2018 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

In the National League, the Brewers arguably had the best offseason, adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to a roster that last year won 85 games. For Yelich, the Brewers had to give up prospects Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison, and Jordan Yamamoto – not a small price by any means. For Cain, the club had to commit $80 million over the next five years.

Yelich has been one of baseball’s better outfielders since debuting in 2013. In fact, according to FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, only nine outfielders have been worth more than Yelich (17.2): Mike Trout (43.4), Andrew McCutchen (25.2), Bryce Harper (23.1), Giancarlo Stanton (21.5), Cain (20.5), Mookie Betts (20.0), Carlos Gomez (19.0), Nelson Cruz (17.8), and Starling Marte (17.6). Yelich hits for average, owning a .290 career batting average. He hits for power, having drilled 39 home runs over the last two seasons. He has speed, swiping 72 bases across his five-year career. And, depending on which stats and which scouts you consult, he plays average defense.

The book on Cain was that he was an elite defender, but his team – then the Royals – would have to accept he wouldn’t provide much in the way of offense. That changed in 2015, when he helped lead the Royals to a championship, as he put up an .838 OPS and finished third in AL MVP balloting. This past season, at the age of 31, he hit .300/.363/.440 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI, 86 runs scored, and 26 stolen bases. While the Brewers shouldn’t expect him to keep up that caliber of play into his mid-30’s, he should at least be a big part of the offense in the very near future.

Domingo Santana rounds out the outfield, returning to right field following a breakout 2017 campaign. He batted .278/.371/.505 with 30 home runs, 85 RBI, 88 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 607 plate appearances. When the Brewers brought Yelich in followed shortly thereafter by Cain, it was believed the club would try to move Santana or Keon Broxton, but it seems the Brewers are quite content with their glut of outfielders.

Broxton, by the way, is hoping to hang on as part of the Brewers’ bench. He racked up 20 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 463 PA last season, but slashed an underwhelming .220/.299/.420. Broxton has an option remaining, so he could open the season at Triple-A.

One other consequence of the Brewers’ run on outfielders involved moving Ryan Braun from left field to first base. Braun, who has never played first base in a professional baseball game, said recently that he’s “not remotely comfortable” at the position yet. The 34-year-old is still a productive player but battled calf and wrist injuries last season, so sharing first base with Eric Thames would give the Brewers an ideal platoon while being able to keep the duo fresh throughout the year. Last season, Braun hit .268/.336/.487 with 17 home runs and 52 RBI in 425 PA. Thames broke out after returning to the U.S. from Korea, crushing 12 home runs in his first 30 games. He slowed down after that, however, in part due to nagging injuries. He finished the year with a solid .877 OPS with 31 home runs and 63 RBI in 551 PA.

Travis Shaw will handle the hot corner once again. He had a breakout 2017 campaign, slashing .273/.349/.513 with 31 home runs, 101 RBI, 84 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 606 trips to the plate. It wasn’t totally unexpected production from Shaw as he showed flashes of that potential functioning in a bit of a utility role with the Red Sox in 2015-16.

Orlando Arcia returns to shortstop. The former top prospect hasn’t hit much across his 208 games in the majors, owning a .703 OPS, but he has played solid defense and provided speed on the bases. He’s only 23 years old so there’s still plenty of time for the bat to come around.

The Brewers have a battle at second base for the starting role between Jonathan Villar, Eric Sogard, and Hernan Perez. None of the three had particularly impressive seasons last year. Villar, in particular, was disappointing considering how impressive his 2016 season was as he posted an .826 OPS and led the majors with 62 stolen bases. In 2017, he had a .665 OPS and stole 23 bases. Perez had an uninspiring .704 OPS but provided versatility, playing every position throughout the year except for catcher. Sogard had the best offensive year of the trio, owning a .770 OPS, but he turns 32 years old in May. So far this spring, Perez and Sogard have hit well while Villar has had average results to date.

Stephen Vogt will get the lion’s share of starts behind the plate for the Brew Crew, assuming his shoulder is good to go by Opening Day. The veteran was diagnosed with a strained right shoulder last month. Manager Craig Counsell says he’s confident Vogt will be ready. Vogt started the 2017 season with the Athletics and put up disappointing numbers, but turned his season around when he joined the Brewers, posting a .508 slugging percentage on the back of seven doubles and eight home runs in 45 games through the end of the year. Manny Pina should get enough starts behind the dish to be able to make an impact during the season as well.

The starting rotation will be the Brewers’ biggest weakness and they may end up kicking themselves that they didn’t do more to improve it given how the free agent market developed. As of right now, the rotation will feature Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin. The Brewers could’ve gone after Lance Lynn, who recently signed with the Twins for one year and $12 million. They could have also used Santana or Broxton to bring in a pitcher from elsewhere.

Anderson had a really impressive 2017, finishing 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA and a 133/41 K/BB ratio in 141 1/3 innings. His strikeout and walk rates were solid, but a lot of his success was built on a much lower home run rate and much more batted ball fortune. His career average HR/FB rate is 12.1 percent, but it came in at 8.6 percent last year. Unless pitchers have make a very intentional change, fluctuations in HR/FB rate are typically just statistical noise. Anderson’s career BABIP is .291 but that was just .265 last year. If the Brewers are expecting Anderson to compile another sub-3.00 ERA this season, they very likely will be disappointed.

Davies also had a solid year, putting up a 3.90 ERA with a 17-9 record in 191 1/3 innings. He did so despite an underwhelming 15.2 percent strikeout rate and 6.7 percent walk rate. Most of his success can be attributed to inducing ground balls, accounting for just over half of all batted balls put in play. In today’s game, it’s really hard to bank on prolonged success with pitchers who don’t miss bats, so it’s not off base to be bearish on Davies going forward.

Chacin, now 30 years old, has been maddeningly inconsistent over his career, though he’s spent a lot of it in Colorado. Last year, with the Padres, he finished with a 3.89 ERA and a 153/72 K/BB ratio in 180 1/3 innings. Even adjusting for the pitcher-friendly confines, that’s still a solid year. It remains to be seen if he’s able to do that two years in a row, however.

Yovani Gallardo, Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Brandon Woodruff, and Aaron Wilkerson are competing for the final two spots in the starting rotation. One of them will cede his spot later in the season when Jimmy Nelson – recovering from shoulder surgery – returns around the All-Star break, perhaps sooner if everything goes well in his rehab.

Corey Knebel will lead the bullpen after a breakout 2017 of his own. The right-hander appeared in a league-high 76 games, saving 39 games with a 1.78 ERA and a 126/40 K/BB ratio in 76 innings. Not a bad performance in his first full season in the big leagues. While the control is spotty at times, his ability to miss bats is elite and makes it quite reasonable for the Brewers to expect more of the same in 2018.

Josh Hader, Jacob Barnes, Matt Albers, Jeremy Jeffress, and Boone Logan will join Knebel in the bullpen. The Brewers also have some veterans battling for inclusion, including JJ Hoover, Radhames Liz, and Ernesto Frieri, but they aren’t likely to play big roles.

In the NL Central, the Pirates and Reds are expected to bring up the rear again. But the Cardinals made some noticeable improvements particularly with the addition of Marcell Ozuna. The Cubs replaced Jake Arrieta with Yu Darvish and are expected to be the class of the NL Central again. That leaves the Brewers as a pretty obvious No. 3 in the division. While the offense should rank among the best in the league, the Brewers’ starting rotation is going to be its downfall and for that reason, I don’t see them breaking .500.

Prediction: 80-82, third place in NL Central.