MILWAUKEE — If the history of a major-league franchise is like the ebb and flow of the tide — good for a while, bad for a while, often mediocre in between — then this era of Brewers baseball is that wave that was bigger and faster than expected, maybe knocking you on your butt and eating your sunglasses.
In only three years under general manager David Stearns and assistant GM Matt Arnold, the Brewers have progressed from 68-94 — and 32 games behind first place in the NL Central — to the winningest team in the National League and Game 7 of the NLCS against the Dodgers on Saturday night.
And they expect 2018 to be just the beginning. World Series or not, the Brewers reached this stage quicker than the baseball-watching world generally expected, and they appear poised to make genuine contention an annual occurrence.
“Your goals are always to build sustainability,” manager Craig Counsell said. “And it's the hardest thing to do, is to build sustainability, I think. So that's going to be what we spend a lot of time talking about next year, probably, is sustaining this. But we feel like that's at the forefront of all of our decisions: How do we build something that we can sustain? So hopefully that gives us a way and a means to kind of make that happen.”
The Brewers’ depth chart is littered with long-term building blocks.
The entire outfield — Ryan Braun (signed through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021), Lorenzo Cain (2022) and Christian Yelich (2021 with a team option for 2022) — is under team control for at least two more seasons. In the infield, third baseman/second baseman/first baseman Travis Shaw looks like a mainstay, and Jesus Aguilar, in his second season as a full-time player, broke out with 35 homers and 108 RBIs this year.
“For Jesus, this is all about just getting a shot,” Counsell said, referencing Aguilar being blocked in Cleveland before the Brewers picked him up on waivers in February 2017. “He’s a good hitter. He’s a big man, but he’s a hitter first.”
Relief ace Josh Hader isn’t due to be a free agent until after the 2023 season. For Corey Knebel, it’s after 2022. (The third piece in Milwaukee’s back end, Jeremy Jeffress, has team options for the next two seasons.)
And that’s not to mention righthanded starter Jimmy Nelson, who didn’t pitch at all this year because of shoulder issues but is under team control for two more seasons.
Then there are the postseason relievers who could start. Entering Game 7, Milwaukee had used three rookie righthanders — 22-year-old Freddy Peralta, 23-year-old Corbin Burnes and 25-year-old Brandon Woodruff — in big spots out of the bullpen in this postseason, and they combined to allow five earned runs in 22 1/3 innings (2.02 ERA) . All three are starting pitchers by trade and could figure into a seemingly wide-open rotation competition in spring training.
After Woodruff tossed 5 1/3 innings (three runs) in a de facto start in Los Angeles this past week, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called him “one of the best in the National League.”
“Great arm,” Roberts said.
Roberts has a certain appreciation for Counsell’s — and the Brewers’ — goal of building a sustainable winner. The Dodgers have won six NL West titles in a row, mixing a player-development machine that churns out new contributors every season with a massive payroll (usually the highest in the majors), something the small-market Brewers don’t have.
Counsell’s first full season managing the Brewers, 2016, was Roberts’ first year on the job in LA. Milwaukee went 73-89, finishing fourth in the NL Central (30 1/2 games back). Los Angeles went 91-71 and made it to the first of what has become three straight NLCS appearances.
“Couns is a person I really have a lot of respect for and we're friends,” Roberts said. “To see the way this group, this organization has come together in recent years, it's good for baseball. It's a great fan base. They're doing it the right way. And so to make the trades that they did, the acquisitions, the key players that play the game the right way with a core group of guys, it's fun to watch and very commendable.”