When the 2017 season ended, the Milwaukee Brewers were in a better position than many of us thought they would be in. They finished the one game out of a wild card spot, and were in the running until the second to last game of the regular season. It signaled that the Brewers were ready to compete. However, many questions still remained entering the 2018 season. Was the performance put up by the 2017 team a fluke? Did a lot of players just get hot and make a run? Could the Brewers put up another performance like this?
The Brewers started things off slowly in the offseason. They made their usual lower key moves to end 2017, signing several players to minor league contracts and a few to major league ones. The biggest moves entering the year were the signing of Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo to contracts. Meanwhile, in baseball as a whole, free agents were signing very slowly. The opportunity was there for a team to make a big move, and the Brewers decided to take that chance.
The first few weeks of the first month of the year was filled with the usual complement of minor-league signings, bringing in Christian Bethancourt, J.J. hoover, Ji-Man Choi, and Ernesto Frieri to minor-league deals. They also made the Boone Logan deal official, which had been rumored at the end of 2017 but because official in January. Also, long-time Brewer Taylor Jungmann decided to move on, was given his release and went to play in Japan.
However, the offseason remained slow, not just for the Brewers, but for baseball as a whole. It was one of the quiet offseasons in years, and it was so quiet that talk of collusion among the owners began to surface. While there was no base to these accusations, many players were frustrated with how the offseason was going. Contract values were going down, and many began to worry if they would even have a job once the season began. There was no real explanation to this market, though a number of factors such as inflated payrolls over the years and a more promising free agent class the next year kept the market quiet.
That all changed for the Brewers on January 25th. The day started with an announcement that shocked many who had followed the Brewers for years: Johnsonville became the new official sausage sponsor for the Brewers. No longer having Klement’s as the sponsor was a big change for many, but by the end of the day, it was something that would be very insignificant. That afternoon, the Brewers announced that they had acquired outfielder Christian Yelich from the Marlins for a four-prospect package headlined by Lewis Brinson. Many people were excited about this trade, as the Brewers had acquried a star player and had him under a reasonable contract for the next five years. The biggest objection to the trade was the prospect cost, as the Brewers had given up several top prospects to get Yelich. However, it was a clear signal that the Brewers were ready to compete, as they had gone from stockpiling prospects to acquiring talent that could help them win now.
Though that news was big, GM David Stearns wasn’t done. Barely an hour later, another report came out: The Brewers were signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain. The Brewers signed him to a five-year deal, and in one day, they had set themselves up to have one of the best outfields in baseball. It also gave the Brewers an unusual distinction: They had signed the biggest free agent contract, in terms of dollars, of the offseason so far. While this move also did have a lot of excitement about it, there was also a lot of confusion. The Brewers suddenly had too many players in the outfield and not enough places for them all to play. Despite that, Stearns wasn’t concerned about that possibility. He saw an opportunity and went for it, and would figure out the rest later. It was a good problem to have, but with some of the other spots that needed to be improved, it was natural for there to be some concern about the move.
As February began, eyes were on the Brewers to see if they had any more big moves in them. After the big acquisitions to end January, many thought they would make another big move to improve the team more, or at least clear up some space in the outfield. However, David Stearns went back to his usual ways. He signed several more players to minor-league contracts and continued to look for those fringe players who could help. One of those signings was Wade Miley, who the Brewers hoped could make an impact on the major league team.
However, despite checking in on many free agents and talking with several teams about trade possibilities, nothing came up. Though there was interest, none of the reports evolved beyond that. The start of Spring Training came, and the Brewers looked like they would roll with what they had in 2018. Ryan Braun began to get some work at first base in an attempt to alleviate the jammed outfield situation. The Brewers began spring training with plans to use an 8-man bullpen for the season. In addition, the spring started off well, with the Brewers putting up a 5-1-1 record through the first seven games of spring training. It looked like the moves for the Brewers would pay off.
Spring Training continued as the month of March hit. With five players looking for playing time in the outfield, manager Craig Counsell believed he could still get all five a good amount of playing time with a rotation. It looked like that’s what the Brewers would have to do, as David Stearns said he did not expect to make any more significant moves before the season. That would be the case, as each of the remaining big name free agents, especially for the starting rotation, were signed by other teams, and the Brewers did not make another move.
