Paul Heinz

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Filtering by Tag: Craig Counsell

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.

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.

The 2017 Brewers

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.

Bet on the Brewers?

It’s been one long writing hiatus (my longest since starting this website),  but in my defense I was extremely busy watching baseball.  When I invested yet again in MLB.TV at the beginning of the season, I had assumed that by mid-May my lowly Brewers would be bringing up the rear and I’d be onto other summertime activities like tending the garden and exercising (oh yeah, and writing). Fortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers have saved me from that fate, and while my tomatoes are suffering from dry rot and my waste line is enjoying recent growth, my Brewers are in first place by 51/2 games at the All-Star Break.

Surprised?  Well, yeah, but perhaps less by the Brewers and more by the other teams in the NL Central.

I had predicted a win total of perhaps 77-83 wins this year, an improvement over last year’s 73, but not enough to make a shot at the playoffs, especially with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.  And that’s the real surprise, that to date these two teams haven’t been able to get it together.  As for the Crew, well...there’s still time to meet my prediction.  Yes, I’m cautiously optimistic, but I also have a memory, albeit one that regularly forgets where I placed my phone.

As the Doonesbury character Duke discovered back in 1982, it’s never wise to bet your last ten dollars on the Brewers.

Brewer fans don’t need long memories to remember two disastrous second half collapses.  We need go no further back that 2014, the year the Brewers enjoyed the best record in baseball and a 6 ½ game lead at the end of June, only to go 31-47 the rest of the way to finish third with an 82-80 record (which ordinarily would have been a pretty good season for the Crew).

And let’s not forget a decade earlier, when the Brewer suffered the worst second half ever for a team that entered the All-Star Break with a winning record, going 22-53, scoring two or fewer runs 33 times, and finishing last in the division.

And even in 2008 when the Brewers managed to make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, the Crew had a terrible September, going 4-15 before winning six of their final seven to squeeze into the post-season with a 90-72 record.  It got so bad that final month of the season that Ned Yost was fired as manager with just 12 games to play.

Will the 2017 Crew suffer a similar fate?  Hard to say, but there are a few reasons to remain optimistic.  First, this year’s team has suffered some enormous blows without folding, two of them the result of National League rules.  Opening day starter Junior Guerra lasted just three innings before going on the DL after injuring his leg leaving the batter’s box.  Similarly, Chase Anderson - the best Brewers starting pitcher this season - suffered an oblique injury while taking a swing and will be out likely until the end of August.  Add to that the continued injuries of Ryan Braun (no steroids equals no playing time, apparently), and you might expect this team to struggle.  Not so.  The bench on this team as constructed by general manager David Stearns is deep, so much so that manager Craig Counsell claims his team doesn’t have a bench.  Rather, they have interchangeable parts, all of them formidable, from waiver acquisitions Eric Sogard and Stephen Vogt and trade acquisitions Travis Shaw and Manny Pina,  to utility men Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar to recent signee Eric Thames, every day seems to highlight a new hero.  If there’s cause for concern, it’s the alarming number of strikeouts (the Crew one again leads the league in this category) and I have to wonder how the lineup is going to fair against the elite pitchers on the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.  The weakest link in the chain so far is center fielder Keon Broxton, who - despite moments of brilliance and solid defense - can’t seem to find any consistency behind the plate, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t a Brewer next year.

But if the Brewer position players generally lead one to feel optimistic, the pitching staff may cause a few fans to squirm in their seats.  When Matt Garza is your third most reliable starter, you might concede that the second half could be rough, yet somehow through it all - through injuries to two starters and a bullpen that struggled mightily early in the season, Milwaukee has the 8th best ERA in the Major Leagues.  And recently the starting staff, bolstered by Anderson’s replacement Brent Suter and a reinvigorated Jimmy Nelson, has finally given the bullpen some rest after it was overused for the first two months of the season.  Will the young pitching staff be able to stay strong throughout a long second half?  This is the biggest question mark the Brewers face, and no doubt one that David Stearns is eying carefully.  

If I’m allowed to alter my prediction of the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers, it would be to add 4 games to the total.  Instead of 77-83 wins, I think they have a chance to finish with 81-87 wins.  Enough to win the National League Central?  Possibly, but I doubt it, as I keep thinking the Cardinals and Cubs will eventually find their way and turn the 2017 Brewer season into a pleasant surprise, but not one that includes games come October.

Either way, I’ll be watching baseball and procrastinating on my hope to one day write the Great American Novel.  But will I bet my last ten dollars on the Crew?  Not a chance.  

But next year?  Quite likely.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved