Brewers look to repeat winning formula in '18

With most regulars returning from surprising '17 club, Crew certainly in mix for another run

January 1st, 2018

MILWAUKEE -- After the Brewers surprised in 2017, what does 2018 hold in store?

That question will be answered soon enough. In the meantime, here are five other questions facing the team as the calendar flips to a new season:

1. How much work is left to do?

It's been a deliberative offseason for the Brewers and the rest of Major League Baseball, meaning January and February -- and March, for that matter -- should be newsy. The Brewers didn't make an outside addition until Dec. 21, when they finalized free-agent deals for right-handers and .

Was GM David Stearns relieved to get a couple of contracts on the books before the holidays? "Every offseason goes at a different pace," Stearns said. "The first couple of offseasons since I've been here moved a little faster. We made a number of transactions earlier in the offseason. This one is a little bit slower. It took us until mid-December to make a Major League transaction. There's a lot of time left, and I certainly expect there could be more."

So, stay tuned. Stearns has a particular eye on bullpen help and the second-base market. He's open to adding more starting pitching, too.

2. Is that it for the rotation?

The Brewers prioritized starting pitching in the wake of Jimmy Nelson's right shoulder surgery, which will sideline him for an undisclosed but significant chunk of the 2018 regular season. They eventually added Chacin alongside returning starters Chase Anderson and , each of whom is coming off his best big league season.

The question is what, if anything, comes next. Gallardo will get a chance to win one of the remaining rotation spots. Ditto returning players like , and . Then there are candidates who spent most of last season in the Minors, like and , and rising prospects like 2017 Brewers Minor League pitcher of the Year Corbin Burnes.

Bottom line: The Brewers now have options for a starting pitching corps that ranked 10th in the Majors last season with a 4.10 ERA and was a strength of the team.

3. What's the plan for ?

One of the most pressing questions for the Brewers at the start of the offseason remains in play today. Will Hader return to the bullpen for 2018, or is he needed in the rotation? Club officials still haven't declared one way or the other on one of their best arms.

"Everything is on the table with Josh," manager Craig Counsell said last month at the Winter Meetings. "Maybe because of the circumstances of the club last year, we used him in a place we weren't expecting to use him. We weren't expecting to use him in relief, necessarily, and he performed so well. So it's opened up this question."

Thrust into a bullpen role, Hader held opponents to a .156 average, including .140 for left-handed hitters, while proving more and more capable of shouldering regular work. The Brewers have holes in their 'pen after coming up short in a bid to re-sign and letting Jared Hughes and go.

Whatever his job to begin 2018, expect Hader to play a prominent role.

4. Can stay healthy?

Even at 34 and coming off a season shortened to 380 at-bats by calf and wrist injuries, a healthy Braun remains the Brewers' best player. He was not healthy for much of 2017, and it showed in his stat line; Braun's 17 home runs were his lowest total since a '13 season cut short by suspension. But when he took part in a Thanksgiving food drive at Miller Park, Braun said he was fully recovered and confident about '18.

That was good news for Brewers officials, since it appears increasingly unlikely they will be able to trade Braun during a contract that runs through 2020. With established in right field and prospects like and breaking through to the Majors, Braun could soon find himself facing competition for playing time.

5. Is regression in store?

Even the most optimistic projections during 2017 Spring Training did not have the Brewers competing for the postseason, yet, led by 31 home runs apiece for and , 's nearly flawless debut season as a big league closer, and Nelson's rise to ace territory, they remained in the race until the next-to-last day of the regular season.

Currently, it looks like the team will mostly return intact, so can they repeat? Or is a regression in store?

"Obviously, there is a little room for recession," said third baseman Shaw, somewhat mixing his nouns. "At the same time, there is more room for growth. I had a career year this year, but I still think I can do a few things better next year."

If enough of his teammates do things better, the Brewers have a chance to surprise once again.