When the Cubs won 95 games in 2018 only to finish second in the division, it put Theo Epstein in very familiar territory. Five times in nine seasons, Epstein’s Boston teams finished second while winning 95 games or more. Four times they came in second to the Yankees and once to Joe Maddon’s Rays.
Each of those runner-ups resulted in a Wild Card berth, with one ending in that 2004 curse-breaking title. But in 2012 when an extra wild-card team and the one-game play-in was added, the Wild Card route became far less appealing. Thus for the Cubs, reclaiming the division flag from the Brewers is a must priority in 2019.
But should Epstein try anticipating and parrying every Brewers move, like in his Yankees-Red Sox rivalry days? Or should he consider the Brewers’ 2018 a small-market aberration like Tampa’s lone World Series appearance in 2008? To examine whether the Cubs should fear the Brewers or not, let’s consider the following five areas.
The Chuck Tanner Rule
Maybe the Brewers’ biggest concern should be what David Kaplan calls the “Chuck Tanner Rule,” a.k.a the law of averages. (See 24:00 mark here) A former White Sox and Pirates manager, Tanner felt teams featuring career years from six or more key players seldom repeat that success, and Kaplan feels this applies to Milwaukee.
Of course, almost any championship season requires a few career years. In 2016, the Cubs enjoyed clear career years (to this point) from Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell and Kyle Hendricks. By comparison, the 2018 Brewers arguably got career years from six players: Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar, Eric Kratz, Jhoulys Chacin, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader.
So is a step back inevitable for the Brewers? Well, if Yelich and Hader can repeat their 2018 success, that changes the career-year math. But either way, maintaining excellence is difficult.
Take the Cubs’ fall-off in 2017, which was partly due to an inability to replace Fowler’s 2016 production and Russell and Hendricks failing to match their previous stellar seasons. The Cubs won 11 fewer games and still captured the NL Central, but they barely got past the Nationals in the NLDS thanks largely to many bad Dusty Baker moves.
But still give the Cubs credit for notching four consecutive seasons of 92 wins or more. In contrast, the Brewers haven’t had back-to-back 90-win seasons in 40 years. So can Milwaukee do it again in 2019? Tanner Rule or not, it certainly won’t be easy.
Conclusion: Don’t fear the Brewers
Regardless of your thoughts on the Brewers ability to maintain career-high production, you must give them proper respect. They are the reigning NL Central champs who came within one game – and perhaps just one top starting pitcher – of the World Series last year.
Cubs faithful, though, will point out the Brewers only won the division thanks to injuries to the Cubs’ best hitter (Kris Bryant), best reliever (Brandon Morrow), and top free agent acquisition (Yu Darvish). But purity of Pythagorean projections aside, injuries are part of the game, and the Brewers also overcame their own to two of their three best starting pitchers: Zach Davies and Jimmy Nelson.
Of course, neither Davies nor Nelson are ace-level, but Davies did throw 191 innings in 2017 before rotor cuff issues limited him in 2018. Then again, Darvish hasn’t thrown 200 innings since 2013. So it’s anyone guess whether a healthy Davies or Darvish would have most helped his respective team more.
Big vs. Small Market
Let me first correct any mistaken impression I may have left about Tampa’s 2008 World Series appearance. That was not a one-off success like, say, how the 1959 Go-Go White Sox slipped in a single AL pennant amid nine Yankees World Series appearances. In contrast, the Rays won 90 or more games in five of six years, plus the AL East again in 2010.
This shows once a small-market team achieves division success, they can sustain it. The Brewers, though, are both better and worse positioned than the Rays to do the same.
On the plus side, the 2018 Brewers had twice the payroll of the 2008 Rays ($44 million). Thus the Brewers were able to sign one of the top offensive free agents last winter (Cain) and also reportedly make Darvish a nine-figure offer, moves Tampa could never contemplate.
