The World Series may have been a battle of big market Goliaths, but one last David held out in the Milwaukee Brewers. Powered by two MVP candidates in the outfield, the remnants of the best logo of the 1980s, and perhaps most strangely, the confusing, awesome powers of Wade Miley, Milwaukee stood strong long past the pumpkinization of other sabermetric-darling Cinderellas. And when they went down, of the seven non-Boston teams to survive the wild card round, the Brew Crew was the only one to take their opponents to an elimination game, making Dylan Thomas proud.
Of the franchises that underwent a significant teardown cycle over the last decade, the rebuilding of the Milwaukee Brewers may have been among the most low-key. One reason for this is that while other franchises that had to be dragged into their down cycles kicking and screaming and pretending disaster was not upon them, Milwaukee showed an unusual realpolitik about the state of their franchise. A lot of teams would have taken the wrong lesson from Milwaukee’s 82-80 2014 season, when they surprisingly led the NL Central uninterrupted from the second week of the season until the end of August, and believed they were just a couple mediocre veterans away from the promised land.
The Brewers, on the other hand, saw the opportunity to trade Yovani Gallardo while the getting was good (before a 30% drop in strikeout rate was reflected in his ERA). And when 2015 became a mess, the team wasted little time dithering, jumping straight into a rebuild before the roster was a bleak Kafka-esque wasteland of value while simultaneously transitioning to a new braintrust let by David Stearns, with the handoff from Doug Melvin being one of the smoothest transfers of power in human history.
As I wrote for ESPN a few years ago, my feeling at the time was that by not waiting until the team was devoid of talent to restructure the roster, the Brewers would have the quickest road to contention of any of the so-called tanking teams in 2016.
It happened a bit quicker than even I thought. Behind two hitters who were picked up during the rebuilding process (Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana), a shrewd pickup from Korea (Eric Thames), and a pitching staff full of unheraldeds who got the team a fifth-place ERA in the National League, the Brewers were a real contender in 2017. The team’s final 86-76 record didn’t get them into the playoffs, but they was relevant again and held onto first place in the Central for nearly two months. Not bad for a team within two years of blowing everything up.
With most of the 86-win roster returning in 2018 and the team already having transitioned from the declining Ryan Braun as the centerpiece of the their offense, the Brewers made the decision to push forward over the winter. The team signed Lorenzo Cain, one of the few free agents ZiPS actually liked last offseason, and with Lewis Brinson, picked up because the Brewers chose to rebuild and trade Jonathan Lucroy, were able to tempt the Marlins to part with their outfielder with the most trade value, Christian Yelich.
Milwaukee was even one of the last teams in the running for Yu Darvish, offering big money to bring in last winter’s big-ticket pitcher. Now, one can say that, at least in the early going, they dodged a bullet, after a single disappointing, injury-filled season for Darvish, but the larger point is that the Brewers tried to go after an ace pitcher, of the sort that Gallardo had never developed into. Losing out on the pitcher jackpot, the Brewers went for a value option instead, signing Jhoulys Chacin to a two-year, $15.5 million contract.
ZiPS saw the Cubs as the favorites in the NL Central with a 94-win projection, but saw realistic paths to the wild card and even for the division for both the St. Louis Cardinals (87-75 projection) and the Brewers (85-77). The main concern the computer had with respect to the Brew Crew was starting pitching, with Jimmy Nelson likely unavailable for most, if not all, of the season and a rotation that otherwise looked like it would be chock full o’ third and fourth starters. Still, ZiPS tended to be one of, if not the most (I could be forgetting one) optimistic of the computer prognosticators coming into 2018.
Well, since this is the 28th team you’re reading about in this series, it turned out pretty darn well for the Brewers in 2018. But what was strange is that the team didn’t so much as build upon their 2017 success as win with, in a lot of cases, completely different players.
