The Brewers pushed their chips toward the middle of the table Thursday evening, pulling off two major moves and announcing their arrival as a legitimate playoff contender in 2018.
First, they traded for Christian Yelich, sending a healthy package of four prospects to Miami for the rising star who is just 26 and under contract for five more seasons. Then, they signed center fielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million free-agent deal. Boom.
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Big moves for a franchise that entered 2017 still in a rebuilding phase, but outperformed expectations with 86 wins and now is jumping at what the front office clearly sees as an opportunity to get back to October for the first time since 2011. If you’re a Brewers fan, you should definitely be excited.
So how do these new-look Brewers stack up against the NL Central’s other contenders, the Cubs and the Cardinals, right now? We thought we’d take a look, while acknowledging that all three teams are still actively looking for ways to improve their club before opening day. The Cubs and Brewers could use another starting pitcher, for example, and it wouldn’t hurt the Cardinals to add another established bullpen arm.
Anyway, on to the position-by-position comparison.
Thoughts: Eric Thames was the stunning early season story for the Brewers in 2017, and even though he cooled down after his scorching return to MLB from Korea, he still finished with 31 homers and an .877 OPS for the season. The Cardinals, well, they’re not exactly sure who will be at first on a regular basis this year (but they know Who collects the money every month). Matt Carpenter should be the primary first baseman, when he’s not playing third, and Jose Martinez earned starts at first, if he’s not in the outfield or coming off the bench. Things are much more certain in Chicago, where All-Star regular Anthony Rizzo has been consistently excellent the past four seasons — he’s hit either 31 or 32 home runs all four years, with an OPS nestled in the tiny span from .899 to .928.
Edge: Cubs. No surprises here. Rizzo is one of the best in the bigs.
Thoughts: Cubs fans will tell you we still haven’t seen the best of 25-year-old Javier Baez, even though he hit 23 homers last year while splitting time between second and shortstop (when Addison Russell was on the DL), and Ben Zobrist still figures into the mix at the position, too. Cardinals fans will tell you they were very happy with how Kolten Wong bounced back after a couple of disappointing seasons, posting career highs in most rate categories, including on-base percentage (.376) and OPS (.788). In Milwaukee, Jonathan Villar — who slumped massively in 2018 after a breakthrough 2017 campaign (19 homers, 62 stolen bases, 3.9 rWAR) — and Eric Sogard — who had a .393 on-base percentage in 299 plate appearances last year — are competing for the spot, though both can play all over the infield, too.
Edge: Cubs. We’ll go with Baez, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wong in the All-Star mix, too.
Thoughts: Paul DeJong, a fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft, was a revelation for the Cardinals last year; he smashed his way into the starting lineup and finished with 25 homers — after he hit 13 in Triple-A — an .857 OPS and 3.0 fWAR despite not making his MLB debut until May 28 and playing in just 108 games. Orlando Arcia was often overmatched at the plate in his first taste of the big leagues — he had just a .273 on-base percentage in 55 games in 2016 — but in 2017 (his Age 22 season), Arcia bumped his OPS up 100 points to .731, and he added 14 stolen bases to his 15 home runs as Milwaukee’s full-time starter at shortstop. Remember that Addison Russell is still just 24 when you talk about his DL-ridden 2017 as a disappointment; on the other hand, in 403 career games, he has just a .240 average and .312 on-base percentage. Still, with his glove and a potent bat, that makes him more of a breakthrough candidate for 2018 than potential flameout.
Edge: Cardinals. Russell probably has the best upside, but the pick here is DeJong.
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Thoughts: Kris Bryant won the NL rookie award his first year in the bigs and won the NL MVP in his second season. And all he did in his third year was post career bests in doubles (38), average (.295), on-base percentage (.409) and OPS (.946). He’s a true superstar. Jedd Gyorko has hit 50 homers in two seasons with the Cardinals, despite missing at least 34 games each year, but he doesn’t have the job locked down right now; the front office has been reportedly exploring a variety of options this offseason that could move him back to a super-utility role. For now, he’s the primary starter, though Carpenter is expected to see starts at third, too. Milwaukee’s trade for Travis Shaw in December 2016 might have been the most underrated move of the entire offseason. Liberated from Boston, Shaw hit 31 homers, with an .862 OPS, 101 RBIs and a 4.0 rWAR and emerged as a leader for the Brewers.
Edge: Cubs. Shaw is a great player and Gyorko has been everything St. Louis could have hoped for, but this is an easy choice. It’s Kris Bryant’s world.
Thoughts: This is the land of the ex-Marlins, apparently. Marcel Ozuna was shipped out of Miami before Yelich, and the Cardinals are hoping that Ozuna, an outstanding defensive outfielder who hit 37 home runs last year, is the lineup piece that seemed to be missing from their order in 2017. And now, obviously, Yelich is in Milwaukee. He’s versatile enough to play any outfield position, but for the moment he seems destined for left field, though the Brewers still have shuffling to do, what with Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips in the outfield mix. In Chicago, Kyle Schwarber has a lot to prove after a disappointing 2017 campaign. We’ve all seen the pics and video of his offseason workout regimen, and he’s clearly dropped weight and added strength. Will 2018 be his breakout season? Ben Zobrist figures into the left-field mix in Chicago, too.
Edge: Cardinals. Yelich is a great addition for the Brew Crew and Schwaber could be a stud, but Ozuna is the best player at this spot.
