Brewers 2017: Piece by Piece...
For sports teams, every season begins as a jigsaw puzzle that’s partly assembled. Some pieces are in place from the previous year but others have vanished. Winning depends on filling the gaps, and several discouraging years make a finished picture hard to imagine.
The Milwaukee Brewers got achingly close to completing their puzzle in 2011 and fairly close in ’14, but then the pieces scattered so badly that new assemblers were brought in. Now the young general manager, David Stearns, and manager Craig Counsell enter their second full season of puzzle work.
Hopes for a dazzling picture lie beyond 2017, but will fans see hints of one this year? The Fairly Detached Observers discuss...
Artie: The No. 1 question applies to every team: “Can they stay healthy?” I’m amazed that as we speak, no one has claimed the John Jaha Trophy for first Brewer to suffer a season-ending injury.
Frank: Every team also asks, “Can this guy repeat?” or “Can that guy blossom?”
A: And those apply to our youthful Brew Crew at almost every spot.
F: Stearns made his biggest change at first base, letting Chris Carter leave despite his 41 homers...
A: And a league-high 206 strikeouts.
F: Then Stearns gave Eric Thames a three-year deal based on power hitting in the Korean league.
A: Some optimism! Thames’ spring-training numbers aren’t encouraging: one homer, four RBIs and 17 strikeouts in 45 at-bats with one week left in camp.
F: But now there’s a new bright spot at first: Jesus Aguilar, grabbed off waivers from Cleveland.
A: Hard to ignore his stats: batting .462 with five homers, 13 RBIs and 11 K’s in 52 at-bats through Sunday.
F: And 30 homers last year in Triple-A.
A: Which ain’t Korea. They’ve got to bring Aguilar north. He’s out of minor-league options and would never clear waivers now.
F: So Counsell is improvising, taking a look at Scooter Gennett in the outfield.
A: Versatility can’t hurt. It’ll probably save Gennett, who’s getting work at third base and the outfield.
F: Second base is Jonathan Villar’s now, and they sure need him to be an offensive star again. At shortstop, can Orlando Arcia hit at this level after a .219 showing in 55 games last year?
A: Can’t tell much from .232 in his first 56 at-bats in Arizona.
F: Things start anew at third with Travis Shaw and at catcher with Manny Piña and Jett Bandy.
A: Shaw and Piña have hit well in camp.
F: The one place where age could be a factor is left field with Ryan Braun.
A: He says he’s fine but he’s 33, and it’s a long season.
F: In center and right, can Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana establish themselves after playing less than 80 games apiece last year?
A: Santana looked good once he shook the injury bug. And Broxton showed flashes before a broken wrist ended his season. Broxton has had a good camp, Santana not so much.
F: Kirk Nieuwenhuis is fine as an outfield sub but he’s another strikeout king—133 in 335 at-bats last year.
A: Villar chipped in with 174 K’s. Heck, the Crew set a major-league record with 1,543 whiffs!
F: They’re quite accomplished at something most teams are doing more than ever. Sports Illustrated noted that in 30.8% of 2016 major-league plate appearances, the ball was not put in play. The Brewers’ mark was more than 35%; they were second in the National League in walks (599) along with all those K’s. Their run differential was minus-62, ranking 23rd in the majors.
A: Tough to improve that without hitting the ball more often.
F: Now for the pitching. Zach Davies and Junior Guerra rescued the rotation last year, but can they repeat?
A: Jimmy Nelson had good stretches early in ’16 and Wily Peralta had ’em late. They must be consistent to stay in the long-term picture.
F: Then there’s Matt Garza, a $12 million burden they’ll look to trade this summer.
A: But a bad outing Sunday left him with an 8.59 spring ERA. Then there are Nelson’s 5.68 and Guerra’s 5.93 entering this week. But Peralta was at 0.71.
F: In the bullpen, Taylor Jungmann has a chance to be the bright spot that he definitely wasn’t in ’16 as a starter. Meanwhile, I have doubts about Neftalí Feliz as the closer.
A: He’s a retread with a spring ERA over 4, but he’s Stearns’ choice. You never know about a bullpen; last year it was a strength.
F: Looming over everything is this: How many current Brewers are “place holders” for guys Stearns really is counting on?
A: Top prospects like outfielders Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips and Corey Ray, catcher Jacob Nottingham, third baseman Lucas Erceg and pitcher Josh Hader.
F: Just about any of the current pieces could be dealt in pursuit of pitching depth.
A: It’s not fun to say, but this season is a bridge to better days, which may come sooner than imagined.
F: Last year you said 70-92 would be acceptable; they got to 73 wins, plus-five over 2015. I said mid-70s in wins, and just for kicks I’ll say it again.
A: I can see 73 again. I’d love to think the Crew could sneak into third if Pittsburgh or St. Louis gets really banged up. But I don’t expect it.
F: And only multiple disasters can stop the Cubs.
A: So it’s 19 games each against the World Series champs and two possible playoff teams. Ouch!
F: Remember, it’s just Year Two of the Stearns Era. The Cubs’ genius GM, Theo Epstein, had 61 and 66 wins in his first two seasons, 2012 and ’13.
A: It’ll take smart decisions and some luck, but the Cubs, Royals and Astros show that total rebuilds can work.
F: But not quickly...
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek’s rebuilding effort ended long ago.