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On April 21, 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers signed Ryan Braun to a five year, $105M extension to cover the 2016-2020 seasons. For a small-market team, that’s a franchise-defining decision. The Brewers envisioned Braun as the anchor around whom they’d build for the remainder of the decade. Milwaukee went to the playoffs that season behind Braun’s MVP year at the plate, but the next year, a woeful bullpen sabotaged an otherwise strong Brewers team and they finished 14 games behind the Reds. That was Braun’s last great season, as the infamous PED suspension knocked him out for most of 2013. The version that emerged over the next four seasons would be occasionally very good, but not powerful enough to carry weak Brewers rosters that couldn’t get much from the farm.
That brings us to the current Ryan Braun, a player without a defensive home whose bat has already undergone steep decline and has recently been utilized in a lefty-mashing specialist role. The Brewers have yet to see playoff baseball since the year the extension was signed, and hadn’t come all that close until 2017, in which a surprising Milwaukee team actually kept first place away from the Cubs for much of the year. Some of it was smoke-and-mirrors, but for awhile, the Brewers were relevant again. This past offseason presented an extreme buyers market, and unlike other teams on the fringe, Milwaukee decided to aggressively chase whatever window appeared to be open to them. So far, the buys have paid off and the Brewers sit where they were at this time last year: atop the NL Central. This time around, they have a good chance to stay there, in large part due to their strong plays over the winter.
With Braun, Keon Broxton, top prospect Lewis Brinson, and Domingo Santana (who was coming off of a 30-homer season) in tow, the Brewers didn’t seem like a team in need of an outfielder, but that didn’t stop them from grabbing two of the best ones available. Lorenzo Cain was one of the few top free agents to get a contract that matched expectations, and the 32-year-old has proven in his return to Milwaukee that he has plenty left in the tank. He’s given Milwaukee’s lineup a strong on-base threat at the top of the order coupled with plus defense in center field. The other major acquisition was Christian Yelich, who has maintained a high batting average and is currently on pace to be the 4-WAR player Milwaukee paid for this year. Santana may be looking like a juiced ball mirage, but that’s overall a very strong outfield.
In the infield, the Brewers have plenty of power on the corners with Travis Shaw and the late-blooming Jesus Aguilar, who has been white hot of late. Old friend Tyler Saladino had been serving as the Brewers’ starting shortstop, as Orlando Arcia was sent to the minors for a truly woeful stretch with the bat. If you’ve been following along at Sox Machine lately, you’ll know that he’s been doing great for the Brewers, possibly in part due to their restoring of a leg kick that the White Sox made him ditch. Alas, Saladino hurt himself and Arcia’s back now. Second baseman Jonathan Villar has seen his power, walk rate, and base-stealing ability erode since his breakout 2016 season to the point where he looks like your run-of-the-mill seat-filling second-division starter. Speaking of second-division starters, catcher Manny Pina has just enough power to avoid murdering an offense and is close to league-average defensively behind the plate.
The Brewers’ pitching staff consists of a vulnerable starting rotation and an excellent bullpen. You’ve probably heard of Josh Hader, Milwaukee’s 24-year-old relief ace who’s managed to strike out 57 percent (!!!) of opposing hitters this season. The Brewers have won all 18 games in which Hader has appeared. He’s no one-inning pony, either, as manager Craig Counsell tabs him to tackle multiple innings a lot. Sometimes, that renders Hader unavailable for subsequent games, but with Jeremy Jeffress (the Brewers re-acquired two of the guys they gave up for Zack Greinke), Matt Albers, Dan Jennings, and Jacob Barnes having strong seasons, Milwaukee has plenty of options to use as a bridge to closer Corey Knebel.
Among the aforementioned rotation, the White Sox will be facing Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, and Brent Suter. Anderson has been horrid this season; when a flyball pitcher loses some vertical movement on the fastball, the strikeouts and homers are both going to move in the wrong direction. Chacin is a run-of-the-mill back-end starter at this stage of his career. He has a fortunate ERA, but likely can’t continue suppressing homers at this rate now that he doesn’t seem to profile as a groundball pitcher anymore. Suter is the resident soft-tossing lefty of the bunch whose good control keeps him passable despite issues with the longball.
Braun’s legacy in Milwaukee will be an interesting one to look back on years down the road. He’s already the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs by a healthy margin, and is arguably the Brewers’ third-greatest position player ever behind Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Still, there are many who soured on him after the PED suspension and his uneven tenure after his return meant that his price tag became a topic of conversation more than anyone would want. Regardless of one’s opinion, the Brewers are finally winners again and if they see October baseball, they’ll be more or less taking Braun along for the ride this time. It’d be the least they could do for the player that breathed life back into the franchise in 2007 after a quarter-century of dormancy.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Friday, June 1: Chase Anderson vs. Hector Santiago
- Saturday, June 2: Jhoulys Chacin vs. James Shields
- Sunday, June 3: Brent Suter vs. Dylan Covey
- Lorenzo Cain – CF
- Christian Yelich – LF
- Jesus Aguilar – 1B
- Travis Shaw – 3B
- Ryan Braun – DH
- Domingo Santana – RF
- Jonathan Villar – 2B
- Manny Pina – C
- Orlando Arcia – SS
- SP1 – Junior Guerra – RHP
- SP2 – Chase Anderson – RHP
- SP3 – Jhoulys Chacin – RHP
- SP4 – Brent Suter – LHP
- SP5 – Zach Davies – RHP
- CL – Corey Knebel – RHP
- RP1 – Josh Hader – LHP
- RP2 – Jeremy Jeffress – RHP
- RP3 – Matt Albers – RHP