MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Brewers had just finished one of the most successful road trips in their history, a 7-3 romp through the western regions of the big leagues, when the team returned home to bad news.
Garrett Mitchell, a rookie who had had a blistering first three weeks as the team’s starting center fielder, suffered labrum damage on an aggressive slide into third base during extra innings in Seattle.
The severity of Mitchell’s injury was announced Friday, and Mitchell spoke to the gathered media after manager Craig Counsell broke the news. After explaining that he was still processing the blow and declaring his intention to get back by the end of the season if at all possible, the almost impossibly upbeat Mitchell turned into a P.R. rep for the player replacing him, a 6-foot-4, blond-haired, toolsy rookie named Joey Wiemer.
“Joey is going to be fine,” Mitchell said. “The organization, all of the fans, should be happy, excited for him. He’s going to do a good job.”
Wiemer, who has all of 24 big league games under his belt, started about 80% of his games in the minor leagues on the outfield corners, mostly in right, where he featured one of the strongest arms in professional baseball. Center field is another beast, of course, but during his 44 games in The Show, Mitchell has shown signs of becoming an elite defender at that crucial position, the one held down so well in recent seasons by now-retired Lorenzo Cain.
On April 22, the day after Mitchell’s pep talk, the Brewers were clinging to a one-run lead against the Red Sox in the fifth inning. Boston’s Alex Verdugo blistered a Wade Miley pitch 103.7 mph to dead center. Wiemer got a quick read on it, raced for the warning track and made a leaping, twisting, falling grab on a ball that might have left the park had he not caught it.
It happened again in the eighth: With Milwaukee still leading by a run, Verdugo launched a 103.2 mph drive, right at Wiemer, who took a few long strides toward the wall and leaped slightly to make the grab. This was another ball that would have clanged off the fence if Wiemer had not reacted so quickly, moved so well or, let’s face it, if he were not so huge. He made it look easy.
“I’m very comfortable in center,” Wiemer said, with the kind of nonchalance only a rookie can summon. “I just touch the grass and if the ball’s in the air, go catch it. I just treat it all the same.”
This is just an anecdote, but it illustrates some crucial things about this version of the Brewers. They are younger. They are more athletic. They are more fun. They are deeper. And because of all these factors, they are better.
This can change. After all, we haven’t even reached the end of April. But when it comes to the Brewers, don’t look at this start as a mirage. This team was already pretty good, but now it’s better. In fact, while it’s too soon to make this a declaration, we can at least speculate that when the dust settles, we might just look at these Brewers as the most improved team in baseball.
THIS QUESTION OF “most improved” is a nebulous concept that depends on how you frame things. In this case, you can’t really predict that the Brewers will improve their win total more than any other team, simply because Milwaukee was already good. The Brewers won 86 games last season and missed the playoffs by only one game.
This is more a matter of trajectory. Milwaukee’s win count in 2022 was a nine-game drop over 2021. The roster was getting older, with an average age of 29.1 for the position players, the highest figure for the Brewers in more than a decade. Things appeared to be heading in the wrong direction and if that were the case, at the very least a season of retrenchment could be expected as the Brewers transitioned some of their top prospects to the majors.
Instead, this year’s group has been recharged by the injection of a group of rookies, not just onto the roster but into featured roles.
Between Mitchell and Wiemer, the Brewers have had a rookie starting in center field every game this season. Brice Turang, a Kiley McDaniel top 100 prospect heading into the season, has started most of the games at second base.
Youthful energy is one thing, but for a team with the stated goal of getting back to the playoffs, production is even more important. Wiemer ranks third among National League rookie position players by fWAR, Mitchell is sixth and Turang is 12th, even while all of them are still developing at the plate. That’s what a full set of tools can do for a young player.
“When you have young guys like that, you want to let them play, and so you try to give them some real runway,” said Matt Arnold, who took over baseball operations for the Brewers this winter. “It’s not just that they’re young, those guys are special. They’re young and they’re talented and they’re energetic. They just bring so much positive energy to the table.”
Take the cheesehead, introduced as a home run celebration. You have probably seen it on highlights. Every team comes up with something. The Pirates have a sword. The Orioles have a water bong. And the Brewers have the cheesehead, donned by every player who swats a ball out of the park. It’s the most Wisconsin thing ever, especially since it hit the big time in a game won on a Mitchell longball off the New York Mets‘ Adam Ottavino with Green Bay Packers running back A.J. Dillon in town. Dillion threw out the first pitch the night before, chugged a beer during the game and declared cheeseheads for all.
“I do believe in the power of cheese,” Mitchell said after his heroics. “It seems to be working. I think we should continue using it.”
They have continued using it, even perching it on the plus-sized dome of Tellez, the team’s preeminent home run hitter. During an MLB.TV interview, Tellez half-heartedly suggested the originator of the celebration, shortstop Willy Adames, should upgrade.
“I tell him we’re going to have to get a bigger one,” Tellez said. “Because it looks like a little Cheez-It on my head.”