Meanwhile, the usual spring training pains hit for the Brewers. Zach Davies was one of the first pitchers to suffer a setback, as he strained his oblique in spring training. Ryan Braun got work in at first base, but admitted that he was struggling to adjust to the position. Stephen Vogt was having trouble with his shoulder, and did not look like he would be ready for Opening Day. Wade Miley suffered a groin tear that would keep him out to start the season, but the Brewers worked out a deal to keep him until he healed. The return of Yovani Gallardo faltered, and the Brewers ended up releasing Gallardo before the start of the season.
There was still plenty to be positive about in spring training though. The Brewers played well throughout spring training, and ended up with the best record in the Cactus League. The Brewers also recorded another hit for social media with their recreation of The Sandlot. Meanwhile, several players in both the outfield and at first base were playing well, forcing the Brewers to make some difficult decisions. In a surprise move, the Brewers decided to start the year with a smaller pitching staff, as they kept both Jesus Aguilar and Ji-Man Choi on the Opening Day roster, in addition to Eric Thames and Ryan Braun competing for time at both first base and in the outfield. Though some situations still had to be figured out, the Brewers were ready for the season. They did make one late addition, signing Dan Jennings before the season started, though he wouldn’t be on the roster until the second game of the year.
The Brewers started the year in San Diego, and they made a strong first impression. They defeated the Padres 2-1 on Opening Day, capped by a go-ahead hit from Ji-Man Choi (who then was sent to the minors). The Brewers had a 2-0 record at the end of March, starting the 2018 season out strong.
After a sweep in San Diego, the Brewers came home with games against the Cardinals and Cubs in their first homestand. Unfortunately, it was a painful homestand, both with the results and on the injury report. The Brewers went 2-5 in this opening homestand, only getting one win each against both teams. The bigger problem was two key injuries, as Christian Yelich went on the DL with an oblique injury, and Corey Knebel was lost for 6-8 weeks with a hamstring strain. Other smaller injuries began to pile up, and though those players didn’t hit the DL, it put the Brewers in some tough spots early on. Manny Pina also ended up on the 10-day DL with calf tightness later on. The month ended with another significant injury, as Eric Thames, who had started the season hot, was lost for 2 months with a thumb injury.
Meanwhile, the Brewers creative use of their roster began. They effectively kept a rotating minor-league bullpen option throughout the season, as one spot would consistently be rotated through with several players from the minor leagues. They also made a trade, acquiring Tyler Saladino from the White Sox for cash. Though the major-league roster was limited at 25 players, David Stearns made it seem bigger with his creative use of minor-league options and roster moves.
Overall though, the start of the season did not go well. On April 16, the Brewers were sitting at 8-9 and in third place in the division. Then, they began to heat up. They won eight in a row, moving from 3.5 games back in the division to a game ahead in the standings. However, the Cubs brought them back down to earth quick with a four-game sweep, putting the Brewers back to third in the division, though only a game and a half behind now. A win to finish off the month put the Brewers record at 17-13 at the end of April, third in the division but only a game behind first place.
The offense was led by Lorenzo Cain, who began proving he was worth his contract with a 141 wRC+ month of April to go with a .405 OBP, 4 home runs, 10 RBI, and 8 stolen bases. Eric Thames also started out hot, hitting 7 home runs in April and posting a 151 wRC+ before going down with his thumb injury. Jesus Aguilar, despite being limited in playing time, posted a 155 wRC+ and was ready to fill the void left by Thames following his injury.
The strength of the team was the pitching staff, though. Josh Hader continued where he left off in 2017, posting a 19.5 K/9 ratio in April along with a 1.00 ERA and 0.38 FIP in 18 innings, as well as taking the first closing opportunities following the injury to Knebel. Junior Guerra, after starting the season in the minors, returned and was also stellar in the starting rotation, posting a 0.82 ERA and 2.75 FIP. Brent Suter stepped up to fill innings in the rotation as well, and Jeremy Jeffress also started strong. In fact, of the thirteen pitchers who pitched over five innings in April, nine of them had an FIP under 3.50.
