Paul Heinz

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The 2019 Brewers

It’s hard for Brewers fans not to be optimistic for the upcoming season, which is exactly what makes a lot of Brewers fans worried.  It’s so much easier to go into a season with low expectations, but after defying the odds in 2018 by winning the NL Central and making it to Game 7 of the NLCS, owner Mark Attanasio and GM David Stearns are all in, spending an unprecedented amount (for the franchise, that is) to make a run for the World Series.  There’s reason to think the Crew can make it happen again.  There are also a few reasons why they may not.

Offensively, the Brewers have the potential to score a helluva lot of runs, especially if shortstop Orlando Arcia can play up to 2017 levels.  Looking at the likely regular starting lineup, there’s not an easy out in the bunch, and each player can do some damage with the longball, something fans should see plenty of with the addition of catcher Yasmani Grandal and the resigning of (this year) second baseman Mike Moustakas.  The Brewers also have a lot of nice options to play matchups against righties and lefties with the aforementioned additions plus outfielder Ben Gamel.  Yes, this roster is going to strike out a lot, and fans will slap their heads from time to time when guys like Shaw and Moustakas refuse to bunt against the shift (Don’t think this matters?  Review Game 2 of the NLCS), but overall, expect to see an entertaining offense in 2019.

So why the worry?  Pitching.  It’s notable that most Brewers fans had the same worries last year, yet the Crew ended up with the fourth best ERA in the league, largely due to manager Counsell’s effective “out-getter” strategy, eschewing the traditional starter-closer roles in favor of getting outs where it mattered most by any means necessary.  Generally, I liked this strategy, as I hate what the closer role has become and the Brewers can’t afford marque starters, but sometimes the strategy fell victim to overmanaging (taking Wide Miley out in the sixth inning of game 2 of the NLCS after only 74 very effective pitches).

But this year the Crew is going with a group of very young and unproven starters, including three who played important reliever roles last year: Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and 22 year-old Freddy Peralta.  The success of the Brewers depends largely on whether this trio can pitch reasonably effectively for an entire season.  Starter Jimmy Nelson is still trying to regain his strength after a 2017 shoulder injury that likely led to the Crew missing the playoffs that year.  Whether he will ever pitch regularly in the MLB again is big question mark.  To make matters more concerning, the Brewers recently discovered that reliever extraordinaire Corey Knebel has a UCL injury, and earlier in spring training it was deemed that Jeremy Jeffress would not start the season with the team, as he needs to build up arm strength after a shoulder injury. 

So, a lot of question marks for sure, but it would be wise not to bet against Stearns and Counsell, who’ve managed to find a way to put a winning team on the field even when it seemed unlikely.  So what’s my prediction?  I would be surprised if the Brewers managed to win the NL Central again – it’s going to be a very good division this year, with the Cubs and Cardinals likely contending for the division crown – but I would be just as surprised if the Crew wasn’t at least in the September hunt for a wild card berth.  Their 88-74 finish may get them into their first back-to-back playoff appearance since 1982.

Post-Playoff Hangover

It would be disingenuous to say that the Brewers loss in Game 7 of the NLCS on Saturday night wasn’t disappointing, but at the same time, it can hardly be categorized as heartbreaking.  As my friend said to me in the middle of September when the Brewers were embarking on a great run toward the playoffs, “We’re playing with house money.”  No one expected the Brewers to play as well as they did in September, and few thought that a division title and advancing to the World Series was within the Crew’s grasp.  It’s hard to be too upset when the team so overwhelmingly defied expectations.

And the playoffs led to such great times, too.  I got to see a game with my old buddy from way back in grade school, I flew to California to attend one game with my daughter, drove up to Milwaukee to attend another with my son, and my wife and I gathered at my friend’s house for an evening of drinks, snacks and baseball on glorious high def.  I got to hang out with my sister’s family several times, and I even got to see Christian Yelich hit for his second cycle in September with a couple of buddies.  Not too shabby.  

