MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Brewers made a franchise-record fourth straight playoff appearance this fall and have the type of starting rotation that could enable them to keep that streak going in future years.
But their loss to the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series revealed they may need to upgrade their lineup if they're ever going to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1982.
A lineup that struggled to score runs at various points in the season produced a total of six runs in the four-game series. The Brewers went scoreless in 33 of 36 postseason innings.
"We've got the best pitching in baseball, I think," first baseman Rowdy Tellez said Tuesday after the Brewers were eliminated with a 5-4 Game 4 loss in Atlanta. "And I think just after this loss, it's tough. It's kind of devastating. We didn't think it would be like this."
The Brewers won 95 games and took over sole possession of the NL Central lead for good in June, but postseason frustration continued for a franchise that has never won the World Series.
Milwaukee was a game away from getting to the World Series in 2018 before losing Game 7 of the NL Championship Series at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Brewers haven't won a playoff series since.
The Brewers had reason to believe they could make a long postseason run this year because of a rotation featuring three All-Stars in Cy Young Award candidate Corbin Burnes (11-5, 2.43 ERA), Brandon Woodruff (9-10, 2.56) and Freddy Peralta (10-5, 2.81).
“Those guys all took big steps forward,” manager Craig Counsell said. “And they want that label, I think, of what they’ve earned this year, and they deserve it. And I think they’re not going to stop trying to go to the next place.”
That pitching was good enough to help the Brewers roll to a division title without much hitting. The Brewers ranked 27th out of 30 MLB teams in batting average (.233), though they were 12th in runs scored (738).
Atlanta exposed the shortcomings of Milwaukee’s lineup and left the pitching staff with little margin for error. When Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman hit a tiebreaking homer off All-Star closer Josh Hader in the eighth inning of Game 4, the Brewers couldn’t respond.
But they accomplished enough to believe they can put themselves back in contention next season.
“We’re going to focus on next year and come back,” Tellez said. “We’re always going to be a force here.”
The most obvious way for the Brewers to boost their lineup is for 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich to regain the form he showed his first two years in Milwaukee.
Yelich led the NL in OPS in 2018 and 2019 but has slumped the last two seasons. He batted .248 with just nine homers and 51 RBIs in 117 games this year. The Brewers' season ended Tuesday when Yelich struck out looking with the tying run on first.
The 29-year-old Yelich is set to make $26 million each of the next seven seasons, though $4 million of that will be deferred each year.
"I understand that I've got to play better, I've got to be better," Yelich said. "Kind of take the offseason and figure out a way to do that and keep moving."
Outfielder Avisaíl García had a team-high 29 homers this season and now faces a decision on his future. His contract includes a $12 million mutual option for the 2022 season.
Another outfielder with a choice to make is Jackie Bradley Jr., who has a $9.5 million player option for 2022 with a $6.5 million buyout. Bradley batted just .163 with a .497 OPS in 134 games.
Walk-off ways: Daniel Vogelbach's grand slam was just the Brewers' latest dramatic game-winning play
April 1: Brewers 6, Twins 5 (10 innings)
Travis Shaw tied the game with a two-run double in the ninth and after Josh Hader hit 100 MPH on the radar gun in the 10th, Orlando Arcia got the season started on a high-note with a single up the middle that sent Lorenzo Cain home with the game-winning run.
The late heroics sent the Opening Day crowd of 11,740 fans, who had waited more than a year to watch a baseball game in person thanks to the coronavirus pandemic which led to the 2020 season being played in empty stadiums, into a tizzy.
“There’s no doubt the fans were part of this today,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “On a day like today, a home crowd is what kind of keeps you going when you’re down and they’re still giving you energy. You get that one little crack like we did in the ninth, and the crowd’s right there with you, and you felt it.”
May 1: Brewers 6, Dodgers 5 (11 innings)
After taking the first two games of a four-game set with the defending World Series champion Dodgers, the Brewers climbed back from deficits four times including twice in extra innings, before Travis Shaw drove in Mario Feliciano with a single in the bottom of the 10th to cap a three-run rally as Milwaukee took its third straight from Los Angeles.
