Around this time last year, the Brewers found themselves in an unfamiliar position: on the outside looking in on the eve of a postseason game. Milwaukee has been a playoff team in each of the past four years, and was just a short walk away from reaching the World Series in 2018.
But in 2023, the Brewers are back in the championship. And with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, from top to bottom, they are looking to make a deep run this October.
Milwaukee’s opponent in the best-of-three National League Wild Card Series, which will take place at American Family Field starting Tuesday at 7:08 PM ET on ESPN2, is no easy feat. The D-backs are in the postseason for the first time since 2017, and with a young and exciting core, Arizona is looking to pull a big upset the way they did early in the regular season.
So, which team has the advantage at each position on the diamond, and which team will advance to the NL Division Series against the Dodgers? Here is the detail:
The Brewers didn’t get much offensive production from the catcher position in 2022, so they traded for All-Star William Contreras from the Braves in hopes that he would represent a significant upgrade. He did not disappoint, hitting .291/.369/.459 with 17 homers. Defensively, Contreras has improved significantly behind the plate.
The D-backs made a major trade last offseason in order to acquire some attractive depth, sending Daulton Varsho to Toronto in exchange for top prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Moreno had a strong rookie campaign, particularly defensively, as he led all MLB players in defensive hits saved and… Theft arrests are above averageHe expelled half of the contestants who tried to steal against him (16 out of 32). Offensively, he held his own, hitting .284/.339/.408 with seven homers in 111 games.
This is close, but we’ll give the nod to the more experienced backstop with more pop at the plate.
The D-backs’ Christian Walker continues to quietly put up big numbers at the plate while maintaining his status as one of the best defensive baserunners in the game. The 32-year-old belted 33 homers with a career-high 103 RBIs and .830 OPS during the regular season while leading all first basemen in Above average generalities.
After a big year for Milwaukee in 2022, when he released a career-best 35 homers, Rudy Tellez has taken a step back this season. Limited to 106 games due to injury, he produced a .215/.291/.376 slash line with 13 homers. He really struggled in September, hitting .189 with one extra base hit and 13 strikeouts in 41 games.
While Tellez was injured, the Brewers acquired veteran Carlos Santana from the Pirates. Santana has proven to be a solid addition, hitting 11 homers in 53 games.
Brice Turang had a solid defensive season at second base in his rookie campaign with the Brewers. But offensively, he’s a lighter hitter who has a .585 OPS in 137 games.
Arizona’s Ketel Marte is more of an average defender at the second position, but he is one of the best offensive players at the position. He hit 25 homers and posted an .844 OPS for D-backs in his age-29 season this year, and he certainly offers the superior value here.
The D-backs saw their 23-year-old make big strides this season, as he was named an All-Star for the first time. Geraldo Perdomo had a .787 OPS at the All-Star break, but regressed in the second half to hit a .214/.322/.297 slash line. However, there is still reason to be optimistic about his future.
When Willie Adams was 23 years old, he was in his first full major league season, pitching for the Rays. Five years later, he established himself as a solid all-around player with the Brewers. In 2022, he hit a career-high with 31 homers and a .756 OPS. His performance in ’23 at the plate wasn’t as impressive, but he still hit 24 homers and drove in 80 runs. He’s also gotten some postseason experience, and this is his fourth trip to the playoffs.
Seeking a late-season upgrade at hot corner, the Brewers rolled the dice on veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson, who was released by the Yankees on August 29. The 37-year-old has been sidelined with a strain in his right calf and right leg. Production at the plate was paltry with New York.
Donaldson got off to a relatively strong start with his new club when he came off the injured list, beating three home opponents during his first nine matches. But since then, he’s gone 2-for-19 with a pair of doubles.
The D-backs haven’t gotten much production from third base either, but they are younger and more reliable at the position with Emmanuel Rivera. The 27-year-old has also been limited due to injury this year and his offensive play was lackluster during the regular season, but he was solid defensively.
Entering the 2023 season, there is still a legitimate question as to whether Christian Yelich will recapture something resembling his form from 2018-19. He was the best hitter in the National League in that span, winning the Most Valuable Player Award in ’18 and finishing second in the 2019. But Yelich put together his best offensive campaign since then, posting an .816 OPS with 19 homers and 27 steals this year.
