead the Brewers’ staff for years to come. What did that breakout season look like? In 29 starts, Nelson was fifth among major league starters in fielding independent pitching (FIP). That put him ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, and Chris Archer, just to name a few.
Well, the ace returning to that degree isn’t a guarantee. Shoulder injuries are the last thing you want for a pitcher. Even Tommy John surgery is preferred in the tournament of injuries. Unfortunately for Nelson, he is coming off a partially torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
The 29-year-old right hander is by far the most interesting piece in this championship run. If he returns to full health then the desperation for an ace will be mitigated. But, returning to his previous form is a fairly unrealistic expectation, especially to start the year. The biggest focus will be getting Nelson ready for the latter half of the season and being the certified “ace” in late October. And with that hope comes our last topic.
A potential World Series run
About as vague as it can get, but a Brewers’ World Series run and all that comes with it is obviously the main thing to look forward to.
Milwaukee is in a perfect position with some of it’s core players at their prime ages and other pieces filling in. Yelich, Travis Shaw, and Jesus Aguilar are all in their prime for hitters at age 27 and 28.
Yelich, obviously coming off an MVP season, will look to build on that and continue the power surge that followed him from Miami to Milwaukee. Shaw, somehow still not talked about enough, is pining for yet another year placing in the top ten in WAR for third basemen. Aguilar, largely overshadowed by Yelich’s season, posted an absurd 134 wRC+ last season. That’s in the top 20 among all major league players, and possibly the quietest such offensive season in the MLB. Maybe cover your eyes when he goes out to play defense, but Aguilar should once again be a major force in the middle of that lineup.
In addition to those three, the Milwaukee Brewers also have guys mentioned earlier like Arcia and the two second base prospects that could become important contributors sooner rather than later. On the other end of the spectrum, Cain and Ryan Braun are heading towards the end of their careers. Cain was a key part of last season and one can only wonder if he’ll stay healthy like that again. As for Braun, the question of “how much does he have left in the tank” is staring him right in the face.
The Milwaukee Brewers must go into this season trying to maximize everything they can get from their two aging outfielders before their windows close and before Yelich, Shaw, and Aguilar are on the wrong side of 30. This is where “banners fly forever” should dominate trade discussions, because times like these are few and far between.
Moves still to be made
The “all that comes with it” is the trade rumors and the heated arms race in the National League Central. This is the purely the reason we read thousands of words on our teams and live on Twitter like addicts with no hope for a cure.
Your team mattering enough during the season to even be involved in trading prospects for a star is worth the stress of fandom. Seeing talk of Prospect-X from the Milwaukee Brewers being dealt for Star-Y from another franchise is something that is taken for granted by many fans. So much so that many are scared to deal a prospect for a sure-fire stud, even though time and again we see prospects flame out.
Just take a look back at the Yelich trade and how that has worked out thus far for both sides. Put aside the unknowns of five years in the future and compete now. Nothing is ever guaranteed, and thats even more of a given for prospects in baseball.
Come September, the race in the NL Central will be one for the ages. The moves by the St. Louis Cardinals, the ever-present Chicago Cubs, and the somehow always relevant Pittsburgh Pirates put the Milwaukee Brewers in the midst of a dog-eat-dog division race. The stress of the final stretch of the season is one of the best things a sports fan can experience, and there is nothing better than having a team to cheer for in games that matter in the final month. That is what Milwaukee fans are gifted with in 2019. So sit back, grab a brew, and enjoy what this year has for you.