Five Predictions for the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers
Is this the year of J.P. Feyereisen? Will Luis Urias provide stability at shortstop? Can Corbin Burnes build on his strong 2020?
Happy Opening Day! At 1:10 p.m. this afternoon, the Milwaukee Brewers will be taking the field to kick off their 2021 season against the Minnesota Twins at the newly-rebranded American Family Field.
(It is a stadium name. Get over it. Bally Sports Wisconsin is the truly terrible name change for this season anyway.)
The start of a fresh season means that it is time to share guesses about how the 2021 campaign will unfold for the Brewers. Without further ado, here are five predictions for the next six months.
The J.P. Feyereisen breakout season will happen this time. I promise.
This was initially supposed to be the part where I rave about Justin Topa’s stuff and express confidence that he will emerge as a key high leverage reliever. That was before Topa injured his right elbow — again — bringing the Summer of Topa to a screeching halt before it could even begin.
Topa’s absence creates an opportunity for J.P. Feyereisen. The Wisconsin native earned a spot on the Opening Day roster after an excellent showing this spring. This prediction is technically a repeat from last year (which you can read if you’d like to get a kick out of how poorly those assertions aged), but I liked Feyereisen then, and I still like him now. He has a nasty breaking ball, can run his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, and punched out a whopping 38% of hitters as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A as recently as 2019.
Luis Urias has a better season than Orlando Arcia — including with the glove
From the onset of spring training, the Brewers gave Urias every opportunity to seize the shortstop role. While Craig Counsell stopped short of naming a starter at the position, he did confirm that most of Urias’ playing time will come as a shortstop, with Orlando Arcia splitting time between third base and short. Arcia had the best season of his career in 2020, but that description should be applied loosely. His plate discipline saw notable improvements, but he was still a below-average hitter (96 wRC+), and it was a shortened season. Urias was awful at the plate himself in 2020, but he was also hampered by a wrist injury and a battle with COVID-19.
Nearly every major projection system expects Urias to out-hit Arcia, which is not exactly a bold claim. However, I anticipate that Urias will also perform better than Orlando in the field. Arcia’s glove was his calling card as a prospect, and the FOX — sorry, Bally — Sports Wisconsin crew continues to routinely hype it up. Over his first three MLB seasons, Arcia lived up to that reputation, totaling 15 defensive runs saved and an elite 22 Outs Above Average. In 2019, however, his work in the field took a massive step back (-2 DRS, -3 OAA), and in 2020, it was a mixed bag (-4 DRS, 1 OAA).
Arcia’s defense has taken steps back across the board, but he still makes plenty of highlight-reel plays. His issue seems to be a matter of consistency, particularly on the routine plays. Urias does not have the range and arm strength of Orlando, but he demonstrated consistently solid hands at every infield position he played last season. His range and arm both appeared better than advertised. Urias will not make nearly as many flashy plays as Arcia does, but he is no slouch himself, and he will be more consistent with the routine plays. At the end of the day, he will be the overall better defender.
Corbin Burnes will not be a Cy Young contender
This is not a criticism of Burnes, nor is it an expression of pessimism toward him. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that #BrewersTwitter’s hope for a Cy Young season is difficult to live up to. Burnes has excellent stuff, both in terms of velocity and movement. However, the downside to possessing such an arsenal is that it can be difficult to consistently harness. Burnes had a handful of outings, particularly early in the 2020 season, that featured moments during which he had no idea where the baseball was going. His 10% walk rate was not awful, but it was below average.
On top of that, there are reasons to expect — dun dun dun! — regression. Don’t worry, though, it’s more like Burnes will be merely extremely good instead of elite. While his sinker is much better than his old four-seam fastball, it’s not an outstanding pitch (.420 xwOBA, 33.3% ground ball rate, 11.1% barrel rate). His 4.7% HR/FB ratio was absurdly low and is highly unlikely to be repeated. ERA estimators like SIERA, xERA, and xFIP pegged him in the low-to-mid 3.00’s, which is where we can expect his ERA to sit this year. Again, that is still an exceptionally solid season, but it’s not necessarily Cy Young caliber stuff. Burnes will have plenty of outings where he is virtually untouchable, but mixed in will be wild outings with high pitch counts that knock him out before he can complete five innings. If you want to predict a Cy Young for any Brewer starter, pick Brandon Woodruff.
Keston Hiura becomes an above-average defensive first baseman
Hiura had never played first base in his life prior to this spring, but he carries an advantage as someone who has already spent most of his baseball life on the dirt. Hiura’s range at second base was below-average, but his real issue was his throwing arm. His hands are fine, he doesn’t have nearly as much ground to cover at the cold corner, and he won’t have to make throws regularly. In spite of his being one of the smallest regular first basemen on record, the ingredients are there for Hiura to be a plus defender at his new position.
The Brewers win the NL Central
Do I see this team as a legitimate World Series contender? The playoffs are a crapshoot once you get in, so, to use the words of the great Lloyd Christmas, “You’re telling me there’s a chance!” On paper, this team simply is not on the same level as powerhouse teams like the Dodgers, Padres, and Yankees. They are, however, good enough to win the NL Central. This lineup is questionable and will likely be a source of frustration throughout the season, but the run prevention unit built by David Stearns and Matt Arnold will be one of the best in the sport.
Adding to Milwaukee’s chances is the fact that their division rivals did little to improve their rosters. The Cardinals swung a trade Nolan Arenado, but that move alone may not be enough to get them over the hump. The Cubs added Joc Pederson, but they also traded away Yu Darvish because… uh… reasons. The Reds sat on their hands, and the Pirates have made it clear that they have no intention of being anywhere close to .500.
The Brewers will be in a deadlock with the Cardinals for much of the season, but they will ultimately come out winners of the division and return to the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. What happens after that? Who knows. The playoffs are often weird. The best team does not win every year. The Brewers will be in, which is the important first step.