How Brewers can 'surprise a lot of folks' in '23

March 27th, 2023

PHOENIX -- There’s urgency every year, but it’s fair to say there’s special urgency this year for manager Craig Counsell and the Brewers.

Left out of the postseason last year for the first time since 2017, the Brewers still have most of the core intact that has carried the franchise through its most successful five-year stretch since the days of Bambi’s Bombers and Harvey’s Wallbangers. Among National League clubs, only the Dodgers and Braves have won more games over the last five years than the Brewers.

But now the Brewers are approaching a crossroads. , , , and all have two seasons of club control, putting them in the same position contractually as going into last season. The end is not imminent, the window is not necessarily closing. But with Counsell, who is entering his ninth season, going into a contract year in 2023, this group would like to go to the World Series together, and this season represents their best opportunity to do it.

“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish last year; I know that’s been a very popular topic,” said at the onset of camp. “But look, each year is its own year. We have a great opportunity in front of us and we’ll see what we can do with it.”

Said Woodruff: “Hopefully, we’ll surprise a lot of folks. Last year, I think we learned from that, and I think we'll use that to our advantage this year. We’ve got a lot of new faces and I think we’ve just got to get everybody on the same page and pulling in the same direction. I think that's going to be super important.”

What needs to go right?
The Brewers are deep in starting pitching and have a better lineup than you think (just look at the numbers -- they were 10th last year in runs per game). But they are relying on a whole lot of things to go right in the bullpen. Will Devin Williams continue to thrive now that he’s entering his first full season as the closer? Can solve his propensity for the long ball? Can and build on last year’s breakouts? Will thrive in relief when he would prefer to start? When will be back from his shoulder injury? Which unknowns will emerge?

“We have a lot of guys that have a lot to prove, I think,” Brewers GM Matt Arnold said. “But we have a lot of interesting arms. We know that there are a number of guys that have shown flashes, we have a number of guys that have a tremendous amount of ability, and really, really good stuff. But they're going to have to earn that opportunity.”

Great unknown
Which version of Yelich will they get? Yelich was valuable last season as a leadoff man who made things happen on the basepaths. The Brewers would much prefer he returns to run-production, even if it’s unfair to expect Yelich to replicate his all-world performances in 2018 and ‘19. He reported to Spring Training refreshed after dropping off the grid for much of the winter, and he spoke at length in mid-March about shouldering heavy expectations. If he succeeds, it would be a huge boost to the Brewers’ offense, something of an unknown itself, compared to the solid starting pitching.

Team MVP will be …
The starting rotation. Brewers starters finished 12th last year with a 3.75 ERA and 13th at 12.3 fWAR despite getting a career-best 202 innings from Burnes, who became the first pitcher in franchise history to lead his league in strikeouts. The problem was that he was the only pitcher to make all of his starts. Particularly tough was losing Woodruff to a circulation issue in his fingers and Freddy Peralta to a shoulder injury. Both Woodruff and Peralta have been standouts this spring. The Brewers are going into this year, they believe, with better rotation depth. And they hope to get a boost in June or so with the return of Ashby from a shoulder injury.

Team Cy Young will be …
Burnes. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink.

Bold prediction
Burnes will become the Brewers’ first two-time Cy Young Award winner. Is there a more motivated player in MLB? The 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner and ‘22 NL strikeout king arrived in camp intent on proving his worth in his penultimate season before free agency. He proved his durability last year by topping 200 innings for the first time.

“When I'm out on the field,” Burnes said, “I'm going to do what I do. That hasn't changed.”