Major League Baseball intends to kick off its regular season on July 23. The season will be an abbreviated one, lasting just 60 games and featuring a slew of modifications, including a universal DH and altered extra-inning rules. Even the rosters will be different, with teams carrying 30 players to begin the year before gradually getting down to 26.
Because you can't have a baseball season without team previews, we'll be touching on every team between now and Opening Day. Today, that means highlighting the Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have reached the postseason in each of the past two seasons, and each October ended with disappointment. In 2018, it was a Game 7 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. In 2019, it was Trent Grisham's misplay that enabled the Washington Nationals to rally and continue their miracle run to a World Series title.
What will 2020 hold for the Brewers? Let's find out.
Win total projection, odds
2020 Sportsline projection: 32-28
World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): 27/1
2019 record: 89-73
- 3B Eric Sogard
- CF Lorenzo Cain
- LF Christian Yelich
- 2B Keston Hiura
- DH Ryan Braun
- 1B Justin Smoak
- RF Avisail Garcia
- C Omar Narvaez
- SS Luis Urias
The Brewers made a number of changes to their lineup over the winter. Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, and Trent Grisham are long gone. In their places are veteran additions like Sogard, Garcia, Smoak, and Narvaez. There's also Urias, who could form an intriguing double-play combination with Hiura. Some other names to keep in mind as the season burns on: Ryon Healy, Jacob Nottingham, and Corey Ray.
Woodruff and Houser are the only starters to return from last season. The Brewers added Anderson and Lindblom on bargain-bin free-agent deals, and acquired Lauer as part of the Urias-Grisham trade that also sent out Zach Davies. Should anyone get injured, the Brewers could turn to veteran Shelby Miller, who was in camp as a non-roster invitee. In other words, the Brewers will have to get creative again at some point this year.
- Closer: LHP Josh Hader
- Setup: RHP Corey Knebel, RHP Freddy Peralta
- Middle: LHP Brent Suter, RHP Corbin Burnes, RHP David Phelps, LHP Alex Claudio
- Long: RHP Bobby Wahl
The Brewers have the potential for a strong bullpen, led again by Hader and a returning Knebel. Peralta, Suter, and Burnes could give Milwaukee the kind of depth necessary to cover for a potentially shaky rotation. Drew Rasmussen, Trey Supak, Devin Williams, Eric Yardley, and Angel Perdomo could factor in here as well.
Will Yelich, Cain return to form?
The biggest question facing the Brewers doesn't concern their pitching staff -- though we will touch on that in a moment -- but how Yelich and Cain will perform this season.
With Yelich, the concern isn't with last season's performance. (He hit .329/.429/.671 with 44 home runs in 130 games, in case anyone forgot.) It's with his health. He hasn't played in a meaningful game since fracturing his kneecap last September, and it's always fair to wonder how a player will rebound from a serious injury until they prove it's not a big deal. Hopefully Yelich will do just that, and quickly -- for his and the team's sake, and for the game as a whole.
As for Cain, he played through numerous injuries en route to a disappointing season at the plate (81 OPS+). Despite that, and his advanced age, there is reason for optimism heading into the season. For starters, he still provided value in center field and on the basepaths. There's also the fact his exit velocity was the highest he had produced since 2015. The Brewers at least examined the possibility of moving Cain during the offseason, per league sources, and it wouldn't be surprising if he performs well enough to attract more suitors this winter.
Can the rotation work?
Few contenders have rotations that look this flimsy on paper. It's easy to see things going really, really wrong with this group for both health and performance reasons. Let's explain by hitting on each of the Brewers' top five starters:
- Woodruff is the closest thing Milwaukee has to an ace. He made the All-Star Game last season and delivered a 123 ERA+ over 121 innings. The main knock against him is durability. His professional-high in innings is 158, and that came in 2016. He's averaged 118 innings, majors-plus-minors, over the last three seasons. Of course, it can be argued that his durability issues are less likely to pop up over 60 games, but who knows.
Houser was a pleasant surprise last season thanks to his ability to suppress quality contact. In his final 12 starts, he compiled a 3.28 ERA and struck out 47 more batters than he walked in 57 innings. Before anyone buys all the way in, it's important to note that the Brewers micromanaged his appearances late in the year. He faced more than 18 batters, or navigated a lineup more than twice, just once in his six September starts. It stands to reason that it'll be harder to protect against exposure over a full(ish) season.
Anderson made 31 starts for the Athletics last season, which was notable in part because he'd made 33 starts over the previous three years. Again, maybe his durability issues won't be evident over a shorter schedule.
Lindblom's impressive run in Korea inspired the Brewers to hand him a three-year deal. He'd pitched a fair amount in the majors before heading overseas, tallying 147 innings and a 97 ERA+ across five seasons spent mostly in relief. The Brewers are hopeful his second go-around will see him stick near the back of the rotation.
And then there's Lauer, who is a nondescript back-end left-handed starter.
Should any of the five go down, the Brewers could be forced to turn to the likes of Shelby Miller, Jake Faria, or any number of other pitchers who aren't clearly big-league caliber starters. Or, perhaps as likely, they'll turn to Craig Counsell with a creative plan that sidesteps their weakness.
Some assembly required
Counsell has proven to be a skillful tactician during his time as Brewers manager. He's going to have to prove that again this season based on his pitching staff.
As noted above, the Brewers don't have a deep rotation. They do have the chance to field a strong bullpen, however, and that could afford Counsell some creative routes to 27 outs. It shouldn't surprise anyone if the Brewers experiment with all kinds of pitching strategies: bullpen games, openers, piggyback situations, and so on.
Doing so during an abbreviated season might be particularly rough, since pitchers might not be as prepared as they would during a normal campaign, but Counsell seems like one of the few managers up for the task. In that sense, Milwaukee is a difficult team to peg. What looks like a weakness could be patched over by a clever approach and some good luck.