The Milwaukee Brewers were one of the most captivating storylines of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, going from a non-playoff team to pushing the Los Angeles Dodgers to seven games in the National League Championship Series. But despite their 2018 heroics, the Brewers’ road back to where they ended up this October will be an uphill climb given the presence of the Chicago Cubs.
Seven weeks ago, the Cubs were five games ahead of the Brewers and in first place in the National League Central. They were benefiting from an underwhelming NL yes, but the Cubs were also the most steady team in their division and the NL, as a whole. Then, they fell off their pedestal a bit, and the Brewers pounced, eventually forcing and winning a Game 163 against the Cubs to win the NL Central. The ensuing night, the Cubs lost to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card Game, terminating their season in the opening stages of the postseason.
Now, is the fact that the Cubs lost back-to-back playoff-deciding games in Wrigley Field indicative on the type of team they were in 2018? Absolutely, but they were still a 95-win team who reached the NLCS from 2015-17 and are still one of the most feared teams in the sport. Just look at the talent on their roster.
Headlined by NL Most Valuable Player of the Year Award candidate Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber, among others, the Cubs have one of the deepest lineups in the sport. In the regular season, manager Joe Maddon‘s ballclub was ninth in MLB in runs (761), second in hits (1,453), fourth in batting average (.258), and fourth in on-base percentage (.333).Though the @Brewers had the upper hand in 2018, the @Cubs will spoil their growing championship hopes with a comeback season in 2019, @RPStratakos predicts.Click To Tweet
You can also point to the Cubs pitching staff — which is one of the best units in MLB. While their rotation wasn’t stellar in 2018, a quintet that features Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Yu Darvish (if he returns for the start of the 2019 season) gives your team a chance to win every time you step foot on the diamond. And when your bullpen can pick up the slack on days where your starting pitching struggles, your ballclub is that much more dangerous.
This season, the Cubs bullpen was second in ERA (3.35) and fourth in opponent batting average (.225). Whether it be Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, or Mike Montgomery, Maddon has a number of arms whom he can turn to in the late innings. As an entire staff, the Cubs were third in ERA (3.65).
The NL, as a whole, was underwhelming in 2018. The Brewers and Cubs finished with the two best records in the NL at 96 and 95 wins apiece. The other NL division winners, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, finished with 92 and 90 wins apiece, while the Wild Card Game-winning Rockies won 91 games. The NL was the utter opposite of what it was the two years prior to this season, as three-to-four teams were winning close to, or over, 100 games. Going forward, those days will likely make a return. A big reason for that is because the Cubs may be poised to pull off one of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason.
The Cubs have been linked at will to All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper — whose presence could catapult the Cubs back to the top of the NL. While Harper is coming off a year in which he hit just .249, he concurrently had his first 100 RBI season and totaled 34 home runs. Harper is also one of the best defensive outfielders in the game and a proven commodity, albeit the inconsistency from time to time at the plate. And if the Cubs can secure his services, he will undoubtedly make them the team to beat in the NL. Or, if they can’t pull off signing Harper, perhaps president Theo Epstein and company opt to upgrade at shortstop over Addison Russell and pull out all the stops for Manny Machado.
But even if the Cubs can’t pull off a blockbuster signing, they still have a vastly deep and advanced roster. Can the same really be said for the Brewers?
When you win 96 games, there’s no denying you’re a good team; there’s no refuting that in the Brewers’ case. But there are some questions surrounding the well-being of their roster going forward. While the Brewers have some big-name bats such as Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, and Ryan Braun, they were collectively unable to pose a legitimate threat at the plate in the postseason and were inconsistent in the regular season. Averaging just 3.7 runs per game in the postseason, the Brewers leaned on their pitching staff to save the day — which is where things got bizarre.
In the postseason, manager Craig Counsell used his bullpen to extremes. Not a single Brewers starting pitcher pitched through the sixth inning, and in Game 5 of the NLCS, Counsell opted to decoy lefty Wade Miley as his starter, removing him after the first batter. A big reasoning for these tactics was the presence of an elite bullpen. With Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Joakim Soria, and Jeremy Jeffress on standby in left-center field, Counsell had the luxury of bringing multiple quality arms into the game.
At the same time, if you’re a free agent starting pitcher, there’s reason to believe that you may not pitch deep into games, or could even be used in such a decoy role yourself with the Brewers. That may hurt Milwaukee’s odds at improving their starting rotation — which has been a major criticism of their ballclub in recent memory. Why would a free agent starting pitcher such as Dallas Keuchel or Patrick Corbin sign with the Brewers if they feel Counsell is going to baby them every step of the way?
Now, it’s not to say that what Counsell did in the postseason will be done in the regular season. Doing as such would likely result in a midseason firing based on the way he’d be abusing their pen. But everyone plays for the postseason, and if a starter’s leash is, at most, five innings, there are pitchers who will pass on signing with the Brew Crew.
At one point, it looked like they may be the team to beat in the NL this postseason. But are the Brewers more likely to win the NL Central for the next four years, or fall back into the Wild Card hunt? And, in hindsight, are they an NL powerhouse, or a playoff fluke?
The Brewers will surely be back in the playoff mix next season. But the Cubs are the better overall team and more likely to add a significant player, or two, this offseason; the Cubs are poised to wreck the Brewers’ coming-out-party.