Once upon a time there was a major league baseball team.
In contention in September, but not yet quite ahead in its playoff race, this team ran though the last couple of weeks of the season, defeating everyone in sight, even through the beginnings of the postseason, before coming up short of winning the ultimate prize.
You think I’m talking about the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers, don’t you. Actually, the description above applies to the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games, swept the Phillies in a division series and swept the Diamondbacks in the NLCS before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.
There are several similarities between the ‘07 Rockies and the ‘18 Brewers. Both teams had several outstanding young sluggers and pitchers who came out of nowhere to bolster their starting rotation.
Of course, there were differences. The ‘07 Rockies didn’t have anyone like Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress in their bullpen. The ‘18 Brewers scored 106 fewer runs than the ‘07 Rockies, even while winning six more games. The parallels aren’t exact, yet the way both teams raced through the end of their seasons toward the postseason feels somewhat the same.
I am telling you this because the 2008 Rockies, with largely the same cast returning, went 74-88 and finished third in the N.L. West, 10 games out of first place. Why? Injuries, in part; drops in performance, some expected, some not; and the simple matter that replicating a run like they had is almost impossible.
Want another example? It won’t feel very good, because it involves the Cubs blowing a lead. Yes, 1969. There, I said it. The Cubs failed to make the postseason in 1969 not only because they went 15-25 after Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter on August 19, but because the Mets went 33-11 over that same span.
Was that sustainable? No, it was not. That 100-win Mets team, with all its great pitchers, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and a young Nolan Ryan, went 83-79 in 1970 and finished third.
There are other examples, but you get the point, I hope.
Before all the Brewers fans reading this jump all over me for what I’m about to tell you, let me say this. The Brewers do have some tremendous talent. They won the N.L. Central fair and square, by outplaying the Cubs over the last few weeks of the season. The entire Cubs season might have turned on this play [VIDEO].
You remember it well; we don’t have to re-hash it here. What I do want you to look at from that play is this:
It’s a little blurry, but look at where the ball (the white spot) is, and look at where Lorenzo Cain is, running from first to second, only a bit more than halfway as the ball is about two-thirds of the way in its journey to first base. It’s entirely possible that if Kris Bryant had thrown to second instead of first, he completes the double play and the game goes to extras. If the Cubs had won that game, there’s no tiebreaker, the Cubs win the division and who knows, maybe they’re still playing baseball today.
That’s how close these two teams were in 2018. We all know about the Cubs playing 42 games over the season’s last 43 days (including the tiebreaker and wild-card game), a slog that had to affect their play. The Brewers had a lot of their off days backloaded into the season’s second half and thus had somewhat of a competitive advantage, not to mention that they don’t have any weather issues at their home park and the Cubs had nine postponements in 2018, their most since 1989. It’s not an excuse, it can’t and shouldn’t be used that way, but it’s a fact — the Cubs had a tougher road through 2018 than the Brewers did. Still, even with all the problems the 2018 Cubs had, from rainouts to injuries to subpar performances, they still won 95 games.
The Cubs have some choices to make for 2019 to remain competitive. We’ve discussed those here and will often this offseason, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Cubs should be a team capable of winning 90-plus again in 2019, maybe 95-plus.
Will the Brewers be such a team in 2019? Here’s where I wonder about some of their players having career years, or doing things so unexpected that I don’t think they can possibly do them again.
This does not include Christian Yelich, the likely National League MVP. He was a good player before he came to Milwaukee and now he’s a great player. Will he have a season as great in 2019? It’s possible, certainly.
What’s likely not going to happen again is the performance of Orlando Arcia. Arcia had the second-worst OPS in the major leagues of anyone with as many PA (only Chris Davis of the Orioles was worse). Then he suddenly has a four-hit game in the tiebreaker against the Cubs October 1 — the only four-hit game of his 327-game big-league career — and hit .333/.353/.606 (11-for-33) with three home runs in 10 postseason games.
I mean... that just doesn’t happen. Only it did. But the chances of that happening again are pretty close to zero.
And could someone explain Erik Kratz to me? Look at Kratz’ transaction log for the last three years:
I count two unconditional releases, seven free agent signings, two trades and 12 different teams — just from June 2015 through May 2018! That’s about what you’d expect to get from a 29th-round pick who spent nearly nine years in the minors before he made his big-league debut.
And then suddenly this guy is the starting catcher for a division champion? At age 38? Heck, the Cubs should have signed him last winter instead of Chris Gimenez, they’d have had a much better backup for Willson Contreras. (Not to mention that he wouldn’t have been a Brewer.)
Did I mention Kratz is 38? He’s only three years younger than David Ross, for heaven’s sake. Only three other players as old or older (Victor Martinez, Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre) had as many or more PA than Kratz in 2018. And that’s the last time you’ll probably ever read Kratz’ name in connection with those three, two of whom are headed to the Hall of Fame. Whatever magic pixie dust got into Kratz this year, that’s also not likely to repeat.
When the Cubs faced Wade Miley in Baltimore in July 2017, they absolutely demolished him. He was one of the worst starters in the American League last year. With the Brewers in 2018? 16 starts and 1.5 bWAR, his best year since 2012, and he added 14⅔ solid innings with a 1.23 ERA and 0.955 WHIP in the postseason. He had not had a year anywhere near this good since 2012, and even that wasn’t quite up to this standard.
Where did that come from? Likely not repeatable.
Also, Miley is a free agent. So is Kratz. So are these other 2018 Brewers: Gio Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson and Dan Jennings. Jeffress, Joakim Soria and Jordan Lyles have club options and Mike Moustakas has a mutual option. This article seems to indicate the team might non-tender Jonathan Schoop.
Some of these players will be back, some not; the Brewers likely have payroll room to bring players back, and they have Yelich on a team-friendly contract through 2021 with a team option for 2022. They’ll get Jimmy Nelson back for their rotation, but how he’ll do at age 30 after missing all of 2018 with a shoulder injury is an open question.
So essentially, the Brewers made a number of “win now” trades and acquisitions in 2018... and they didn’t win.
As for Hader and Jeffress... man, I don’t think that’s repeatable either. Take a look at these two players:
Which one of these stat lines belongs to 2018 Josh Hader? I’ll let you guess, then look below.
Player “B” is Hader from this past season. Player “A” is Carlos Marmol’s 2010 season with the Cubs, where he was nearly as dominant as Hader was this year. More, in a way, since he allowed just one home run where Hader served up nine. When hitters can frame up Hader’s fastball, they can hit it a long way. I’d expect to see more of this in 2019.
And Jeremy Jeffress? He’s had decent-to-good years before, but his 2018 season, at age 30, was otherworldly. That one screams out “career year” to me. The Brewers have team options on him for 2019 and 2020 that they’ll surely exercise, as they’re ridiculously cheap ($3.1 million for next year, $4.3 million for 2020). But will Jeffress be that good again? Given his pretty good, but not great, numbers in 271 appearances before 2018, I’d have to say no.
The 2018 Brewers were a perfect storm, and had a long winning streak, 12 games’ worth that got free burgers for Milwaukee-area residents, at exactly the time they needed it most.
I’m just saying that I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t necessarily have a good ending for the protagonist. It’s more likely than not that the Brewers will be a strong contending team in 2019.
But they could also fall very flat. It’s happened many times in baseball history.