“It’s the team you have to go through to get to the World Series,” Brewers starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff said. “Any time you play the Dodgers it feels like a playoff-type game, and we’re only in May. That was a big-time win, a big-time series win. I was just happy to be a part of it.”
May 27: Brewers 6, Padres 5 (10 innings)
It's been a rough season for Jackie Bradley Jr. The outfielder, who signed a two-year, $24 million contract in spring training, has been mired in a funk all year and carries a .168 average into Friday's series opener against Cleveland.
Most of Bradley's highlight-reel moments have come in the outfield but he helped the Brewers earn a series split with the Padres, owners of the best record in baseball at the time, with a two-out single in the 10th inning at American Family Field.
"They like to use the saying ‘It all evens out.' Well, I’m here to tell you that does not," Bradley said. "I’ll just tell you the truth, it does not even out. But it was good to get this one today."
May 31: Brewers 3, Tigers 2 (10 innings)
After Trevor Richards cost Corbin Burnes a victory with a seventh-inning hiccup, Brent Suter and Josh Hader kept the game tied into the 10th and Luis Urías ended it with a ground-rule double to right for his first career walk-off hit, extending Milwaukee's winning streak to five games.
“(Urias) told me before the inning when we were going to the dugout,” Brewers shortstop Willy Adames said. “He said, 'I’m going to walk it off.′ I said, ‘I know you got it.’ It was amazing to watch it. It was even more because he told me that he was going to do it, so he had that confidence in himself.”
June 25: Brewers 5, Rockies 4 (11 innings)
Dubbed "Re-Opening Day" as American Family Field returned to full capacity for the first time since September 2019, the Brewers recreated their original Opening Day comeback. This time, it was Willy Adames hitting the game-tying home run in the ninth and Keston Hiura winning it with a sacrifice fly in the 10th.
“My thing was just to drive a ball to the outfield, and worst case, get a tag on a ball if it happens to go to one of them,” Hiura said. “At first, I thought it was a base hit, then I realized [Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia] was playing right there, and obviously, he was playing shallow because he had a runner at third. As soon as he caught it, I was like, ‘Oh no, please, go… go… go.’”
Aug. 6: Brewers 2, Giants 1 (10 innings)
Two days after his three-run, pinch-hit home run provided the difference in a victory over the Pirates, Rowdy Tellez stepped to the plate with a chance to be a hero again as the Brewers looked to knock off the NL-leading Giants.
With a crowd of 33,250 chanting his name, Tellez delivered, slapping a single down the third-base line to score Avisail Garcia and give Counsell his 500th victory as Brewers manager.
"That was pretty cool," Tellez said.
Sept. 5: Brewers 6, Cardinals 5
Down four heading into the ninth, the Brewers started their rally with a double by Jackie Bradley Jr., who scored on a single by backup catcher Luke Maile. Jace Peterson kept the inning going with a double and Eduardo Escobar loaded the bases with a one-out walk against Giovanny Gallegos.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt had seen enough and summoned all-star closer Alex Reyes, who left a fastball over the middle that Daniel Vogelbach crushed for the game-winning grand slam.
“I enjoy being in those situations, whether I fail or whether I succeed,” Vogelbach said. “As a competitor, you always want to be in those situations and be the guy that steps up to the plate in that situation. I'm just happy that I was able to come through for the guys who grinded all game. It seemed like we were playing from behind the whole time.”
(Normal text)The Brewers struck out 1,618 batters to lead all MLB teams and posted a 3.50 ERA that ranked behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (3.01) and San Francisco Giants (3.24).
Milwaukee’s starting pitching should be strong for years to come. Burnes, Woodruff, Adrian Houser (10-6, 3.22) and Eric Lauer (7-5, 3.19) are under team control through the 2024 season. Peralta has a contract that runs through 2024 and includes club options for 2025 and 2026.
Milwaukee boosted its roster by trading for shortstop Willy Adames, Tellez and third baseman Eduardo Escobar during the season. Adames posted an .886 OPS after arriving in Milwaukee, while Tellez hit two homers in the NLDS.
