Great expectations await Brewers in 2018

October 12th, 2017

MILWAUKEE -- They were "pirates and hooligans" in 2017, to borrow ' colorful analogy. But the 2018 Brewers will play under the weight of expectations.

That is a good thing, manager Craig Counsell and a handful of players agreed before breaking for the offseason. Expectations signal progress.

"I'm sure you guys will hammer that word away," Counsell said. "If that's how we're going to start talking, then we're on the right track."

Bold Brew: Milwaukee came on strong in '17

"That's the position you want to be in, right?" said , who went through this a decade ago as the Brewers emerged from years of losing seasons. "With what we accomplished this year, we should go into next year with much higher expectations than we came into this year with.

"Other teams know we're a good team. We've proven we're a good team."

The question is how much different that team will look in 2018. On one hand, the Brewers who won 86 games and fell a game short in the National League Wild Card race were constructed largely of players under club control beyond '17.

On the other hand, general manager David Stearns has the financial flexibility to add. Only Braun and Thames are under contract for next season.

But even if the Brewers make few changes, next season won't be the same as this one.

"You can put the same ingredients together, and the soup is going to taste a little different next year," Counsell said. "And you have to be OK with that. It's not going to be the same. You create something new every time you do it. Every time grandma makes the chili, it's a little different. But it's still grandma's chili, you know?"

Here is a look inside the Brewers' offseason kitchen:

CONTRACTUAL MATTERS

Free agents:Matt Garza, , , .

Arbitration eligible:Chase Anderson, Jared Hughes, , (Super 2), Jimmy Nelson, , , ,

BIGGEST NEEDS

Starting pitching

After undergoing shoulder surgery in September, the Brewers' best starter, Nelson, will miss significant time in 2018. Exactly how long he'll be sidelined remains unknown, but adding depth in this area sits atop Stearns' offseason to-do list. Anderson, and are the top returning options, plus and if the Brewers decide those left-handers fit best as starters. The organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Corbin Burnes, is getting close.

Possible FA fits:, , Alex Cobb.

Second base

Stearns plans to "take a long look" at this position, quite a change from last spring, when the Brewers were so confident in Villar that they waived Scooter Gennett, who went on to have a monster season with the Reds. Sogard provided an in-season spark before being derailed by an ankle injury that prompted the Brewers to trade for Walker, who posted an .843 OPS after coming over from the Mets. Prospects and are moving up the Minor League ranks.

Possible FA fits: Walker, Sogard.

GRAY AREA

Bullpen

Every team makes bullpen moves, and the Brewers certainly will. But it remains to be seen how big they go after sinking more than $5 million into last offseason and watching him wash out as the closer. Swarzak is a good option if the Brewers are willing to take a risk on a 32-year-old coming off a career year.

X-FACTORS

Center field

The Brewers have plenty of options to play alongside left fielder Braun and right fielder , but the question is whether any of them will emerge as a "regular." has the inside track after posting an .851 OPS in September and setting Statcast™ records with his throwing arm, but while did not succeed in his brief Major League stints, he was the organization's Minor League Player of the Year. And don't forget , who led the Majors with a 37.8 percent strikeout rate but also joined , and among the nine players in 2017's 20-homer, 20-stolen-base club.

Money to burn?

Braun and Thames will earn about $25 million next season, though some of Braun's salary is deferred. That gives Stearns even more flexibility to go big if he chooses.

When a reporter suggested that the team might play under another modest payroll in 2018, Counsell smiled and -- with Stearns sitting right next to him -- said, "I don't know about that. I think David's going to do something about that."