As Dan Szymborski continues to release his individual 2018 team ZiPS projections (and Carson Cistulli (FanGraphs) continues to write them up), we continue to wait for the Cubs’ number to be called.
In the meantime, however, we can take a closer look at some of the Cubs’ competition in the NL Central next season, to see what they might be up against.
Already, we’ve looked into the Cardinals somewhat solid projections for next season, but left feeling less-than-scared about their chances to upset the Cubs (obviously, the offseason is far from over, but that cuts both ways). And behind them, the Brewers strike me as the most likely team to disrupt the Cubs’ chances at four straight playoff appearances in 2018.
— Carson Cistulli (@cistulli) December 27, 2017
Like last time, this tweet provides a nice visual representation of the Brewers projections for next season, but you’ll definitely want to check out FanGraphs for their full 2018 ZiPS projections – dig into the nitty-gritty. It’s the way to go. It’s fun.
You should also head over to FanGraphs for the positional group write-ups, because I don’t want to give up every aspect of the Brewers projections. I will, however, hit on some of the highlights.
Interestingly, despite a surprisingly competitive season in 2017, one in which the Brewers led the division for a while and missed the postseason by a single game, the projections are not particularly kind. Cistulli puts it best: “The successful 2017 team, however, doesn’t necessarily represent a baseline for the 2018 one. While one might expect the projections for the next iteration of the Brewers to reflect a club prepared to take another leap forward, that’s not what one finds here.”
Indeed, among the position players, only Travis Shaw (2.7 WAR) and Domingo Santana (2.3 WAR) project to be worth more than 2 wins above replacement next season, which … is not very good, since that’s about an average big league starter. For comparison, last year’s 86-win team was projected to finish with six position players above the 2.0 WAR mark (and they wound up with four).
With that said, they will probably have a potent offense, with five players projected to have above-average bats. That group is led not by Ryan Braun, however, but by Eric Thames, who’s projected to finish with a 117 wRC+. I’m surprised it’s even that high, though, because after his blisteringly hot first month of the season (218 wRC+), he was rather pedestrian (103 wRC+) the rest of the way. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t a good deal worse than his projections.
Ryan Braun is projected to finish just behind Thames, with a 115 wRC+, which would actually be an improvement from last season (110 wRC+). To be fair, his BABIP fell off the map in 2017, despite a really strong 39.0% hard-hit rate and more ground balls than usual. So, yeah, he does feel like a bit of a bounce-back candidate, which is annoying given that he always seems to crush the Cubs (career: .332/.409/.583).
Jimmy Nelson (3.5 WAR) is projected to be the Brewers best starting pitcher next season, but it’s fair to point out that he underwent shoulder surgery late in the 2017 season and could miss the entire first half of the year (in which case, he’d obviously not reach his projected 170 IP). If he does make a miraculous and healthy return, however, you could expect him to be about 15% better than the league average pitcher, which is pretty darn good.
Behind him as the de facto ace of the staff, then, is Zach Davies (3.4 WAR). After back-to-back quality seasons for the Brewers, Davies is projected to be about 10% better than the league average pitcher, with a 4.05 ERA and 4.06 FIP. He’s not likely heading for a 200 strikeout season, but he’ll probably keep the walks well under control and make another full slate of starts. If Brewers’ fans are looking for some further upside in Davies, however, they might point out that he dropped his hard-hit rate from 33.8% last season down to a really excellent 28.8%. Similarly, his ground ball rate shot up nearly 5 full percentage points above 50%, which is the makings of a pitcher who could really succeed in this environment.
And, finally, Brewers free agent starter Jhoulys Chacin is not only expected to be slightly worse than average next season, he’s only expected to reach 143 IP and be worth 1.2 WAR. I think I’d give him the over on that, but these projections certainly don’t inspire too much fear.
In the end, given the continued aging of Ryan Braun, the return to Earth for Eric Thames, and the injury to Jimmy Nelson, I’m beginning to wonder if the Brewers don’t take that big jump forward this season – absent a wild last couple months of the offseason. They can, of course, lean heavily on their big cache of prospects, make a few trades, and use next year’s huge free agent class to make a quick leap forward in 2019, though. So don’t sleep on them yet.