But all of this has led to a bit of a post-playoff hangover for me.  Baseball had become such a glorious time-suck, that now suddenly, after weeks of having every bit of free time filled, the onus is on me to fill my time productively.  No more evenings watching the game on TV, mornings reading about the same game on-line, and afternoons texting like-minded friends about strategy and predictions.  No more restless nights with visions of the first World Series appearance in thirty-six years.  No more games to look forward to.  Now, instead of relying on others to entertain me, I have to entertain myself, which means tackling a basement project that I started last spring just as the 2018 baseball season was budding.  It’s back to reality, and it’s not necessarily a reality I want to face.

Still, I have another baseball season to look forward to, when I’ll once again set aside my personal aspirations in favor of the aspirations of others, and go along for the ride.  As disheartening as the end of this year’s playoffs was for the Brewers – being literally one good bullpen outing and one hit away from actually sweeping the Dodgers in four games – less disheartening is the core of players that are sure to return next year, and how that core might evolve.  Brewers owner Mark Attanasio commented on Saturday that the end of 2018 feels different than in 2011, when the Brewers lost the NLCS in six games.  That year felt like the end of something, where this year feels like it’s just the beginning.

My unmotivated self can’t wait.

The Tale of Two Fan Bases

The tale of two fan bases: my daughter purchased tickets for Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium for $78 - for actual seats, not standing room only.  By contrast, tickets for Game 1 of the NLCS at Miller Park are going for $120 for standing room only.  The population of metropolitan Los Angeles is 13 million.  The population for metropolitan Milwaukee is 1.5 million.  And while total MLB attendance dropped by 4% this year, the Brewers attendance increased by just shy of 8%, drawing the tenth largest attendance in the league, at 2,850,875.  Not too shabby for the smallest market of thirty MLB teams.  To be fair, the Dodgers have the highest attendance in the entire league, but this is due not only to the size of the city, but to the size of Dodger Stadium (56,000 vs. 42,000 for Miller Park).

But regarding demand for playoff games, the larger issue is undoubtedly past success. 

It was fun last week listening to Cubs fans complain about losing the division tie-breaker and instead making the playoffs as a lowly wild card, when just four short years ago they would have been thrilled to have been in the hunt.  Now that Cubs fans have tasted success, nothing short of domination is deemed acceptable.  I’ve experienced similar feelings with the Packers.  After winning Super Bowl XLV, it was assumed that Green Bay would be back the next year and the year after that.  No such luck; the subsequent years ended in bitter disappointment.  Only Patriots fans know the boredom that comes with continuous success.

Brewer fans have no such worries.  In nearly fifty years as a franchise, 2018 is only the Brewers’ third league championship.  For many Brewer fans, no matter what happens in the NLCS, this year has been a success, a terrific run, unexpected and a total blast.

But you would think Dodger fans would have similar feelings.  Sure, they were in the World Series last year, but they haven’t won it all since 1988, and they came oh so achingly close to winning it all last year, falling just one game short, that you would think fans would be chomping at the bit, desperate to witness their first world championship in thirty years. 

No doubt, each playoff game from here on out will be a tough ticket, whether basking in the sun of Los Angeles or getting ready for winter in Milwaukee.  But as a Brewers fan, it’s hard not to be thrilled not only with the team’s performance, but with the fans who are making my attempts to buy tickets a royal pain in the ass (and a jolt to my bank account).

I couldn’t be prouder.

The Brewers' Home Stretch

When I last wrote about the Brewers on May 31, the Crew was in first place, and I wondered about the lack of starting pitching and whether the relief staff would be able to be effective throughout the long season.  The next three months were no picnic for Brewers fans, as they finished just one game over .500 from June 1 through August 31, slipping out of first place to the Cubs by the end of July and slipping out of second by the end of August. But unlike years past, the Brewers have managed to bend but not break.

