As the Milwaukee Brewers embark on their mission to defend their NL Central crown, we unveil our traditional questions and answers preview for the Crew.
Milwaukee is diving right into thick of the season – the Brewers open the year with 10 straight games against divisional opponents – so we’ll do the same. Here are 25 questions and answers to ponder before the season begins.
1. Is the NL Central the toughest division in baseball?
Top to bottom, yes. The Brewers and Cubs fancy themselves as World Series contenders, the Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt to last season’s 88-win team, the Reds brought in a bevy of solid vets while keeping their young core intact, and the Pirates are projected to at least be respectable, if unspectacular. In fact, the entire National League should be a bear, with at least 10 of the 15 teams harboring legitimate playoff hopes.
2. What’s going on with the Cubs?
The Cubbies topped 92 wins for the fourth consecutive season in 2018, yet the vibe feels off on the North Side. The PECOTA system projects the Cubs for just 79 wins, manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his deal, their shortstop is currently in the middle of a 40-game domestic violence suspension and they just shipped outfielder Ian Happ – who was once thought to be a future centerpiece – to Triple-A to start the season. That’s to say nothing of the aging starting rotation and iffy bullpen, as well as the $42.5 million ownership is shelling out to Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish, a pair of potentially washed-up vets.
It’s still hard to see them finishing below .500 – or even out of the playoffs – with top-end talent like Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, but there are certainly more questions than answers in Wrigleyville.
3. What's the Brewers’ Opening Day batting lineup?
Cain, Yelich, Braun, Shaw, Aguilar, Moustakas, Grandal, Arcia and Chacin.
4. Can Christian Yelich be the best player on a championship team?
Yes. Regression seems almost certain for Yelich, who rode a torrid 1.219 OPS in the second half to the 2018 NL MVP award. His gaudy home run total certainly jumps out (his 36 home runs in 2018 almost equaled the 39 he hit from 2016 to '17 combined, and he saw nearly 35 percent of his fly balls land over the fence), while all of his other underlying statistics remained nearly identical.
But two key differences point towards a potential repeat performance in 2019: Yelich finished fourth in the NL in hard-hit rate, with his 47.6 percent rate marking a double-digit jump from previous seasons, which paired well with his switch from the spacious Marlins Park to the far more hitter-friendly Miller Park. Yelich won’t win the MVP again, but if he keeps hitting the ball hard, he will once again be a surefire All-Star, even if he finishes closer to his solid first-half numbers than his Bonds-ian second-half stats
5. Who has a better catching tandem than the Brewers?
No one. I was all prepared to write about how the duo of Yasmani Grandal – an excellent pitch framer with solid offensive skills – and Manny Pina, now an overqualified backup, could be the best catching tandem in the game, but Fangraphs already projects them as such.
6. What to expect from Ryan Braun this season?
A mini-resurgence. Despite the Brewers run to the postseason, Braun finished with the worst offensive output if his career, posting stats equivalent to a league-average hitter in just 125 games played.
All hope is not lost though, even as he enters his age-35 season. Braun finished strong last year, posting a .919 OPS from July 24 through the end of the season, good for sixth among NL outfielders, and now he is tweaking his swing for the first time in his career. Despite blasting the second-best hard-hit rate of his career, Braun’s average dipped significantly, largely due to his career-worst batting average on balls in play (BABIP). If Braun can join the launch angle revolution and limit the amount of hard-hit grounders he sends right at infielders – Braun finished with the fifth-highest groundball rate among NL corner outfielders last season – he will be able to turn some of those 6-3 putouts into extra-base hits. A Braun bounce back will also mitigate any dip from last year’s centerpieces: Yelich and Cain.
7. Does Braun have a path to the Hall of Fame?
The path is there, but it will certainly be an uphill trek.
8. Will Lorenzo Cain continue to defy father time?
Cain turns 33 years old just weeks into the 2019 campaign, but he is coming off one of the finest seasons of his career. The drop-off can come quickly for outfielders in their mid-thirties – many of Cain’s positional peers struggled to find work this winter – but at least the Brewers’ centerfielder comes with some wiggle room should the slippage start this year. Cain’s glove was as good as ever in 2018, his improved walk rate offset his power outage and even his sky-high .357 BABIP was in line with his career numbers. Another top-10 MVP finish seems unlikely, but he has enough versatility to provide solid value, even if a couple skills begin to wane with age.
9. Is Orlando Arcia the long-term answer at shortstop?
Long-term, probably not, but he is still good enough to plug and play at the position in the meantime. If a realistic upgrade came along, the Brewers might jump at it, but there is still too much upside to punt on a 24-year-old former top prospect with a special glove and flashes of a big-league bat.
10. Will Mike Moustakas hold up at second base?
After acquiring Moustakas from Kansas City at the trade deadline last season, Travis Shaw shifted over to play second down the stretch. This season, Shaw will slide back to the hot corner with the recently re-signed Moose manning the keystone position.
Moustakas was drafted as a shortstop, so he has some vague middle infield experience, though seemingly every MLB third baseman or second baseman was a shortstop at some point in their lives before being moved off the position in the pros. Moustakas is also 30 years old and has rated out as a relatively average third baseman, so I have concerns that he will be able to hold down the tougher second base spot – even if the Brewers make his life easier with smart shifting.
