Brewers clinch NL Central: Why this could be core's last title chance before potential changes in Milwaukee

For the second time in three years and the third time in six years, the Milwaukee Brewers are NL Central champions. The Cubs’ loss against the Braves on Tuesday mathematically clinched the division for the Brewers. Milwaukee had already clinched a postseason berth Friday. Now they’re division champs. This is the sixth division title in franchise history, joining 1981, 1982, 2011, 2018, and 2021.

The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers have already clinched Wild Card Series byes, so the Brewers are locked into the No. 3 seed. They will host the third wild-card team in the Wild Card Series beginning Tuesday, Oct. 3. The race for the third wild-card spot may not be decided until the final day of the regular season.

For the first four months of the season, the NL Central race was hotly contested with the Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, and even the Pittsburgh Pirates taking turns sitting in first place. The Brewers moved into first place for good on Aug. 3 and they are 23-10 since Aug. 17, the best record in baseball. Now they’ll sit back and wait to learn their Wild Card Series opponent.

Run prevention has been a constant for the Brewers this year, even when injuries and underperformance did a number on the pitching staff. They average only 4.01 runs allowed per game, second fewest in baseball. The offense has been up and down and ranks 16th with 4.55 runs scored per game, though it’s been better of late, thanks in part to deadline addition Mark Canha.

The Brewers are about to enter a period of uncertainty and this may be the last chance for this group as we know it to win the World Series together. Consider all that awaits the Brewers in the new future. 

Stearns is already on his way out

David Stearns, who headed up Milwaukee’s baseball operations from September 2015 through 2022 before moving into an advisory role in 2023, recently agreed to join the New York Mets as their president of baseball operations, though the team has not announced it yet. He will remain with the Brewers through the end of the month, when his contract expires, then the Manhattan native will head home to New York.

The Brewers are in capable hands with GM Matt Arnold, who joined the Brewers not long after Stearns and served as one of his top lieutenants, though this is a changing of the guard in the front office. Stearns’ fingerprints are all over the roster, no doubt, but he is leaving in less than two weeks, and when he does, this will fully become Arnold’s team.

Counsell is in the final year of his contract

It’s hard to believe Craig Counsell has never won NL Manager of the Year. He has been runner-up three times (2018, 2019, 2021) and I’m not sure the stars are aligned to win the award this year. The Braves have been out-of-this-world good and the manager of whichever team gets the final wild-card spot will undoubtedly get a ton of support. It is what it is.

Anyway, Counsell is in the final year of his contract, and while the Brewers want him back, Counsell is not yet ready to commit to a new extension. He has hinted at wanting to spend more time with his family, and of course the speculation he will join Stearns with the Mets is inescapable. Here’s what Arnold and Counsell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently:

“I think Craig has earned the right to have discussions wherever he chooses,” Arnold said. “I hope that’s here with us. And we’ve had a lot of conversations, but at the same time I respect the heck out of whatever he ultimately wants to do because he’s got a young family. He may want to spend time with them. He may want to look elsewhere or continue working here. 

“I’m content with where we’re at,” Counsell said. “We’ll see what happens moving forward. And I have had conversations with (owner Mark Attanasio) about this. Mark and I have worked together for a long time. You know, I value that relationship a lot.”

Counsell is the franchise leader in games managed (1,325) and wins (703) and one of the top managers in the sport. He is one of the few managers who truly elevates his team, and if Counsell leaves after the season, no matter the reason, he will be difficult to replace. It will create a significant void in the club’s heirarchy. 

Core players are nearing free agency

The Brewers play in MLB’s smallest media market and they run payrolls well below the league average. Unless the club expands payroll significantly, the Brewers will look very different very soon. Several core players are approaching free agency:

  • After 2024: Willy Adames, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff
  • After 2025: Devin Williams

Milwaukee could run it back with this group next season, though the Brewers have been proactive in the past and traded away core players before losing them to free agency. Josh Hader is the best example. An Adames or Burnes trade this offseason would not be a surprise. The sun is starting to set on the group that has helped the Brewers to five postseason appearances in the last six years.

The Brewers will deal with these players and their free agencies when the time comes. Right now, the focus is on the postseason and winning the franchise’s first championship. The clock is ticking though. Stearns is on his way out the door, Counsell’s future is up in the air, and several important players are nearing free agency. This might be their last chance to win a title together.

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