Brewers’ rebuild ahead of schedule after promising season

MILWAUKEE — So much for rebuilding.

The Milwaukee Brewers shattered preseason expectations by staying in the playoff chase until the last weekend of the season.

So much went right at Miller Park in 2017, which was initially thought to be the second full season of a rebuilding project under general manager David Stearns. Promising young players like Domingo Santana and Zach Davies emerged into major contributors. Offseason acquisitions Travis Shaw and Eric Thames provided left-handed power . Corey Knebel turned into an All-Star closer.

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Milwaukee finished 86-76, a 13-game improvement from 2016, in spite of a subpar season for outfielder Ryan Braun. Manager Craig Counsell’s club finished six games behind the NL Central-winning Chicago Cubs in second place.

“At this point, we fell short,” Counsell said after the season-ending 6-1 win over the Cardinals in St. Louis. “But it doesn’t take away from that this was a good season because this was a good season.”

The rebuilding project is far from done, but the Brewers returned to relevance just two years removed from a 68-win season.

Other notes on 2017 and a lookahead to the offseason:

PATIENCE VS. GOING FOR IT

Milwaukee led the division at the All-Star break. They were about three games back around the trade deadlines, close enough that owner Mark Attanasio said he was tempted to add more difference-makers. Stearns did deal for setup man Anthony Swarzak and second baseman Neil Walker , who become important pieces down the stretch. But Milwaukee didn’t have to give up their best prospects.

“I had to balance putting pressure on David from a competitive standpoint, because I want to keep competing,” Attanasio said recently. “I wanted to be more measured and so I let David and his group make the decisions. … Now, in hindsight, it feels pretty good that all of our top prospects are still with us.”

NEW CORE

Before the season, few fans outside of Milwaukee might have been able to name anyone on the team outside of Braun, a six-time All-Star and 2011 NL MVP. That is no longer the case. Slick-fielding shortstop Orlando Arcia looks like a future All-Star after hitting .277 with 15 homers in his first full season in the majors. Shaw provided a steady presence in the clubhouse and drove in 101 runs. Thames was one of three Brewers to hit at least 30 home runs along with Shaw and Santana.

BRAUN

The right-handed slugger hit .268 with 17 homers and 52 RBIs after being limited to 104 games with calf and wrist injuries. Braun, who turns 34 in November, is due to make $20 million again next year. He’s under contract for two more seasons after that plus an option year in 2021. Braun could still be the subject of trade rumors, but there is a blueprint for the future for whenever he moves on.

FOR STARTERS

Milwaukee finished fifth in the National League with a 4.00 ERA with what started as a relatively anonymous pitching staff. The 24 year-old Davies led the team with 17 wins, and Nelson (12-6, 3.49 ERA) was throwing like an ace before suffering a right shoulder injury while diving back to first as a runner in early September. Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74 ERA) also stepped up.

Nelson likely won’t be ready for the start of the 2018 season after having surgery to repair his partially torn labrum. He said he thought his arm would be in a sling for a few weeks, followed by five or six months of rehab before he could start a throwing program.

MORE ON WAY

Rookie Brett Phillips’ rocket arm and ability to cover a lot of ground appears to make him a lock to at least be part of a center-field platoon next year. Brandon Woodruff showed enough potential to warrant a shot at a permanent spot in the rotation. Outfielder Lewis Brinson, one of the top prospects in the minors, could be ready to be a regular contributor next year.