While Escobar is now a free agent, Adames and Tellez are under team control through the 2024 season.
Swinging away: Brewers maintain aggressive approach to roster building despite past strikeouts
January 2018: Signed Matt Albers to 2-year, $5 million contract
Albers was coming off a career-best season in which he went 7-2 with a 1.62 ERA in 63 appearances for the Nationals when Stearns signed him to help bolster a young bullpen.
Early on, the move looked brilliant as Albers posted a 1.93 ERA through his first 24 appearances. He got knocked around hard his next time out, allowing five earned runs in a loss to the Cubs that resulted in a stint on the injured list. He returned six weeks later but made only one appearance, allowing three runs, before landing back on the IL and posting a whopping 23.63 ERA in eight appearances after he returned in August.
Things didn't go much better in 2019, either. Albers posted a 5.13 in 67 games and became a free agent after the season but hasn't pitched in the big leagues since.
June 2018: Traded JiMan Choi for Brad Miller
Milwaukee signed Choi to a minor league deal to provide depth at first base and he forced his way onto the Opening Day roster by batting .409 with three home runs, 10 RBIs and a 1.245 OPS in 27 Cactus League games.
He became expendable when Jesus Aguilar, who also played his way onto the roster with a mammoth spring, seized the starting job at first after Eric Thames' injury. So Stearns dealt Choi to Tampa for Miller, who was hitting .256 with five home runs and 21 RBIs while playing both first base and the outfield.
"At this point we thought that the positional versatility and the infield experience that Miller brings would be helpful," Stearns said. "He will head to Triple A, and when we have a need, I'm sure he will be ready to contribute."
Miller appeared in just 27 games and batted .230 with two home runs and a .666 OPS before he was designated for assignment on July 28.
July 31, 2018: Traded for Jonathan Schoop
Stearns was reminded of one of his biggest busts Monday when Tigers infielder Jonathan Schoop put Milwaukee in a 1-0 hole with an RBI single off Corbin Burnes.
Stearns sent infielder Jonathan Villar and two prospects to Baltimore for Schoop at the trade deadline in 2018, despite having planned to shift Travis Shaw to second after Milwaukee acquired third baseman Mike Moustakas in an earlier deal.
By pairing the right-handed Schoop, who was hitting .244 with 17 home runs at the time of the deal, with Shaw, a left-handed slugger, Stearns thought he had the makings of a formidable tandem.
"Really, what it comes down to for us is we think we're getting better and we think we're adding to our overall depth," Stearns said at the time.
The move backfired as Schoop hit .202 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games then went 0-for-8 in the playoffs leading Stearns to non-tender him after the season.
“Look, it was a bad deal, and that’s on me," Stearns said. "We made a trade for a player we thought was going to be here for basically a year and a half, and I was wrong.”
As for the players Stearns gave up in the deal, only Villar is in the big leagues this season. After batting .270 with 61 stolen bases and a .777 OPS in 216 games for the Orioles, he was traded to Miami in December 2019 and then to the Blue Jays at the deadline in 2020.
He signed with the Mets in February and is batting .231 in 41 games this season.
Dec. 20, 2019: Signed Justin Smoak to 1-year deal
Stearns opted against picking up a $7.5 million option to bring back Eric Thames and instead took a chance on switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, whose power from the left side projected to play well at American Family Field, with the idea of him sharing time at first base with Ryan Braun.
The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted those plans, though. When the Brewers returned from their hiatus, Braun was shifted into the designated hitter role leaving first base to Smoak, who never got his bat going and was designated for assignment after batting .186 with five home runs and a .642 OPS in 33 games.
"You never completely know when it is the right time, especially in a season like this," Stearns said at the time. "There is some feel involved in this.
"Determining whether and the likelihood of a player snapping out of a slump is always a really tough judgment call. In this case, with the volume of playing time that Justin had to try to get this going and where we are in the season, we felt like it was the right time."
Smoak's release came just weeks after Stearns cut ties with utility man Brock Holt, who signed his own one-year deal early in Spring Training but was let go after he hit .100 in just 16 games.