President Theo Epstein vowed to fix a “broke” offense in the offseason and now has to figure out whether to make changes in the outfield and bullpen, along with the ongoing question of whether to give suspended shortstop Addison Russell a chance at redemption.
Up I-94 on the other side of the border, the Brewers won 96 games, a division title and wound up one game shy of going to their first World Series since 1982, leaving the organization optimistic about its future.
But as the general managers meetings continue in Southern California, nothing seems to have changed from last year’s meetings in Orlando, Fla. It still feels as if the Brewers are the little guys chasing the Cubs, the big-market team with more stars, more resources and much more media attention — just the way the Brewers like it.
They may be top dogs in the National League Central, but the Brewers know they can’t afford to be complacent this offseason.
“Now you want to stay there,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said. “It’s hard to get there and even harder to do back-to-back years and stay there. The Cubs were a really good team in 2018, and I think they’re probably going to be better in 2019.
“They’re certainly not going to be satisfied with their season this year. We know that, so we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us if we want to stay at the top of the division.”
The Brewers drew 2.85 million to Miller Park this year, finishing 10th in the majors despite Milwaukee being a small market. The increase of more than 300,000 from 2017 should lead to an increased payroll, though Stearns skirted the question when asked if they will spend more this offseason.
“Certainly (owner Mark Attanasio) and our ownership group have proven that where there’s an investment that makes sense from a baseball perspective, they’re going to be supportive,” he said.
Last offseason Stearns made the bold move on Jan. 25 to sign Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal while acquiring Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich for prospects. Yelich is the likely NL MVP, and Cain finished fourth among position players in the league with a 5.7 WAR.
Don’t expect lightning to strike twice.
“I think it’s unlikely we have a similar offseason to what we did last year,” he said. “We committed over $150 million last year to Cain, Yelich and Jhoulys Chacin. That’s far and away the largest financial commitment this organization has ever made in a single offseason, so I think it’d be unrealistic to replicate that.”
In truth, the Brewers don’t need much. Most of the regular lineup is back, as is the dominant bullpen that proved to be the strength of the team. Starter Jimmy Nelson is set to return after missing 2018 because of shoulder surgery, and they could insert relievers in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes into the rotation without missing a beat, especially considering the way manager Craig Counsell uses his bullpen.
And they have Josh Hader, the most dominant middle reliever in baseball, to make up for the lack of a star-studded rotation.
“If you’re a team like the Cubs that has some more established staring pitching, some guys that traditionally go a little bit farther later in games, you can afford to have a specialist or two in the bullpen,” Stearns said.
Relievers are notoriously fickle, so what’s up could be down in 2019. Stearns knows that, and the Cubs experienced it as well.
“Bullpens are particularly volatile year to year,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of variability from year to year in performance from bullpens. We’ve been fortunate that a number of our relievers have come up internally, so we’ve gotten to know them. … Matt Albers was one of the best relievers in baseball through mid-May, then had a really challenging second half.
“So you never know when guys are going to go on their runs or guys are going to struggle, so you just want as many options as possible.”
The Brewers seemingly have enough pitching depth that should make them a playoff contender again, even if the Cubs are likely to be picked by the experts to recapture the division, just because they’re the Cubs.
Stearns said they’re not focusing on what the Cubs or the rest of the NL Central does, but they are looking to make some upgrades to maintain the status quo.
“If we do that, we should be able to compete against any team,” he said.