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Tom Oates: Brewers’ hopes for another special season rely on pitching staff with cloudy outlook

March 29, 2019

MILWAUKEE — It was as if the Milwaukee Brewers wanted to show everyone they hadn’t forgotten what made last season special.

In their season-opening, 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday at Miller Park, the Brewers offered up some familiar sights.

Right fielder Christian Yelich, the reigning National League MVP, hit the go-ahead, three-run home run. Relief pitcher Josh Hader slammed the door on the Cardinals with two overpowering innings. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain soared over the fence to rob Jose Martinez of a potential game-tying home run, ending the game and igniting a joyous celebration.

“This game was good to prove to us that we still have that magic,” winning pitcher Jhoulys Chacin said. “It’s a really good way to start off the season.”

The Brewers still may have the magic but, despite relatively little roster turnover, they are not the same team that won 96 games and the NL Central Division title. Manager Craig Counsell worked overtime to convince everyone of that all spring, and recent developments have shown that he wasn’t just blowing smoke.

Milwaukee was successful with its plan to add hitting during the offseason, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal in free agency. However, it is clear as the season commences that pitching, not hitting, will determine if the Brewers can stay atop baseball’s best division.

Whether that will be starting pitching, relief pitching or the ever-changing mix of the two that fueled Milwaukee’s 10-game improvement in 2018, the Brewers will need to pitch at least as well as they did last year. And with an unexpectedly young starting rotation and a suddenly depleted bullpen, that won’t be easy.

Indeed, while Grandal figures to lengthen the batting order into one of the better lineups in baseball, developments on the mound during spring training clouded the team’s outlook. First, the Brewers lost two of their three elite relief pitchers — Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress — to injury for at least the start of the season and, in Knebel’s case, likely much longer. Then, Counsell decided to fit youngsters Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes into the rotation right behind Chacin, banking on talent over experience.

That’s a lot of upheaval in the pitching staff from one season to the next. Knebel will find out today if his damaged ulnar collateral ligament will force him to miss the season, but either way he’s going to miss significant time and bullpen roles will be affected. And the three young starters, who were all key contributors late last season, will have to take a step up now that they’re full-fledged members of the rotation.

“We’ve had some injuries in our bullpen,” Counsell said. “They’ve all been in the same place, so that changes the composition and how we think about our bullpen and it provides opportunity for guys. We’re going to go into it and it’s undefined a little bit. As injuries do, they provide room for people to step up, provide opportunity and make some unknowns. We’re going to have to work through that. It likely will change as we go.”

The Brewers flirted with signing free agent Craig Kimbrel, who somehow remains on the market, but for now the bullpen consists of Hader and anybody’s guess. Holdovers Junior Guerra, Matt Albers, Jacob Barnes and Taylor Williams, newcomers Alex Claudio and Alex Wilson and banished starter Chase Anderson will try to find niches. Some might have to close games since Hader isn’t nearly as effective if he pitches every day and Jeffress figures to be out for at least the first month due to shoulder weakness.

The rotation at least has some insurance with Anderson and Jimmy Nelson in reserve, though Nelson’s rebound from shoulder surgery forced him to take several breaks during spring training and he’ll start the season in Class AAA. Counsell knows he can’t use his bullpen as often as he did in September and October and he might have to lean on his starters more. But like last year, when 11 different pitchers started games and the bullpen was a revolving door, it’s going to take time to find the right balance.

“Look, I would like for starters to (pitch) eight innings,” Counsell said. “But I don’t want to give up runs, either. It’s really about not giving up runs and getting 27 outs. We’re still going to do that. I just see, ‘How are we going to prevent runs and get 27 outs the best way?’ Yeah, there’s always opportunity for starters to pitch longer and more, and offensively, if we can open some room, that’s a good reason to do it. It’s one of those things we’ll just have to see how it’s going. We do have a bunch of young starting pitching and we have to be careful with that. That’s going to be part of the big picture of the season. It will be game by game, case by case.”

One thing the Brewers can rely on is their attitude. If nothing else, their come-from-behind win Thursday showed that the team’s vibe hasn’t changed.

“It shows us how much we’ve got each other’s back and how much fight this team still has,” second baseman Mike Moustakas said. “We’re determined to get back to the postseason and then whatever happens, happens. ... But it’s a long ways away and we’ve got to grind through it.”

In that respect, it’s just like last year.