Around this time last year, the Brewers found themselves in an unfamiliar position: on the outside looking in on the eve of postseason play. Milwaukee had been a playoff team in each of the previous four years, coming within a game of reaching the World Series in 2018.
But in 2023, the Brewers are back in the tournament. And with one of the best pitching staffs, top to bottom, in baseball, they’re looking to make a deep run this October.
Milwaukee’s opponent in the best-of-three National League Wild Card Series, which will take place at American Family Field beginning Tuesday at 7:08 p.m. ET on ESPN2, is no pushover. The D-backs are in the postseason for the first time since 2017, and with a young and exciting core, Arizona is looking to surprise much the way they did early in the regular season.
So, which team has the edge at each position on the diamond, and which team will advance to the NL Division Series against the Dodgers? Here’s a breakdown:
The Brewers didn’t get much offensive production from the catcher position in 2022, so they traded for All-Star William Contreras from the Braves with the hope that he would represent a major upgrade. He didn’t disappoint, hitting .291/.369/.459 with 17 homers. Defensively, Contreras improved significantly behind the plate.
The D-backs made a significant trade of their own last offseason in order to land some catching depth, sending Daulton Varsho to Toronto in exchange for top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Moreno had a strong rookie campaign, particularly defensively, where he led all MLB catchers in Defensive Runs Saved and Caught Stealing Outs Above Average, throwing out half of the runners who attempted steals against him (16 of 32). Offensively, he held his own, hitting .284/.339/.408 with seven homers in 111 games.
This one’s close, but we’ll give the nod to the more experienced backstop with more pop at the plate.
The D-backs’ Christian Walker continues to quietly put up big numbers at the plate while maintaining his status as one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. The 32-year-old belted 33 homers with a career-high 103 RBIs and an .830 OPS during the regular season while leading all first basemen in Outs Above Average.
Following a big year for Milwaukee in 2022, when he launched a career-best 35 homers, Rowdy Tellez took a step back this season. Limited to 106 games due to injury, he produced a .215/.291/.376 slash line with 13 homers. He really struggled in September, hitting .189 with one extra-base hit and 13 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances.
While Tellez was hurt, the Brewers acquired veteran Carlos Santana from the Pirates. Santana proved to be a strong addition, hitting 11 homers in 53 games down the stretch.
Brice Turang had a strong defensive season at second base in his rookie campaign for the Brewers. But offensively, he’s a light hitter who had a .585 OPS in 137 games.
Arizona’s Ketel Marte is closer to an average defender at second, but he’s one of the better offensive players at the position. He hit 25 homers and posted an .844 OPS for the D-backs in his age-29 season this year, and he definitely provides the superior value here.
The D-backs saw their 23-year-old shortstop take big strides this season, for which he was named an All-Star for the first time. Geraldo Perdomo had a .787 OPS at the All-Star break, but slumped in the second half to the tune of a .214/.322/.297 slash line. Still, there’s reason for optimism in his future.
When Willy Adames was 23, he was in his first full Major League season, playing for the Rays. Five years later, he’s established himself as a strong all-around shortstop with the Brewers. In 2022, he broke out with a career-high 31 homers and a .756 OPS. His ’23 performance at the plate wasn’t as impressive, but he still hit 24 homers and drove in 80 runs. He’s also got some postseason experience -- this is his fourth trip to the playoffs.
Seeking a late-season upgrade at the hot corner, the Brewers rolled the dice on veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson, who was released by the Yankees on Aug. 29. The 37-year-old had been sidelined by a right calf strain and his production at the plate was paltry with New York.
Donaldson got off to a relatively strong start with his new club when he came off the injured list, belting three homers over his first nine games. But since then, he’s 2-for-19 with a pair of doubles.
The D-backs haven’t gotten much production out of third base, either, but they’re younger and more reliable at the position with Emmanuel Rivera. The 27-year-old has also been limited by injury this year and his offensive performance was lackluster during the regular season, but he has been solid defensively.
Entering the 2023 season, there was still a legitimate question as to whether Christian Yelich would ever regain something resembling his form at the plate from 2018-19. He was the best hitter in the NL in that span, winning the MVP Award in ’18 and finishing runner-up in ’19. But Yelich put together his best offensive campaign since then, posting an .816 OPS with 19 homers and 27 steals this year.
