Last week MLB and the player’s association announced an agreement to re-start “spring training” and play a 60-game reduced season.
Games are scheduled to start July 23-24 and run through September. There are also a few changes that are coming, the least of which is the postseason format and a change in the number of players available per team.
First, the designated hitter will be utilized all season in the National League, instead of just interleague play at American League ballparks. That benefits teams like the Milwaukee Brewers more than it does the Miami Marlins.
Extra innings likely won’t last as long as they have in years past. Teams will open the 11th inning and beyond with a runner on second, which should lead to more runs and a quicker end. Maybe this is what it takes to bring back “small ball.”
I can see it now: The away team allows three straight “sluggers” swing for the fences because “that’s what the stat heads say to do,” while the home team decides to bunt the runner to third and then a walk-off sacrifice fly to right ends the game. At that point, I will smile ear to ear.
Personally, I love baseball statistics, and the ever-evolving types of stats. There are some I don’t care for, like exit velocity, and I feel situational hitting and stealing should go back to holding a larger focus. However, I’ll take what I can get to watch baseball every night again.
That is, should the season actually take place. Even before the agreement was announced, franchises were closing facilities because multiple players and personnel from all around the league were becoming infected. I’m crossing my fingers, but with the continued rise in COVID-19 cases since the announcement, I’m not very optimistic.
But rather than wallow in the pessimism, I figured we could do some speculation on this season — from the Brewers perspective at least.
With just 60 games, teams won’t have all summer to go through hot and cold streaks. In each of the last two years, Milwaukee has had to make incredible runs over the final two months of the season to put themselves into playoff contention. However, the team’s best 60-game stretch was in 2011, as the Brew Crew won 42 games down the stretch to clinch the division title. Last year, Milwaukee won 38 of 60 down the stretch as well. This year, that’s as long as the season will last. The hotter a team opens the year, the better the chances of reaching the playoffs.
After 60 games last year, the Washington Nationals, the eventual World Series champion, were six games under .500 and had the third worst record in the NL. The Dodgers were head and shoulders above the league and held that mark through September. The Cubs and Brewers were playoff bound, as was Atlanta. Philadelphia would have won the NL East. Instead, the Phillies fell out of the race less than two months later.
In the AL, Houston and Minnesota had the top two records through 60 games, with the Yankees and Tampa Bay up next. Texas and Boston were even at just two-games over .500.
If there is a team in the NL Central that can separate themselves from the pack, I think it actually could be the Brewers. While the starting pitching is still somewhat suspect, with only Brandon Woodruff a no-doubt front-end starter, the bullpen has been a huge bright spot over the last three seasons. Hitting-wise, losing Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas will hurt, but their replacements should be able to bring some heat as well.
Ryan Braun hasn’t aged well, and injuries have been a major concern for him in the second half of his career. Instead of platooning at first base with Justin Smoak and seeing occasional time in the OF, Braun will be the likely DH the entire season. That frees up Smoak to man 1B most nights, while an outfield of Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Avisail Garcia is not only strong defensively, but among the league’s best offensively.
Joining Smoak on the infield will be young second base slugger Keston Hiura, and then a combination of Brock Holt, Orlando Arcia, Eric Sogard and Luis Urias at 3B and SS. Guys like Jedd Gyorko and Ryon Healy will possibly get some looks, but I think Holt and Urias lock down the left side of the infield by the time October rolls around. At catcher, Omar Narvaez has the offensive skills to flourish at Miller Park, while Manny Pina will continue to be a solid backup. Non-roster invitee Logan Morrison was impressing at the plate in Arizona this spring and has a solid chance to make the expanded rosters to open play in July.
Overall, the lineup has a ton of pop, with Yelich leading the way, but guys like Garcia, Urias and Narvaez can slam the ball as well as anyone in the game.
To me, the most interesting aspect will be how Craig Counsell utilizes the bullpen. The Whitefish Bay native has flourished over the past few seasons getting the most out of young talent, and that trend will need to continue again this year. With just 60 games and somewhat expanded rosters, there is no reason to think that Counsell won’t continue to pull his starters around the fourth or fifth inning and then go into a steady stream of relief arms.
Think of it this way: Woodruff for four innings, then Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes (who flourishes out of the bullpen), Brent Suter for a change of paces, then a healthy Corey Knebel, followed by Josh Hader, arguably the best reliever in the game. Add in other guys with juice in their arms like Angel Perdomo, Devin Williams and Ray Black, plus solid arms like Alex Claudio and Bobby Wall, and Counsell will have his pick of the litter to choose from. Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer and Brett Anderson will join Woodruff in the rotation, with Burnes, Peralta and Adrian Houser fighting for the fifth spot.
This might be the most ready-out-of-the-gates teams as Milwaukee has had in a long time. In fact, this team also reads like it is ready to close the gate. That bodes well for the Brewers this year, I think.
Teams will only have to play their own division, and then the opposite in the opposing league. That means Milwaukee will get four games each against pushovers Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox. The Twins are a seemingly better team this year, and the Reds attempted to go for it all before anyone knew that coronavirus was not another name for expired beer. St. Louis, the Cubs and Cleveland are also solid teams, but none have the advantage of an indoor stadium — which could make things even more interesting if weather becomes a factor. Two years ago when Milwaukee got fire and caught the Cubs for the division crown, Milwaukee was able to have one day of rest each week over the final month. Chicago, meanwhile, had multiple rain-outs that needed to be made up and exhausted much of their energy without a day of rest. One team faded, the other shined.
In the final year of calling Milwaukee’s stadium Miller Park before American Family Insurance takes over sponsorship, I hope that not only games get played, but that the Brewers take care of business like they have the last few years.
And, hey, just three weeks to opening day. Fingers crossed.
— Adam Krebs is a reporter for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.