Great expectations await Brewers in 2018

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“I’m sure you guys will hammer that word away,” Counsell said. “If that’s how we’re going to start talking, then we’re on the right track.”

• Bold Brew: Milwaukee came on strong in ’17

“That’s the position you want to be in, right?” said Ryan Braun, who went through this a decade ago as the Brewers emerged from years of losing seasons. “With what we accomplished this year, we should go into next year with much higher expectations than we came into this year with.

“Other teams know we’re a good team. We’ve proven we’re a good team.”

Brewers' top moments of 2017

The question is how much different that team will look in 2018. On one hand, the Brewers who won 86 games and fell a game short in the National League Wild Card race were constructed largely of players under club control beyond ’17.

On the other hand, general manager David Stearns has the financial flexibility to add. Only Braun and Thames are under contract for next season.

But even if the Brewers make few changes, next season won’t be the same as this one.

“You can put the same ingredients together, and the soup is going to taste a little different next year,” Counsell said. “And you have to be OK with that. It’s not going to be the same. You create something new every time you do it. Every time grandma makes the chili, it’s a little different. But it’s still grandma’s chili, you know?”

Here is a look inside the Brewers’ offseason kitchen:

CONTRACTUAL MATTERS

Free agents:Matt Garza, Eric Sogard, Anthony Swarzak, Neil Walker.

Arbitration eligible:Chase Anderson, Jared Hughes, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel (Super 2), Jimmy Nelson, Hernan Perez, Carlos Torres, Jonathan Villar, Stephen Vogt

Stearns on evaluating talent

BIGGEST NEEDS

Starting pitching
After undergoing shoulder surgery in September, the Brewers’ best starter, Nelson, will miss significant time in 2018. Exactly how long he’ll be sidelined remains unknown, but adding depth in this area sits atop Stearns’ offseason to-do list. Anderson, Zach Davies and Brandon Woodruff are the top returning options, plus Josh Hader and Brent Suter if the Brewers decide those left-handers fit best as starters. The organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Corbin Burnes, is getting close.

Possible FA fits:Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb.

Second base
Stearns plans to “take a long look” at this position, quite a change from last spring, when the Brewers were so confident in Villar that they waived Scooter Gennett, who went on to have a monster season with the Reds. Sogard provided an in-season spark before being derailed by an ankle injury that prompted the Brewers to trade for Walker, who posted an .843 OPS after coming over from the Mets. Prospects Mauricio Dubon and Isan Diaz are moving up the Minor League ranks.

Possible FA fits: Walker, Sogard.

Brewers bring whole staff back

GRAY AREA

Bullpen
Every team makes bullpen moves, and the Brewers certainly will. But it remains to be seen how big they go after sinking more than $5 million into Neftali Feliz last offseason and watching him wash out as the closer. Swarzak is a good option if the Brewers are willing to take a risk on a 32-year-old coming off a career year.

X-FACTORS

Center field
The Brewers have plenty of options to play alongside left fielder Braun and right fielder Domingo Santana, but the question is whether any of them will emerge as a “regular.” Brett Phillips has the inside track after posting an .851 OPS in September and setting Statcastâ„¢ records with his throwing arm, but while Lewis Brinson did not succeed in his brief Major League stints, he was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year. And don’t forget Keon Broxton, who led the Majors with a 37.8 percent strikeout rate but also joined Jose Altuve, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts among the nine players in 2017’s 20-homer, 20-stolen-base club.

Money to burn?
Braun and Thames will earn about $25 million next season, though some of Braun’s salary is deferred. That gives Stearns even more flexibility to go big if he chooses.

When a reporter suggested that the team might play under another modest payroll in 2018, Counsell smiled and — with Stearns sitting right next to him — said, “I don’t know about that. I think David’s going to do something about that.”

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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