Well, actually they’re the “Brewers,” but you get it. And considering the actions of yesterday, they have certainly hoisted the colors and are coming for what the team 80 miles south has. This metaphor gets even more muddled when there’s an actual “Pirates” in the division, but they’ve turn tail and ran so they’re not the best example of pirates, are they? Wait, no, Pirates totally loved to run. Hmm, got away from me a bit here. Anyway, let’s get to it, shall we?
You’ve heard by now that the Brewers acquired Christian Yelich for four prospects, including Lewis Brinson. And then GM David Stearns, feeding off a high rarely seen outside of a casino floor, signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal in true “in for a penny in for a pound” fashion. Yelich was just about the most attractive position player available in a trade, and maybe Brewers fans should be upset they didn’t get to fleece the Marlins (in reality, Marlins fans) the way the Yankees did for Stanton. But hey, differences and all that. Cain was just about the most attractive position player free agent as well, so Stearns must’ve been running around the streets of Milwaukee last night cackling maniacally and waving his arms over his head, if not pouring beer directly onto his chest. Which wouldn’t make him too different from anyone else on the Milwaukee streets, really.
So what does this mean exactly for the Brewers? And their threat to the Cubs? In some ways it’s a huge upgrade, and in some ways it’s not the upgrade you might think.
Let’s work under the premise that Yelich is going to be in center and Cain in right, because Yelich has never played right. It could be the other way around and I have no doubts Yelich could make a fist of it in right, but Cain has the superior arm. Yelich is a huge upgrade over what the Brewers were rocking in center last year. For the most part, the now clearly on the market Keon Broxton took most of the starts there, and while he provided some pop with 20 homers his .299 OBP is not going to have Brewers fans waving their handkerchiefs in protest (don’t focus on what consistency and staining a Brewers fan handkerchief might have). Yelich is a massive offensive upgrade there in pretty much every way. Yelich is not a great defensive center fielder but he’s more than passable and will be an upgrade there as well. If you want to get WAR-y, and really who doesn’t, the Brewers got just about 1.5 WAR from center last year and just added a player who’s put up back-to-back 4.5 WAR seasons. This is our concern, dude.
It’s in right field that the Brewers will actually run about the same. There’s just no way that, at least at the plate, Cain is going to match what Domingo Santana put up. Santana slugged over .500 and had an OBP of .371, numbers that Cain has never come close to matching in his career. You might be tempted to look at Santana’s .363 BABIP and think he rode the wings of fortune a bit much, but given how hard he consistently hits the ball he looks to be the type who’s going to carry a high BABIP. Cain doesn’t have quite the power, and his OBP skills are a little more dependent on his batting average than Santana’s walk-heavy approach. It’s a huge upgrade defensively, obviously, as Cain was a plus center fielder now moving to right. That doesn’t always translate in the way you think but it’s likely to with Cain.
What’s frightening is the depth it gives the Brewers. If they do nothing, they can turn Santana into a platoon player, having him in left against lefties with Needles McGee (Braun) moving to first to swap out Eric Thames. Or Santana is insurance for the bi-monthly injury to Braun. Or the combination of Broxton and Santana having nowhere to play regularly gives them ammo to go get another starter, and they’re rumored to be after Danny Salazar already.
The Brewers were not a great offensive team last year. They had strikeout problems, much like the Cubs, and just added two everyday players who don’t strike out much. Yelich walks a lot. They both get on base a lot. Any improvement from Arcia at short and suddenly this is a meat-grinder of a lineup, which would only get worse if they do something weird like try and teach Santana to play second base or something.
Which makes it more likely that Stearns is going to try and turn Santana into pitching, because they’re short there. With Nelson pretty much out for a large swath of the year, this rotation is only two deep with Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. Anderson is also 30 and coming off a career-season that had some heavy BABIP and LOB% seasoning, and even then it was only 141 innings. Expecting him to get back to that might be a fool’s errand. Gallardo, Guerra, and Chacin is a back-end that screams “Kick me!” unless pitching coach Derek Johnson can work some more miracles. The pen looks as intimidating as it was last year, but it’s still a pen and can turn to ash in one’s mouth for really no reason at all other than “BASEBALL” and “BULLPEN.” And it’s currently slated to have to throw way too many innings.
All that said, this still makes the Brewers the main competitors ahead of the Cardinals, even if they weren’t already. The lineup is far younger, deeper, and has less holes than the Cards (Tommy Pham can keep wheel posing to tell the world how great he is, I’m not buying it). The Cards rotation looks better, but is still depending on Carlos Martinez to not go to the zoo when things don’t go his way, Wainwright to not be the corpse he was turning into last year, and Michael Wacha to be anything other than “there.” It’s not a big enough advantage to overcome the disadvantages in lineup and pen.
Is it enough to catch the Cubs? Hardly convinced. With Nelson, I’d be way more worried, and might get so again if they make a trade for a starter. But even that would require nor regression from Anderson and more innings than he’s ever thrown. Sure, a lot of things could go wrong with the Cubs too and then we’d have a real race. The Brewers won 86 games last year and if you squint you can see them getting to 90. But the Cubs are also a starter away from getting back to 95 or more with any kind of improvement from Schwarber, Russell, Baez, Happ, Heyward, take your pick.
But hey, it’ll be fun for the Cubs-Brewers thing to be more than just a one year rivalry, as that’s really all it’s been in the past. These two look like they’ll be dancing for a while longer yet here in flyover country.