Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, continues with the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished in fourth place in the division last season.
The Brewers are coming off of two straight fourth-place finishes in which they finished more than 30 games back of the division champs. They had a fairly quiet offseason, with the most impactful move possibly being adding RP Neftali Feliz to serve as their closer. The team also made a trade that sent RP Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox in exchange for a package highlighted by 3B Travis Shaw. The team also traded for C Jett Bandy, who is essentially replacing C Jonathan Lucroy, who the Brewers traded to the Rangers at the trade deadline last season. OF Ryan Braun continues to be a veteran presence on a largely inexperienced team.
The Brewers struggled offensively in 2016, with their .244 team average ending up as the fourth-worst in Major League Baseball. They were better with their power, hitting 194 home runs, which was higher than the MLB average of 187, which helped them finish around the middle of the league with a .729 OPS; 41 of those home runs were hit by 1B Chris Carter, who is now with the Yankees. Braun had his best season since 2012 at the plate, hitting .305 — 10th in the National League — with 30 home runs and a .903 OPS, which was ninth-best in the NL. SS Jonathan Villar, who is sliding over to second base this season, hit .285 with 19 home runs, but his biggest value came on the bases, collecting a MLB-best 62 steals, which helped him earn a 3.9 WAR. With the Red Sox last season, Shaw hit .242 with 16 home runs.
The pitching staff finished a bit better than league average with a 4.08 ERA, but the pitchers had the third-fewest strikeouts in the majors with 1,175, and the bullpen recorded an above-average 46 saves. SP Junior Guerra led the staff with a 2.81 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 121.2 innings. SP Jimmy Nelson led the team in strikeouts with 140 in 179.1 innings while posting a 4.62 ERA. SP Zach Davies had a 3.97 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 163.1 innings. RP Jeremy Jeffress recorded 27 saves with a 2.22 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 44.2 innings over 47 games. With the Pirates, Feliz struck out 61 batters in 53.2 innings to go along with a 3.52 ERA.
Going from Lucroy to Bandy, who hit .234 in limited playing time with the Angels last year, is a significant offensive downgrade at the catcher position, but putting Shaw in at third in place of Aaron Hill should provide the team with more power at the hot corner, but probably not enough to make up for Lucroy’s lost production. Braun is likely a key to how successful the offense will be in 2017. He had somewhat of a rebirth at the plate last season and the team needs him to repeat his performance this season to have any chance of a good offense in 2017, but it would hurt the team if Braun regresses toward the numbers he had been putting up in the 2013-2015 time frame because the team counts on him to be its leader at the plate.
The pitching staff lacks a true ace, with Guerra slotted into the No. 1 spot. He pitched well last year in his rookie season, so if he can pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA again in 2017 he could earn that “ace” label, but I need to see him do it again before believing it. Davies is going to have to see a significant improvement this season to solidify the No. 2 position in the rotation because posting a nearly-4.00 ERA doesn’t cut it in the NL. Veteran SP Matt Garza sits at the backend of the rotation, but don’t expect him to last there all season. He is coming off of two mediocre seasons and will likely wind up in the bullpen at some point, giving way to a another pitcher to get a chance to start — probably Chase Anderson, who made 30 starts last season but currently is listed sixth on the starting-pitching depth chart. Feliz is coming off of the two worst seasons of his career so he may not last the full season as the closer, but there’s no young prospect behind him in the bullpen waiting for the opportunity to replace him.
While the Cubs and Cardinals are at the top of the division, the Brewers will again be battling with the Reds to avoid finishing in the basement in the NL Central. They just don’t have enough talent to win enough games to be competitive. If they’re lucky, they may win 70-75 games, but that may even be a little on the high side of expectations.
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