Monday, February 26, 2018

Brew Crew Poised to Take Next Steps in ‘18

By Steve Brenna

The last two Fall Classics have brought World Series glory to long-starved Midwestern markets, and 2018 may be the year the Milwaukee Brewers step up to become legitimate National League pennant contenders.

Offensively, Milwaukee returns the majority of a line up that led the NL in home runs and stolen bases, and only got stronger thanks to some big name additions.

The 'Crew made a flurry of moves this offseason, highlighted by the acquisitions of talented outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Stout on both sides of the ball, Cain and Yelich will be added to a loaded outfield mix that includes Domingo Santana (25 HR in '17), touted prospect Brett Phillips, and some former MVP named Ryan Braun. Cain is a lock in center, and the team has indicated they will move Yelich from left field to right in order to leave Braun in left.

But the 34-year-old six-time all-star Braun could also see time at first base, as the team decides what to do with another piece of the outfield puzzle, Keon Broxton (20 HR, 21 SB in '17). It's an issue the Brewers love to have, and barring injuries Milwaukee's outfield should power the team.

That said, the Brewers infield situation is a far cry from concerning, with third baseman Travis Shaw, shortstop Orlando Arcia, first baseman Eric Thames and a combination of second basemen Jonathan Villar and Eric Sogard around the horn. Shaw and Thames did exactly what you expect from your corner infielders in 2017, combining for 62 homers and 164 RBIs. Arcia is a skilled defender, and took a step forward offensively last season with a career-high 15 home runs.

Villar came back to earth in 2017 after a breakout 2016, but Sogard stepped in and set the club on fire, hitting .338 over 41 games in May and June, finishing the year with career highs in OPS and batting average. Jesus Aguilar is also in the mix at first base after knocking 16 homers of his own in just 311 plate appearances.

Milwaukee's bullpen finished fifth in the NL in strikeouts and third in strikeouts last season, and the unit only got stronger with the acquisition of veterans Boone Logan and Matt Albers. The new additions will join returning closer Corey Knebel (14.9 K/9 in '17), surprise rookie phenom Josh Hader (2.08 ERA), and veteran Jeremy Jeffress, who performed well in the second half after a deadline deal with Texas sent him back to Milwaukee for a third tour of duty with the club. If the Milwaukee offense can stake the team to big leads, the back end of this bullpen will handle the rest.

The one potential area of concern for the Brewers will be the starting rotation. While rumored to be in the mix for several front-end starters this offseason, including Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, as of this writing the starting five looks a little thin beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. Anderson and Davies combined for a 29-13 record in 2017, but the club will likely be without workhorse Jimmy Nelson (labrum surgery) until midseason.

To fill the void, the team added nine-year veteran Jhoulys Chacin, coming off a 13-win campaign with the San Diego Padres. Chacin pitched 190+ innings twice as a member of the Rockies, which might as well equate to 220 innings when a hurler is dealing in the firing range that is Coors Field. The 30-year-old right hander will need to rely heavily on his ground ball producing sinker to replicate good numbers at the hitter friendly Miller Park.

In addition to Chacin, the club will look to fill the four and five spots with a group of starters that includes Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, and veteran additions Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley. Left-hander Suter brings a strong 3.40 ERA in 103 big league innings to the table, while Guerra will look to bounce back from an injury plagued 2017 to regain the form that saw him post a 2.81 ERA in 2016.

With Yu Darvish off the table and Arrieta likely headed elsewhere, Lance Lynn remains a potential target for Milwaukee. Lynn bounced back to make 33 starts in 2017 after missing all of the 2016 campaign due to injury, but posted a career high 3.8 BB/9 with a career-low 7.4 K/9. Still, he remains a strong option for the middle of the Brewers rotation with a track record of durability when healthy and a 3.38 career ERA.

If a spring training deal for one more starter falls short however, Milwaukee still looks to be the Cubs greatest competition in the NL Central, and a deadline trade for the final starting piece necessary to make a strong postseason run remains very much on the table.

At the very least, the Brewers will showcase a powerhouse offense and shutdown bullpen that will keep Miller Park packed throughout the 2018 campaign, and position the team among the top National League contenders. This looks to be the strongest team Milwaukee has put on the field since their 96-win 2011 season, with the best chance of securing the team's first pennant in 35 years since that 2011 club fell short in the NLCS.

Strap in Brewer faithful, this could be the year Milwaukee joins Kansas City and Chicago in reversing their October fortunes.

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