Underlying this is a key point: This team has fun, in the clubhouse and on the field, and that makes it fun to watch. The clubhouse part is always hard to read when a team is playing well, because you don’t know if the upbeat mood is from the winning or if the winning is an outgrowth of the upbeat mood. Either way, the Brewers have both the wins and the fun. The kids are at the center of the MLB-elite defensive metrics on the field, but also in the ping pong matches and pop-a-shot H-O-R-S-E contests in the clubhouse.
“Young players, just because of where they’re at in their careers, they’re fun,” Counsell said. “They’re going through experiences for the first time and all the other players, they enjoy going through that experience again as well. Because it’s one of the best times of your life, getting called up to the big leagues and your first weeks in the big leagues.
“Everybody enjoys kind of reliving that. I don’t know what baseball player wouldn’t. And you get to do it through a bunch of guys, and they’re good teammates, they’re good people and they’re easy to root for. I think that’s definitely energized us.”
For the rookies, the effect is heightened by the fact that they are doing it as friends and teammates who rose together through the Milwaukee system. “Yeah, it’s awesome,” Wiemer said. “It really helps you, just to have a guy to look to, knowing they’re in the same boat trying to prove the same things. We just go out and feed off each other.”
This process would be more difficult if the veterans weren’t accommodating or were even resentful of the new faces. Clearly, that’s not the dynamic in Milwaukee.
“The veteran guys and the guys who have been here for a while have allowed us to be ourselves,” Turang said. “It’s been one of the biggest keys. Those guys have done nothing but respect us and allow us to play the game the way we play the game. It’s everybody in this locker room that’s helping each other out.”
The rookies have reciprocated the hospitality with real contributions to the Brewers’ fast start. Through the Boston series, no team had more WAR from rookies than Milwaukee.
YOU MIGHT NOTICE the absence of the word “surprise” throughout this story. That’s because you can call the 16-8 Baltimore Orioles a surprise, albeit a mild one, given preseason forecasts. The National League-leading Pittsburgh Pirates certainly qualify as a surprise and probably the Texas Rangers as well, simply because they lost so many games over the past couple of years. But the Brewers’ 16-9 start — they’re currently one game behind the Pirates in the NL Central — shouldn’t really be a surprise.
That’s because the Brewers have become one of the more consistently successful teams in the major leagues, and in the process, one of the most incessantly overlooked. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Braves have won more games among NL clubs. That the Brewers have been able to put a halt to what seemed like an emergent downturn — while getting younger and more sustainable at the same time — is only the latest example of this consistency.
But a reset, if not a full rebuild, appeared likely after David Stearns, the respected architect of the recent run of solid Milwaukee clubs, announced he was stepping away from his job running the baseball operations of the Brewers and moving into an advisory role. His job was filled by Arnold, who had worked alongside Stearns in recent years.
Facing his first offseason as the head honcho, Arnold described his overall plan for the winter with utmost clarity.
“I think the overarching theme was we’ve got to get back to the playoffs,” Arnold said.
So a retrenchment was not in the offing. But with an aging roster and a gap in your postseason résumé, the task of reversing an apparent decline isn’t easy, especially when you’re not going to be in play for the top free agents. Opportunism becomes the strategy, in moves that won’t generate many hot stove headlines. And for an organization like the Brewers, that approach must be accompanied by faith in the players your system is pushing up to the majors.
The first domino was a late-November trade that sent Hunter Renfroe to the Los Angeles Angels for three pitching prospects, including Janson Junk and Elvis Peguero, both immediate depth options. Just as importantly, moving Renfroe’s power bat opened up an outfield slot and, as we’ll see, the Brewers needed to create opportunity in the outfield.
In early December, another opportunity was created when Milwaukee sent veteran second baseman Kolten Wong to the Seattle Mariners for Jesse Winker and Abraham Toro. This opened second base for Turang and gave Milwaukee an everyday-against-righties DH in Winker and quality veteran depth in Toro, who started the season in Triple-A.
Other moves flew way under the radar. Owen Miller (Cleveland Guardians) and Javy Guerra (Tampa Bay Rays) were added as players to be named later from trades earlier in the year. Minor league free agent Blake Perkins was signed. Former Brewer starter Wade Miley was signed to a free agent deal, returning to Milwaukee for the first time since 2018.
Then, that opportunism came into play. First, Arnold injected the Brewers into the Sean Murphy sweepstakes by offering up the prospect the Atlanta Braves needed to sway the Oakland Athletics, sending Esteury Ruiz to Oakland. Murphy headed for Atlanta, which sent a clutch of prospects to the A’s to join Ruiz. Arnold, for his trouble, added a complementary big league reliever in groundballer Joel Payamps and a 25-year-old starting catcher in William Contreras, who made the NL All-Star team last season.
Finally, Brian Anderson, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins in November, signed with the Brewers in late January.
“It was just a combination of how to do things, to improve everywhere, across the board,” Arnold said. “Improve our depth, improve our rotation and our bullpen. It’s challenging to do, especially in a market that was pretty crazy, but fortunately, we were able to add some guys that have so far played really well.”
CONSIDERING ALL OF this change — plus an early injury to starting third baseman Luis Urias — the bottom line is this: Of the nine players who have currently played the most at their respective positions, only three are carryovers from last season: Tellez, Adames and Christian Yelich.
