Tom Oates: Unlike previous playoff teams, these Brewers equipped for playoffs
MILWAUKEE — When it comes to the National League playoffs, the Milwaukee Brewers have a thin resume.
Milwaukee’s 2008 team lost to Philadelphia in the NL Division Series and the 2011 team lost to eventual World Series champion St. Louis in the NL Championship Series. Until the current Brewers reached the playoffs with the best record in the NL, that was it for postseason play since 1982.
Are this year’s Brewers better equipped to reach the World Series than the previous two in this century?
Those past Brewers teams had tremendous star power: Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and CC Sabathia in 2008; Fielder, Braun, Zack Greinke and John Axford in 2011. This Brewers team also has star power, most notably Lorenzo Cain and MVP candidate Christian Yelich, but it has so much more than that.
“We’re built on depth,” manager Craig Counsell said Wednesday. “We have great players — I think Yelich and Lo Cain are in that category for sure — but I think it’s the depth of the roster that is one of our true strengths this year.”
As the Brewers chased down the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central Division over the last month, they got contributions from almost everyone in a clubhouse bloated by September call-ups. When they meet Colorado in the NLDS starting Thursday at Miller Park, it will be the high-end depth both on the bench and in the bullpen that gives this Brewers team a better chance for extended playoff success than the 2008 and 2011 models.
“This team is different,” Brewers television analyst Jerry Augustine said. “We have a Christian Yelich, but we have so many other guys that go with him. I love their balance. They have great balance in their offense. The can do a lot of different things. They can hit the home run. They can score by manufacturing runs. Defensively, I think they’re much better than they were last year. I think pitching-wise, when you look at the way the game has changed now, bullpens win pennants. And this bullpen is very good.”
The Brewers had a good team in 2008 and a very good team in 2011, but neither team had as many bases covered as this one does. In addition to a longer bench, the 2018 version has a deeper batting order, a stronger bullpen and a healthy combination of momentum and rest going into the playoffs. The starting rotation is deeper than the 2008 group but can’t match the 2011 group.
The 2008 and 2011 Brewers were top-heavy on offense, dependent primarily on Braun and Fielder for run production. The current lineup has more power sources, with three players — Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw — hitting 30 or more home runs and in-season addition Mike Moustakas hitting 28 (eight in Milwaukee). More important, the 2008 and 2011 teams struggled to find hitters at the top of the batting order while the current one has Yelich and Cain, whose on-base percentages ranked in top four in the NL.
The biggest difference in the Brewers playoff teams are the benches. Counsell had to struggle to get down to the 25-player limit for the playoffs, which wasn’t an issue in 2008 and 2011.
The 2008 playoff bench consisted of Counsell, Tony Gwynn Jr., Brad Nelson, Ray Durham and Mike Rivera. In 2011, it was Counsell, Carlos Gomez, Mark Kotsay, Casey McGehee, Taylor Green and George Kottaras. With Gomez still a part-time player, there wasn’t a power hitter off the bench on either team. Compare that to this season, when Counsell has so many reserves to choose from that Eric Thames, who has 16 home runs, might not make the playoff roster.
Pitching is a different story. The 2008 Brewers were short of quality starters after Ben Sheets blew out his elbow late in the season. Sabathia was brilliant after he was acquired in June, but he was running on fumes by the playoffs. The Brewers were so needy that Yovani Gallardo, who missed almost the entire season with a knee injury, was rushed back into the playoff rotation and even started the opener.
The 2011 rotation was more formidable, with Gallardo, Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf, all of whom won 13 or more games. Jhoulys Chacin, a 15-game winner, is the only Brewers starter with more than nine wins this year, though veterans Gio Gonzalez and Wade Miley provided a late-season boost. The rotation can’t match the 2011 group for star power and depth, but it has quietly done the job all season.
As for the bullpens, there is no comparison. In 2008, the Brewers got lucky when aging Solomon Torres came through with 28 saves after closer Eric Gagne hit the wall, but he was a one-man band. The 2011 bullpen was much stronger, led by Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.
It still couldn’t match the current bullpen, though. No Brewers team has ever had a 1-2-3 punch like Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress. Late-season acquisitions Joakim Soria and Xavier Cedeno have helped in a bullpen that runs 10 or 11 deep. In September, the Brewers had by far the best bullpen ERA (1.98) in baseball.
All three playoff teams finished the season fast, but only the current Brewers played great baseball throughout September. They’ve been in a playoff mode since Labor Day, so there will be no need to change their approach.
Why would they change? The Brewers finally have a roster built for postseason success.