The D-backs, meanwhile, got solid production from left field thanks to the newly-acquired Gurriel and later, Tommy Pham, whom they acquired prior to the Trade Deadline from the Mets. The two split time between left field and designated hitter -- Gurriel finished with a .772 OPS and a career-high 24 homers, and Pham had a solid year overall, posting a .774 OPS with 16 homers between New York and Arizona.
Between the superior offensive production and more postseason experience -- Yelich has played nearly as many playoff games (16) as Gurriel and Pham combined (17) -- the nod goes to the former MVP here.
Arizona’s Alek Thomas is a very good defensive center fielder with great closing speed, but his bat leaves much to be desired -- he hit .230 with a .647 OPS in 126 games.
On the other side, rookie Garrett Mitchell hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show what he can do thanks to a shoulder injury that necessitated surgery three weeks into the season. He beat the odds by making it all the way back before the end of the regular season, returning last Thursday against the Cardinals.
Whether Mitchell makes the postseason roster and what his role will be is uncertain, but given his impressive play when he’s been on the field -- he made the Opening Day roster and homered three times in Milwaukee’s home-opening series against the Mets -- he could be a difference-maker.
If Mitchell isn’t the starter, another rookie, Sal Frelick, may be patrolling center field in the Wild Card Series. Frelick has been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball since making his MLB debut in late July, though much of his time has been spent in right field.
Beyond Yelich, there isn’t much pop at the plate when it comes to Milwaukee’s outfielders. Whether it’s Frelick, Tyrone Taylor or Blake Perkins in right field, they can’t compete against the D-backs in that department.
That’s because Arizona boasts a right fielder who will likely be the NL Rookie of the Year after becoming the first rookie in AL/NL history to hit 25 or more homers (25) and steal 50 or more bases (54) in the same season.
Carroll even had some people whispering “MVP candidate” during the first half of the season, when Carroll was leading the league in many offensive categories. The D-backs have a definite advantage here.
As mentioned above, the D-backs primarily used Gurriel and Pham in this spot during the second half of the season, and as of late, they’ve been going with the latter. While their overall performance has been solid, we’re going to go with the hot hand here.
Since being traded to Milwaukee by the Mets on July 31, Mark Canha has been a boon for his new club, particularly over the final month of the regular season. He hit .301/.387/.452 in September to help propel the Brewers to the finish line and the NL Central crown.
Here’s where the true separation begins between these clubs. The D-backs have two frontline starters who are among the best in baseball, to be sure. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly have been outstanding, a big reason why Arizona finds itself in the playoffs for the first time in six years.
But the Brewers are a cut above when it comes to nearly any starting staff in the Majors, though that took a hit with Brandon Woodruff set to the miss the NL Wild Card Series with a right shoulder injury. But the Crew still have former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, and the duo will be tough to beat in a best-of-three series.
The D-backs are going with Brandon Pfaadt in the opener and won’t have Gallen and Kelly until Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3, respectively.
If there’s a gap between the Brewers and D-backs in starting pitching, there’s a chasm between the clubs if we’re talking bullpens. Milwaukee’s relief corps finished with a second-ranked 3.40 ERA during the regular season, whereas Arizona’s relievers combined for an 18th-ranked 4.22 mark.
If the D-backs find themselves trailing late, it could be lights out, particularly when they see Brewers closer Devin Williams emerging from the bullpen. Williams seamlessly filled the place of Josh Hader when the latter was traded to the Padres last year, posting a 1.53 ERA with 36 saves, striking out 38 percent of batters he faced.
Arizona traded for Paul Sewald from Seattle to be its new closer prior to the Trade Deadline, but he struggled over his first month with the D-backs. He had a 4.66 ERA in August before righting the ship to the tune of a 2.25 ERA in September.
It would behoove the D-backs to score early, because postseason contests against the Brewers can become short quickly when Milwaukee is ahead.
The great separator here is pitching, top to bottom. With the Brewers able to line up their big three and the D-backs not having the luxury of sending Gallen or Kelly out there for Game 1, that could be a major advantage for Milwaukee. And when the October shadows grow longer as the games get into the later innings, the Brewers' bullpen is just overpowering. The D-backs will show some fight, but they'll have their hands full.
Brewers in three