In the modern realm of Major League Baseball, franchise effort and championship aspirations are all relative. And within this environment where pleasing your fans often takes a backseat to process fetishization, just six teams have qualified for the playoffs each of the last three seasons.
You can probably guess most of them: The big-bucks and title-hungry Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, for sure, along with the Houston Astros, as they ride out the wave of collected talent from an innovative and occasionally nefarious regime. The upper-middle-class Atlanta Braves are in this group, as are the Oakland Athletics, who still employ Billy Beane, David Forst and Bob Melvin, who go a long way toward covering for an invisible and seemingly disinterested ownership group.
As for No. 6? Well, say hello to the Milwaukee Brewers, who have mastered the art of the late-winter surprise.
It comes not in the form of a March snowstorm but rather a patient and relatively stealth acquisition of a difference-making talent. Thursday, they added their 2021 model, Gold Glove-winning outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who per multiple reports has agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal.
When Bradley joins the Brewers, they will employ three All-Stars, three Gold Glovers and one MVP in an outfield that, from left to right, will go Christian Yelich-Lorenzo Cain-Bradley.
Cain, manager Craig Counsell passionately affirmed Thursday, will remain his center fielder, even as he approaches age 35 and aims to get his wheels back to elite status after opting out of most of the 2020 season. That will make Bradley, who turns 31 in April, a shutdown right fielder who’s inconsistent with the bat, a seeming luxury on a middle-market team disproportionately hit by the loss of gate revenue in a fanless 2020.
FANTASY BASEBALL RANKINGS: Who’s No. 1 for 2021?
2021: Rookies poised to make an impact this season
Yet the Brewers’ recent track record suggests the formation of this team is extremely well-considered, a process that can’t commence until ownership shows it cares about winning.
And while Mark Attanasio won’t soon be confused with any wild-eyed hedge fund bros who spend cramoney on their team, he has shown he cares about the product.
Even if it takes a while for pieces to fall into place.
“This starts with our owner,” Counsell said Thursday. “I think his commitment to winning has pushed all of us to just find every possible way to do that. One of the ways – sometimes patience is what’s helped us, a little bit.
“When you’re patient, you’re opportunistic. That’s what we’ve been able to do – kind of wait for that right opportunity and believe it’s going to come.”
It goes back to Jan. 25, 2018, when in a lightning-strike pair of moves, the club plucked Cain off a grim free agent market and signed him to a five-year, $80 million deal – while also acquiring Yelich in a blockbuster from the Miami Marlins.
In January 2019, catcher Yasmani Grandal was mysteriously frozen out of the market, so the Brewers grabbed him on a one-year, $16 million deal that Grandal parlayed into a $73 million pact with the White Sox the next winter.
A year later, the January signing of Jedd Gyorko caused nary a ripple, yet he turned out to be the Brewers’ most valuable position player based on WAR in the 60-game pandemic season that saw Cain opt out and Yelich struggle throughout.
And through it all, October baseball has been a constant.
You could surmise that the Brewers are backsliding – they fell one game short of the World Series in 2018, got scorched by Juan Soto late in the 2019 NL wild-card game and then squeaked in to the expanded playoffs, only to go two-and-out against the Dodgers.
Yet GM David Stearns and his staff also possess an uncanny ability to sense exactly what their clubs need, and how vulnerable their opponents are, and react accordingly.
This winter, they jumped when the division champ Cardinals declined a $12 million option on second baseman Kolten Wong, guaranteeing him $18 million over two years.
Wong is the reigning three-time winner of the Fielding Bible award at second base, and a two-time Gold Glover. Bradley’s agreement with the club – which has not yet been announced – makes clear how this club with a projected payroll around $110 million figures it can win this year.
“There’s scoring runs and preventing runs,” says Counsell, “and we’re going to try to be really good at preventing runs this year. It needs to be a strength of ours this year for us to be successful. We value defensive players. We think they add wins to your team. And we also value where we can get the best players to our team.
“And this year, we had an opportunity to get some very good defensive players to our team. There’s no question that this winter, we attacked trying to prevent runs with defense.”
While the Cardinals remain the division favorite – and, you know, added Nolan Arenado to their mix – the Brewers will prove to be a very tough out in a division that should be balanced above the dreadful Pirates.
We don’t know if they can shut down the Cardinals, or whether they can snag a wild card out of a forest that includes the Dodgers-Padres runner-up and any number of loaded candidates in the NL East.
We do know that they will try – and that it’s probably unwise to bet against them.