The Milwaukee Brewers’ rebuilding project has officially come to an end, a full two or three years ahead of schedule due to a fun-loving, resilient young team that wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention until the next-to-last day of the season.
The Brewers raised expectations with their 86-win season and they’re going to have to figure out a way to better that mark. Their young core of players tasted a playoff-type atmosphere late in the season and is largely under team control for the next several years, so a major regression seems unlikely.
“I’m comfortable with our team,” general manager David Stearns said Tuesday. “I think we have a good team. We’re always looking to improve.”
Stearns said the continued development from the team’s many young players would be at the heart of any team-wide improvement. There’s a lot of truth to that, but now that the Brewers have become competitive, it won’t be enough to sit back and wait for the young talent to mature.
Stearns needs to make some offseason moves to fix the problem areas that separated the Brewers from National League powers Los Angeles, Washington, Arizona and Chicago.
Despite having the lowest payroll in the major leagues, the Brewers were consistent all season because they had a deep roster, hit very well in the first half of the season and pitched really well in the second half. Specifically, their power hitting fueled them early and their bullpen, after some in-season tweaks by Stearns, carried them late.
But two major weaknesses eventually caught up with the Brewers — their inability to manufacture runs when the home runs dried up and a shortage of top-flight starting pitchers, especially after budding ace Jimmy Nelson was lost to a baserunning injury, one Stearns said will sideline him for a “meaningful” portion of next season.
Simply put, the Brewers must balance out their offense and acquire a high-end starting pitcher to take another step forward.
The problem with manufacturing runs was two-fold for Milwaukee.
First, Jonathan Villar’s hugely disappointing season left the Brewers with a sharp drop off in production at the leadoff spot.
Second, they displayed a season-long inability to hit with runners in scoring position.
Villar was the prototypical leadoff hitter during a breakout 2016 season, batting .285 with a .369 on-base percentage and stealing 62 bases. But after declining a long-term contract offer from the Brewers — whew, that was close! — he got off to a poor start and never recovered. Relegated to a utility role, he finished with a .241 batting average, .293 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases.
Minus a true leadoff hitter, manager Craig Counsell often resorted to using slugging first baseman Eric Thames in the leadoff spot out of desperation, a big reason he had only 63 RBIs despite hitting 31 home runs. Veteran infielder Eric Sogard was on fire as a leadoff man in May and June, which was when the Brewers offense functioned the best.
However, Sogard cooled off after that and the offense struggled to score the last three months.
Since second base and center field are the only everyday positions that aren’t set for 2018, they are the logical spots for a new leadoff hitter. Whether Brett Phillips, Keon Broxton or minor-leaguer Lewis Brinson starts in center, all strike out too much at this stage of their careers to bat leadoff.
There is not a ready solution at second base, either.
Neil Walker was a good in-season addition, but he’s not a leadoff hitter and likely will move on in free agency. Sogard showed he couldn’t do it for an entire season and Villar could get another shot, though there are no guarantees there.
There is also no easy solution for the Brewers’ inability to hit with runners in scoring position. Their 224 home runs were first in the NL, but they also led the majors in strikeouts (1,571) for the second consecutive year.
Young players such as Phillips, Broxton and shortstop Orlando Arcia should make better contact as they refine their approach at the plate, but this is a team built for power and the strikeouts likely will continue.
As for the Brewers rotation, Nelson, Zach Davies and Chase Anderson became high-quality starters under pitching coach Derek Johnson and having all three back along with promising Brandon Woodruff would have been an excellent start on a 2018 rotation.
If nothing else, Stearns now must find a replacement for Nelson.
The Brewers also need to consider moving relief sensation Josh Hader to the rotation, though he’ll need more than the two-pitch repertoire he used out of the bullpen.
Even if it means moving some of the valuable pieces in the farm system, acquiring a top starter should be a priority for Milwaukee because nothing matters more than starting pitching. Eight teams won more than 90 games this season and, not coincidentally, those teams also had baseball’s top eight rotations in terms of ERA.
Brewers starters finished 10th with a 4.10 ERA, which was good, but not good enough. As hard as it may be to pull off, they need to add a legitimate 15-game winner to the mix.
Still, the Brewers’ entertaining 2017 season showed they’re on the right track.
Now they need to start playing for keeps.