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That barren part of the calendar known as the baseball off-season is finally over. Even better, for the first time since 2011 Milwaukee Brewers fans should be excited about the upcoming season. It’s not unreasonable to hope for a playoff berth, though most likely this season will function as a stepping stone to 2019 and beyond.
With that in mind, here are five questions that will help determine if the season ends in September or October:
How will Ryan Braun fare at first base?
Braun played third base when he was first called up in 2007. We was very, very, very bad at the hot corner, racking up 26 errors in 112 games. With a crowded outfield and Eric Thames’ struggles against southpaws, Braun will play first base against left-handed starters. In theory this is a good idea. Braun is a career .331/.400/.614 hitter against lefties, whereas Thames hit .182/.264/.394 against them last season. However, there is also the matter of playing defense. First base may be one of the easiest positions to play on the diamond, but it’s still incredibly difficult. The Brewers need to get a few breaks if they want to make the playoffs this season; Braun being a passable defensive first-basemen would be one of them.
Can the rotation hold down the fort until Jimmy Nelson returns?
The Brewers rotation should be decent, even without Nelson. Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin are average-at-worst starters, meaning they should keep the Brewers in most games and eat innings. The problem is that there is not a stopper in the bunch and any injury or dip in performance would be devastating. The good news is that if Anderson & Co. can crank out quality starts until July (when Nelson is slated to return) the Brewers will get a boost for a playoff push.
Will Corey Knebel become one of baseball’s premier closers?
Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel are closers that cause you to abandon all hope of a 9th inning rally. Last season Corey Knebel was as dominant as any reliever in the game. He converted 39 saves and struck out an eye-popping 126 batters in 76 innings. For a point of reference, Jeff Suppan never struck out 126 batters during any of his seasons in Milwaukee. The Brewers have seen many closers become one-year wonders, the best example being Derrick Turnbow. What portends well for Knebel is that his curveball is one of the most unhittable pitches in the game. His 2017 success was not a fluke, but it could be fleeting if he cannot locate his curveball with consistency in 2018.
Is Josh Hader the next Andrew Miller?
Speaking of relievers, of all the players in the Brewers’ system I’m the most intrigued by Josh Hader. He’s a 23-year old lefty with an upper-90s fastball. It will be interesting to see how Craig Counsell puts him to use. Counsell is a great manager for many reasons, one of them being his willingness to do what works rather than adhere to convention. While the traditional reliever setup is to have a setup man and a closer, it often makes sense to bring in a shut-down reliever in the 6th inning with the bases loaded and one out. This is how Terry Francona uses Andrew Miller with the Cleveland Indians, and my best guess is Counsell will use Hader in a similar manner.
Will the Brewers fall victim to the Plexiglass Principle?
Bill James is arguably the greatest baseball thinker of all time. One of his concepts is the “Plexiglass Principle” which states “teams that improve in one season tend to decline in the following year, and vice versa.” The Brewers won 13 more games in 2017 than they did in 2016. Even with the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, as well as the anticipated development of youngsters, it’s easy to see the Brew Crew taking a half-step back in the standings this season. Rebuilds are not always characterized by linear improvement, though we certainly hope that happens in 2018.