“Record: 69-93, 4th NL Central… a disappointing step back, but the official ‘bottoming out’ of the rebuild.” – My own words, six months and 24 Sunday Cycles ago.

Like many baseball aficionados, I ushered in the beginning of the 2017 Major League Season by counting the Milwaukee Brewers out of the playoff race before the first pitch was even thrown. A disappointing 5-7 Opening Day loss to the Colorado Rockies and a 2-5 start to the season all but reassured me, and the rest of the baseball world, that the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers were destined for mediocrity, at best.

As we now know, the Brewers had other plans. The Crew raced back above .500 and topped the NL Central on the first of May, garnering national attention thanks to newcomer Eric Thames monster April, during which he hit 11 Home Runs, 19 RBIs, and batted .345. Despite regressing significantly after April (in fairness, it would have been impossible not to), I credit Thames for sparking the belief in this clubhouse. He was new, he was exciting, and he allowed this team to metaphorically turn the page and create its own identity. Thames ended up batting .249 with 31 home runs, but rocked an OBP of .358, the second highest on the team; a clear improvement over last year’s 1st baseman, Chris Carter.

Over the next three months the Brewers solidified themselves atop the NL Central, at one point topping out at 5.5 games above the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs to open up the second half of the season. That 5.5 game lead, which took nearly three months for the Brewers to build, then vanished over a span of eight games, just a week and a half before the July 31st trade deadline. The Brewers made some moves anyways, adding Anthony Swarzak to a bullpen that was blowing late games, and veteran 2nd baseman Neil Walker to try to wake up a lineup that had seemingly forgotten how to hit for the first four weeks following the All Star break.

Over the months of August and September, the Crew battled to stay in the playoff hunt, eventually falling just one game short to the Colorado Rockies for the final Wild Card spot. They stayed in the race up until the 161st game of the season. They played meaningful September baseball, including a four game set against the Cubs two weeks ago that had the feel and atmosphere of an NLDS.

They delighted fans, selling over 2.5 million tickets (10th overall and 1st in per capita tickets sold). They played more close games than any other team in the Majors, by a long shot, going 24-22 in one run games and 16-20 in two runs games. Despite finishing the season without a single player hitting over .280, they managed to win 86 games, 17 more than I originally predicted. How in the world did that happen? Two reasons.

The first is obvious: pitching. Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74 ERA) and Jimmy Nelson (12-6, 3.49 ERA) became two of the top pitchers in the game. Zach Davies rode an incredible streak of run support to a 17-win season, but pitched particularly well during the second half of the year and finished with a 3.90 ERA. Had both Anderson and Nelson not missed serious time due to injuries, you better believe the Brewers would be getting ready for the postseason. Nelson’s injury is particularly painful for Brewer’s fans, because he’s going to miss “a chunk” or time next season as well. If that weren’t the case, I’d put money on the Brewers having a top 5 starting rotation next year.

But it wasn’t just Brewers starters who carried this team. Shockingly, the Brewers organization and coaching staff found a way to turn one of the worst bullpens in the major leagues into the best in the NL over the second half of the season- an incredible turnaround. Bringing Swarzak to Milwaukee was only a piece to the puzzle. The arrival of top pitching prospect Josh Hader gave the Brewers the shutdown long reliever they so desperately needed. Jacob Barns and Jared Hughes were able to turn around lackluster first half performances and perform when needed, and All Star closer Corey Knebel was as good as any closer in the game all year round. When all was said and done, the Brewers bullpen finished 5th in the NL for team ERA, an incredible run considering the fact that they were asked to pitch for entire games when Nelson went down and the Brewers finally threw in the towel on Matt Garza (#theworst, and as of this afternoon #notaBrewer).

The pitching was outstanding, especially down the stretch, but nobody deserves more credit for this team’s success than third year manager Craig Counsell. You can’t truly quantify the impact a manager has on a team over the course of a season, but anyone who watched this team frequently understands the impact CC had on this entire team. This team was resilient, time and time again coming back after painfully close losses and winning the next games. Counsell’s ability to navigate the bullpen over the last three weeks was nothing short of incredible. He made mistakes, no doubt, but for every mistake he was scrutinized for, he made two great calls that he got no credit for. The chemistry of this team was obvious. It was clear that this team enjoyed playing with one another; you could hear it in their post-game interviews and you could see it in the way they celebrated every single home run. This was a club that stayed together through the very end, so much so that free-agents-to-be Eric Sogard, Anthony Swarzak, and Neil Walker all commented that they’d love to end up back in Milwaukee next year – although that loyalty will be quickly tested when they’re presented with the reality of the payroll for the smallest market team in all of baseball. If the Brewers had made the postseason, Counsell would have easily been a candidate for manager of the year.

Considering how low the bar was set for this team, and how they just shattered even the most optimistic of expectations set by fans, it’s hard for me to mourn the fact that they fell just short of a Wild Card berth. While we could sit here and dissect every single loss the Brewers had, we’d be ignoring all of the magical moments they created in route to going 10 games above .500 and finishing 2nd in the NL Central. So while I’m genuinely sad that it’s over, I can’t tell you how excited I am for the direction that this team is headed. We’ve finally got a young core of talented players to rally around. Domingo Santana and Orlando Arcia took huge steps forward this year. The trade that brought Travis Shaw to Milwaukee may be one of the defining moves of David Stearn’s young career. My new favorite player Brett Phillips appears to be ready for the big stage, and Josh Hader became so valuable so quickly that they may need to explore keeping him in a long relief role next year as opposed to moving him to the starting rotation. The majority of this team will be back next year, and there’s still a solid core of prospects waiting in the AAA and AA ranks. There’s going to be some serious competition for playing time next Spring. There’s also a very real chance that David Stearns leverages some of the breakout success this team had to make moves this offseason to improve this team’s biggest downfall; their lack of contact hitters. The Crew finished the season with the lowest payroll in baseball- Mark Attanasio could improve this team drastically this winter by whipping out his checkbook and signing a top free agent or two.

The possibilities for this team are endless. That said, I’m a perpetual optimist when it comes to the Brewers, blind to the fact that this year, while exciting, could have actually set the rebuilding process backwards.  I simply refuse to accept that. We’ve got a young core of talented players that hopefully got enough of a taste of September baseball to keep them hungry for more this offseason. While many believed this year was supposed to be the official “bottoming out” of the rebuild (my words), it instead could turn out to be the precursor to a string of playoff appearances for an organization that has only once been able to piece together two of them in a row.

It’s been a fun run, everyone, and I appreciate those who take the time to read my weekly ramblings. I’ll conclude the fourth season of the Sunday Cycle with two items. First, a thank you to my fiance, who got her first taste of what it’s like to deal with me during a playoff run (we met right after 2012). Second, a final glass-half-full outlook on this organization, who unlike last year, have given me a reason to truly believe that next year could actually be “Our Year”.

Enjoy the winter, everyone. We’ll see you next Spring, pending my annual contract renegotiation.

Oh man, who knew the Packers were 3-1?

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