Domingo Santana, after 3.3 WAR in 2017, was largely a role player and spent half the season in the minor leagues. Orlando Arcia, who appeared to be establishing himself as a league averageish shortstop, finished below-replacement level in 2018. Eric Thames, Zach Davies, the aforementioned Jimmy Nelson, and Eric Sogard all made much more limited contributions to the team’s success.
The team’s offense was largely carried by Yelich and Cain, and, for the second straight season, an out-of-nowhere slugger, with Jesus Aguilar playing the role of Thames. Chacin provided more stability at the top of the rotation than most of the better paid free agent pitchers from last winter, and Wade Miley came out of nowhere to put up a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts, something that as an Orioles fan who saw a lot of Miley in 2017, I still can’t completely understand.
And facing the need to use a hole-laden, injury-ridden pitching staff, the Brewers got weird for the playoffs. Not many teams have the chutzpah to make the first game of the postseason a bullpen game. Quickly yanking pitchers while shuffling others around and employing the occasional bait-and-switch gave the Brewers an unusual profile for a playoff team. And they almost pulled it off, allowing the Rockies to score just two runs over a three-game sweep and holding the Dodgers to a 3.15 ERA in the NLCS.
What Comes Next?
The Central is a tough division, with the Cubs still in possession of a championship-quality core and the Cardinals aggressively improving, picking up at least Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. But the Brewers have some organizational strengths as well. A lot of Brewers hit free agency in November, but none of those departing would have been key to Milwaukee’s future hopes. (While Miley was a great story, I’m not an official member of the fan club.)
The payroll is still fairly lean and mean. Cain and Yelich are only set to make a combined $24 million in 2019 and the team’s payroll right now stands somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. The team could still add someone like Dallas Keuchel to solidify a rotation that still has a lot of question marks and lacks a No. 1 guy who can face off against the best of the other contenders. And there would still be plenty of room for a stopgap second baseman such as Jed Lowrie while the team waits for Keston Hiura to come through the minors.
The larger point is that the Brewers don’t have much in the way of dead money and are awash in flexibility. I think they start off the season as underdogs to win the division, but they’re a team with realistic hopes to once again topple their wealthier rivals.
ZiPS Projection – Orlando Arcia
Admittedly, Arcia is hardly the flashiest name as we enter 2019, but he remains a fascinating player for a few reasons. He was a player that ZiPS really liked as a prospect and thought had a decent chance at developing into a borderline star in his prime. Scouts tended to like his glove very much, and the rudimentary play-by-play data that ZiPS has access to had Arcia at approximately +6 runs a year at shortstop from 2014-2016. He was hardly a slouch offensively either; hitting .307/.347/.453 in the Southern League is damn good for a 20-year-old shortstop, as was his .289/.346/.392 line a year before in Hi-A.
Arcia’s 2016 cup of coffee with Milwaukee was kind of lousy but it seemed to be water under the bridge when he put up a perfectly cromulent .277/.324/.407 line as the team’s starting shortstop in 2017. Now, that only resulted in 1.4 WAR, but that was mainly due to below-average defense by UZR and given the volatility of defensive measures and his pedigree, he seemed like a decent candidate to put up significantly better defensive numbers in 2018. He didn’t, but it didn’t really matter in the end. His offense cratered, with his already “meh” plate discipline taking a giant step backward as he mastered the soft groundout and made every pitcher’s fastball look like they were Aroldis Chapman out there.
So whether ZiPS sees hope remaining for Arcia was one of my biggest questions going into the offseason projection grind.
How much has ZiPS fallen out of love with Arcia? You know those mid-inning jumbotron videos where someone awkwardly asks their significant other for their hand in marriage? This projection is like if Arcia pulled a bait-and-switch on the scoreboard operators and instead of asking ZiPS for its hand in marriage, told ZiPS that he’s sorry but he wants to see other projection systems. ZiPS projects Arcia’s chances at matching his 85 wRC+ from 2017 in 2019 at a mere 14%. 2018 was a brutal season in the Arciaverse.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.