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Did the Brewers just pass the Cardinals?

After trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain, are the Cardinals now the third-best team in the NL Central?

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Rob Foldy/Miami Marlins via Getty Images

In a pretty big surprise, the Milwaukee Brewers accelerated their rebuild a bit and won 86 games last season. They appear unwilling to lose any of the momentum they got last season with a down year in 2018, and have made franchise-changing moves bringing in former Cardinals target Christian Yelich and free agent Lorenzo Cain. They probably aren’t done given that they have at multiple extra outfielders, but at the moment, let’s answer the question posed in this post’s title: Did the Brewers just pass the Cardinals?

The answer is no.

There’s probably an inclination by some to look at the Brewers, see an 86 win team from last year add two players expected to be worth about 7 wins in 2018 and see the Brewers as a 90+ win team, which is certainly better than the Cardinals right now. That inclination has some very poor logic.

The Brewers did win 86 games last season, though they had a little bit of luck, and their talent level produced closer to an 84-win team. Two games isn’t a big deal, but it is something. On that team, Jimmy Nelson, was a five-win pitcher, but he got injured at the end of last season and will miss a good portion of the season. Domingo Santana was worth more than three wins, about what Lorenzo Cain is expected to produce, and he is now either on the bench or going to be traded elsewhere.

To sort things out and provide reasonable expectations for the coming season, we can go to the projections. We did a similar exercise with the Cubs recently, so let’s do the same with the Brewers. With the Cubs, we looked at FanGraphs Depth Charts which are currently based on Steamer projections. Those Depth Charts have been updated to include both the Yelich trade and the Cain signing.

Even with the trades, the projections show a massive talent deficit for the Brewers in their attempt to catch the Cardinals, a 12.5-win gap. These projections still put the Brewers on the same level as the Phillies, Pirates, and Rangers. Before last night, the projections didn’t see the Brewers having a single position player or starting pitcher as above-average next season. That’s probably a pretty pessimistic view of the Brewers, but it is one projection.

As an alternative, let’s see what ZiPS has to say. Both the Cardinals and Brewers have had their projections published at FanGraphs, and while they haven’t been put into the Depth Chart Projections, we can take a head to head look here. To make sure I don’t get karate-chopped by ZiPS creator Dan Szymorski, I have pro-rated all playing time from ZiPS projections to match up with what is in the Depth Charts.

Let’s start with position-players going from most valuable to least for the eight starters.

Cardinals Brewers Difference
Tommy Pham-3.8 Christian Yelich-4.1 Brewers +.3
Jedd Gyorko-3.6 Lorenzo Cain-3.4 Cardinals +.2
Marcell Ozuna-3.5 Travis Shaw-2.9 Cardinals +.6
Matt Carpenter-3.3 Ryan Braun-2.4 Cardinals +0.9
Yadier Molina-2.8 Eric Thames-1.7 Cardinals +1.1
Kolten Wong-2.8 Vogt/Pina-1.6 Cardinals +1.2
Dexter Fowler-2.5 Orlando Arcia-1.4 Cardinals +1.1
Paul DeJong-2.2 Jonathan Villar-1.0 Cardinals +1.2
Rest-2.7 Rest-3.0 Brewers +0.3
Total-27.2 Total-21.5 Cardinals +5.7

ZiPS is higher on Tommy Pham than Marcell Ozuna and in somewhat of a surprise, it likes Jedd Gyorko on a rate basis as well. These differences are very small, but it is pretty encouraging to see Gyorko project so well. We see Yelich as the best-projected position player on both teams. After that, it is the Cardinal the whole way down with the gaps getting better as we go down the chart. The Cardinals are projected to be above-average everywhere while the Brewers are below that at half the positions and well below in the middle infield. Domingo Santana helps provide good bench numbers for the Brewers, but his best value might lie in getting a starting pitcher.

Here’s how the rotations stack up:

Cardinals Brewers Difference
Carlos Martinez-4.5 Zach Davies-3.2 Cardinals +1.3
Michael Wacha-2.3 Chase Anderson-2.4 Brewers +0.1
Luke Weaver-2.3 Brandon Woodruff-2.4 Brewers +0.1
Adam Wainwright-1.8 Brent Suter-1.7 Cardinals +0.1
Miles Mikolas-1.6 Jhoulys Chacin-1.1 Cardinals +0.5
The Rest-2.4 The Rest-2.2 Cardinals +0.2
Total-14.9 Total-13.0 Cardinals +1.9

If Jimmy Nelson were healthy or the Brewers signed Yu Darvish, these teams would be very close. Without a healthy Nelson or another rotation addition, the Cardinals have a huge edge at the top of the rotation as the teams are pretty even elsewhere. The Brewers depth at the bottom is mostly in the form Nelson’s partial season.

Here’s how the bullpens look.

Cardinals Brewers Difference
Brett Cecil-1.2 Corey Knebel-2.2 Brewers +1.0
Dominic Leone-1.0 Jacob Barnes-1.2 Brewers +0.2
Luke Gregerson-1.0 Jeremy Jeffress-.9 Cardinals +0.1
Tyler Lyons-.7 Josh Hader-.8 Brewers +0.1
Matt Bowman-.6 Oliver Drake-.6 Even
Sam Tuivailala-.5 Tyler Webb-.3 Cardinals +0.2
John Brebbia-.4 Boone Logan-.1 Cardinals +0.3
Ryan Sherriff-.2 Taylor Williams-.1 Cardinals +0.1
Total-5.6 Total-6.2 Brewers +0.6

The Brewers have the pretty clear edge here due to Corey Knebel. The Brewers are likely to have one of the better bullpens in baseball next year, though it doesn’t look like the Cardinals are that far behind. They have a number of relievers that ZiPS likes, and the trade of Leone helps to firm things up.

I preferred Yelich to Ozuna at the beginning of the offseason due to his youth and contract, and the projections seem to agree, even just for 2018. The Brewers adding Yelich might feel like a bit of a gut-punch as he was a Cardinals target at one point, but even adding Yelich and Cain doesn’t mean the Brewers have passed the Cardinals for this season, no matter what last season’s standings might have you thinking.

The Cardinals have significantly better position players, a better and deeper rotation, and a bullpen that isn’t too far off from what should be one of the league’s best. I know I am repeating myself here, but I do think the Cardinals should make one more big move to get even with the Cubs, but they are still a decent ways ahead of the Brewers as of today.