As the month of May rolled around, the Brewers began to find their groove. Christian Yelich was back and began proving his value, posting a 150 wRC+ with 5 home runs. Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar’s power came out, with each hitting 8 home runs and recording wRC+ over 140. Lorenzo Cain cooled down a bit but was still a strong player for the Brewers, especially on defense. While the offense did struggle as a whole, several players started to make their marks.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff continued to show their strength. Jhoulys Chacin came off of a rough April to post a 2.73 ERA and 3.13 FIP in five starts in May. Josh Hader’s dominance continued, and Junior Guerra provided some stability in the rotation, though he did falter a bit. May also saw the major league debut of Freddy Peralta and Brewers debut of Wade Miley, who each performed well in their first appearances with the team.
Unfortunately it was not all good news. Zach Davies went on the DL with rotator cuff inflammation. Stephen Vogt was hurt during a rehab assignment and would be lost for the whole year. Eric Sogard, who struggled in the first month of the season, was sent down, only to be replaced by Nick Franklin, who played one game before going on the DL for most of the rest of the season as well. Wade Miley, despite his good start, went on the DL after two starts. Corey Knebel returned, but was nowhere near as effective as he had been before. Ryan Braun also hit the DL for the first time during the season with back tightness. Braun and Davies returned before the end of the month, though both struggled once they returned. The Brewers did make an acquisition during all of this as well, acquiring Eric Kratz from the Yankees.
Despite all of these injuries, May was a strong month for the team. They went 19-8, winning seven of their nine series in the month, which included their last six series of the month. They moved from down 1 game in the standings to leading the division by 4 1⁄2 games. They had the best record in the National League and second best record in baseball. The offseason moves were paying off and the Brewers were soaring.
As the Brewers entered June, the injuries slowed down a little, but the Brewers still took their fair share. Though they did lose Zach Davies back to the DL to start the month, they also did get Eric Thames back from his torn thumb ligament. They did have to put Lorenzo Cain on the DL to end the month, though it would be a short stint. They also lost Matt Albers to the DL, and while he had been one of the more effective relievers on the team in the first two months, he wouldn’t be anyone near the same when he returned.
Jesus Aguilar continued his early season dominance, posting a 183 wRC+ with 10 home runs in the month, also posting a .352 OBP and .747 SLG. Lorenzo Cain also had a strong month at .314/.407/.454 with a 138 wRC+, but the rest of the offense struggled a bit more. Eric Thames only hit .218/.306/.491 on his return from the DL, showing some power but also striking out a lot. Christian Yelich also had a low .250 batting average, but his .347 OBP kept him productive. Travis Shaw collapsed a bit with a .200/.361/.323 line and 95 wRC+, and Ryan Braun’s struggles continued at .257/.278/.500 with a 103 wRC+. While several players were still making positive contributions, the offense as a whole was just not as good as it had been.
On the pitching side, they also took a small step back in June. Freddy Peralta returned to the rotation and was stellar, posting a 0.00 ERA and 0.78 FIP in two starts that month. Brent Suter rebounded with five starts, posting a 3.60 ERA and 3.59 FIP. Jhoulys Chacin also continued his strong play from May, and Chase Anderson even provided some quality innings to help out. The bullpen also remained strong as Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader put together a strong trio for finishing games. However, concerns also started to come up. Hader only pitched 8.2 innings over 9 appearances in June, causing some to question the team’s usage of him. Junior Guerra had a rough month, posting a 3.81 ERA and 4.68 FIP. Though the pitching staff performed well as a whole, some cracks were starting to show.
Overall, June was a small step back for the Brewers, but they did hold on to a division lead. They went 12-13 in the month, falling from 4 1⁄2 games up to 1 1⁄2 games up. The month was filled with small streaks, as the Brewers posted three two different three-game winning streaks and losing streaks. It was a bit concerning of a month for the team, who was now dealing with some injuries and some ineffectiveness from their players. While they still led the division, it was all cause for concern as they headed for the second half of the season.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the second half of the season, as the Brewers fall in the standings continued before they put together their end of season run.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.