After jumping out to a huge lead and being forced to fight back from a late-season divisional deficit, the Milwaukee Brewers pulled out their first National League Central Division championship since 2011 and their second ever in franchise history. Riding on the back of NL MVP Christian Yelich, combined with the shutdown bullpen and interesting yet very efficient usage of their starting rotation, the Brewers clawed and scratched their way back from a post-All Star Break deficit to the Chicago Cubs to win the division.
Earning that first round bye was huge for the team, as the Cubs then had a quick turnaround to host the Colorado Rockies, who ended up defeating them in extra innings to send the Cubbies home much earlier than many expected. Even though the Rockies were no match for the rolling Brewers squad, it was much easier for them to face off against Colorado than play their divisional rivals in higher stakes.
Trade deadline acquisitions of Mike Moustakas, Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop helped push this team into the playoffs, especially due to Moustakas’ bat and newfound positional flexibility. Being able to plug the Moose in at the hot corner helped give the Brewers a defensive conundrum, as they had too many third basemen on the roster with no one to start at second base on an everyday basis.
Schoop was acquired to plug that hole, but he never got his feet on the ground and was an offensive liability who provided average defense, both facets that were much lower than expected when general manager David Stearns brought him in. To help bridge that gap, incumbent third baseman Travis Shaw moved over to second base, even with never played second in his entire playing career.
Shaw provided excellent defense at second, a big part of their rise through the standings in August and beyond. Through shifting and defensive schemes, manager Craig Counsell helped cover up certain defensive liabilities through moving the defensive lineup around and relying on slick-fielding Orlando Arcia to cover more ground than previously asked.
Even with falling to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs, this team made huge strides in 2018, going much farther than most people thought they would. And with most of their core back plus a few extras, this team has all the makings to make it back-to-back divisional titles.
Here are three reasons why the Brewers will repeat as divisional champs and win the NL Central in 2019.
BPW combination more developed
The trifecta of Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff all impacted the Brewers in some shape in 2018, as they all pitched key innings for the team down the stretch.
Burnes and Peralta, both in their first seasons at the MLB level, held down big-time roles for the pitching staff. Burnes was a key cog in the lights-out bullpen, even earning his first career save in his first career outing in the majors, closing out the Miami Marlins, while Peralta made an even more impressive debut by striking out 13 Rockies on Mother’s Day in Colorado to get the victory.
Woodruff, however, has the biggest moment of the season between the two, as he decided to go yard in the playoffs, belting a deep home run to right center field off of Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS, setting the stage for the home crowd to go absolutely wild in MKE.
All three pitchers figure to be vying for rotational roles in 2019, and whoever goes back to the bullpen will have an important role this season too.
Solidified catching ranks now a team asset
Having to ride the likes of Manny Pina and journeyman Erik Kratz throughout the season, the Brewers had a lack of a superstar at backstop. While Pina is an excellent defensive catcher, his offense was very spotty; on the other hand, Kratz was only counted on in limited spurts due to his age and lack of mastering one part of the game or the other.
Enter Yasmani Grandal.
Watching Grandal up close and in person during the playoffs, the Brewers must have liked what they saw, even with his passed ball dilemma. Offensively, Grandal ranks very high due to his power and his stretch should transfer well to Miller Park with the short porch in right field. His defense will improve as the season goes on, as working with Pina and the pitching staff will only familiarize himself with the staff.
Pina will be relegated to a backup role, but one of the better backups in the league, a definite advantage for Milwaukee. Unless an injury were to occur, Kratz is fighting a losing battle and will most likely either be traded during spring training or released to go and find what may be his final opportunity before retiring.
Bullpen only got stronger
Riding Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress and the electric lefty Josh Hader, the Brewers relied on their bullpen to carry them through the season and into the playoffs. While all three weapons are returning for 2019, they do have a few weapons that either was not on the team last season or had down years in 2018.
Jacob Barnes rode the shuttle down to Triple-A a few times but should be an integral part of the bullpen, provided he fixed his command issues.
Alex Claudio was acquired from the Texas Rangers for a competitive balance pick in this year’s draft, and the lefty will help provide Hader with a fellow lefty to protect him. His groundball rate was astounding in 2018 and fits perfectly into what the Brewers look for in a relief pitcher.
Matt Albers had a very disappointing season but is primed and practically promised a spot in the pen, and this spring is a great opportunity to get back on the horse.
Whoever does not make the rotation out of Woodruff, Burnes and Peralta has a fast track to becoming the pen’s long relief option and potential shutdown, high-octane reliever for Counsell to throw out there when needed.
This team’s bullpen is just as strong as last season, if not stronger, and they will use their pitching to their advantage to take the pressure off of their lineup to produce at the plate. Watch out for this team to win the division again and to make waves in the playoffs yet again.