As the giant snow piles around Wisconsin begin a slow melt, our attention turns to warmer nights to come and to baseball. Recently, the Milwaukee Brewers announced a plan to allow 35% attendance at Miller <cough> American Family Field this year, already reason to be optimistic about the coming season.
But while this wasn’t the most active offseason in team history, there is reason to be hopeful about the on-field product as well.
It’s hard to take much—positive or negative—from a 60 game season. Just as it is unlikely that 1B Daniel Vogelbach is the next Prince Fielder, it is also unlikely that OF Christian Yelich and 2B Keston Hiura have forgotten how to hit.
The rapid decline of these players could have many explanations, but it’s important to note that it was part of a broader phenomenon. The league-wide batting average last year was the lowest in Major League history. Some explanations include fewer opportunities to bat against and learn opposition pitching, and empty stadiums leading to better fielding as fielders can see and hear the ball better.
A Yelich that is even 3/4ths the player that we saw in 2018 and 2019 would do wonders for the offense overall, and there is little reason to doubt that that will happen. The biggest red flag is at 3B, where the Brewers failed in their pursuit of Justin Turner, who returned to the Dodgers. The current candidates are likely Luis Urias or a returned Travis Shaw, whose 2019 campaign likely still gives Brewers fans nightmares. Shaw was slightly better with the Blue Jays last year, but remained a below-average offensive player. It would be a great story if Shaw returned to his 2018 form, but I’m not counting on it.
Many have been surprised that some of the nerdiest baseball projections, like PECOTA, still have the Brewers in close contention for winning the NL Central. Among the key reasons for this is the change that has occurred at 2B with the acquisition of Kolten Wong. Keston Hiura, who is likely to move to 1B, was among the worst defensive 2B in baseball by some metrics last years, while Wong was the best. A defensive move of this magnitude can have downstream effects on the entire pitching staff, especially those who are more reliant on getting groundballs like Brett Anderson and Brent Suter.
Adding to the defensive improvement will be the return of CF Lorenzo Cain, the 2019 Gold Glove Winner. One red flag will remain Hiura, who will be tasked with learning a new position—albeit arguably the easiest one on the field. If this move doesn’t work out, the Brewers will likely have to look to move him or hope for a permanent NL Designated Hitter next year.
Unlike most times in Brewers history, pitching is among the strongest parts of this team. SP Brandon Woodruff is developing into a star, and SP Corbin Burnes went from demoted with a questionable future in 2019 to finishing sixth in Cy Young voting in 2020.
The backend of the rotation, like for most teams, is somewhat more questionable. But manager Craig Counsell has shown a willingness to cover up those deficiencies by extensive use of the bullpen, which is also a strength. NL Rookie of the Year RP Devin Williams put up crazy numbers in 2020 with a 0.33—0.33! ERA. While that level of success is likely not sustainable over an entire season, his devastating changeup suggests that he’s no flash in the pan. CP Josh Hader showed a few signs of becoming human last year, but remains a very effective closer.
It appears that this Brewers team may not have to outslug opponents on a nightly basis to win.
The only “big move” in the NL Central thus far was the acquisition of 3B Nolan Arenado by the Cardinals. However, it isn’t clear how good Arenado can be outside of Coors Field. His home/road splits have always been pretty extreme, and Busch Stadium is one of the more unfriendly hitter’s parks in the Majors. Despite some in the media that appear to believe this move makes the Cardinals heavy favorites, there is little reason to actually think that is the case.
Among the rest of the Division, the Cubs have largely stood pat to avoid crossing the luxury tax threshold. The Reds are feeling the hangover effects of a one-year spending binge, and the Pirates under new management have finally committed to a full rebuild after several years of dipping in and out of being buyers and sellers.
In arguably the weakest division in baseball, there is little reason that the Brewers can’t contend again. As fans return to the ballpark, we can expect to see a team that likely won’t blow the doors off of the division but can stay in every game and be there at the trade deadline to make some moves.
Will Flanders is the director of research for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Baseball opinions are his own.