After finishing one game short of an unexpected playoff berth in 2017, the Milwaukee Brewers rebuild was officially over — ahead of schedule — and it was clear from the start of spring training that anything short of the postseason would be considered a disappointment.
The Brewers lived up to their own lofty standards, chasing the Cubs down the stretch for their first NL Central title since 2011 while trying that same 2011 team for most regular season victories in franchise history.
Along the way, the Brewers helped redefine the concept of a modern pitching staff, watched Jesus Aguilar emerge from a waiver castoff into a National League All-Star and were just as amazed as their fans while Christian Yelich re-wrote this history books down the stretch en route to the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.
It was a magical year for Brewers fans yet one that ended with a bitter taste as Milwaukee fell one game short of the World Series.
As the calendar flips to 2019, expectations are certainly higher for the Brewers as they look to take the next step and return to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1982.
Biggest Move: David Stearns made a number of shrewd and successful moves in 2018 but none were more significant than the two he made on the evening Jan. 25. First, he stunned the baseball world by shipping four minor leaguers — including top prospect Lewis Brinson — to the Marlins for outfielder Christian Yelich. Moments after that deal became official, word got out that Milwaukee had also signed free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal worth a club record $80 million. Instantly, the Brewers went from being a surprise breakout team in 2017 to instant contenders and both players more than made up for the investment as Cain batted a career-best .308, stole 30 bases and finished in the top 10 of MVP balloting — an award ultimately won by Yelich, who became the team’s first-ever batting champ (.326) and posted an out-of-this-world 1.313 OPS with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs over the final month.
Biggest Disappointment: The struggles of Eric Thames, Orlando Arcia, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies were frustrating but those frustrations were eased when other players on Milwaukee’s deep and versatile roster stepped up and filled the gaps. The Brewers had hoped Jonathan Schoop would help fill a need for second base production, so much so that Stearns sent Jonathan Villar and two prospects to Baltimore to land Schoop, an All-Star a year earlier. The move backfired as Schoop batted just .202 with a .577 OPS in 46 games for Milwaukee and was not tendered a contract for 2019. He went on to make 35 starts for the Brewers, going 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA and a career-high 156 strikeouts while holding right-handed hitters to a .528 OPS. He didn’t miss a beat in the postseason, either, going 2-1 with a 1.46 ERA in three starts.
Biggest Surprise: One could point to the impressive performances of Milwaukee’s pitching prospects, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff during the playoff run but those efforts might not have been possible had Jhoulys Chacin not emerged as one of the National League’s most effective starters during the regular season. Milwaukee was linked to just about every big-name pitcher on the free agent and trade markets last winter but instead inked Chacin to a two-year, $15.5 million contract just before Christmas.
Most Memorable Moment: The season was full of memorable moments but none seemed bigger than Oct. 1, when the Brewers taveled to Wrigley Field for the NL Central Division tiebreaker and clutched the crown off the Cubs’ heads behind four hits from Orlando Arcia and a six-out save by Josh Hader. The Brewers, who’d already celebrated in the visitors’ clubhouse of Busch Stadium after clinching a playoff spot against the Cardinals a few days earlier, would throw another party six days later when they finished off a three-game sweep of the Rockies in the NLDS before the Dodgers brought the dream season to an end in Game 7 of the NLCS.
What’s Next: Unlike the Brewers’ last two trips to the postseason, their 2018 playoff run felt like the start of something, not the culmination of several years of slow, incremental progress as in 2011, when the Brewers went “all-in” with Prince Fielder approaching free agency. Most of their key pieces are under team control for several more years or locked into long-term deals.
Reasons For Optimism: For one thing, the Brewers bring back nearly everyone from last season’s roster and have some pretty impressive young pitching talent waiting to build on their late-season success. Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is just entering his prime at 27 years old, and the team’s top prospect, offensive prodigy Keston Hiura, could make his big league debut before the season ends.
Reasons For Concern: Milwaukee’s relievers threw a lot of pitches last season. How those arms will react — especially Jeremy Jeffress, who struggled during the postseason and will be 31 this season — will be worth monitoring. So, too, will be the entire pitching staff’s performance now that pitching coach Derek Johnson left to oversee the staff in Cincinnati. Speaking of the Reds, they hope to take the next step in their rebuild in 2019 making an already-tough NL Central all the tougher. The Brewers didn’t have it easy in 2018 and it will be the same in 2019.