Baseball

We know in one sport that the state of Wisconsin likes to hold itself up as a beacon of “the right way” and “what football should be.” It’s nauseating as fuck and hardly true, as the career of the greatest QB of all-time goes pretty much to waste. And really, their baseball team should be more of an example to others than that. At least in one sense.

Most teams, or owners to be precise, think the way to the mountain top is to dive for the valley first. Sell off anything that’s not nailed down, acquire prospects and pool money, get high picks in the draft, take three-four years, and presto. You’re the Astros or Cubs. It worked a couple times, so many assume this is the only way. Of course, owners like this plan because they can promise fans they know what they’re doing and the reward is coming while also getting to spend nothing for a few season and soak in the profits.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the Brewers have proved it. You can become a contender, such as the Brewers are, by just being shrewd and making your move at the right time. You don’t need a slew of top-three picks to reconstruct a system.

The Brewers have never really bottomed out this decade. Since winning the Central in 2011, they only had one truly bad campaign, which was in 2015 where they only managed 68 wins. Which is the season that got David Stearns the GM job and kicked Doug Melvin upstairs.

But Stearns was able to profit off the work Melvin had done before, as soon the system was producing Kyle Davies, Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, Domingo Santana (before he returned to the Earth’s core, apparently), Josh Hader (the latter two in a trade with the Astros). Most of these players would form the backbone of the recent Brewers teams that have been so annoying.

And it was Melvin’s picks in the past that made up the haul for Christian Yelich from the Marlins, which of course is the biggest move of all. Stearns sensed there was something there for the Brewers have an 86-win campaign in 2017, and struck. He also signed Lorenzo Cain, who was a down-ballot MVP candidate last season. At no point did the Brewers have to spend three or four seasons making up the numbers, making players up, and making everyone in Milwaukee go do something else.

More teams should probably do this, because it’s less torturous. The problem is, the boom window might not last as long, and that’s what the Brewers could be finding out.

They have little option going forward but to keep going for it, as Yelich only has three years left on his contract (two years plus a team option that is most certainly going to be exercised). As we said with the Packers, you don’t waste a perennial MVPs prime. But Cain is aging quickly, the pitching staff is in shambles, and as they’re finding out this year, a team built on a bullpen has the rockiest of foundations.

They’re also not terribly young in the field. Keston Hiura and Yelich are the only regulars who matter that are under 30. and Grandal has a mutual option in the winter so he’s no guarantee to come back (though given how free agency went for him and many others last time, he may just take the security of a paycheck). So to suggest anyone other than Hiura or Yelich is going to be as good next year is the hilt of cock-eyed.

The rotation is probably priority one, as they can no longer know what Jimmy Nelson will be and Brandon Woodruff appears to be constructed entirely of matchsticks. This team could use Gerrit Cole more than just about anyone, but he’s headed straight to Anaheim when free agency opens. Anthony Rendon would be an upgrade on the corners, though that would involve moving Moustakas to either second or first full-time. And the former isn’t really an option thanks to Hiura.

It’s also a question of how high the Brewers can go. They draw well when they’re good, and they’ve been good the past three years. But they’re already on the hook for in the neighborhood of $160M next year, and it’s hard to see them going too much higher and anywhere near $200M next season or anytime soon.

You can rebuild by patchwork and creativity. But you don’t end up with quite the base. What the Brewers do going into next season will show just how sustainable, and attractive, their option for building a team is for others.

Baseball

While Christian Yelich took home the MVP trophy and most of the plaudits for the Brewers rise from the muck (not fair, Milwaukee is surprisingly lovely but we’ve got a role to play here) to a game from the World Series, Lorenzo Cain had his part to play as well. He was back to his Royals-best, nearly a six-WAR player, setting a career-high in batting average and playing an exemplary centerfield. Certainly he brought a swag to the Crew that helped them to their best season in recent memory.

