As a new Milwaukee Brewers season begins, Milwaukee Magazine’s Dan Shafer and Howie Magner fired up their email accounts and fired away with their questions and answers. Yeah, maybe they got a bit carried away.
Howie Magner: Set the Wayback Machine for the morning of Aug. 20, 2014. Which might be the last day of that season Brewers fans want to remember. They were 71-55, with a 2.5-game National League Central lead on the Cardinals, a 5-game cushion for an NL wildcard slot and the fifth-best record in baseball. And then…
Yep, the Brewers lost 16 of their next 19 games. By the end of their nosedive, it was the middle of September, they were barely above .500, and their baseball winter was nigh. A team that had spent 150 days leading their division would scuttle to an 82-80 finish.
Well, Dan Shafer, that winter is almost over. Your Milwaukee Brewers are finally poised to see eternal hope spring anew. Opening Day is Monday, and last season is so last season. The Brewers sound refreshed. How about you?
Dan Shafer: Refreshed? I suppose. But I spent much of the 2014 season waiting for the other shoe to drop; it was a matter of “when,” not “if.” Though I didn’t expect the wheels to fall off in such spectacular fashion, as long as the Cardinals were looming, I was never convinced that the division lead was secure.
And therein lies the biggest obstacle to being a hopeful Brewers fan: the impenetrable red ceiling. If the Brewers were in any other division, I’d be talking myself into a playoff run. But with year after year of coming up short – almost always against St. Louis – I’m waving the white flag. The Cardinals have broken me. They’ll probably win close to 100 games, offseason acquisition Jason Heyward probably put it all together for an MVP-type season, and they’ll probably make it to their fourth straight NLCS (and 10th in the last 16 seasons). They’re like the Spurs in the NBA or the Patriots in the NFL – until it’s abundantly obvious that their run is over, I’m not betting against them.
Howie, am I being too pessimistic? Please tell me I’m being too pessimistic.
HM: Dan, when you make Cubs fans sound optimistic, you may be a tad around the bend. Let me try to reel you back.
One of the surprising things during the happier portions of the 2014 Brewers season was how often you’d hear a Brewers fan declare such unhappiness with it. Indeed, I have hazy memories of one Dan Shafer poo-poohing a Brewers record that, at the time, was the best in baseball, and so anticipating a season-squelching Cardinals rally that it practically bordered on rooting for one. In fact, now that I think about it, that’s a lot of negative karmic energy flowing toward Miller Park. Almost makes you wonder what could happen if enough of that negative energy found its way into the clubhouse of a successful baseball team. Might it induce some type of collapse? Perhaps even a historic meltdown?
But don’t worry, Dan. I’m sure it’s all just a metaphysical coincidence.
As for the Brewers, I could count out plenty of reasons for optimism on my two hands, but I’ll start with the biggest one by pointing at my thumb. See it wiggling there? It’s the key to the season. OK, not this actual thumb, but the corresponding one that belongs to Ryan Braun. All reports are that it’s healthy after his offseason cryotherapy procedure. The Brewers led their division for 150 days with Ryan Braun swinging a bat like Ryan Seacrest. How good do you think they could be if he actually swings it like Ryan Braun again? Just take your Cardinal-colored glasses off before answering.
DS: All karmic energy, metaphysical coincidences and Cardinal-colored glasses aside, a return to form for the former MVP would give the Brewers a very dangerous lineup, especially at the top. Facing Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and a revived Ryan Braun, in that order, to start the game would put a whole lot of pressure on opposing starters. Aramis Ramirez is still very solid despite being perhaps a season away from retirement. Adam Lind provides a massive upgrade over the AAA-caliber players that have been manning 1B in the post-Prince era. Khris Davis could hit 25 home runs. Scooter Gennett will do Scooter Gennett things. And I have to imagine this will be – at the very least – a moderate bounce-back season for 25-year-old Jean Segura. In a best case scenario, the 2015 Brewers emerge as one of the National League’s best offensive teams.
But even if that scenario plays out favorably for Brewers fans, the team’s prospects for playing October baseball may rest with the pitching staff. The team’s biggest offseason move was trading Yovani Gallardo. And though his best seasons appear to be behind him, this year’s team will have to lean heavily on Kyle Lohse (who’s been excellent, but is 36 years old), Matt Garza (always an injury risk, and his strikeout numbers have declined), Wily Peralta (a possible regression candidate after a big 2014), Mike Fiers (ditto) and Jimmy Nelson (who’s been having a Spring Training to forget). I have no idea how much confidence to have in this group.
But even if everything goes right, I think the Brewers’ ceiling is nabbing a Wild Card spot. And even that might be overly optimistic, since this year’s NL Central is stacked.
So, three questions for you, Mr. Sports Nut:
- What do you expect from the Brewers pitching staff this year?
- Which team wins the NL Central?
- Which team finishes with a better record, the Brewers or the Cubs?
