Yelich, Brewers optimistic after spring bounce backs

Fans attending the Brewers’ home opener Thursday were greeted by new signage outside the park and an exciting win over the Twins inside of it. What will the rest of the season hold? Gazette writer John Barry provides his opinion of Milwaukee’s chances.

Baseball returned to Miller Park on Thursday.

Oh sure, all the signs say it’s now American Family Field, but that’s like referring to music legend Prince as The Artist Formerly Known As.

I refuse to cave.

So where are the Brewers in 2021? Contender or pretender?

My head tells me that a shaky starting rotation after staff aces Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes and lack of offensive production from third base and catcher keeps the team around the .500 mark and out of the playoffs.

My heart tells me that Christian Yelich returns to his MVP ways; Adrian Houser and Freddy Peralta solidify the starting pitching staff; Devin Williams and Josh Hader continue to be lights out in the bullpen; Omar Narvaez and Avisail Garcia find a way to hit their weight; and Travis Shaw isn’t still consistently swinging and missing 95 mph belt-high fastballs by six inches.

For Shaw, Thursday’s opener gave my heart hope.

So let’s break down the Brew Crew after their exciting 6-5 win over the Twins in the opener of a three-game series.

Starting rotation

Woodruff and Burnes are studs and as good as any one-two punch in the majors outside of Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer of the Dodgers. If Burnes can continue to get hitters to chase his sinker/cutter, he’s got a good chance to be in the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.

For Houser to be successful, he has to find a way to get left-handed hitters out more frequently than he did last season. Lefties his .336 off him with seven home runs.

Peralta has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Brewers, serving as a starter, long reliever and even a closer, at times. Now he gets his chance to be a full-time starter, and although he set a career-high in strikeouts per nine innings last season at 14.4, he continues to struggle with his command—specifically throwing his curveball for strikes.

Journeyman Brett Anderson gets the final starting spot and is iffy, at best. The best bet for the Brewers is that the roof is open at Miller Park (sorry) and the wind is blowing in when Anderson pitches. I saw him twice in spring training, and it looked like he was throwing batting practice.

Bullpen

With the NL Rookie of the Year (Williams) and the two-time NL Reliever of the Year (Hader), the Brewers have arguably the best bullpen in baseball. Let’s hope they are needed on a daily basis and not warming up in the pen every fourth or fifth day.

Infield

I get the sense that the acquisition of Kolten Wong will go down as one of the best free-agent acquisitions in the offseason. The former Cardinal will bat leadoff and brings a Golden Glove with him to second base, something Keston Hiura never had to worry about winning.

Hiura makes the move to first base, where we fortunately won’t have to watch him throw balls into the stands again. The former first-round draft pick is a solid major league hitter and should vastly improve upon his disappointing 2020 campaign in which he hit .212.

Orlando Arcia and Luis Arias will likely split time at shortstop, with manager Craig Counsell obviously hoping one of them separates themselves at the plate. Both are solid defensively.

Third base is Shaw’s job to lose, which is scary. He couldn’t hit water if he was standing in a boat two years ago—hitting .157 for the Crew—and batted .237 for Toronto last season. I’m not sure if David Stearns thought Shaw acquired some miracle drug that restored his eyesight or what, but the thought of Shaw batting fourth or fifth in the lineup is appalling. Hopefully he proves us all wrong as he did Thursday and produces. Arcia and Urias will also get their share of time at third, especially if Shaw struggles out of the gate.

Catcher

Narvaez was, in a word, awful last season. He hit .176 and belted all of two home runs. He’s look renewed in spring training but won’t have the same pitch selection in the regular season that he saw in Arizona. Pitchers work on things in spring training. They work on getting outs in the regular season.

Manny Pina is a more than capable backup and could end up the everyday catcher if Narvaez reverts back to his strike one looking, strike two looking, strike three swinging ways of last year.

Outfield

The Brewers basically got two new pieces for the outfield for 2021 with the return of clubhouse leader Lorenzo Cain and the signing of former Boston Red Sox all-star Jackie Bradley Jr. in free agency. Bradley Jr.’s signing means he’ll share right-field and center-field duties with Cain and Garcia. It’s a good problem to have for Counsell, with Bradley Jr. a solid option versus right-handers and Garcia against lefties.

Yelich seems to be on a mission in 2021. He struggled miserably in the 60-game 2020 season, hitting .205—down 125 points from his batting title that he won hitting .329 in 2019. And let’s face it, “Yeli” is the key to the lineup. If he’s producing, that means Hiura is getting pitches to hit behind him, Wong is getting on base and the Brewers’ offense is scoring runs.

Outlook

The NL Central is wide open. The Pirates might not win 50 games, but the rest of the division should be a dogfight for one, if not two, playoff spots.

The Reds, Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals all have studs at the top of their rotations, but the back ends are the biggest question marks for all four teams.

I don’t think the Cubs or Reds have enough pitching, especially in the bullpen, to contend for the division title.

With the addition of one of baseball’s top 10 players in Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals appear to be the team to beat.

Can the Brewers grab a wildcard spot? Is Miller Park now called American Family Field? You bet they can.

They are still undefeated, aren’t they?

John Barry is a sports writer for The Gazette. Reach him at jbarry@gazettextra.com.

John Barry is a sports writer for The Gazette. Reach him at jbarry@gazettextra.com.

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