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It wasn’t that long ago that simply playing for a chance at a playoff spot was the mark of a successful season for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Those days, however, are long gone. After making the playoffs four times in their first 47 seasons in Milwaukee, the Brewers have doubled that total by reaching the postseason in each of the last four years and, barring a catastrophe of biblical proportions, are a near-lock to stretch that streak to five straight seasons come October.
“The baseball season is a long roller coaster ride,” manager Craig Counsell said. “You go through ups, you go through downs but you go through it together.
“Even though we’re largely the same (team last last year), we’re all in a different place in life so it’s a new dynamic for the group and that’s fun to un-peel and uncover a little bit. You look forward to doing that.”
There are plenty of reasons why the Brewers are in this position but none more significant than the team’s pitching staff, specifically, it’s starting rotation which could be one of, if not the, best in all of baseball in 2022.
Anchored by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee’s rotation features a “Big Three” so fearsome that not having to face them was a major factor in free agent slugger Andrew McCutchen’s decision to sign with the Brewers not long after the start of Spring Training.
Behind those three, the Brewers have two more young stars in Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer with top prospect Aaron Ashby likely to see regular starts, as well, as Counsell looks to manage his pitchers’ workloads after they all surpassed career highs for innings pitched in 2021 and had only a month of camp to prepare for the season.
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Combine that starting unit with a bullpen again anchored by closer Josh Hader and set-up man Devin Williams and runs will be hard to come by for opponents this season.
“We know we’re going to be a run prevention-oriented team,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “We’re still built around our pitching staff, we’re built around our defense and that’s not going to change but we also want to score a few more runs than we did last year, and we think some of the moves we’ve made will help us to do that.”
Offensively, the Brewers struggled last season and especially during their NL Division Series loss to the Braves but Counsell is optimistic that the additions of McCutchen, who will serve primarily as Milwaukee’s designated hitter, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe will provide some much-needed pop while Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura look to bounce back from 2021 performances that were largely forgettable.
“It’s on this group of guys to be a consistent offense,” Counsell said. “It was because of a lot of issues, but the way we rolled last year, we had to give at-bats to some guys who struggled and I think that was part of holding us down at times during the regular season but I think this group has a chance to be really consistent. I think it’s a balanced group.”
On paper, at least, the Brewers are an easy pick to win a second consecutive NL Central Division crown, with the St. Louis Cardinals likely their top contender. Cincinnati, which finished third last year, looks to be in a rebuilding mode after parting ways with several key players. The Cubs started their own rebuild last year at the trade deadline when general manager Jed Hoyer shipped out Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Navy Baez while the Pirates’ top goal in 2022 is avoiding another 100-loss season.
“The Cubs are a different team,” Counsell said. “You kind of have to erase a little bit of what you kow about them and how you prepare for them because it’s a different team so you’re eager to get to know them, really. I think Pittsburgh is going to have some talented young players start to come up. I think Cincinnati is going to feature some of the same, some young pitchers who are very talented. The Cardinals are largely like us in that they have a very similar team to the one they had last year.”
Despite their status as contenders and their own lofty goals and expectations for the season, the Brewers themselves are trying to avoid looking too far down the road. They know what’s possible for this group but also know what it takes to put themselves into a position to achieve those goals.
“For us, it’s to go out and play the best baseball we can and at the end of the year, if that puts us in the postseason, then we’re there and we’ll strap it on again in the postseason,” Burnes said. “You can’t really set expectations of, ‘Hey, we want to win this many games and make the World Series’ because if you start doing that, you’re putting pressure on yourself.
“For us, it’s go out, have fun, enjoy being around each other, play hard and we’ll see what happens.”