On the negative side, those Maddon Rays featured a better prospect pipeline than the Brewers. Whereas a large core of high draft picks anchored the Rays, the Brewers needed to import their two best players in 2018 (Cain and Yelich). Further, only twice in the last 10 years have the Brewers picked in the Top 10, and those picks came in two of the last three years.
Thus when the Rays made their World Series run, they were able to add a young David Price to the bullpen down the stretch. The Brewers called up good-but-not-great Brandon Woodruff. And while they do have Double-A second baseman Keston Hiura coming, there isn’t much after that in the way of immediate-impact players.
So the Brewers must really make very smart trade and free agent signings. This means more Cain and Chacin signings and fewer Jonathan Schoop and Mitch Haniger-for-Gerardo Parra trades. But of course, this is all easier said than done.
Conclusion: Don’t fear the Brewers
Given the Cubs’ reported tight purse strings this winter, the Brewers may actually have a one-year payroll flexibility advantage on the Cubs. But the Brewers’ payroll is a strange, tiny animal. Like most baseball owners, Milwaukee’s Mark Attanasio likes to pay players just enough millions to allow himself to keep living as a billionaire. So don’t expect him to go for broke Mike Ilich-style like the Tigers did for so many years.
That said, Milwaukee still has that Darvish payroll slot. Plus the team’s regular-season attendance jumped 8.5 percent last year, augmented by extra revenue from a deep playoff run. Throw in the Brewers non-tendering Schoop (projected to earn $10 million after arbitration), and all arrows point to them making at least one significant free agent signing. Perhaps Dallas Keuchel or the newly posted Japanese star Yusei Kikuchi.
Or they could go big by reuniting with the Diamondbacks’ Zack Greinke and taking on about two-thirds of the $104 million he’s owed over three years. And yes, Greinke’s limited no-trade clause does allow a move to Milwaukee.
For the Cubs, a Greinke deal would probably be the worst-case scenario, but the fallout would be fascinating. If Milwaukee did acquire the veteran righty, might the Cubs feel compelled to counter and take on more payroll this year? And are the Cubs even slow-playing the market to get a better indication of Milwaukee’s payroll and what they’ll do?
Conclusion: Fear the Brewers
I’ll admit I took the Brewers too lightly in 2018. I loved the Cain and Yelich deals but thought their rotation too thin for playoff prime time. But despite the starting rotation throwing the fourth fewest innings in the National League, they beat the Cubs to the NL Central finish line.
Milwaukee’s bullpenning approach was based on the 2014/15 Royals model, but differed in one key way. Contrary to assumptions, Kansas City actually saved its bullpenning for the playoffs. In 2014, Royals starters threw the fourth-most innings in the AL (986). This dropped off in 2015 with the free-agency loss of workhorse James Shields and required the mid-season trade for top Reds starter Johnny Cueto.
In contrast after Darvish signed with Chicago last winter, Milwaukee decided to go bullpen-heavy the whole season. Their starters threw just 58 percent of total innings (847), with the bullpen covering the other 42 percent (614). Then in the playoffs, Brewer relievers handled nearly 60 percent of all innings.
Craig Counsell did employee a unique approach with Hader, who threw 81 innings across just 55 appearances. That meant he pitched in more than one inning 64 percent of the time, which probably preserved Hader’s arm better than did the 73 regular-season appearances for journeyman teammate Jeffress. And though Jeffress had an impressive 1.29 ERA, he was spent come the playoffs and posted a 6.75 ERA appearing in eight of 10 playoff games.
Milwaukee GM David Stearns has already said they intend to employ the same regular-season bullpenning approach in 2019. If this isn’t just posturing and the Brewers don’t sign a workhorse starter, it should be good news for NL Central rivals. Though the Brewers rode their bullpen to 96 wins in 2018 and hope for a return of Davies and Nelson to their rotation, it seems quite unlikely so many overworked relievers can duplicate that level of success for a second year in a row.
Conclusion: Don’t fear the Brewers (unless they acquire a major workhorse starter)