By JAY COHEN AP Sports writer
Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers think the best way to duplicate their success from last season is to forget it happened altogether.
Milwaukee won the NL Central last year for the first time since 2011 and made it all the way to the NL Championship Series before losing to the more experienced Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. Yelich earned his first NL MVP award after nearly winning the Triple Crown, and Josh Hader and Jesus Aguilar each had a breakout performance.
Barreling toward a season with considerable expectations, Yelich and Co. have little interest in revisiting the past.
“I think our message is nothing that happened last year means anything going into this year,” Yelich said. “It’s a new year. It’s a new team. We got the same goal, but you can’t think just because you did it last year it’s just going to happen all over again. You’ve got to have that drive and the hunger to get back to that point.”
Milwaukee has never won the World Series. Only once before have the Brewers even made consecutive playoff appearances, back when they won the AL East in 1981 and 1982.
They are well-positioned to enjoy more success this year.
Yelich, Aguilar and Lorenzo Cain lead a versatile offense that bashed 218 homers last season, second in the NL to the Dodgers, and swiped 124 bases, tops in the league. Hader is back after setting a major league record for a left-handed reliever with 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings. The rotation is a work in progress, but there are lots of viable options for manager Craig Counsell.
The Brewers are going to need all of them, and more. The NL Central is much improved since Milwaukee beat the Chicago Cubs in a tiebreaker game for the division title.
“It’s the only division in baseball where every team’s trying to win,” Yelich said. “So yeah, it’s going to be a tough division. I think we understand that and I bet you it’s decided by a game or two just like it was last year. So we know every game counts.”
Milwaukee hosts NL Central-rival St. Louis on opening day on March 28.
WHO’S ON SECOND
Mike Moustakas re-signed with the Brewers last month, agreeing to a $10 million, one-year contract. He came over in a July trade with Kansas City and provided a steady presence at third base during Milwaukee’s playoff run. But the Brewers plan to play him at second even though he has never played the position in a major league game. Travis Shaw is the starter at third for now after he hit a career-high 32 homers for Milwaukee last year.
While Manny Pina and Erik Kratz were an effective duo in the playoffs last October, Milwaukee upgraded its catching situation when it signed Yasmani Grandal to an $18.25 million, one-year contract in January. Grandal batted .241 with 24 homers and 68 RBIs in a career-best 140 games last year with the Dodgers. He has hit at least 20 homers in each of the past three seasons. The addition of the 30-year-old switch hitter makes Milwaukee’s lineup even more dangerous.
Ryan Braun made some changes to his swing after he hit .254 with 20 homers and 64 RBIs in 125 games last season. The 35-year-old Braun isn’t the player he once was, but the 2011 NL MVP remains a key figure for the Brewers.
Jeremy Jeffress made the All-Star team for the first time in 2018, teaming with Hader and Corey Knebel to form a dominant trio at the back end of the bullpen at the end of the season. But the 31-year-old Jeffress set career highs for appearances (73) and innings (76 2/3), and then was slowed by right shoulder weakness during spring training. Any sort of prolonged health issue for the dynamic Jeffress could affect the Brewers’ pitching plans.
The Brewers are hoping Orlando Arcia can carry over his strong finish into this season. The 24-year-old shortstop struggled for much of last year, and he had a big September and then hit .333 with three homers and four RBIs during Milwaukee’s run to the NLCS.