So it would probably be fair to also point some arrows at him now that the Brewers appear to be resigned to their fate, sinking back into that muck from whence they came with little resistance.

Cain has fallen off a cliff offensively this year, suffering a 50-point drop in his average, 70-point drop in OBP, and a 60-point drop in slugging. He’s been worth a 77 wRC+, which is simply awful, 23 points below average. He’s been worth one win, due solely to his defense, a precipitous drop from ’18.

There are some easy causes to spot. His walk-rate has dropped from 11.5% to 8.4%, though the latter number is much closer to his career mark and last year was the outlier. That’s certainly not helping his on-base much. He’s also seen a 63-point drop in his BABIP, so he’s been a touch unlucky. Cain usually carries a higher-than-normal BABIP because of his speed, but that might be on the wane as he’s got half the steals from last year (30 to 16) with less than a month to go.

But it’s not that simple. While Cain is hitting more line-drives this season, even with the Titleist balls he’s seen a drop in his hard-contact rate while most everyone else is going the other way. And Cain has had issues with breaking and off-speed pitches, which is usually an indication that he’s leaning out a bit on fastballs, something of a marker of age. And he is 33, which is bordering on old.

Last year, Cain his .240 on change-ups, .271 on sliders, and .394 on curves. Those numbers this year are .164, .247, and .211, while his marks on fastballs remain just about the same. However, Cain might consider himself seriously unlucky, because his line-drive rate on all of those pitches is significantly higher than it was last season. That said, his whiff-rates on curves and changes, the real off-speed stuff, has gone up significantly too. So he can’t curse the gods about everything.

There also seems to be a shift in Cain’s approach. Last year, Cain had a 4.9 average launch-angle, which is way below what he used to do. This year it’s back up to 6.4, but it’s come at the price of what he’s doing at the bottom of the zone.

It’s the same story with slugging as well. Perhaps a fixation with getting the ball up in the air, or just not on the ground as much, has left him vulnerable.

Still, it’s a concern. The Brewers are not a young team by any stretch, and there isn’t a lot of help coming in the next year or two from the system. Whatever help there may be is already there, in the form of Keston Hiura and now Trent Grisham (who might push Cain off of center one day soon). Cain has three years left on his deal, which will take him to 36, and it figures that more and more of his speed is going to go on him.

Considering Braun is aging as well, and Grandal is only around for one more season after this one, and the state of the pitching staff, it could go out from under the Brewers in a hurry. Shame, that.

Baseball

One would think that after being one game from the team’s first World Series in 36 years, the Brewers would have wanted to build on that this season. The offseason came, and they sort of did with the signing of Yasmani Grandal, which was certainly an upgrade at catcher. Still, the team’s bugaboo–the rotation–remained untouched. It made some sense, as full seasons from Brandon Woodruff and a returning Jimmy Nelson would have improved the team’s weak link by themselves.

But those things didn’t happen. Both Woodruff and Nelson have been discovered to be made of leftover moving boxes and used engine oil, and rotate on and off the IL every couple of hours. Gio Gonzalez was once again scavenged from whatever forest discarded toys go to live, and the Brewers have made up the rest along the way. Jhoulys Chacin couldn’t rediscover whatever potion some witch in a hut gave him last year, and he’s hurt as well now.

But thanks to the Cardinals and Cubs also engaging in a season-long “Who can kick their own ass the hardest?” contest, the Brewers remain perched near the top of the division. Surely a move for a starter or two was in the offing. No, Zack Greinke was never a candidate, as the Brewers don’t have the system or the money to bring that aboard. But maybe they could find something with Aaron Sanchez? Or Marcus Stroman? Mike Leake would have probably been an improvement on what’s here. One or two other names would certainly be an alternative to openers and Housers and whatever other flotsam the Brewers have been sending out to the mound on a piece of driftwood.

And yet nothing. The Brewers love to claim small-market whenever possible, and yet they have one of the best attendance marks in the league and drew three million fans just last year. Certainly the profits are there, at least for a couple of months of someone.

