National League Central
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Last year’s record: 95-67
OK, so here’s the deal: I want Christian Yelich back. The real Christian Yelich. The Christian Yelich who hit .326/.402/.598 in 2018 to win the MVP Award and somehow was even better in 2019 until he got hurt.
I want the Christian Yelich who seemed to hit every ball hard — this is no exaggeration, from 2015 to 2020, he was among the league leaders in hard-hit percentage every single year — and who would hit 35 or 40 home runs without really being a home run hitter.
I want the Christian Yelich who was a demon on the bases — 30 stolen bases in 2019 while getting caught just twice, scoring from first on a double practically every time, scoring from second on a single practically every time.
I want the Christian Yelich who could carry a team. We all know that baseball is a sport that generally resists the power of a single-player, a.k.a. the Mike Trout Principle. But certain extraordinary players seem to defy gravity — like Yaz in ’67 — and Yelich was one of those players.
I loved that Christian Yelich so much. I miss him terribly.
I’m sure Yelich himself feels the same way.
So do the Brewers, obviously; they loved him so much that after the 2019 season — even after he fouled that cursed pitch off his kneecap — they signed him to a nine-year, $215 million deal that would take him through 2028. Milwaukee was saying, “Christian, we see you as a Brewer for life.” And Yelich was saying, “This is the only place I ever want to play.”
Stories like that are supposed to be happy ones, at least for a while.
It has not been happy. Watching Yelich in 2021 was agonizing. His power was sapped. He missed time with injuries. Every good sign — like the Aug. 21 day he hit two home runs against the Nationals — would make you think, “OK, here we go! Yelich is back!” But Yelich slugged .359 the rest of the way with one home run in 148 plate appearances.
The Brewers won anyway because they seem to know things about starting pitching that other teams do not know. But I miss the old Christian Yelich. He talks about rebounding, talks about how he’s using 2021 as a learning experience, talks about how he just wants to stay healthy (he has a lingering back issue, which is never good) and contribute to a winning team.
We all know the odds are against him — he’s 30 now, bad back, he’s hitting fewer fly balls, and the fly balls he is hitting are not carrying. This is usually a one-way road. But I’ll be rooting hard for him to beat those odds. This is one of the reasons why we watch baseball, right? We want our heroes, in the words of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, to stay … just a little bit longer.
The Brewers did something in 2021 that might soon be standard practice around baseball — they almost always worked their pitchers on at least five days’ rest. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff finished first and fifth in the Cy Young voting, and each of them made only two starts on four days’ rest all season. Freddy Peralta, who had made the move from hard-throwing reliever to starter, was only slightly less effective, and he made just four starts on four days’ rest.
They did some of this with a six-man rotation, some of it by taking full advantage of the off-days, and some of it by simply holding their pitcher back and using a fill-in. On the surface, the idea of all this is to keep pitchers healthy — and it’s true that Burnes and Woodruff did not miss any time with arm injuries — but I think if you dig a little deeper, you will find there’s a deeper reason. In today’s game, you want to send a fresher and more effective pitcher to the mound every single time.
That seems more important in 2022 than squeezing an extra two or three starts out of a pitcher.
It sure as heck worked for Burnes. He had never thrown even 60 innings in a big-league season, but by stretching him out, the Brewers got a pitcher who led the league in ERA, FIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeouts per nine innings. And he was more or less as good in September as he had been in May.
Brandon Woodruff took another step into elite status thanks in part to a new reliance on his curveball. In 2019, when Woodruff broke through as an All-Star, he threw just 37 curveballs all year. He was strictly a fastball-slider-changeup guy. In 2021, though, he threw his curveball almost 500 times, mostly shelving his slider, and the league hit just .140 against it.
Speaking of found pitches, Freddy Peralta found a slider. He was almost exclusively a two-pitch pitcher before 2021 — and really, if we’re being honest, he was barely even that. The guy threw fastballs. That’s it. And that was good enough to make him a relatively effective reliever, but nothing more. Then, he added the wipeout slider which hitters couldn’t touch, and voila, he became one of the better starters in the game. He has also been working on a change-up, and if he gets that to where he wants to go, look out.
Eric Lauer and Adrian Houser round out the rotation. Both were pretty effective in 2021. A lot of that might be because of the Brewers’ outstanding defense, but that Brewers defense should be at least as good this year.
GRADE (max 10): 8.5
Josh Hader and Devin Williams make up what is probably baseball’s best 1-2 bullpen punch. Hader is a lefty, throws in the upper-90s, SEEMS to throw 148 or so mph, has an unhittable slider, and struck out 102 batters in 58 innings.
Williams is a righty, also throws in the upper 90s, but he’s a changeup-first pitcher because his changeup is such an absurdity that over the last two seasons, hitters have swung and missed it more than half the time. He struck out 87 batters in 54 innings.
