MILWAUKEE — Like it or not, Craig Counsell is going to have to get used to people coming up to him to thank him or congratulate him as he goes about his life around town these days.
It’s a price he’s willing to pay as Milwaukee Brewers fans can’t help but express their gratitude for the team’s surprising run to the National League Central title and their postseason success that brought them to within one game of the World Series.
“Sometimes we have to take a step back and realize why are we sitting up here,” said Counsell, wrapping up a news conference along with general manager David Stearns on Tuesday to discuss the recently ended season and look ahead to 2019. “We’re entertaining people. That’s ultimately what we’re doing. We’re a vehicle for entertainment for people.
“So if the result of this is that the community is talking to each other and people that don’t know each other are sitting down and talking Brewers and strangers are high-fiving, then, man, that’s what it’s all about. We’re doing a good thing.
“That is the rewarding part of it. The recognition I can do without, personally. It’s not my favorite thing. But in Wisconsin it’s always done in such a genuine, thankful way that I really don’t mind it.”
And while they’re still working through some of the lingering pain from being eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS on Saturday, Counsell, Stearns and the rest of the Brewers brain trust already are looking ahead to trying again next season.
And if that season begins with a higher level of expectation, so much the better.
“We might’ve had stronger expectations internally than people around us had, but I think we had very strong expectations internally,” Counsell said. “You work hard to gain that word around you. And we have worked hard to get the word ‘expectations’ to be part of your questions at this time of year. That’s what we want.”
Fueling the anticipation of another pennant run by the Brewers next season is the combination of the return of most of the team’s position players and the growth of several young pitchers who could step into bigger roles.
“We genuinely believe that we are set up to succeed going forward,” Stearns said. “We return the vast majority of the core of this team and we return that core for multiple years going forward. We saw a number of players take steps forward in their development this year. Those are players that performed on a big stage in October and have the ability to continue performing as Brewers in the future.”
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Much of the discussion swirling around the Brewers during the postseason was Counsell’s nontraditional use of his bullpen, with the de-emphasis of starting pitchers.
That could change next year with young right-handers Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta all positioned to challenge for spots in the rotation.
“Those three guys are pitchers who we believe have the ability to be impact pitchers at the major league level,” said Stearns, confirming that the plan is to return Burnes to a starting role. “To some extent they’ve already showed that and they certainly showed it in September and October. We’ve expected those guys to be a big part of our future in one capacity or another.”
The Brewers also are optimistic that Jimmy Nelson will return next year after missing the entire season because of a shoulder injury suffered late in the 2017 season. Nelson is expected to go through a normal offseason routine and his situation will be determined by how he progresses in spring training.
“The first thing with Jimmy is making sure he’s healthy,” Stearns said. “We know that when Jimmy is right he’s one of the best pitchers in the league.”
Stearns said that right-hander Chase Anderson, the Opening Day starter, is expected to compete for a spot in the rotation after being left off the postseason roster.
Left-handers Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez are due to become free agents following the World Series, along with backup outfielder Curtis Granderson.
The biggest uncertainty among the everyday players is third baseman Mike Moustakas, who has a mutual option that would pay him $15 million next season if both sides agree. Stearns didn’t shed any light on the prospects of that happening but made clear he appreciated his contributions after joining the team in a July trade from Kansas City.
“I think Moose provided our team what we were looking for when we acquired him,” Stearns said. “There’s a reason why he has the reputation he has as a big-game player and we were happy to have him.”
Stearns said that first baseman Eric Thames, who lost his job to Jesus Aguilar, could compete for “meaningful playing time” and expressed confidence that second baseman Jonathan Schoop is much better than he showed in limited playing time after being acquired from Baltimore in August.
And while he doesn’t anticipate doing anything as dramatic as his acquisitions of outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain last offseason, Stearns does expect some changes.
“There are going to be opportunities to improve our team in the offseason and we’re going to work hard to take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “I certainly imagine we will show up in spring training with a slightly different looking roster than the one we have right now, and perhaps in ways that we don’t envision.”