Thoughts: Yes, Lorenzo Cain will be 32 in April, and, yes, by the end of his five-year deal with the Brewers he certainly will have lost a step. But this is still one heck of a player Milwaukee has added; he’s an elite defensive centerfielder and coming off a season of 15 homers, 26 stolen bases, a .300 average, .803 OPS and 5.3 rWAR. Still a stud. Speaking of studs, Tommy Pham started 2017 in the minors but spent most of the year proving not only that he belonged in the bigs, but that he was a star in the bigs. In 128 games, Pham hit 23 homers and stole 25 bases, posted a slash line of .306/.411/.520 and produced an rWAR of 6.4 that trailed only Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto and Nolan Arenado among NL position players. In Chicago, Albert Almora Jr., (.298) and Ian Happ (24 homers) will both see starts in center. Even though Almora is clearly the better defensive option, the Cubs will have to get creative to find ways to get Happ’s bat in the lineup, and that’s likely to happen in center.
Edge: Brewers, barely. Pham has more upside, but Cain is the more certain thing.
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Thoughts: Dexter Fowler, who is expected to shift full time from center to right field this year, popped a career-high 18 homers for the Cardinals last year despite injuries limiting him to only 118 games. Jason Heyward’s second year with the Cubs was much like his first — great glove, awful bat. And, yes, he was marginally better at the plate in 2017, but his .715 OPS still ranked 157th of 181 players with at least 450 plate appearances. Milwaukee’s right-field situation still has to be settled. The club owes Ryan Braun at least $62 million (counting his 2021 buyout), and Domingo Santana had 30 homers and an .875 OPS for the club in 2017. Something’s gotta give between now and opening day.
Edge: Cardinals, mostly because Heyward’s glove isn’t enough to make up for that bat and we don’t know what Milwaukee’s situation looks like.
Thoughts: Yadier Molina has long been the gold standard for catchers, not just in the NL but in all of MLB. And, yeah, he’s 35, but he had 18 homers and a career-high 82 RBIs in 2017 for the Cardinals. He’s far from finished as an elite catcher. Willson Contreras has played 193 games in his Cubs career, and the 25-year-old rising star has an .851 OPS and 33 home runs. So very impressive. In Milwaukee, Manny Pina did a solid job in his first extended run as a big-league catcher; he hit .279 with a .751 OPS. He’s the right-handed hitting part of the duo with left-handed hitting Stephen Vogt, who posted a .789 OPS after his trade to Milwaukee.
Edge: Cubs. Contreras is ready to take that gold-standard title from Molina in the division.
Top of the rotation
Thoughts: Of all the starters in the NL Central in 2018, Carlos Martinez has the best chance to win the Cy Young. It feels like he’s been around forever, sure, but he’s still just entering his prime — he’s 26 — and he posted career bests in K/9, K/BB and WHIP last year. Thing is, he’s the only one in the Cardinals’ rotation you’d consider a top-tier starter. The Cubs, on the other hand, have Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester filling their top three spots. That’s one heck of a trio. For the Brewers, Chase Anderson was really good last year (2.75 ERA in 25 starts), and Zach Davies is entering his Age 25 season with a 3.91 ERA in 67 career starts.
Rest of the rotation
Thoughts: The Cubs get the top-of-the-rotation nod, but there are plenty of questions after that. Tyler Chatwood was a good low-risk signing, but he’s had issues staying healthy. And after that, the fifth starter spot is still wide open (Mike Montgomery? Eddie Butler?). The Cardinals, on the other hand, feel better about the depth of their rotation, with Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright, and promising rookie Jack Flaherty waiting in the wings. The Brewers signed a couple of back-of-the-rotation free agents in Yovani Gallardo and Jhoulys Chacin to go with lefty Brent Suter. Jimmy Nelson, who was outstanding before shoulder surgery ended his 2017 season, will be back to provide a boost at some point in 2018.
Thoughts: Brandon Morrow was outstanding for the Dodgers in 2017, not just in the bright World Series spotlight, but throughout the season. Can he handle being a full-time closer for an entire season? We’ll find out. At the moment, Luke Gregerson is the Cardinals closer. The key part there is “at the moment.” There are still free-agent relievers on the market, and the Cardinals have in-house guys like Tyler Lyons and possibly Alex Reyes (down the road, when he’s back from injury) who could take the spot. It’s hard to believe a guy who was basically an afterthought in Houston’s bullpen during the run to the World Series title will be given the full-time closer’s job. And then there’s Corey Knebel, who was awesome for Milwaukee in 2017 — 1.78 ERA, 39 saves, 14.9 K/9, 3.7 rWAR.
Edge: Brewers, without a doubt
Rest of the bullpen
Thoughts: It’s hard to predict how a bullpen will perform from year to year, of course. If it was easy, every team would have a reliable bullpen. But we’re going to try to assess these groups anyway. Good luck with all that, eh? The Cubs brought in Steve Cishek to join Carl Edwards, Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing as important later-inning pieces, and there’s hope that Justin Grimm and Justin Wilson will find the past success that eluded them in 2017. The Cardinals added Dominic Leone in the trade that sent Randal Grichuk away, and he could be a big piece with Tyler Lyons, who has bounced between the bullpen and the rotation but was really good as a reliever last year, and Alex Reyes, who was 2017’s odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite before Tommy John surgery ended his season last spring. Add those three to lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righties Sam Tuivailala, Matthew Bowman and John Brebbia, and the makings of a solid pen are there. Knebel was great as Milwaukee’s closer, and lefty Josh Hader was outstanding, too (2.03 ERA, 12.8 K/9). From there, though, the Brewers have questions. They need former closer Jeremy Jeffress to find the control he lost in Texas, and for guys like Oliver Drake (61 games, 4.44 ERA) and Jacob Barnes (73 games, 4.00 ERA) to remain healthy, but become a bit more productive.
Edge: Cardinals, assuming Reyes comes back healthy and productive.