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The Brewers are uneasy favorites in the NL Central

Well, someone had to be projected to win the NL Central.

Seattle Mariners v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Nothing quite underscores the mediocrity of the NL Central like the fact that the Brewers are favored to win it. Milwaukee wasn’t projected to be especially good last year but they still underperformed. Their response this winter was to do very little. Their biggest moves were to sign Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. Both of those are good moves, but these were both made possible by the inaction of the Brewers’ competition. Wong was only available because their division rivals were too cheap to keep him, and the Brewers got a discount on Bradley because no one else wanted to pay him.

The Brewers’ offseason strategy was to let things fall into their lap, and hey, it sort of worked. According to FanGraphs, Milwaukee has a slight edge on the rest of the division with a 33.8 percent chance of taking the crown. PECOTA views the NL Central as less of a toss-up, however, and gives them a 61.8 percent chance of finishing first. Baseball Prospectus’s projection system is much less convinced that the Cardinals are a threat and it views the Reds as a non-factor. Still, of the six teams PECOTA expects to win their respective races, the Brewers have the lowest odds.

Things have to right for the Brewers then if they’re to make it to the postseason for the fourth straight year. After playing a combined three playoff games in the past two years and losing all of them, the Brewers would love to not have to muck about with a Wild Card game. This is especially true considering the Brewers would likely face the Dodgers or the Padres in a winner-take-all game. It’s not division or bust, but anything the Brewers can do to avoid a situation where Trent Grisham is given the chance to end their championship dreams for a second time is sure to give peace of mind.

The largest variable for the Brewer’s success is Christian Yelich. The player who finished first and second in 2018 and 2019 MVP voting never got a chance to get going in the shortened season last year. Yelich hit to a disastrous (for him) .205/.356/.430 slash line which only put him at a 113 wRC+. That last mark is his lowest in any season as a big leaguer. Saying that Yelich has turned back into a still-quite-good-pumpkin based on 60-games played under extremely weird circumstances would be a major overreaction, but it’s fair to wonder whether he can return to his ascended form.

A 30.8 percent strikeout rate is 9.6-point rise from his career average, and that was largely a result of him being less aggressive. He dropped his chase rate down to 17.7 percent which is fantastic and major reason why he walked in nearly a fifth of his plate appearances. However, he also allowed watched more pitches cross the plate more than ever before and when he did swing, he had trouble connecting. Yelich only swung at 57.7 percent of pitches in the strike zone (a 12.2-point drop from 2019), and he whiffed on 21.9 percent of those pitches he tried to hit.

If Yelich had the power of Jeff Mathis, this sort of disciplined, passive approach would be fine, but the Brewers need Yelich to do damage. Milwaukee’s lineup is a bit top-heavy. Yelich is one of two players on the roster to be projected for a DRC+ of more than 110. The other is Daniel Vogelbach who might not make the Opening Day roster, and if he does, it will be as a backup with Keston Hiura sliding to first to make room for Kolten Wong.

Wong and fellow free agent signee Jackie Bradley Jr. may not hit for more than league average, but each goes a long way toward shoring up Milwaukee’s defense which ranked 22nd in baseball last year by Defensive Runs Saved. Lorenzo Cain has held the outfield together for the last few years, but he’s entering his age-35 season and the odds are against him to continue being elite. Wong adds Fielding Bible Award-caliber defense to an infield that was consistently subpar, and if Luis Urias gets the starting job at short, suddenly the Brewers are looking quite strong up the middle even if the corners are shaky.

Improved defense will only help the pitching staff which, like the offense, might be strong at the top but questionable at the bottom. At least the pitching staff is spreading out its excellence between Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader, and Devin Williams.

Woodruff followed up his first full year as a starter with an even more impressive showing. In 2020, Woodruff posted a 30.1 strikeout rate while walking just 6.1 percent of batters. His 5.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio was good for 10th in the majors. Woodruff will be the Brewers’ Opening Day starter and there are few teams on which he wouldn’t be taking the bump to start the season.

Hader has shown a little more weakness to the longball in the last two seasons, but he’s still a likely candidate to lead the league in strikeout rate. That is unless Devin Williams beats him. Small sample or no, the 2020 Rookie of the Year is coming off a season that was absolutely bananas. In 27 innings, Williams struck out 53 batters while giving up one earned run on a solo homer.

Then there’s Corbin Burnes whose last two seasons made the Gambler’s Fallacy look like the Gambler’s Law. In 2019, Burnes surrendered over three home runs per nine innings despite putting up stellar strikeout to walk numbers. In 2020, Burnes’s strikeout and walk numbers didn’t change, but he only surrendered 0.3 home runs per nine. Put the two seasons together and Burnes put up a 3.86 FIP in 108 23 innings with a 1.57 HR/9.

With this much going right for the Brewers, it wouldn’t have taken much to firmly lock up the division. To fill in the gaps, however, the Brewers took an accuracy-by-volume approach by signing players like Travis Shaw to minor league contracts. There’s nothing wrong with that alone, but the Brewers still lack depth in the infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen. So, you know, everywhere.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.