Meanwhile, the D-backs got solid production from left field thanks to newly acquired Gurriel and later, Tommy Pham, whom they acquired before the trade deadline from the Mets. Splitting time between left field and designated hitter – Gurriel finished with a .772 OPS and 24 at-bats, and Pham had a solid year overall, posting a .774 OPS with 16 at-bats between New York and Arizona.
Between superior offensive production and more postseason experience — Yelich has played in nearly as many playoff games (16) as Gurriel and Pham combined (17) — the nod goes to the former MVP here.
Arizona’s Alec Thomas is a very good defensive center fielder with great closing speed, but his bat leaves a lot to be desired — he’s hitting .230 with a .647 OPS in 126 games.
On the other hand, rookie Garrett Mitchell didn’t get much of a chance to show what he can do thanks to a shoulder injury that required surgery three weeks into the season. He overcame the odds to return before the end of the regular season, returning last Thursday against the Cardinals.
It’s uncertain if Mitchell has made the postseason roster and what his role will be, but given his impressive play when he’s been in the field — he made the Opening Day roster and homered three times in Milwaukee’s home-opening series against the Mets — he could be Difference maker.
If Mitchell is not the starter, another rookie, Sal Frelick, could patrol center field in the Wild Card Series. Frelick has been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball since making his MLB debut in late July, though much of his time has been spent in right field.
Right in the field
Other than Yelich, there’s not much joy when it comes to Milwaukee’s players. Whether it’s Frelick, Tyrone Taylor, or Blake Perkins in right field, they can’t compete against right fielders in this department.
That’s because Arizona boasts a right-hander who is likely the NL Rookie of the Year after becoming the first rookie in AL/NL history to hit 25 or more homers (25) and steal 50 or more bases (54) in the same season.
Carroll even had some people whispering “MVP candidate” during the first half of the season, when Carroll was leading the league in several offensive categories. The D-back has a definite advantage here.
As noted above, the D-backs primarily used Gurriel and Pham at that spot during the second half of the season, and more recently, they’ve been using the latter. Although their overall performance was strong, we will continue to work here.
Since being traded to Milwaukee by the Mets on July 31, Mark Cana has been a blessing to his new club, especially during the final month of the regular season. He hit .301/.387/.452 in September to help push the Brewers to the finish line and the NL Central crown.
Here begins the real separation between these clubs. The D-backs certainly have two starters on the front lines who are among the best in baseball. Zac Gallen and Meryl Kelly have been great, and are a big reason why Arizona is in the playoffs for the first time in six years.
But the Brewers are better than almost any team in the majors. Former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burns, along with Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, will be tough to beat in a best-of-three series. And since Milwaukee clinched the NL Central with some time to spare, the Brewers were able to string together those three for the opening round of the postseason.
The D-backs likely won’t have Jalen and Kelly until the second, and if necessary, the third game, respectively.
If there’s a gap between the Brewers and the D-backs in starting pitching, there’s a gap between the clubs if we’re talking bullpen. Milwaukee’s relief corps finished with a second-ranked 3.40 ERA during the regular season, while Arizona’s relievers combined for an 18th-ranked 4.22.
If the D-backs find themselves trailing, the lights could go out, especially when they see Brewers closer Devin Williams coming out of the bullpen. Williams seamlessly filled in for Josh Hader when the latter was traded to the Padres last year, posting a 1.53 ERA with 36 saves, striking out 38 percent of the batters he faced.
Arizona traded for Paul Seewald from Seattle to be their closer before the trade deadline, but he struggled during his first month as a D-back. He had a 4.66 ERA in August before righting the ship to a 2.25 ERA in September.
It would be convenient for the D-back to score early, because postseason contests against the Brewers could quickly come up short when Milwaukee takes the lead.
The big break here is the swing from top to bottom. With the Brewers able to field their own big three and the D-backs not having the luxury of sending Gallen or Kelly out there for the first game, that could be a huge advantage for Milwaukee. And when the shadows of October lengthened as games entered the later innings, the Brewers’ bullpen prevailed. The D-backs will show some fight, but they will have their hands full.
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