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Looking Back at a Better-Than-Expected 2016 Brewers Season

Braun, Villar, Guerra and Davies helped make the season much less painful than it could have been

Oct. 3, 2016
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Courtesy Milwaukee Brewers
Welcome to the On Deck Circle, Brewers writer Kyle Lobner's weekly look at the team's week to come and beyond.

At some point today I’ll probably reach for the remote or my phone and absentmindedly attempt to check what time the Brewers play tonight. It hasn’t sunk in yet, and probably won’t for a while, that the 2016 season is over and baseball won’t return to Miller Park for another 182 days.

Around this time of year I usually make myself feel a little better by counting down to spring training instead. We don’t have an official date yet for pitchers and catchers to report to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, but we do know that it’ll be a little earlier than usual in 2017 due to the World Baseball Classic. In 2013, the Classic’s last season, the Brewers reported to camp on February 12. Using that date as an estimate, spring is about 132 days away.

The Brewers have a lot of questions to answer between now and then, and we’ll look into some of those in the final On Deck Circle of 2016 next week. This week, however, I want to take one final look back at this season.

I listened to the pregame for Sunday’s season finale on WTMJ, catching the final interview between Jeff Levering and Craig Counsell. As has been the case in many of these season wrap-up interviews, the interviewer congratulated their subject on a “great” 2016 season. This year has been more fun and more successful than I think many people expected in March, but I’m having a hard time calling it “great.” I think Counsell summed it up nicely here:

With that said, the fact that the Brewers went 73-89 this season (five games better than 2015) and are still being seen in a semi-positive light speaks volumes about how low the expectations were for this team entering the first full season of a full-on rebuild. Several exciting individual performances also helped ease the impact of a down year.

Jonathan Villar has to be first and foremost in that conversation, serving as an effective leadoff hitter and base stealer and showing some versatility down the stretch that may make him a very valuable part of this team in the years to come. Villar’s two hits on Sunday mean he finished the 2016 season having reached base 248 times, just shy of the goal of 250 I set for him in June.

In that piece I also discussed Chris Carter’s chances at 40 home runs, and a hot month of September pushed him to and over that mark. Carter’s enormous strikeout numbers (206, easily a franchise record) and relatively low batting average (.222) will likely always make him a polarizing talent, but his power numbers made him a uniquely valuable figure in a Brewers organization that is otherwise trending toward players with a more speed-focused skill set.

While Villar and Carter both came from outside the organization, the Brewers found help from within in the bullpen in the form of Tyler Thornburg. The luster on Thornburg’s career year wore off a bit during the season’s final week as he racked up three consecutive blown saves, but even with the struggles he’s established himself as capable of handling the closer role and working through opposing teams’ best hitters with the game on the line.

Thornburg got to face save situations late in the season at least partially because Carlos Torres and Jhan Marinez, a pair of scrap-heap acquisitions, did a pretty remarkable job in middle relief. Those two combined with Jacob Barnes, Tyler Cravy and Rob Scahill to pitch 214 1/3 innings as Brewers this season with a 2.86 ERA. All five of those pitchers could return for 2017.

Meanwhile in the starting rotation, the Brewers got significant contributions from a pair of pitchers who were not in the Opening Day rotation, Junior Guerra and Zach Davies. Statistics like this don’t always paint a perfect picture, but this one is somewhat telling: The Brewers were 29-19 in games started by those two this season, and 44-70 in all others.

And finally, the 2016 season may be most notable for the resurgence of Ryan Braun. Braun should be a near-lock for the Milwaukee BBWAA’s annual team MVP award, and finished among the MLB leaders in both batting average (.305) and slugging (.538), posting his best marks in both categories since his MVP-candidate 2012 season. Whether it was excellent planning or good fortune, the Brewers’ plan to get Braun regular rest to keep him healthy and effective worked beautifully in 2016, as he was able to stay off the disabled list and seemed to avoid many of the nagging woes that have plagued him in years past.

How many, if any, of these bright spots can we pencil in for continued success in 2017? At this point there’s no way to tell. For now, however, they combined to make a rough year significantly less painful than it could have been. There’s certainly some value in that.

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