Crew sets sights on World Series after '18 run

March 25th, 2019

PHOENIX -- The soup analogy isn’t new, but it’s particularly apt for Craig Counsell and the Brewers.

“I compared it to soup last year. We’re going to make the soup again,” Counsell said at the onset of camp. “Some of the ingredients are the same, but there are some different ingredients in that room, so it’s not going to be the same. You don’t get into these rooms by not moving forward.

“So we’re going to move forward. My comment to you is that this team hasn’t accomplished anything. It hasn’t.”

It’s been easy to look forward this spring, even coming off an appearance in the National League Championship Series. The new faces in camp -- and camp itself -- help, since the Brewers are working in a renovated complex at American Family Fields of Phoenix. After a $65 million investment, the place feels brand new.

So does the season. Here’s a refresh of the look ahead we penned earlier in Spring Training:

What's the goal?

Make it to the World Series. The Brewers finished one game shy of that goal a year ago and are returning most of the team. They are aiming to take a step forward, not back.

What's the plan?

The plan is to build on last season’s success with the core of the team in place. President of baseball operations David Stearns suggested at the onset of the offseason that the team’s additions would be at the margins, and many of them were. A trade for Alex Claudio upgraded the bullpen, and Stearns later acquired Bobby Wahl and Jake Petricka for relief depth, though Wahl went down during Spring Training with an ACL injury that required surgery. He parted with out-of-options outfielders Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana and brought in Ben Gamel, a left-handed hitter with an option remaining and, the Brewers believe, room to grow as a hitter. But Stearns also made bigger splashes when he signed catcher Yasmani Grandal ($18.25 million) and infielder Mike Moustakas ($10 million) to one-year free-agent deals, pushing the payroll into record territory. Moustakas will man second base this season, leaving Travis Shaw to play third.

What could go wrong?

Simply put, the Brewers like their pitching much more than outside prognosticators do, and if the outsiders are right, it could mean trouble. For the second straight offseason, Stearns was linked to big-ticket free-agent starting pitchers but didn’t sign any, opting instead to count on depth over star power. That means the Brewers will roll into the season with Jhoulys Chacin at the top of the rotation, Zach Davies at the back end, and promising, but unproven arms in the middle in Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. All had big moments in the Majors last year, but if they experience growing pains, the next line of defense includes Chase Anderson, who is coming off a disappointing season that sent him to the bullpen for the start of 2019, Jimmy Nelson coming off a year lost to shoulder rehab and top pitching prospect Zack Brown. That’s a heavy dose of uncertainty.  Nelson is the biggest unknown; he was ascending to No. 1 status before shoulder surgery in 2017, and it’s impossible to know how effective he will be or how many innings he can deliver.

There’s the threat of injuries depleting the depth that Stearns and Counsell so covet. That proved the story of the second half of Spring Training, as the Brewers lost their top two right-handed relievers, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel, to the injured list for the start of the season. Jeffress was set back by arm weakness, though he appeared on a good trajectory as Spring Training came to a close. Knebel’s situation is much more worrisome; he has a damaged UCL and is in the process of deciding whether rehab or surgery is the right course of action. Nelson, too, will begin the season on the IL. He had a cortisone shot in his elbow during the final week of camp, but was hopeful he’d be pitching for Triple-A San Antonio before long.

There’s also the threat of regression in the lineup. Christian Yelich is a bona fide star in the prime of his career, but can he replicate last season’s production, which was so good it earned him National League MVP honors? Ditto Lorenzo Cain, who produced his highest WAR in three years. And can Ryan Braun stay healthy enough to implement the swing changes he worked on all winter to mitigate what he and the club viewed as hard luck in 2018?

One more potential problem: The division. With the return of the Reds, the NL Central is the only division in baseball in which every team is going for it. It’s going to be a battle.

Who might surprise?

Last year, Jesus Aguilar secured one of the final Opening Day roster spots and made the most of it, powering his way to a win in the NL Final Vote and a spot in the All-Star Game. It’s difficult to see a hitter making that sort of surprise impact because so many of the spots are shored up, though shortstop Orlando Arcia finished last year on an offensive hot streak, and a breakthrough in that part of his game would be most welcome for lineup length.

Grandal is also worth watching, though a productive offensive year from one of baseball’s best catchers would not exactly qualify as a surprise. Look for an uptick in power, however. Stearns has had great luck in recent years importing left-handed hitters and watching them see big jumps in "slug," from Eric Thames and Shaw in 2017 to Yelich in ’18. Grandal, a switch-hitter, is most dangerous from the left side, and he’ll like playing 81 games at Miller Park in a division stocked with right-handed starters.