Milwaukee Brewers 2023 Season Preview
The Milwaukee Brewers fell two wins short of making the playoffs for a fifth straight season. If they had, they would have had more playoff appearances in the last five seasons than they had in the previous 49 seasons combined. Alas, it was not to be, as the Brewers finished a game behind the Phillies and a potential tiebreaker was never needed.
The Phillies went on to be the National League champs and the Brewers were left to do a lot of soul searching. It was a weird season in a lot of ways, especially around the Trade Deadline when David Stearns and Matt Arnold sent Josh Hader to the Padres with Milwaukee in first place in the NL Central.
That move led some to wonder whether or not Stearns would go to Queens and enjoy the fruits of a seemingly endless cash flow as an executive with the Mets. He resigned as the President of Baseball Operations, but he remained in an advisory role with the Brewers. His contract with the team ends after this season, at which point he could be on the move.
The Brewers operate under stricter financial constraints than most. It is one of the smallest markets in baseball and their media reach gets cut down by proximity to Chicago and Minneapolis. What they’ve done to be as good as they have is a testament to player development and the willingness of owner Mark Attanasio to spend at the outer limits of his reach. The Brewers were 30th in payroll in both 2016 and 2017, but as the team hit a window of contention, the payroll spiked.
At this point, the Brewers have decisions to make with Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes while working around the $26 million per season that Christian Yelich is due through 2028, which includes deferrals that run until 2042. It may not impact the 2023 season all that much, but the pressure is mounting because keeping this core together is virtually impossible.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Milwaukee Brewers Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 18)
World Series: +3500
Yes -110 / No -110
Milwaukee Brewers Offense
All things considered, the Brewers had a quality offense last season. They finished 11th in wRC+ at 104 and had a top-five BB% at 9.4%. Only the Yankees and Braves hit more home runs. Milwaukee’s power burst was a bit surprising to say the least. They were 12th in FB%, but third in HR/FB%. They were also only 12th in Pull% and ninth in Hard Hit%. They were fifth in Barrel%, so they maximized their hard-hit balls.
The Brewers didn’t really project to be a powerful lineup and this past season represented a huge shift. They were 21st in Barrel% and 17th in Hard Hit% in 2021 while finishing 18th in homers. It certainly helped to have more of Rowdy Tellez, who was responsible for 35 of the round-trippers. He hit seven in 174 PA in 2021 after coming over from Toronto and thrived with full playing time in Milwaukee, at least on the power front. He was only 10% better than league average offensively because of a low BABIP.
Willy Adames hit 20 homers in 413 PA after the Brewers got him from the Rays and followed that up with a huge power season last year. He was also an elite fielder. Adames strikes out a lot, but you’ll trade that for the power he provides. Both Adames and Tellez hit a ton of fly balls and it was a viable strategy for creating power, but the batting average and on-base percentage suffered for both.
Hunter Renfroe’s 29 long balls are gone, but the Brewers got some good pop from Tyrone Taylor and Luis Urias. They also got a bit of pop from Keston Hiura. There were nine guys who hit at least 14 homers and five of them are back. William Contreras signed as a free agent after leaving the Braves, where he hit 20 homers in 376 plate appearances and fits the bill as a guy who hits the ball hard but hits way too many ground balls. I’d assume the Brewers work to generate more lift in his swing and he could have a big power year.
Jesse Winker is coming off of a down year in the contact quality department, but he had double-digit Barrel% marks in 2020 and 2021 with the Reds, while also posting elite Hard Hit% marks. Last season, he simply hit too many pop ups. This season, the Brewers will hope those turn into long balls as they keep buying into this power-first philosophy. They’ll likely try to do the same with Brian Anderson, who has hit the ball relatively hard throughout his career, but with too many grounders.
The irony in all of this is that Yelich hit 92 homers from 2018-20, with 12 in 58 games during the COVID year, but he has only hit 23 homers over the last two seasons. I have a hard time with Yelich because he’ll only turn 32 after the season, but the last two seasons have been so disappointing from a power standpoint. He hits in a lot of deep counts, so it can be tough to generate power, but that was the case in 2018-19 and he still banged 80 homers. He maintained his elite Hard Hit%, but didn’t generate the same lift or the same exit velocity.
Injuries have slowed him at various points, especially ones he has played through, but the offensive profile is still here for a really good hitter. The last two seasons, though, he’s posted wRC+ marks of 102 and 111, which are not numbers you should get from a $28 million player.
The player development wins I mentioned earlier will need to be on display this season, as the Brewers turn to guys like Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang. Mitchell was fast-tracked up the minors as a proven college hitter out of UCLA. Turang is a quality fielder with good speed and maybe a little bit of untapped power. He also shows great discipline at the plate.
This is an interesting offensive mix. The Brewers can employ some platoons and will likely make some swing adjustments to new signings. That being said, let’s see if the power gains all stick.
Milwaukee Brewers Pitching
With contract decisions looming for Burnes and Woodruff, the Brewers really cut into their leverage this offseason. They took Burnes to arbitration over $749,000 and basically eliminated any chance of signing him to a long-term deal. The team will have a tough decision to make in July if things aren’t going well. Trading Burnes this year would net a far larger return than trading him as a rental next season.
