PHOENIX -- After emerging from a rebuild to be surprise contenders last season, the Brewers know they will play under the weight of expectations in 2018. And that was before they bolstered the outfield with Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.
Now, can they take the next step under that weight?
"Realistically, I don't think any of us expected to be here this quickly," said outfielder Ryan Braun, the team's longest tenured player. "It's a good place to be. I think it's motivating and inspiring to all of us to know we're coming into a season with expectations to win, with a front office and ownership group that now expects us to win. That's where you hope to be as players."
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It was with the promise of winning in mind that Braun agreed to give first base a try this spring. Getting some at-bats there during the regular season could help manager Craig Counsell spread time to Cain, Yelich and Domingo Santana in the outfield.
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Has the project been rejuvenating?
"More than anything, it's rejuvenating that we're expecting to win now and we're expecting to contend," Braun said. "The challenge of playing a new position ... is a challenge I'm looking forward to."
What's the goal?
To get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011, but to do it in a sustainable way. That explains why, at a meeting in Los Angeles of owner Mark Attanasio, general manager David Stearns and assistant GM Matt Arnold early in the offseason, the Brewers decided to bolster their developing core by targeting Cain and Yelich, even though it created something of a logjam in the outfield. The Brewers now control both for the next five years, and consider themselves positioned to be competitive at a time other clubs in the division and the National League are rebuilding.
What's the plan?
Stearns is following a plan similar to other analytically minded GMs: Acquire as many good, controllable players as possible. Beyond Cain and Yelich, consider how many other of the club's cornerstone players are Brewers property beyond the coming season: Starters Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Jhoulys Chacin; relievers Corey Knebel and Josh Hader (among others) and position players Travis Shaw, Eric Thames, Santana, Orlando Arcia and more. With the exception of Chacin, a veteran, one can make the case that most of those players are on an upward trajectory in their careers.
Cain and Yelich represented a bid to improve in two areas: Run prevention and bat to ball skills. Both are plus defenders, which should help the pitching staff, and neither strikes out a lot. The latter trait is needed after the Brewers set Major League Baseball's all-time team strikeout record in each of the past two seasons.
"Coming into the offseason, going over teams to start the offseason, Milwaukee definitely wasn't on the list, because I knew they had a good outfield situation," said Cain, whose professional career began with the Brewers. "I didn't expect them to call, but once they did, I was definitely open to it and ready to come home. My main goal when I started was to play center field here. I didn't do it long before I got traded, but now I'm back and ready to do it a little bit longer."
What could go wrong?
Much is riding on Nelson returning to his 2017 form, when he threw the same number of innings as Clayton Kershaw with a better Fangraphs WAR (4.9 to 4.6). While some pitchers never come all the way back from labrum injuries, Nelson's is different in that the tear, suffered diving back to first base in a game at Wrigley Field last September, was in the front of his shoulder, and not in the back from long-term wear. That's a significant difference, said Nelson after conversations with doctors.
If Nelson suffers a setback along the way, or proves less effective than he was last year, the Brewers could struggle to repeat their mound success from last season, when they ranked ninth in the Majors in ERA. Stearns added Chacin on a two-year deal and took low-risk fliers on veterans Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley, but Gallardo was released and Miley is now rehabbing a groin injury sustained in extending spring training. The Brewers don't have the firepower of the division-rival Cubs, who added Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to a mix that already had Jonathan Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.
Nelson is not the only player in danger of regression. Shaw, Thames, Santana and catcher Manny Pina all had career years in 2017, and are being counted on again this season.
Who could surprise?
Junior Guerra would qualify as a pleasant surprise if he can pitch the way he did in 2016. He skipped winter ball at the Brewers' request that offseason to rest up for Opening Day, got hurt in the third inning and struggled upon getting healthy. This year, he came to Spring Training with a successful winter season under his belt. The question is whether the Brewers will give him a spot in the rotation.