Good luck to you in the late innings.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
Omar Narváez seemed to have some sort of defensive epiphany in 2021. It’s a bit hard to explain — the Brewers presumably traded for Narváez because of his offense. In 2019, he hit .278/.353/.540 with 22 homers for the Mariners … and, if his defense was suspect, well, you could live with it. But then something funny happened: Narváez became, like, a Gold Glove-level catcher. Seriously. He was one of baseball’s worst at framing strikes in 2018; he was of the best in the National League in 2021. He handled one of the top pitching staffs in baseball and the pitchers seem to love throwing to him. True, his offense was only about league average, but through determination, Narváez has become an All-Star and one of the league’s better catchers.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
Willy Adames “cried all afternoon” on the day he found out that Tampa Bay had traded him to Milwaukee. You could understand — Adames grew up in the Dominican Republic and signed with Detroit when he was 17 years old. Before he knew it, he already had been traded to the Rays in a three-team deal. He blasted his way through the minor leagues, came up as a super-hyped prospect, established himself as one of the league’s better defensive shortstops while hitting with some pop, and then one day he shows up for a game and is told the team traded him to Wisconsin or someplace like that.
It turned out to be the best thing imaginable for his baseball future and for the Brewers. Adames hit .285/.366/.521 for the Brewers and basically turned around their season, not only with his play but also by mentoring and befriending Milwaukee’s former shortstop Luis Urias, who thrived in his new role as a third baseman. Adames received MVP consideration in 2021 and could again in 2022.
Urias was hitting .207 and struggling mightily defensively when Adames arrived. After that, though, he seemed to loosen up, be more patient, and he put up an .873 OPS with 18 home runs the rest of the way.
I didn’t really understand why the Cardinals seemed so eager to move away from second baseman Kolten Wong last year. I suppose they felt like they had a better and cheaper option with Tommy Edman, and they were probably right: Edman did replace Wong as the National League Gold Glove winner in 2021. Still, Wong seemed a perfect Cardinal — great defense, good speed, a bit of power. That’s what they want in St. Louis, right?
When the Cardinals shoved him aside, he decided to “do what I want to do, play the game how I want to play.” Wong set career highs in home runs and slugging percentage in his first year with the Brewers, but his defense did seem to slide a little bit.
First baseman Rowdy Tellez has the name, physique and personality to become a cult hero if his bat will let him. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he looks like a guy who can mash 30 home runs if given the chance. So far, though, he hasn’t been given the chance.
GRADE (max 10): 4.5
Outfield and DH
A few years ago, there was a video going around of two more-or-less identical fly balls and how Lorenzo Cain and Mike Trout chased them down. Trout basically made a sprawling, thrilling, crashing-into-the-wall kind of catch — the sort that might get an outfielder on SportsCenter. Cain made the same catch in stride, pure smoothness, easy as multiplying by 10s.
Cain is still a defensive wonder when he’s healthy enough to play. He’s 36 now, so that health question is the big one — he managed only 78 games last year and opted out of the 2020 COVID season after five games — but when he’s in centerfield, the man is still a defensive genius. I think it’s because Cain never relied on speed to play some of the best centerfield defense of his time. Instead, he excelled because of his jumps, his instinct, his positioning. Here’s hoping he can stay on the field.
When we last saw Hunter Renfroe, he was all but helpless for the Red Sox in their ALCS loss to Houston. It was a lousy ending to a wild year — Renfroe banged 31 home runs for Boston and threw out 16 runners from right field. He also committed 12 errors and had unbridled mood swings all year — he was Mookie-Betts-like in May, entirely lost in July, a bomber in August, just kind of all over the place. The Brewers are just hoping for more good Renfroe than bad.
And we’ve gone over Christian Yelich.
Oh, and the Brewers’ designated hitter looks to be another former MVP, the ever-so-delightful Andrew McCutchen. If you’re new to baseball and are just looking for a team with players you want to root for, you could do a lot worse than the Brewers.
GRADE (max 10): 4.5
Craig Counsell has been the Brewers’ manager since 2015, making him — believe it or not — the longest-tenured manager in the National League. I like when people say “believe it or not” before sharing a fact; it suggests that what you are about to hear is almost inconceivable. I don’t know that Craig Counsell being the longest-tenured manager in the National League is really that surprising. But I wouldn’t have guessed it.
Counsell seems solid as they come, and I love the fact that he’s managing his hometown team. I wish more teams would have locals manage.
David Stearns is the president of baseball operations for the Brewers and Matt Arnold is the general manager, and rather quietly I think they’ve been on the cutting edge of baseball team-building. Nobody has yet written a book called “The Brewers Way” because Milwaukee hasn’t made any October noise the last four seasons, but the way they handle pitchers and play defense is already being copied around the game.
GRADE (max 10): 6.0
The Farm Report
Scouts have very different opinions about Aaron Ashby, a left-handed pitcher and nephew of former big leaguer Alan Ashby. Some see the potential for three plus-pitches and think he’s a future All-Star. Some question his mechanics and think he might never command his newly-found, mid-to-upper 90s fastball. I’ll say this: He’s in the right organization for developing pitchers. It would not be surprising to see him in the Brewers bullpen at some point in 2022 because of that fastball and a potentially plus-slider.
The Final Word
The Brewers seem pretty clearly the class of the division. Will that translate to postseason success?
TQ: 36.0, 1st in NL Central
St. Louis Cardinals
Last year’s record: 90-71
Let me talk for a minute about the whole “Cardinal Way” thing because I’ve certainly poked more than my share of fun at it over the years. As a Kansas City columnist, it was my solemn duty to troll St. Louis every chance I could, and I tried my best. I still do my best to troll St. Louis pizza, but only because it’s the absolute worst.