All the Brewers did was bring in another converted-starter in Drew Pomeranz, who admittedly has looked good as a reliever. It’s just a doubling down on what went on last year, as the Brewers will essentially ask their starters not to strangle themselves and hope the hopped-up pen can take the rest.

It’s a gamble, because while Josh Hader is still striking out the world he’s been getable. Notice just yesterday his coughing up of a lead to Matt Chapman on his third day of use in a row, the first ever time he’s ever done that. He won’t be doing that again anytime soon. The Brewers also don’t have Knebel around this time, as they did last year, who was having nearly as dominant a season. Jeremy Jeffress is the perfect example of reliever roulette that a team plays when counting on anyone but the very top percentile of relievers. He can be anything on a given day.

And the Brewers might not have any future answers either. They’ll certainly have to try Woodruff and Nelson again next year, but Nelson will be 31 and Woodruff 27, so you might already know where they are. Zack Brown, their highest and closest pitching prospect, has been getting his skull turned into paste at AAA, and other pitching prospects are at least two seasons away. They very well may have to dip into the free agent market, and their fans will probably be whispering the word, “Gerrit” all winter.

Because the Brewers’ window isn’t all that big. Lorenzo Cain is already aging, and most of all Christian Yelich only has two years left on his deal before he makes the moon and maybe one of Jupiter’s as well. Are the Brewers going to pay that? Only Keston Hiura can be considered a young star, and maybe not the kind you can pivot a team around. We don’t know yet. Feels like there should have been more urgency around this deadline considering their standing.

But then again, maybe they feel like we do about the Cubs, and think if you’re knee-deep in this muck, you’re probably not that good anyway.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Brewers 23-16   Cubs 22-13

GAMETIMES: Friday and Saturday 1:20, Sunday 6:05

TV: NBCSN Friday, ABC Saturday, ESPN Sunday

YA HEY DERE: Brew Crew Ball

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Gio Gonzalez vs. Jose Quintana

Zach Davies vs. Cole Hamels

Jhoulys Chacin vs. Jon Lester

PROBABLE BREWERS LINEUP

Lorenzo Cain – CF

Christian Yelich – RF

Ryan Braun – LF

Yasmani Grandal – C

Jesus Aguilar – 1B

Mike Moustakas – 3B

Hernan Perez – 2B

Orlando Arcia – SS

PROBABLE CUBS LINEUP

Albert Almora Jr. – CF

Kris Bryant – LF

Anthony Rizzo – 1B

Javier Baez – SS

Willson Contreras – C

David Bote – 3B

Jason Heyward – RF

Addison Russell – 2B

 

When these two last met, Miller Park was still in the glow of last year’s conquering of the noisy neighbors to the south, the Cubs rotation and bullpen were a mess, and to the more unhinged portion of each fanbase, it felt like a real sea change in the power structure of the NL Central. Of course, pretty much since then the Cubs have been the best team in baseball, the rotation among the best, the pen has straightened out, and the Brewers can’t get an out from a starter at all. And as has been the normal course in recent years, the North looks up to the South. As it should be, really.

The Brewers muddled along through April, with just a 14-13 record which allowed the Cubs back into and then through it. They’ve been better since the calendar flipped, going 6-2 in May to get past the Cardinals and be the stalkers to the Cubs’ pace, and those six are all in a row. And much like the Cubs, the schedule didn’t hurt, as May kicked off with the Mets who can’t stop being the Mets, and the Nationals who can’t seem to get right either. So yeah, it all sets up with either team having the possibility of being in first when Monday rolls around, or even tied. These games are just going to have a little extra spice all season.

If you think you know the story with the Brewers, it’s because you do. Pretty decent offense, but not other-worldly, a rotation that makes Baby Jesus cry, and the pen pulling Houdini acts to bail out the former. Christian Yelich hasn’t dropped off from last year, at least he hasn’t at home. He’s putting up a 300 wRC+ at Miller Park, which should be illegal, and a .630 wOBA, but away from Wisconsin he’s been just average. This is probably just a quirk and both will straighten out soon enough, but for now it’s something to hang on to.

He’s had to be that good, because the rest of the crew isn’t coming with him as much as they did last year. Lorenzo Cain has been glove-only pretty much all season. It took Grandal forever to get going. and he’s hit .151 over the last two weeks. Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw have been nothing short of disasters. Needles McGee (Braun) is just a guy now, but don’t worry, he’ll find a killer homer or two this weekend because that’s just a thing he does here. Eric Thames is starting to gobble into Aguilar’s playing time, and they’ve tried to find more ABs for Ben Gamel to get Yelich more support. It’s not quite the same as last year, at least not yet. Considering the age of Cain and Grandal, this could be a touch more than just a bad month. Also, the Brewers haven’t been able to shift their way out of some pretty porous infield defense as they thought they could.

At least the offense is better off than the rotation, which smells of elderberries at the moment. They’ve used nine different guys to start a game already, though that’s inflated by going to an “opener” at times. Chase Andeson is hurt again, and they’re still waiting on Jimmy Nelson to return from an injury he suffered in 2017. Zach Davies has been really good, but is riding the fortune train again because as good as his control is, he doesn’t get strikeouts or ground-balls but isn’t giving up a ton of hard contact either. Brandon Woodruff is on the other side of the BABIP Dragon as he’s suffering through a .385 BABIP while he’s striking out over 11 per nine. Gio Gonzalez has somehow put two good start together after being called in to rescue this outfit but he’s still Gio Gonzalez. He’s not going to keep his walks under one per nine innings for much longer at 33. Chacin and Peralta have been matches and vodka. When Anderson returns and Nelson finally emerges from the crypt, along with Woodruff getting the rub of the green for once, this unit should be pretty decent. It’s getting there that’s the problem, and when Gonzalez and possibly Davies go boom at the same time, they might just be stuck here.

Modern baseball sure is a thing, because the Brewers have gotten out of it mostly with their pen, which has already used 17 guys! Josh Hader is still an instrument of death, striking out 60% of the hitters he sees. But he’s also been homer-prone, which he wasn’t last year, giving up four already when he gave up only nine last year. Because even if you throw 97 all the time, if you’re only throwing fastballs–which Hader seems to be doing this year–MLB hitters are eventually going to time you up. And unlike last year, there haven’t been as many to join him in the Doomsayers Lounge. Matt Albers and the hoagie he brings to the mound have been very good, but that’s about it. Jeremy Jeffress can’t find the plate. Neither can Jacob Barnes. Junior Guerra has been…fine? Once you survive or duck Hader you can actually get at the pen a bit. That wasn’t the case last year.

Be nice to close out this homestand with some Brewer-kicking. Let’s do that.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Cubs 1-5   Brewers 6-1

GAMETIMES: Friday 7:10, Saturday 6:10, Sunday 1:10

TV: WGN Friday, NBCSN Chicago Saturday and Sunday

THE GOOD LAND: Brew Crew Ball

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Jose Quintana vs. Brandon Woodruff

Cole Hamels vs Corbin Burnes

Kyle Hendricks vs. Zach Davies

Probable Cubs Lineup

1. Ben Zobrist (S) RF
2. Kris Bryant (R) 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo (L) 1B
4. Javier Baez (R) SS
5. Kyle Schwarber (L) LF
7. Albert Almora (R) CF
9. Jason Heyward (L) RF

 

Probably Brewers Lineup

1. Lorenzo Cain (R) CF
2. Christian Yelich (L) RF
3. Ryan Braun (R) LF
4. Travis Shaw (L) 3B
5. Jesus Aguilar (R) 1B
6. Mike Moustakas (L) 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal (S) C
8. Orlando Arcia (R) SS
Everything is wrong. Everything is ruined. So why not face the team that’s given your whole front office and fanbase a psychosis when you’re at your absolute lowest? Maybe it’s a weird kind of immersion therapy. Have the booze nearby.
Despite how Cubs fans have acted all winter, the Brewers and Cubs were exactly as good as each other last year. In fact, the Brewers needed a historic finish over the last month to even catch the Cubs, rather than the Cubs “losing” it. But the difference in winter maneuvers is probably what has everyone on edge. The Brew Crew identified a weakness, catcher, and went and got just about the best possible solution to it in Yasmani Grandal (who at the moment has only succeeded in torpedoing my fantasy team, but that won’t last forever). And this wasn’t a bad lineup to begin with.
Of course, the Brewers main weapon is the bullpen. Josh Hader was so bored with just striking out everyone that he spent the first week seeing how long he could get away with throwing just fastballs. He threw his first breaking ball on Wednesday, after something like 48 straight fastballs. He’s striking out two per inning anyway. The Brewers won’t miss Cory Knebel when they just make Hader throw with his right hand on his off-days. Alex Wilson and Matt Albers are also carrying ridiculous strikeout rates. Jacob Barnes has been the only flashpoint so far out of there, and you can bet they’ll find more. It’s what they do. Knebel will be a miss, but if they’re the ones who end up with Craig Kimbrel, the self-defenestration count around town is going to quadruple.
I still don’t buy the Brewers rotation, but I suppose when it doesn’t have to do much more than four or five innings, you don’t have to buy it. Jimmy Nelson has yet to return and he’s something of the trump card. If he’s what he was, that gives them at least a genuine #2 starter in this league and a day off from throwing four innings for the pen. Brandon Woodruff impressed out of the pen last year, but he and Peralta’s record suggest they walk too many guys to ever be dominant. You’ll never convince me Jhoulys Chacin isn’t Jhoulys Chacin, and Zach Davies’s Kyle Hendricks impression has only ever looked good against the Cubs. The Brewers do the best they can to take their rotation out of the equation, but it has to sting at some point. At least that’s the hope.
None of this matters if Christian Yelich continues to be a Lantern. A 1.500 OPS so far on the season is pretty much everything you need to know. Mike Moustakas has also hit the ball hard when he’s hit it, and Lorenzo Cain is Lorenzo Cain. Jesus Aguilar has been wielding a pool noodle so far, but I’ll still hide behind the couch every time he’s up. Needles McGee in left also will come up with some annoying, game-changing homer at some point, which he’ll do against the Cubs until he’s 74 (though parts of him will remain in their 20s).
The Cubs are clearly not really equipped to deal with the Brewers at the moment. Jose Quintana has held a voodoo sign over the Brewers since switching sides of town, and he’ll get his first start of the year. Q looked good out of the pen to save Darvish last Saturday, and we’ll see if he means it about incorporating his change far more this season. Maddon’s biggest mistake last year might have been pulling Q in  Game 163 out of fear of a third trip through the lineup, ignoring the facts that Q held down the Brewers all year and he didn’t have a bullpen at that point. Good thing he doesn’t have a pen now and we can see what he’s learned.
The Cubs can claim that things will shake out better with this relief group, but there’s no reason to believe that. Other than Pedro Strop, none of these guys have a track record of sustained success, and it’s here last year where Carl Edwards Jr. broke on Labor Day. You’ll remember the previous inning, Anthony Rizzo had solved Hader for a homer that gave the Cubs the lead and felt like a defining, season-turning moment. Then Edwards turned his curve into performance art and the lead was immediately lost. He’s never recovered, and very well might not ever. There’s nowhere for Maddon to turn until Strop, who has been curiously held for saves that never come. Maybe stop with that?
This being baseball of course, the Cubs could march up there and sweep the Brewers because it’s April and it’s weird and why not? We could use it. Or the Brewers could really rub the Cubs’ nose in it and wouldn’t that make for a comfy home opener the next day? What you got to say then, Theo?