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Brewers’ stellar 2018 season accentuated by Yelich, bullpen

Although the Brewers’ 2018 season ended in heartbreak– with images of controversial Manny Machado slides and Yasiel Puig dancing around the bases ingrained into fans’ minds– Milwaukee appears set to be a perennial contender. What were expected to be rebuilding years for the club have instead been the opposite, and after winning the National League Central Division and pushing the Dodgers to the brink in a seven-game National League Championship Series, the future is bright for the Brewers.

Coming off of a 2017 season in which they missed the second National League Wild Card spot by one game, the Brewers were expected to be active during the offseason, particularly in the market for starting pitchers. However, General Manager David Stearns took a different route, instead adding to the outfield, already a position of great depth for the Brewers. It came as a surprise when the Brewers made two major moves, both on the night of Jan. 26, 2018, in sending four top prospects to the Marlins in exchange for Christian Yelich and inking Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal.

The moves received a bit of criticism at the time. Some questioned giving the 32-year-old Cain a multi-year deal given his age, while others thought Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz and Jordan Yamamoto were too steep a price to pay for Yelich. The moves also left the fate of the Brewers’ starting outfield in 2017– Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana– unclear.

However, those doubts were quickly silenced. Cain proved he is still one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, as his .308 average, .395 on-base percentage and 30 stolen bases were among the best in the NL. Yelich, meanwhile, blossomed into one of the best players in baseball; his .326 average was good for the NL batting title, the first in Brewers history. He also led the league in slugging percentage (.598) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.000), and was a Triple Crown contender until the final day of the season with 36 home runs and 110 RBIs.

The fantastic production from Cain and Yelich was all the more important because most members of the Brewers’ lineup who had breakout seasons offensively in 2017 experienced significant regression in 2018. After hitting 30 home runs in 2017, Santana’s power diminished, and he ended up spending most of the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Third baseman Travis Shaw continued to hit for power, but his average fell to .241, a significant drop from his .273 in 2017. The story is the same for catcher Manny Pina, whose average fell from .279 to .252, although he continued his great defensive work behind the plate. Shortstop Orlando Arcia followed a promising season in which he hit .277 with a terrible start in 2018, which led to multiple demotions to Triple-A.

Seeking to shore up their offensively weak middle infield, the Brewers made several moves at the trade deadline. The most significant of these was third baseman Mike Moustakas, who was acquired from Kansas City in exchange for Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez. Moustakas, who shifted Shaw to second base, was solid, hitting eight home runs and driving in 33 in 54 games with Milwaukee. He also provided excellent defense at third base. The Brewers’ other major acquisition at the deadline, Orioles infielder Jonathan Schoop, did not work out the way they had hoped. The former All-Star hit just .202 with a  .246 on-base percentage in 46 games after the trade and ended up losing most of his playing time to utility man Hernan Perez.

Despite the fact the Brewers had one of the best offenses in baseball in 2018– they were second in the NL in home runs behind the Dodgers– it can be argued that the reason the Brewers nearly earned their first World Series appearance since 1982 was their fantastic bullpen. Lefty Josh Hader proved himself as possibly the best reliever in baseball, as he struck out 143 batters in 81 1/3 innings, good for a ridiculous 15.8 K/9. Right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, who posted a 1.29 ERA in 76 2/3 innings, joined Hader on the NL All-Star team. Corey Knebel, the Brewers’ All-Star closer in 2017, struggled to find himself for most of the season, but after returning from a demotion to the minors in September, he did not allow a run for the rest of the season.

The bullpen picked up a starting rotation that was inconsistent largely due to injuries. Jimmy Nelson, who likely would have been the Brewers’ ace in 2018, missed the entire season after shoulder surgery, while Zach Davies also dealt with numerous injuries throughout the season. Although he stayed healthy for the most part, Chase Anderson regressed significantly after a breakout season in 2017. The Brewers’ most reliable starter by far in 2018 was Jhoulys Chacin, who was quietly signed to a two-year, $15.5 million deal last December. He was expected to be a back-of-the-rotation arm, but ended up going 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. Chacin pitched well in several of the Brewers’ most meaningful games, including game 163 against the Cubs.

Unlike the 2011 season, after which the Brewers’ lost several of their most valuable players– such as Prince Fielder– to free agency, the team will retain most of its roster for the 2019 season. If starting pitchers such as Nelson and Davies can stay healthy in 2019, there is no reason the Brewers shouldn’t be contenders once again next year. The immediate future is bright in Milwaukee.

 

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