For me the season’s nadir was a 9-1 defeat against the Pirates on August 25.  I texted a fellow Brewer fan, “I think that’s the end of the road for the Crew.”  Here we are less than three weeks later, and the Brewers are on a seven-series winning streak, having won 16 of the last 22 games, including 4 of 6 against the division-leading Chicago Cubs, and culminating in an exciting 5-1 victory last night to pull to within one game of first place.  With fifteen games left to play, the Brewers, at 84-63, have matched the number of victories I predicted they would win at the beginning of the year.  I couldn’t be happier for having been wrong.

So what happened?  Why has this year’s team been able to hang in there?  I think there are a few reasons:

1)     Mid-season pickups:  general manager David Stearns didn’t find the solid starting pitcher he’d been hoping for, but he did manage to pick up three players before each trading deadline, finding just enough talent to help bolster a tired team.  Prior to August 1, he traded for relief pitcher Joakim Soria, and infielders Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop.  Soria helped bolster the bullpen just as the unit that had been so incredible for the first half of the season was starting to show signs of fatigue, and while Schoop has been a disappointment thus far, Moustakas has given the Crew a solid bat, allowing manager Craig Counsell to adjust the lineup based on matchups.  Then, prior to September 1, Stearns once again picked up three players: relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno, starter Gio Gonzales and outfielder Curtis Granderson, the hero of last night’s game.  Time will tell how these three contribute, but there’s no question that having Gonzalez as another starting option in lieu of the struggling Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta is a plus, and Granderson gives the Brewers another option in the outfield where Eric Thames has been an absolute bust, both offensively and defensively. 

2)     September call-ups arrived just in time.  The relief staff had endured injuries and sub-par performances from Matt Albers, Corey Knebel and Dan Jennings, and even Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress showed signed of wear during the dog days of August.  With September call-ups, Counsell can now give relievers the time off they need and pull starters at the first sign of trouble.  Case in point: last night starting pitcher Chase Anderson left the game after four innings of shutout ball.  Why?  Well, he’d gotten hit pretty hard during those four innings, and the Brewers have an excellent relief staff with a day off today, so there was no reason not to throw everything at the Cubs.  Unlike so many of Counsell’s predecessors, he’s willing to treat today like there’s no tomorrow.  This bodes well for a team that still might end up making the playoffs as a wild card, a game that can and should be treated like the seventh game of the World Series.

3)     The return of Zach Davies.  The starting pitching has been just good enough this year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that seven starters have spent time on the DL this year, including a total season loss of Jimmy Nelson, a first half loss of Wade Miley and a second half loss (and all of next year) of Brent Suter.  These are not run-of-the-mill DL stints, yet somehow the Brewers starters have kept it together.  Davies’s return came just in time, and if Gio Gonzalez manages to pitch well for his three remaining starts, the Brewers should be in good shape until playoff time.  After that, all bets are off.

4) Lorenzo Cain and Chistian Yelich. Enough said.

Winning a wild-card berth is cold comfort these days in the MLB; a one-game playoff is a cruel reward, and I love that the Brewers at least have a chance to win the division.  It’s important to note that National League parody has allowed teams like the Brewers to stay in the hunt this year – the Brewers’ .571 winning percentage would place them in a distant third place in two of the three American League divisions.  But unlike the AL, the NL doesn’t have any doormats in the league; there’s no Baltimore Orioles or Kansas City Royals to beat up on (even the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres have shown signs of life).  But the NL Central is eminently competitive.  Think the Cincinnati Reds blow?  Tell that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finally beat the Reds last night to finish the season series 1-6.  The Boston Red Sox may have an incredible team, but 20 percent of their 100 wins have come against two teams: the Orioles and Royals.  It’s entirely possible that Boston isn’t as unstoppable as some claim. 

Then again, this year’s World Series might play second fiddle to the Main Event of the ALCS.  We shall see, but I’m hoping against hope that the Brewers will be a part of it somehow.  No matter what happens, it’s been a fun 2018.

Brewers in First Place (for now)

It’s the end of May, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in first place. This ain’t my first rodeo when it comes to rooting for a first-place team in May. Even those with short memories will recall that the Crew led the NL Central at the All-Star break last year by 5 ½ games, only to falter in July and fall behind the Cubs, ultimately finishing one game short of the second wild card. The standings were even crueler to Milwaukee in 2014, when the team had the best record in baseball at the end of June but finished 31-47, good for third-place, two games over .500. 

At the beginning of this year I predicted a disappointing 84 victories mostly due to the starting pitching. I wrote then, “My guess is that before it’s all said and done, a deal will be made for pitching, but this can only happen if the Brewers play well enough during the first half to make a mid-season trade viable. Can they hang in there long enough?” It looks like they might, which makes a mid-season trade for a starting pitcher a very likely outcome that could push the Crew into a legitimate playoff threat. If starter Jimmy Nelson can return from a long stint on the DL and contribute, that would be an added bonus, but one I hope the team isn’t banking on.

While Brewer victories in April came at the expense of terrible teams – notably the Padres, Royals, Marlins and Reds – there's no denying that their performance in May over the likes of Arizona (albeit, a struggling Arizona), New York, St. Louis and Colorado has been impressive. They finished the month eleven games over .500 without losing back-to-back games, and while the starting pitching and hitting have had moments of effectiveness, there’s no question that the Brewers’ success to date is the result of its relief core, a complete one-eighty from last year when the starting pitching was quite good, but the bullpen consistently lost leads in late innings. This year, the relief staff has been incredible - the Brewers are 30-0 in games they've lead after seven innings. Credit Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader for sure, but also credit Counsell, who’s shed the firm roles that baseball has been married to for so many years. Gone are the days of former Brewer manager Ron Roenicke reserving specific players for specific innings. Instead, Counsell has used relief pitchers for two or even two-plus innings, and general manager David Stearns has utilized player options effectively, sending arms down and bringing up rested arms at key moments.

Another factor has been the consistent offensive performances of off-season pickups Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, along with Jesus Aguilar, who began the year as the third-string first baseman but who's been on fire since filling in for injured Eric Thames and Ryan Braun. What happens when Thames returns is open to debate, but I wouldn’t rule out a trade that includes either Thames or Aguilar, along with either outfielders Keon Broxton – currently in triple A – or Domingo Santana. Obtaining a starting pitcher for some combination of those four players would be a justifiable move come July.

One issue that I have with Counsell and that will likely need to be addressed is his aversion to allow starting pitchers to go much beyond the fifth inning even when they’ve had success and have modest pitch counts. His philosophy seems to be: “We’ve got a good relief staff, let’s use them.” This has worked so far, and Counsell has been quick to give starters Chacin and Guerra the heave-ho after five innings and only 75 pitches (yesterday, he let Guerra go six with 90 pitches thrown – an improvement). Will this lead to tired arms in the bullpen?  Or could it actually help the starters down the stretch? Hard to say, but I’m more worried about the former. If Hader or Jeffress become ineffective come August, watch out.

But what makes me more optimistic this year than anything is the fact that last weekend the Brewers demoted shortstop Orlando Arcia to Triple AAA and placed backup catcher Jett Bandy on assignment. To me, these moves spoke volumes, indicating that the Brewers are no longer going to put up with batting averages of .190. Players need to be held accountable. Arcia is back due to an ankle injury to Tyler Saladino, but the message was sent: perform or get sent down.

There’s little point in discussing how the Crew would fair were they to make the playoffs and face the likes of Lester, Scherzer, and Arietta on a regular basis. The team has proven that they can’t hit high-quality pitching, having been shut out as many times in two months as in all of 2017, including five against the Cubs, who are now 7-1 against the Brewers. But the goal for now is to make the playoffs and then see what kind of strategy can be formulated to beat high-caliber teams. Counsell has proven to do what it takes to win games, and if a few hitters get hot at the right time, you never know what might transpire in October. I only hope they get the chance.

Will I eat my words if they win the division? Gladly, dipped in chocolate with a bourbon chaser.  I don't want to share with you what lengths of unethical behavior I would happily conduct to see the Milwaukee Brewers win a World Series. Saying, “I was wrong,” is the least of my concerns.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved