If you ask most experts and even fans, the Brewers greatly exceeded expectations in the 2017 season, finishing 10 games over .500 and in the playoff hunt until the final weekend, despite having the lowest payroll in baseball. With the team awakening from the doldrums of a rebuild ahead of schedule, coupled with owner Mark Attanasio's itch to spend money, many including myself expected the Brewers to be active in the free agent and trade market this year. The Pirates seem to be entering a rebuild, the Cardinals are weaker (at least on paper - let's face it they're still the Cardinals), and the Reds are still aimlessly terrible, so the division seems ripe for the taking. The Brewers did not disappoint as they traded for OF Christian Yelich and signed FA CF Lorenzo Cain on the same day - January 25th. Yelich is only 26 and already a 4-time all-star, and most importantly has 5 years of control left under a very team-friendly deal. He's easily one of the top 10 most underrated players in the game. Cain is older at 31 (turns 32 in April) but still moves like a gazelle in the outfield, and the front office seems to believe that because of not getting started in baseball until high school that his body has a lot of life left in it. At this point I'm inclined to trust David Stearns if he chose to sign Cain out of all the free agents available in an off-season in which the free agent market was way down and may have changed forever (that's a completely separate topic for another day). Even if the Brewers only get him for a couple of peak seasons out of the 4-year deal, it seems worth it for what they paid - and bringing back a former Brewer can only help the box office. Not to be overlooked, the Brewers also shored up their pitching staff with some minor but important signings. Boone Logan, JJ Hoover, Jhoulys Chacin, Yovani Gallardo, Matt Albers, and Wade Miley among others all joined the staff in either a major or minor league capacity.
However exciting the new players might be, it does create concerns about how this team is going to cut down to the 25-man roster on Opening Day. One thing we know is that Stearns and Craig Counsell value versatility above just about everything, so it wasn't long after the Yelich and Cain deals were announced that Ryan Braun stated publicly that he was willing to try first base. Braun didn't need to be a math whiz to realize that getting 500+ at bats for 6 legitimate starters in a 3-man outfield would be nearly impossible. It's not unreasonable to argue that the Brewers have the best major league outfield depth - their 3 projected backups are easily better than at least half of the league's starting 3. I didn't really take Braun's 1st base experiment too seriously at first as I assumed it was all but certain that Domingo Santana would be traded, and also at this point in his career you can assume Braun will only be healthy for 120 games at the most. But here it is March 22nd and Santana is still a Brewer, and Braun has played a good chunk of his spring games at 1st. I give the front office a lot of credit for looking at the roster depth as a positive and letting it play out. Eric Thames has looked mediocre at best this spring (although he did last year too and had one of the best Aprils in Brewer history), and Brett Phillips has pretty much played himself off the Opening Day roster with a sub-.100 Cactus League average. That being said, all signs are pointing to a starting outfield of Yelich, Cain, and Santana, with Braun splitting time as a 4th outfielder and backup first baseman, and Broxton possibly staying on primarily as a defensive replacement for Santana and Braun late in games. This means that Jesus Aguilar is the odd man out and will likely be traded or released in the next week. Again, versatility - him and the catchers are the only players on the team that can play only one position.
Going around the infield, Shaw, Arcia, Sogard, and Thames are locks. Pekrez is the team's best pinch hitter and plays 6 positions (7 if you count the inning he pitched last year), so he has to make this team. Pina and Bandy catching until Vogt comes back from his injury. With Wade Miley going down with a groin injury in yesterday's start, that narrows the decision for the final spot in the rotation - either Suter or Woodruff behind Anderson, Davies, Chacin, and Guerra. Counsell has stated that he wants to keep 8 in the pen, which I am guessing will be Knebel, Barnes, Jeffress, Hoover, Hader, Albers, Drake, and whoever loses the 5th starter battle is your long man. I don't see Yovani Gallardo making this team despite how awesome a story that would be. That leaves the 25th and final roster spot to either Jonathan Villar or Keon Broxton. It's a tough call. Keeping Villar would mean the Brewers basically have 3 players in an identical role - splitting time primarily at 2nd base with occasional starts at SS. That seems kind of pointless to me. On the other hand, Broxton is not likely to see many at-bats either and he does have a minor league option, so I would lean towards him not making the team for now. The Brewers will have a short leash with both Villar this year and won't hesitate to cut the cord and call Broxton or Phillips or whoever back up, especially considering the impressive insurance policy the Brewers have waiting in the wings with their top organizational prospect Keston Hiura. He's done nothing but rake since being drafted in the first round of 2017 and I don't think it's unreasonable to say that he can be the team's starting 2nd baseman by Summer 2019, which definitely makes Villar (and Sogard) expendable.
Just the fact that I've spent hours writing this post on a cold day in March tells you how excited I am to watch the Brewers in 2018. It will be a fun season and one thing is for certain - this team's depth will be its strength.
OPENING WEEK SERIES (SEASON STARTS 3/29):
Brewers - 3 @ Padres, 3 v. Cardinals
Reds - 3 v. Nationals, 2 v. Cubs
Twins - 3 @ Orioles, 2 @ Pirates
2018 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 2
Peter - 0