Frankly, the same is true of Woodruff. The Brewers likely can’t keep both and may not even keep either one. Woodruff has one more year of arbitration eligibility and will turn 31 prior to Opening Day 2024. Burnes is younger and probably offers more upside, but a bigger price tag and the Brewers would have to buy back his loyalty. I don’t think things are bad enough in July for the Brewers to entertain trades of both, but I would not be surprised to see Burnes moved, similar to what Milwaukee did with Hader, who had 1.5 years left of control.
These are obviously hypotheticals and the Brewers could very well win a fairly weak NL Central, but these are things you have to consider from a season win total and futures standpoint. Burnes led the way last season with 4.6 fWAR and had a 2.94 ERA with a 3.14 FIP over 202 innings of work. Woodruff had 3.5 fWAR with a 3.05 ERA and a 3.08 FIP in 153.1 innings. He was slowed by Raynaud’s syndrome, which is a condition that causes numbness in the extremities. That’s not great for pitchers and Woodruff missed about a month.
When he came back, he had a 2.38 ERA with a 2.79 FIP over 109.2 innings, so he was no worse for wear. I’d expect these two guys to do what they normally do and be among the top pitchers in the NL.
What happens with the rest of the Brewers' rotation may ultimately define the ceiling for the season. Aaron Ashby had a 4.44 ERA with a 4.06 FIP in his first full season as a big leaguer, but he’s been stunted by a shoulder issue and will miss at least a few months. He also missed time last year with elbow and shoulder issues, so we’ll see how much Milwaukee can actually get out of him.
Freddy Peralta was limited to 78 innings last season across 17 starts and one relief effort. He was solid when out there with a 3.58 ERA and a 3.06 FIP, but my fears were realized coming off of a big increase in innings during the 2021 season when he threw 144.1 frames with a 2.81 ERA and a 3.12 FIP. He’ll be good when he’s out there, but how much will he be out there?
With Ashby already out and Peralta possibly limited, the hope is that Eric Lauer can continue what he did last season, but there are red flags in that profile. He had a 3.69 ERA, but a 4.50 FIP. He gave up 27 homers in 158.2 innings and really struggled on the road, where hitters posted a .342 wOBA against him. Lauer at least has some projectability, whereas I have no idea what Wade Miley will do. He’s back in Milwaukee and he’s probably still a Major League pitcher because of that 2018 season, but pitching coach Derek Johnson is long gone and Miley’s coming off of a throwaway season due to injury.
Adrian Houser is decent insurance for the rotation, but he had an ugly K/BB ratio last season with a 4.73 ERA. The best prospects in the Brewers org are position players, so I’m not sure what kind of help is coming from below. Most of the guys banging on the door for innings came from other teams, with the exception of Ethan Small, who made two uninspiring starts last season.
Devin Williams is an elite reliever, but also one of the slowest in baseball, so let’s see how the pitch clock impacts him. Otherwise, this is not a great bullpen on paper. Rubber-armed Brad Boxberger is gone and the Brewers will hope Matt Bush and Peter Strzelecki can handle the high-leverage innings to get the ball to Williams.
The Brewers were 15th in plate appearances with men on base, but tied with the Yankees for first in home runs. They were also 21st in PA with RISP, but second in HR. I’m a little skeptical about the power production and even more skeptical about when it took place. Ironically, Brewers pitchers allowed the fifth-most homers with men on base, despite having the 10th-fewest PA against with men on.
Player to Watch
SP Eric Lauer: Lauer’s importance to the Brewers is magnified by the injury to Ashby and the concerns about Peralta. He has had progressive velocity spikes as a member of the Brewers, going from 91.8 in 2020 to 92.5 in 2021 to 93.3 in 2022. Along with a velo increase, the Brewers tinkered with his delivery to have him release a little bit closer to the plate, which led to a spike in fastball Whiff%, but the effectiveness of his cutter did decrease and he also saw spin rate declines on most of his pitches late in the year. I think the Brewers have optimized his fastball, but I wonder about his other pitches. I’m just not sold.
Milwaukee Brewers Season Win Total Pick
If you’ve read any of the other previews or followed any of my MLB work here at VSiN, you know how much I rely on the data and the metrics. But, intuition plays a part, too, and I can’t get this nagging feeling out of my head that the Brewers struggle this season. Last year’s incredible power gains seemed to come out of nowhere, so I question the staying power. As mentioned, I also question the timing, as a lot of them came with men on base.
On the other hand, Burnes and Woodruff are still excellent starting pitchers and Williams is one of the game’s absolute best closers. This is also an incredibly smart organization and I don’t like to pick against those. That being said, things seem to be getting a little uncomfortable. The Hader deal rocked the clubhouse to its core and Stearns even said after the season that he underestimated the impact and the message. With a similar decision on the horizon with Burnes, will the Brewers let last year’s PR debacle filter into the final call or make what could be the best decision for the organization?
I think this season could go a few different ways for the Brewers. They could compete with the Cardinals again for the NL Central or they could finish below .500. I usually like to prey on high-variance teams when I feel like the range of outcomes produces an edge for me, but I’m just not sure what the truth will ultimately be about this team. I want to go with my gut and say that they’re going to fall off the pace, but I’m not quite there. Maybe the move is to fade them more often on a game-by-game basis.
Also, from the win total line, I’m not alone in my thinking. If the Brewers won 85 games, it would be the fewest since 2016. They have two seasons with 86, one with 89, one with 95 and one with 96 in that span.
Stronger Lean: Under 85.5