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In Memoriam: The Milwaukee Brewers

2020 brewers look out

It’s crazy how things can sometimes work out exactly how everyone thinks they will. The 8-seed Milwaukee Brewers were eliminated by the L.A. Dodger juggernaut in a two-game series that was almost over before it started. Los Angeles’s lights-out pitching staff silenced a weak Milwaukee lineup, and the Dodger bats put together opportune hits at opportune times to move on to the NLDS.

Milwaukee’s already thin roster received some unfortunately-timed trimming as rightful NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams suffered an unspecified shoulder injury that put him out of commission for the NLWC. As a reliever who rocked a 53% strikeout rate en route to a 0.33 ERA over 27 innings during the regular season, Williams was exactly the kind of pitcher every playoff-contending team dreams of having. Williams’s presence wasn’t sorely missed since the Dodgers did most of their scoring off of Brandon Woodruff and Brent Suter during the two-game National League Wild Card Series, but any shoulder injury is cause for concern- especially for young pitchers.

ryan braun injury 2020 brewers
Image courtesy of Chris Pizzello and the Associated Press.

Williams wasn’t the only key Brewer missing from game action against LA. Outfielder Ryan Braun tried to play through a gnarly oblique strain suffered during Milwaukee’s game Sunday against the Cardinals, but he was forced to leave Game One of the NLWC in the fifth inning after crashing into the right field wall at Dodger Stadium. Words used to describe Braun’s injury include “significantly compromised” and “extreme pain,” and it’s entirely possible that the franchise icon has played his last game as a Brewer.

The Future

So where does this extremely unceremonious series loss leave the Brewers in 2021? Looking past franchise cornerstones Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, Milwaukee’s position player situation is awfully bleak. Most of their talent is either arb-eligible or pre-arb, so GM David Stearns and owner Mark Attanasio won’t really have to worry about any coffers running dry. The problem is that while Milwaukee’s roster is cheap, it’s not exactly stacked with postseason-level talent. Out of all Brewers players with at least 100 plate appearances in 2020, Jedd Gyorko‘s 121 OPS+ ranked highest. Only Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun maintained above-average OPS+ marks (Braun’s was 101).

For every step Milwaukee’s hitters took forward in 2020, they took two more back. Orlando Arcia turned in a season of roughly average offensive production, but Christian Yelich took a massive step back and 2019 RoY contender Keston Hiura‘s bat fell apart on him. The Brewers squeezed some walks and dingers out of famed walk-and-dinger generator Dan Vogelbach, but Avisail Garcia floundered through his worst season as a major leaguer and Ryan Braun’s wRC+ dropped by a not-insignificant eighteen points. None of Milwaukee’s bargain-bin winter pickups did anything with their bats. Overall, Milwaukee’s offense is kind of a wreck, and that’s probably not going to change at all if Attanasio, et. al keep their purse strings pulled tight.

Looking on the bright side, the Brewers might well have one of the very best bullpens in baseball come 2021. Josh Hader is still Josh Hader, and Devin Williams’s super-breakout gives Milwaukee a back-of-the-bullpen tandem that any team in MLB would kill to have.

Corey Knebel hasn’t looked like himself since returning from Tommy John surgery early in the 2020 season, but a return to form from him would make scoring on Milwaukee essentially impossible after the sixth inning. Alex Claudio and Eric Yardley give manager Craig Counsell some crafty veterans to mess with opposing hitters. Milwaukee also picked up Ricky Vaughn clone Ray Black, who always seems to be this close to breaking out thanks to his dynamite stuff. Milwaukee’s bullpen will probably be great next year, but a great bullpen alone probably won’t be able to pull the rest of the team to a playoff berth come 2021.

On the rotation side of things, Brandon Woodruff turned in a season worthy of, like, a sixth-place finish in the National League Cy Young voting, and Corbin Burnes looked like a potential future ace. However, past that dynamic duo, things start to get pretty murky. Eric Lauer came to Milwaukee after a steady, innings-eating 2019 season in San Diego, but everything fell apart for him after the move. An eye-popping 7.4 BB/9 IP and a 1.6 HR/9 IP contributed to a cartoonish 13.09 ERA, albeit in a tiny sample size of 11 innings. The Brewers need him to figure out his problems sooner rather than later, especially since Brett Anderson‘s a free agent and Adrian Houser and Josh Lindblom struggled in their 101 1/3 combined innings. To put it gently, things aren’t looking great for the Brewers’ starters heading into next season.

2021 Outlook

The Brewers look to be pretty dead in the water unless everything breaks right come 2021. If all their bats (Yelich, Hiura, Narvaez and Garcia especially) bounce back to their regular levels of production, if their rotation can stay together behind Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, if breakout bullpen pieces like Eric Yardley and Devin Williams can stay their courses… if all these things happen, the Brewers will have an outside shot at a Wild Card berth. Their roster doesn’t boast many impact bats, and that issue only gets worse if Ryan Braun doesn’t return to Miller Park next season.

The Brewers’ sudden and precipitous slide into irrelevance is very sad to see. In 2018, they were legitimate World Series contenders thanks to an untouchable relief staff, an underappreciated starting rotation and a hitting core led by Lorenzo Cain and eventual 2018 MVP Christian Yelich. They were fun to root for and even more fun to watch. Unfortunately, it might be a while before they’re fun to watch again.

To take a look at the Brewers’ roster and contract situations, click on this link.

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