Despite finish, Brewers’ 2017 season deserves recognition
As it turns out, the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2017 season may not have ended the way it did had they started Aaron Wilkerson instead of Junior Guerra in their second-to-last game of the year. In fact, there was an extremely unlikely scenario in which the Brewers could have been playing division series baseball today.
Instead, Milwaukee was eliminated from playoff contention in a devastating– yet fitting– manner on the second-to-last day of regular-season play, Sept. 30. With their elimination number at one, the Brewers jumped out to a commanding 6-0 lead against the Cardinals, and it looked like they were primed to stay alive in the playoff chase for at least another few hours, barring the outcome of that night’s Dodgers-Rockies contest in Colorado.
It wasn’t meant to be, however. Milwaukee’s bullpen, likely taxed from overuse because of the injuries that crippled the Brewers’ rotation, served up seven unanswered runs, capped off by reliever Anthony Swarzak’s first blown save in a Brewers uniform. With Milwaukee’s loss, the Rockies clinched the National League’s second Wild Card spot before even taking the field that night. Perhaps the most frustrating part is Colorado would go on to lose their final two games against the Dodgers; had the Brewers been able to complete the sweep of the Cardinals instead of taking just two out of three, they would have traveled to Colorado for a game-163 tiebreaker.
Although Milwaukee finished a solid 86-76 on the year– a much better record than anyone expected coming into 2017– the way they were eliminated felt all too familiar to Brewers fans. At the All-Star break, the Brewers held a 5.5-game lead over the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Central division; having to make the playoffs via one of the Wild Card positions wasn’t even a consideration for the team at that time. However, the Brewers fell off a cliff in the second half, at least in terms of offense. After averaging nearly five runs per contest as one of the best hitting teams in baseball in the first half, Milwaukee scored fewer than four runs a game after the All-Star break; only the Tampa Bay Rays were worse offensively in the second half. This allowed the Cubs to pass the Crew and easily take the NL Central.
Despite the disappointing finish, there was a lot to like with the Brewers in 2017, as they weren’t expected to be relevant for another few years. They managed to finish ahead of both the Cardinals and Pirates, each of whom were expected to play role in the playoff chase in 2017, in the NL Central. Milwaukee led the NL in home runs at 224 in spite of their offensive drop-off during the latter half of the season.
The Brewers’ offense was led by an unlikely trio in 2017: Eric Thames, Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana. Thames was arguably the biggest surprise; Milwaukee general manager David Stearns was criticized for releasing Chris Carter– who led the NL in home runs in 2016– and signing Thames, who hadn’t played in the Majors since 2012 (but dominated the Korean Baseball Organization from 2014-2016), to replace him at first base. Stearns looked like the smartest man in baseball after Thames’ historic April, in which he hit .345 with a Major League-leading 11 home runs. Thames tapered off considerably for the next few months, but still finished with 31 bombs and a .359 on-base percentage (OBP).
Shaw also hit 31 homers in 2017, tying Thames for the team lead, but was arguably a more valuable commodity. Shaw’s previous team, the Boston Red Sox, had essentially given up on him after the 2016 season. Stearns took advantage of how little the Sox valued Shaw and acquired the third baseman, along with three other top prospects, in exchange for ace reliever Tyler Thornburg. The trade ended up being perhaps among the most lopsided deals in recent history, as Thornburg didn’t even throw a pitch for Boston in 2017, while Shaw was a lock as the Brewers’ cleanup hitter from opening day onward. To go along with his .273 batting average, Shaw led Milwaukee in RBIs (101), hits (147) and doubles (34), on top of his quietly impressive defense at third base.
Santana’s first few seasons after Milwaukee acquired him from the Houston Astros in mid-2015 were mired by injuries, and the Brewers weren’t quite sure what they had in the slugging right fielder. They found out what a fully healthy Santana is capable of in 2017, however. Santana broke out for 30 home runs and 85 RBIs alongside a solid .278 average. He also led the team with a .371 OBP.
The Brewers received notable offensive seasons from several others who weren’t necessarily expected to be major contributors at the plate. To go along with his spectacular defense behind the plate, Manny Pina quietly led Milwaukee with a .279 batting average. Shortstop Orlando Arcia, the former #1 prospect who is usually touted more so for his defense than hitting ability, hit .277 with 15 dingers. Despite a midseason demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs, Keon Broxton managed to reach the 20-home run threshold; Broxton also stole 21 bases, making him the Brewers’ only 20-20 player in 2017.
Milwaukee’s pitching staff was a massive question mark heading into the 2017 season. The only two starting pitchers who were guaranteed spots in the rotation going into spring training were Junior Guerra (2.81 ERA in 121 innings in 2016) and Zach Davies (3.97 in 161 1/3 innings). Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta, all of whom had ERAs far north of 4.00 in 2016, rounded out the Brewers’ opening day rotation.
No one could have predicted the success this rotation would have. Anderson ended up evolving into the Brewers’ ace, going 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA. He unfortunately only threw 141 1/3 innings due to an oblique strain that caused him to miss nearly two months, and likely would have been elected an All-Star if he weren’t on the disabled list at the time.
Nelson also turned into a frontline starter in 2017, as he posted a 12-6 record alongside a 3.49 ERA. Despite missing most of September and only throwing 175 1/3 innings, Nelson fell just a strikeout short of Milwaukee’s first 200-strikeout season since 2012. The right-hander also turned in the Brewers’ only complete game of the year, which was also their first since 2014.
Davies built off of his solid 2016 season and became Milwaukee’s workhorse in 2017. The righty led the Brewers in wins (17), starts (33) and innings pitched (191 1/3). His 3.90 ERA was nearly identical to that of his 2016 campaign.
Aside from left-hander Brent Suter, who filled in admirably while Anderson was on the disabled list and again when Nelson was shelved, the rest of the rotation was somewhat of a revolving door throughout the season. Guerra, who was rewarded the start on opening day in 2017 after his efforts in 2016, ended up struggling with injuries early in the season and wasn’t the same when he came back. Guerra’s inconsistent velocity, high walk rate and inability to keep the ball in the yard (his HR/9 was a shocking 2.3) were all factors that led to his midseason demotion. Peralta, once considered the ace of the staff, continued to regress in 2017, eventually losing his spot in the rotation. His performance did not improve as a reliever, and he had a 7.85 ERA in 57 1/3 innings on the season when the Brewers finally decided to designate Peralta for assignment. Matt Garza also struggled to a 4.94 ERA in the final season of his four-year contract.
The Brewers’ bullpen was a surprising asset in 2017, especially considering they traded off key relievers such as Thornburg and Will Smith in 2016. After Neftali Feliz, Milwaukee’s closer on opening day, was designated for assignment early in the season, Corey Knebel emerged as the Brewers’ most dominant relief arm. He nailed down 39 saves, was Milwaukee’s lone All-Star, and also broke the franchise record for strikeouts in a season as a reliever. Swarzak, whom the Brewers acquired from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline, was spectacular as Milwaukee’s primary setup man down the stretch. The top pitching prospect in the Brewers’ system, left-hander Josh Hader, also became a valuable piece in the ‘pen.
The Brewers’ 86-76 record in 2017 was their best since going 96-66 in 2011, the last time they made the playoffs. 2017 is also the first time since 2014 that the Brewers have been considered legitimate contenders. However, instead of completely collapsing for the final two months and finishing just two games over .500 as they did in 2014, Milwaukee remained in contention until the final days of the season in 2017.
The Cubs certainly won’t be going away anytime soon, but with the Cardinals and Pirates needing to regroup following down-years, these next few years might be the Brewers’ chance to make a successful run at the Wild Card positions.