Yelich’s tenure with the club is an interesting prism through which to view the Brewers’ success. His first season with Milwaukee was 2018, when the Brewers won 96 games and finished one win shy of the World Series, losing to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Even as the roster keeps churning, the Brewers have remained competitive ever since, with four playoff appearances in the past six seasons — in the other two, they finished a single game out of the NL bracket. And yet Yelich is the only position player remaining from his first Brewers team.
There are many explanations for this ongoing competitiveness despite so much turnover. One is a willingness to spend, at least moderately: Milwaukee is baseball’s smallest market, but the Brewers’ payroll has ranked in the 19-20 range the past three seasons, per Cots Contracts.
Counsell’s nine-year tenure is another, one constant in the storm of iteration that marks baseball in a market like Milwaukee.
“He’s a winner,” Turang said. “He wants to win as much as we do. When you have that atmosphere and that’s all you have to focus on, leaving stuff off the field at the door, it’s been awesome.”
In practical terms, this has been evident in different ways over the years, all while Counsell has soared to the top of his profession. He (and his pitching coaches, currently Chris Hook) have been able to put relievers in the right roles to bridge the innings from Milwaukee’s strong starting staff to its lockdown closer, formerly Josh Hader and now Devin Williams. It’s also evident in the Brewers’ ability to field elite defenses, with Counsell usually deflecting the credit for that to coaches like Pat Murphy and Nestor Corredor.
But maybe it’s evident most of all in the way the players so often seem to just get better after they join the Brewers. For all the attention that has gone to teams like the Rays, Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for their ability in this area, Milwaukee ranks right with them. Two of the offseason acquisitions, Anderson and Contreras, are the latest examples of this.
Anderson has been a major boost to the roster in a number of ways. On offense, he’s simply hitting the ball harder more often than ever before. His barrel rate this season (18.9%) is in the top 10 percentile of big league hitters. And, in his first season with the Brewers, it’s more than double the career standard he established with the Marlins (7.8%).
Perhaps just as important, Anderson’s defensive ability in both the infield and the outfield has allowed Counsell to shape his lineup in a number of ways even as he moves players around and covers for the absences of Urias, Tyrone Taylor and, now, Mitchell.
“We’ve come to realize just how valuable that is, especially with our injuries,” Counsell said. “The infielder-outfielder, just the flexibility that it gives you, just increases the floor for your team.”
Contreras made the NL All-Star team last season largely because of his bat. He produced at 136 OPS+ for the Braves but was dealt largely because they believed Murphy’s defense made him a more viable everyday option.
It’s early days when it comes to looking at this game of catching musical chairs, but Contreras has been a big part of Milwaukee’s elite run prevention unit so far. According to Fangraphs’ consensus rating for defense, Murphy indeed leads all backstops with 3.5 runs saved above average. But Contreras is tied for second at 3.3, along with his brother, Willson.
“Contreras is a dynamic player and it’s happening on both sides of the ball, which has been a lot of fun,” Arnold said. “Same with Brian Anderson. There aren’t too many guys that can go at third and to the outfield at a very high level. So those kinds of profiles, when they come available, we just do what we can to hop in and get involved.”‘
THERE WILL BE challenges ahead for the Brewers. The Mitchell injury was a gut punch, especially given an injury to Sal Frelick, the highly rated outfield prospect who likely would have been his replacement — if not for the ill fate that he sprained his left thumb in the minors on the very same day that Mitchell injured his shoulder in Seattle. Like Mitchell, Frelick suffered the injury on a slide.
While Frelick’s injury required surgery, his recovery is expected to be much quicker than that of Mitchell — Frelick could be back in as soon as six weeks. Whenever he returns, adding another rookie of his caliber could help perpetuate this feeling of forward momentum for Milwaukee, even as everyone holds out hope that Mitchell can return to help out late in the campaign.
The team continues to wait to see how long it might have to go without ace starter Brandon Woodruff, who has an ailing shoulder. Meanwhile, co-ace Corbin Burnes has been up and down to start the season, though given his track record, that’s only another spot at which Milwaukee can look to get better as the season goes along. Eventually, Urias will add to that dynamic as well.
But on the field, the Brewers show every sign of being a sustainable contender. Only five teams have a better run differential during the early going, even though Milwaukee has played a tough early schedule.
The Brewers rank in the top 10 positionally by fWAR at most spots and are in the positive at most of the others, except for DH. And that ranking could change fast if Winker gets going. They rank second in Fangraphs’ team defensive metric and have an elite ERA+ of 120.
In other words, this is a complete team without any glaring weaknesses and with excellent depth (as long as the injury bug doesn’t get worse), a balanced set of skills and a number of players who should continue to trend in a positive direction.
So if the Brewers aren’t the most improved team in the majors yet, they might just get there by season’s end. Either way, this is a team that is just enjoying what it is doing right now. It plans to keep doing it.
“We’ve had a good time,” Turang said. “We just keep continuing to go out there every day, give it all we got and try to win ball games. But we know nothing’s promised. So we’re just going to keep the energy high and the focus going.”