MILWAUKEE — Three days after the Milwaukee Brewers jump-started a cold hot stove season, there was a noticeable feeling of excitement at Brewers On Deck, the team’s annual winter fan festival, on Sunday at the Wisconsin Center.
In acquiring outfielder Christian Yelich in a trade with Miami on Thursday, then agreeing to terms with Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain on the same night, the Brewers signaled to their fans that their rebuild is all but over and that Milwaukee fully intends to contend with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.
Milwaukee surprisingly led the NL Central for much of last season and chased a wild card spot into the final weekend.
“When you win 86 games, you’re a really good team,” said Mark Attanasio, the team’s principal owner. “We thought that would kind of ‘super-charge’ what we were doing.”
The Brewers are starting a run at the postseason — now.
“(GM) David Stearns and (assistant GM) Matt Arnold came out to California and we had a conversation about what direction we wanted to take with the club,” Attanasio said. “We decided winning in 2018 was as important as to win in 2020. If you looked at what a typical rebuilding arc would be, 2020 would be a typical year that you thought everything would come together.”
With success, and major acquisitions, come increased expectations. The Brewers won’t be able to sneak up on people in 2018, so there will be added pressure to produce.
“The expectation now is to win, which is the position that we all want to be in and we all hope to be in,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “It happened a lot sooner than most people had anticipated and I think everybody is real excited to get started.”
Braun is the last remaining player from Milwaukee’s playoff squads of 2008 and 2011 and, entering his 12th season, felt some of the same excitement when the Brewers made their moves Thursday as he did when the team added CC Sabathia in 2008 and Zack Greinke in 2011.
“It sends a message to the group that they believe in us ... that we’ve gone beyond the rebuilding phase and the focus is now on winning,” Braun said. “As a player, that’s all that you can hope for. It’s a good place to be.”
Braun, limited to 140 games by a calf injury last season, is expected to get some work at first base in order to accommodate the addition of Cain and Yelich to the outfield — barring additional deals.
"We'll communicate about it and I'm sure we'll have plenty of dialogue as we go, see how things are going, see how our roster develops," the six-time All-Star outfielder said. "But I'll do the best I can at wherever they want me to play."
A shortstop at the University of Miami, Braun moved to third base after the Brewers selected him fifth overall in the 2005 draft. He was still a third baseman when he arrived in the majors in 2007 but committed a league-leading 26 errors as a rookie, most of them coming on errant throws, and moved to left the next season.
Braun’s average dipped from .305 to .286 and his power numbers dropped from 30 home runs to 17 and from 90 RBIs to 52 but if healthy, keeping him in the lineup along with the newcomers — and also third baseman Travis Shaw — gives Milwaukee a formidable offense.
Among the majors’ 30 teams, the Brewers were seventh in home runs (224, tied with the New York Mets for first in the NL) but 20th in runs scored (732) and 21st in batting average (.249), according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“We were pretty good at a lot of things but we were below-average offensively,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We can be a little better. I think we think we’re going to improve offensively this year with the addition of those guys.”
The Brewers would like to find a solution at second base, but shoring up the rotation is still a major point of emphasis.
Jimmy Nelson’s recovery from shoulder surgery is progressing ahead of schedule, but he’s not expected back until at least June.
Josh Hader is slated to remain in a relief role to start the season and though Milwaukee signed right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo, the team is looking to add another arm to slot in with Zach Davies and Chase Anderson.
“You can never have enough pitching,” Attanasio said. “We’ve been working on that all offseason.”
Right fielder Domingo Santana has been the subject of trade rumors and while Stearns is still looking for a deal, he, Counsell and Attanasio said they would be content with the status quo.
Including a renovation of the team’s spring training facility, Attanasio has committed nearly $200 million this offseason. For now, the Brewers’ projected Opening Day payroll is $86 million.
For a chance at a championship, Attanasio is willing to go higher.
“If the right situation comes along, we can take advantage of that,” he said.