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The Brewers have some excellent pieces...and some major holes

The Milwaukee Brewers are an odd amalgamation of puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together.

San Francisco Giants v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

For the Brew Crew, it’s been a strange offseason. The core of the team remains intact, with Milwaukee doing well to lock up franchise player Christian Yelich long-term. At the same time, the Brewers have a pitching staff of question marks, a massive downgrade at catcher, and, perhaps most unnervingly of all, a plan to start Eric Sogard at third base.

Let’s start with the good. Since acquiring him for a song from Miami before the 2018 season, Yelich has hit .327/.415/.631 and averaged 40 homers and 26 stolen bases per season; a third consecutive year with an OPS over 1.000 and we can probably start legitimately arguing that Yelich, not Mike Trout, is the best player in baseball. If there is a knock on Yelich, it’s that he’s played “just” 277 of a possible 324 games and total zone thinks he’s just a hair below average defensively. That said, Yelich is so good that he can probably carry the Brewers by himself in a weak division; unlike Trout’s Angels the AL West, the Brewers face no juggernaut in the NL Central.

Fortunately, Yelich doesn’t have to carry the team alone. Second baseman Keston Hiura was as good as advertised in 2019, hitting 38 homers across two levels and breaking into the big leagues with a .303/.368/.570 (139 wRC+) flourish. Lorenzo Cain took a big step backwards with the bat in 2019 (83 wRC+) but still plays an excellent center field; he’s a good player even if he doesn’t rebound at the plate in his age-34 season. And outfielder-cum-first-baseman Ryan Braun continues to hit for average and power; 2019 was the fourth time in five years that Braun hit at least 20 homers and posted double-digit steals. If not for his PED shenanigans earlier in his career, Braun, who has 344 career homers and 215 career steals to go along with a 139 career wRC+ going into his age 36 season, would have a compelling Hall of Fame case in a couple of years.

The Brewers didn’t sit on their hands this offseason either. They brought in Avisail Garcia to replace the departed Eric Thames, with Garcia displacing Braun in the outfield and pushing this generation’s Hebrew Hammer to first base. Garcia continues to flash tasty tools (112 wRC+ in 2019 with 20 HR and 10 SB), and will probably enjoy hitting at Miller Park. The Luis Urias trade was a coup, providing the Brewers with another young potential star up the middle to pair with Keston Hiura. Urias is rehabbing a wrist injury, but will take over shortstop from Orlando Arcia as soon as he’s ready.

Now for the bad news.

The Brewers’ success in 2019 was heavily tied to Yasmani Grandal, one of the game’s best catchers not just for his bat, but also for his elite pitch-framing skills. With Grandal now on the South Side of Chicago, the Brew Crew turned to the trade market and brought in Omar Narvaez from Seattle. Narvaez can hit and will capably fill Grandal’s shoes at the plate - he followed a 122 wRC+ in 2018 with a 119 wRC+ mark in 2019 - but the Brewers’ offense was plenty good already even without a slugging catcher. Narvaez is a massive step down defensively from Grandal, as the team goes from one of the game’s best pitch framers to one of its worst. If the Brewers had a more reliable pitching staff, that might be a more tolerable risk, but the Crew is leaning heavily on a stable of unproven arms that will need all of the help they can get behind the plate, and Narvaez might not be up to that challenge.

Milwaukee’s nominal ace is Brandon Woodruff, who was sensational in 122 innings last year (82 ERA-, 67 FIP-, 3.3 fWAR) but has thus far proven injury prone in his career and has only thrown 150 innings once (2016) despite already being 27. Behind Woodruff is Adrian Houser, the sinkerballer who, like Woodruff, showed well in 2019 in an abbreviated rotation stint (84 ERA-, 87 FIP- in 111.1 innings); like Woodruff, he’s yet to show he can remain healthy and effective for more than 150 innings and he, too, is already 27.

The veteran brought in to soak innings behind Woodruff and Houser is Brett Anderson, who is pretty much the exact opposite skillset of what the Brewers needed. Anderson, of course, has by now a well-earned reputation for being great when healthy and also never actually being healthy, which makes his position as an innings-eater for the Brewers puzzling at best.

Anderson threw 176 innings in 2019, his most since 2015 and only the fourth time since 2009 he’s thrown more than 100 innings in a season (I’m serious), which makes him a poor bet to repeat the feat. Worse, Anderson showed clear signs of decline last year, with a relatively shiny 87 ERA- obscuring a worrisome 102 FIP- and a downright scary 12.1% K%, 6.6% BB%, and 5.5% K-B%. In other words, Anderson is striking out fewer hitters and walking more hitters than he ever has and also has a penchant for getting hurt, and at 32 years old is getting any better. He’d be fine as a fifth starter, I guess, but as a mid-rotation anchor on a team with a gaggle of unproven youngsters, he’s scary.

More fascinating is the quietest story of the offseason, the return to the major leagues of onetime swingman Josh Lindblom on a surprising three-year contract. Lindblom bounced around as the last guy in the bullpen between Oakland, Texas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh from 2011 to 2017, before heading to Korea and turning into an absolute monster, going 40-10 over three seasons with an ERA below 3 in each of the last two and flirting with a strikeout per inning. It’s tempting to think that Lindblom is the latest Miles Mikolas - and he may be - but it’s also worth noting that Lindblom flashed similar success in Korea in 2015-16 before returning to the States with Pittsburgh in 2017 and getting rocked. Still, there’s at least some reason to believe that Lindblom has changed; his 2019 numbers in Korea, including a 2.64 FIP and 6.52 K/BB suggest that his acedom there was earned.

The rest of the rotation will be filled out by some combination of the past and the future. Freddy Peralta is the vanguard of that future and has shown an impressive ability to miss bats at the MLB level (career 30% K%); there’s a good starter in there somewhere if the team gives the 23-year-old some leash to figure out how to tap into that talent regularly. Of course, that’s not always possible when you fancy yourself a contender. 25-year-old Corbin Burnes has similarly shown flashes but got blown up by the happy-fun ball last year (3.12 HR/9 !!); if the ball reverts to normal, he has top of the rotation stuff. Also around is Eric Lauer, who is basically the competent innings-eater that the Brewers seem to think Anderson is, and Brent Suter, who is basically a poor man’s Eric Lauer.

So what the Brewers lack in quality in their starting rotation they certainly make up for in quantity, and whomever doesn’t make the rotation will augment a really solid bullpen. Josh Hader is an elite reliever when he’s not tweeting bigotry or giving up home runs, and Corey Knebel could close for most of the teams in baseball. In fact, the Brewers will probably shift half their starters back and forth between setup relief and the rotation over the course of the season, which might not be the best for their development, even though Peralta’s strikeout ability looks awfully tantalizing as a multi-inning fireman.

So what are the Brewers? Well, they have a lot of good hitters, though it’s strange that the plan is to start Eric Sogard at third base on purpose. They have a lot of starting pitchers, though none of them are guaranteed to be both healthy and good. They have a lot of relievers, though some of them may be starting.

It’s an interesting roster, in that there are obvious holes that could have been filled, between third base and the rotation. It’s also a roster that’s plenty good enough to win the NL Central, even with the revamped Reds and the ever-present Cubs. The biggest question mark is how big the defensive downgrade from Grandal to Narvaez will really be; if the team’s young pitchers take a big step back, that will probably be a big reason why. As it is, I don’t expect the Brewers to win the NL Central going away, but if I had to pick a team to spoil the Reds’ coming-out party, this would be the choice.