Who wins the NL Central? Brewers owner rebuffs critics that say they can't repeat division

PHOENIX − Just one day after Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts called his team the favorites to win the NL Central this season, Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio had his own thoughts.

He begged to differ.

“You know, I hesitate to say this,’’ Attanasio said Tuesday morning, “but there was a team that was widely picked to win last year that finished 21 games behind us. And we finished nine games ahead of the Cubs last year.’’

He was referring to the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals, who finished last with a 71-91 record while the Cubs went 83-79. The Brewers? They ran away with the NL Central with a 92-70 record, their fifth postseason berth in six years.

“So, I appreciate the friendly competition,’’ Attanasio said, “and we're just going to focus on what we need to do game-by-game.’’

Really, there should be no clear-cut favorite this year with no one projected to win more than 85 games, and the Pittsburgh Pirates the lone team no one has predicted to win the NL Central.

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“Look, I think the division is clearly better this year,’’ said Attanasio, who is beginning his 20th year as Brewers’ owner. “We talk about our young players, the Cubs have a ton of great young players. And the Cardinals are always good. They ran into some bad luck last year, among other things. The Reds have maybe the most exciting young players on the field of anyone, including us at this point, and the Pirates have gotten better.

“So, I think it'll be a fun division this year because it'll be more competitive division this year. …I think competition is good for baseball and even for the playoff format, with the teams that have the runaway trains in their division, there's ways you can get into the playoffs. And that's good for baseball.’’

Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich hopes to lead the club to the postseason once again this season.
Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich hopes to lead the club to the postseason once again this season.

The Brewers, who reside in the smallest market in baseball, have been good the past seven years. This is a team that has won 573 games since 2017, third-most in the National League behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta. They’ve won at least 86 games in every full season since 2017, accomplished only by the Dodgers and Houston Astros.

Yet, they have never won the World Series, and haven’t won the pennant since 1982.

“I hate to lose,’’ Attanasio said, “I really hate to lose ...

“I never imagined how hard this would be. But I made a commitment to always being competitive. And that's hard to do when sort of paradigm is to go all in to win and then rebuild. I never really wanted to rebuild. …

“Everybody uses a euphemism to say that they're not trying. I always want to try so I don't want to use these euphemisms. And the problem is you don't know that you're going to win. Just because you take a step back doesn't mean you're going to take two steps forward. So we're always trying to move forward.’’

They have every intention of contending again this season, even though they’re entering the season without co-aces Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, while esteemed manager Craig Counsell departed to join their arch-rival Cubs.

“We’ve had a significant winning tradition where the last eight years we’re one of the best three teams in the National League,’’ Attanasio said, “and since I bought the club in 20005, we’re one of the four-best that gets disregarded in the national media.

“We have an expectation to win this year and we will have a lot of young players who will have their first real opportunity to shine in the major leagues, and we’ll see who seizes that opportunity.’’

They could have a rookie at third base, second base and two outfield spots, led by 19-year-old Jackson Chourio, who signed an eight-year, $82 million contract without setting foot in the big leagues. The Brewers have the second-ranked farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America.

“There are a lot of guys in that clubhouse who have significant ceiling and who we think will be big contributors to us,’’ Attanasio said, maybe even this year. Certainly in the next two or three years. …

“We don't get to hang a banner in the outfield for having the No. 2 farm system in baseball, but we do get to do is hang banners for winning. In my tenure, we have seven now for playoff appearances, division championships and whatnot. We don’t have the real one we want, which is a World Series championship, but we’ve been knocking on the door.’’

For the Brewers to win their first title, they’ll need to rely on their farm system. They’re not ever going to be among the top five payrolls in baseball. They’re not going out-bid everyone for free-agent talent. They even have to make some difficult decisions, like trading away Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles, just a week after acquiring slugger Rhys Hoskins on a two-year, $34 million contract.

The Brewers could have kept Burnes, along with Hoskins, Attanasio said, but felt the return for Burnes was too good to pass up since he was eligible for free agency after the season. They received shortstop Joey Ortiz, left-handed pitcher DL Hall and a 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick.

The move, of course, was certainly detested in Milwaukee. You don’t trade a former Cy Young winner and expect to be better. They did re-sign Woodruff after non-tendering him, but he’s recovering from shoulder surgery and won’t be ready until 2025.

But Attanasio didn’t purchase the team to win any popularity contests. He can remember back to 2005 when they traded first baseman Lyle Overbay to the Toronto Blue Jays, and his own family stopped speaking to him.

His own son, Michael, pronounced: "I'm done with the Brewers."

The sentiment was echoed by his son, Dan, and his wife, Debbie, merely stared at Attanasio, and stormed out of the kitchen.

“I’m telling you sure the next day, and I remember it being longer,’’ Attanasio said, “nobody spoke to me in my family.’’

Who was Overbay’s replacement?

Prince Fielder, who just happened to hit 230 homers with three top-5 MVP finishes in his six years with the Brewers.

So, yes, sometimes the most unpopular moves can turn out to be strokes of genius.

Time will tell, but the Brewers believe they will be a contender again this year, just like every year.

The names may change, but the message is the same.

They’re here to win.

“We think we’re going to be good,’’ Attanasio said, “maybe really good.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brewers owner rebuffs critics, believes they can win NL Central again