HM: Yovani Gallardo’s absence from the Brewers staff should be negligible, and watch me go sabermetric here. The only regular Brewers starting pitcher with a notably worse FIP number in 2014 than Gallardo’s 3.94 (fielding independent pitching, basically ERA if all pitchers had equal defense behind them) was… Wily Peralta’s 4.11. Kyle Lohse checked in at 3.95. Milwaukee’s other starters were all markedly better. Matt Garza, 3.54. Mike Fiers, a remarkable 2.99. Even Jimmy Nelson, widely regarded as the weak link in this year’s rotation, checked in at 3.78. So if you subscribe to the notion that younger pitchers should improve (I do), then 25-year-olds Peralta and Nelson are due to get better. And if you finally believe in Mr. Fiers (and I finally do), and that Garza and Lohse will maintain their reliable ways, then the starting rotation should be not worse, but better. As for the bullpen, well, check with me in June, because Milwaukee’s bullpens are traditionally as predictable as quantum mechanics experiments.
The Cubs? I’ll trust the baseball soothsaying of Back to the Future 2 when I see hoverboards and digitized Ronald Reagan waiters. Until then, they’ll be waiting ‘til next year again in fourth place, well behind the Brewers.
The division favorite? Surely, the Cardinals, who’ve tapped into an ancient form of baseball sorcery that oversees the NL Central like some giant Eye of Sauron. But if hobbits could take that thing down, then the Brewers and Pirates have a chance to do the same to St. Louis. They’ll all finish within 3 games of each other atop the standings.
And yes, I’ll say the Brewers will be no less than a wildcard team this season. Because Septembers that bad can’t possibly happen two years in a row. I’m pretty sure it’s a quantum mechanical law.
Which brings me to my question for you. What unpredictable predictions would you care to make?
DS: Sabermetrics? Hobbits? Quantum mechanical law? Well, it’s officially official. The war (or WAR?) is over. The nerds have won. And – at least in Major League Baseball – this is a good thing. Quantifiable analysis trumps seat-of-your pants conjectures, and thankfully, there’s no going back. Baseball is smarter, and we’re all better off.
Unfortunately for Brewers fans, this doesn’t make this season all that encouraging. Fangraphs and Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh both project the Crew to win 79 games and finish fourth in the division – yes, behind the Cubbies.
Here’s what I think is happening: in a vacuum, the Brewers are a better team than they were last year. Adam Lind is a sizable upgrade over the biggest negative in last year’s lineup, Braun’s production should be better than last year, and, as you described, Gallardo’s absence won’t drown the rotation (and it might even be better). But the problem is that the rest of the National League has improved. The Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates and Cardinals will all remain in the playoff hunt, and big steps forward are in play for the Cubs, Mets, Marlins and Padres. The Crew wound up as the NL’s 6th best team in 2014, and other teams are better positioned to crack the top five in 2015.
But to get to your question, here are a couple unpredictable predictions:
Scooter Gennett will disappoint.
As one of his last remaining supporters, I was sad to see Rickie Weeks – my favorite Brewer of his era – leave so unceremoniously and without any hint of possibly bringing him back. I also think the team will miss his bat. Only three Brewers in 2014 notched an OPS over .800 – Lucroy (.837), Gomez (.833) and Weeks (.809). Yes, he had fewer at bats, and yes, they were largely in a platoon role. But Gennett’s numbers, too, were in a platoon role, and I really don’t understand why so many people are so excited about a player that a) doesn’t hit for power, b) rarely walks, and c) has such a terrible nickname. I’m not seeing a breakout season on the horizon for the 24-year-old second baseman. For what it’s worth, I’d love to be wrong on this one.
Carlos Gomez’ polarizing brilliance will be a puzzling storyline.
I know there are some fans who get irked by Gomez’ boisterous style, the fact that he’s leading off despite being a nontraditional leadoff hitter, or his wild home run cuts that sometimes end in him spinning himself to the ground. But I look at it this way: Carlos Gomez is the Russell Westbrook of Major League Baseball. Both are among the best athletes in their respective sports, both are sure-fire all-stars, and both have tendencies to make damaging mistakes – usually by trying to do something superhuman with their all-world athleticism. But any attempt to slow down or coach up or in some way mitigate those mistakes would take away from the overall experience of one of the game’s best players. In the NBA, the #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook crowd has finally won out in the MVP-type season he’s having this year. If we let Gomez be Gomez and just sit back and enjoy the ride, the Brewers will be better off. But I know not all fans will agree.
Now that we’ve again soared past any logical word count previewing a Wisconsin professional sports team, let’s look to the immediate future. Opening Day is Monday (!), and you’ll be there. What are you most excited to see? How many doughnut sandwiches do you plan to consume? And do you anticipate the same hot start the Brewers enjoyed last year?
HM: In the interest of brevity, I’ll be brief.
I’m excited to see the wonders of baseball instead of our winter wonderland. I’ll try one donut sandwich, but only if there’s room left after a glorious pork parfait. And the Brewers are as likely to go 20-8 in April again as they are to have me sing the Opening Day National Anthem. (Rest in peace, Joe Attanasio, among the finest gentlemen to set foot in Miller Park.) But they don’t have to be great out of the gate, just good enough, and they’ll be fine. They’ve got six months to get this thing right. And we’re one of 30 cities in the world that gets a front-row big-league seat.
Is it Monday yet?