Shaw handled the transition well last season, but he was both younger and a better defender than Moustakas. Top second base prospect Keston Hiura could be called upon sooner rather later if Moose’s defense becomes a real issue, though Hiura’s bat is his true calling card.
11. What is the Brewers’ best uniform?
It is the throwback, pinstripe alternates, by far.
12. Is Ben Gamel an upgrade over Domingo Santana?
Milwaukee and Seattle made the classic change-of-scenery deal in December, swapping 26-year-old outfielders in Gamel and Santana. Santana certainly has the higher ceiling offensively, but Gamel strikes out less, walks more, has a little more defensive flexibility and is seemingly more consistent year to year. This trade could come back to bite Milwaukee – Santana smacked a grand slam against Oakland in Japan last week – but Gamel probably makes more sense as a fourth outfielder.
13. Is Jesus Aguilar closer to the first-half slugger or the second-half slumper we saw in 2018?
Maybe both? Aguilar owns a whopping .946 OPS in the first half of the season throughout his career – equivalent to Miguel Cabrera’s career mark – but has collapsed to a .708 OPS after the All-Star break. I don’t know if the league catches up to him during the second half or if his body wears down over the long season, but Milwaukee needs him to be at his best when the games count the most. His third full season with the Brewers will indicate if his strange season-long splits are a fluke or something more.
14. What bobbleheads are the Brewers giving away this season?
March 31: Jesus Aguilar
May 5: Jeremy Jeffress
June 9: Christian Yelich
June 30: Prince Fielder
Aug. 11: Josh Hader
Aug. 25: Yasmani Grandal
15. What does the starting rotation look like?
The Brewers have already confirmed the order: Jhoulys Chacin, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Zach Davies
16. Is that good enough?
Probably. The Brewers don’t have any true top-end arms in their rotation, but all five pitchers (plus a couple more who will shift to bullpen duty) have had their moments and are still relatively young. At least one is likely to fall short of expectations, yet at least another is likely to surpass preseason projections. Craig Counsell will once again have to monitor this group closely though.
17. Can the Brewers rely upon Jimmy Nelson?
No, but they have built up so much depth that anything Nelson adds to the team is just a bonus. Nelson recently received a cortisone shot and will start the season in Triple-A after suffering a serious shoulder injury in September 2017. If he proves he can handle a legitimate workload, the Brewers will be adding someone with legitimate top-of-the-rotation talent in the middle of he summer. If the injury bug pops up again, Counsell and David Stearns should have enough pitching to cover the 25-man roster.
18. Will the bullpen hold up into October?
The Brewers’ vaunted bullpen is already taking on water. Corey Knebel is having the ever-concerning elbow issues, while Jeremy Jeffress is dealing with a balky shoulder, though he could be back by mid-April. Josh Hader also threw 89 innings between the regular season and playoffs last year, and appeared to wear down as the season progressed.
Luckily, the Brewers’ starting pitching depth has forced some decent arms into the bullpen. Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra will be immensely valuable this season if they can soak up four to five innings each week. That should keep the Brewers from grinding down its high-profile relief arms before the postseason.
19. Are there any potential midseason acquisitions?
Closer Craig Kimbrel has been bandied about for the past few weeks, especially as injuries continue to pile up in the Crew’s pen. Madison Bumgarner – a free agent after 2019 – could be on the trade block if/when San Francisco falls out of contention. His stuff is not what it used to be, and he has missed substantial time over the past two seasons with freak injuries, but the results are still there and as a rental, he likely would not cost much in terms of prospects. He would bring some big-game reliability to the top of the rotation, and he may have a similar Justin Verlander-type resurgence if thrust into a pennant race for the first time since 2016.
20. Five must-see series during the first half of the season at Miller Park?
March 28-31 vs. St. Louis: Opening series
April 5-7 vs. Chicago: First weekend series with the rival Cubs
April 18-21 vs. Los Angeles: NLCS rematch with the Dodgers
May 24-26 vs. Philadelphia: New-look, playoff-hungry Phillies
June 20-23 vs. Cincinnati: Yasiel Puig and the revamped Reds
21. Reasons for optimism?
The Brewers will have quality catching every night, the starting rotation features impressive depth, the outfield looks strong on paper, and there is a nice mix of speed, power and defense among the position players.
22. Cause for concern?
Yelich and Cain are prime candidates to take a step backwards, Braun has loads of injury questions, the rotation does not have a true stopper, and there will be no days off in the NL Central.
23. Over/under 86.5 wins?
Over. The improved division will prevent Milwaukee from hitting last year’s 96 wins, but the Brewers have improved in enough areas to outweigh any serious regression.
24. 2019 prediction?
92-70. NL Central champs.
25. National League playoff field?
In order: Dodgers, Brewers, Nationals, Phillies, Cardinals
When Brian's not writing about sports, he is probably prattling on about Marquette hoops, digging through statistics, or re-binging his favorite television series. Any conversation that begins with a quote from "The Office" or "West Wing" is a surefire way to grab his attention.