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Newcomers Yelich, Cain will help Crew's lineup

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

PHOENIX -- Considering they came in the third inning of a Tuesday afternoon Spring Training game, you are excused if you missed the back-to-back at-bats that make Brewers manager Craig Counsell so optimistic about his team's odds of improving over last season.

The batters were the Brewers' most notable newcomers, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Yelich went first, hitting with runners at the corners and nobody out against a pitcher -- Colorado's Tyler Anderson -- seeking a strikeout. Yelich worked the right-hander for eight pitches, including a pair of two-strike foul balls, before grounding a single to right field for a run.

PHOENIX -- Considering they came in the third inning of a Tuesday afternoon Spring Training game, you are excused if you missed the back-to-back at-bats that make Brewers manager Craig Counsell so optimistic about his team's odds of improving over last season.

The batters were the Brewers' most notable newcomers, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Yelich went first, hitting with runners at the corners and nobody out against a pitcher -- Colorado's Tyler Anderson -- seeking a strikeout. Yelich worked the right-hander for eight pitches, including a pair of two-strike foul balls, before grounding a single to right field for a run.

Cain came next. He fell behind 1-2, laid off a fastball up and away and forced Anderson to throw another, this time closer to the strike zone, which Cain dumped into left field for another single and another Brewers run.

"I thought those at-bats were really indicative of how we're going to be a little different offensively this year," Counsell said. "Yelich fouled off a bunch of pitches and just hit a ground ball that got through. Then Cain put a ball in play with two strikes as well that ends up falling in there.

"You're going to get lucky once in a while when you put the ball in play, and that's what these guys are going to do."

Video: TEX@MIL: Cain rips RBI double to right center

Over the past two seasons, that's precisely what the Brewers have struggled to do. Milwaukee has set Major League Baseball's dubious all-time record for strikeouts two years running, whiffing 1,543 times in 2016 and 1,571 times in '17. In each of those seasons, the Brewers were below MLB average in scoring runners from third base with less than two outs.

Strikeouts are up across the game, so the Brewers are not alone in their swings and misses. A full half of the 50 worst team single-season strikeout totals have been compiled in the past two seasons. But after spending the 2016-17 seasons getting more balanced with the addition of left-handed hitters Travis Shaw and Eric Thames, Brewers general manager David Stearns saw the winter of '17-18 as an opportunity to address the strikeout problem by stunning the baseball world by landing Cain and Yelich.

Stearns sealed both deals within the span of a few hours on Jan. 25. Cain agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract. Yelich, also under club control for the next five years, came via a blockbuster trade with the Marlins.

Only 14 qualified hitters last season had a lower strikeout rate than Cain's 15.5 percent with an OPS north of Cain's .803. Yelich struck out a bit more (19.7 percent), but he was right at the median of MLB's qualified hitters.

"It's going to have an effect," said Shaw, last year's club MVP after he hit 31 home runs. "I personally don't like to strike out. Each year, my percentage has gone down. Obviously, with power hitters, you're going to have more strikeouts, because you're not always going to want to cut down on your swing with two strikes.

"But with those two guys at the top of the order -- especially with them at the top of the order -- it's going to give us in the middle of the order opportunities with guys on base. That's going to impact the lineup. I think you're going to see more guys cut down with two strikes and put the ball in play."

Video: LAD@MIL: Yelich hits his first homer with Brewers

Counsell has not revealed anything about his plans for the lineup, probably because he intends to move players around as in 2017, when the Brewers used 123 different combinations, not including the pitcher's spot. Cain, a right-handed hitter coming off a .363 on-base percentage last year, and Yelich, who bats left-handed and reached base at a .369 clip in 17, are natural fits for the top two spots.

Shaw thinks other players, including still-developing ones like himself, Domingo Santana and third-year shortstop Orlando Arcia, will see those plate appearances and think, "Oh, OK. Maybe I'll try this, too."

"Look, you watch your teammates," Counsell said. "You know, if other guys' [strikeout] numbers go down, I would account it more towards them being a year older and a year more experienced. Just growth as a hitter."

Time will tell.

"There's still questions across the board," Shaw said. "For us as an offense, I think we're going to be really good. But we have to see how the pieces are going to fit. Everybody is still here, and that was a big question coming into spring. We're going to have to find at-bats for everybody."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich