With the Brewers finishing just a game behind playoff contention, it’s tempting to play the what-if game. Even Brewer manager Craig Counsell admitted as much: "We'll always look back and want more," Counsell said. "We played so many close games that it's an easy season to play 'what if' a little bit. But we were on the other end of those games, too.”
Indeed. The Crew played more close games than any other team in the MLB this season, and overall the results were good, but it’s hard not to look back on some of those early games and ask what if. What if Counsell hadn’t stuck so long with original closer Neftali Feliz? Or second baseman Jonathan Villar? Or centerfielder Keon Broxton? Or starter Matt Garza? Or set-up man Jacob Barnes?
Or a bigger what-if question: what if general manager David Stearns hadn’t inexplicably let second-baseman Scooter Gennett go before the start of the season for nothing in return? This one had me scratching my head last April and now it’s more of a head-slapper, as Gennett went on to hit .295 with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs for the last-place Reds. Avoiding that blunder alone would likely have pushed the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Or another transaction that I believe will bite the Brewers in the ass if it hasn’t already: the trade of first-baseman Garrett Cooper for reliver Tyler Webb, who lasted all of two games before returning to the minors. Eric Thames, after performing at a blistering pace in April, proved to be just another Chris Carter: lots of strike outs and a fair number of home runs, but overall a liability (I would rather have seen Jesus Agular get more playing time) and the question of a reliable first-baseman – something Milwaukee has lacked since Prince Fielder in 2011 - remains. Is Thames really the guy you want to go with for the next several years? And are you now reconsidering whether you should have traded a good minor-league first baseman for a lousy reliever?
But let’s face it. If someone had told me at the start of the season that the Crew was going to win 86 games, I would have been thrilled, and the truth is the Brewers showed enormous resiliency, bouncing back from losing streaks and avoiding total collapse in spite of losing not one, not two, but THREE starting pitchers on the basepaths, all three of whom were considered the Brewers’ number one starter at the time: Junior Guerra on opening day, Chase Anderson in June and – the final nail in the coffin – Jimmy Nelson in September. You have to hand it to the coaching staff on this one. Somehow the Brewers managed to have the 9th best ERA in 2017, and even though I really, really, really wanted the Brewers to make it to the playoffs, the reality is they didn’t have enough left in the tank to go any further. They were running on fumes ever since Nelson went down. Had Guerra, Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Garza or someone else proved to be as effective a starter things might have been different, but such is baseball in the National League. Though the game itself is a lot more entertaining in the NL, sometimes pitchers hurt themselves at the plate or on the basepaths, and this year the Brewers suffered more than their fair share of injuries.
I wrote a blog back at the all-star break about the Brewers who were then 5 ½ games out in front, and I predicted then that the Crew would win somewhere between 81 and 87 wins but fall short of the playoffs. I was right. Just after the break, the Crew went on a predictable 5-11 run that pushed them out of first place, never to return. But although the Brewers only finished one game over .500 after the All-star break, given the history of this franchise and the horrific weeks following the break, the team remained surprisingly resilient. Credit Counsell and his coaching staff, and credit Stearns with some good July acquisitions, including Neil Walker and Anthony Swarzak, not to mention the promotion of reliever Josh Hader, who looks to be a potential pitching stud in years to come.
So what to expect next year? I’m optimistic despite the team setting (yet again) a new record for strikeouts. I can’t say the Brewers will be favorites to win the NL Central, but I would be surprised if Milwaukee ended the season under .500. Yes, that’s very much a modest sort of Midwestern optimism where mediocrity is considered a blessing, but just expecting your team to finish above .500 is a nice change for a team that’s done so poorly for so long minus a few seasons. With outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson expected to make an impact next year, and with Garza off the books – leaving room for off-season acquisitions – things could get interesting. The big question marks to me are second base (the Crew will likely lose both Walker and Sogard to free agency, and who knows what’ll happen to Villar after a terrible season) and first base (I am not at all convinced that Thames is the answer there, though I suspect Stearns disagrees). And then of course is the massaging of the pitching staff, but there’s some reason for optimism there, too. Brent Suter and Aaron Wilkerson proved to be a potential winning MLB pitchers, and Taylor Jungmann – despite having a terrible time in the Major Leagues – had a tremendous year at Triple A. Perhaps he’s ready now to make an impact at the Big-League level. And even though Counsell loved using Josh Hader as a setup man down the stretch, he’d have to be high not to at least consider him as a starting pitcher for next year. Add to that Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and eventually Jimmy Nelson, once he recovers from surgery, and perhaps the Crew may end up with a decent pitching staff. The relievers lost a lot of games this year – a LOT – but bullpens are something general managers are often able to fix in the off-season.
We shall see. At the very least, 2017 proved to a be an entertaining year for Brewers fans. 2018 will attract higher expectations, but at this point there’s no reason to think the Brewers can’t meet them. It should be fun.
Now let’s just hope the Cubs lay a big old turd in the playoffs.