Credit: Ebony Cox/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
The 2022 Opening Day game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs will pit a team building a National League Central dynasty against one embarking upon another rebuilding project.
The title contender and the team projected to finish under .500 just aren’t the ones anyone could have envisioned when the Cubs looked like they were building an actual dynasty in 2016.
The Brewers will begin the pursuit of their fifth straight playoff berth and second consecutive NL Central championship Thursday afternoon, when they are slated to visit the Cubs.
Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes (11-5, 2.43 ERA in 2021) is slated to take the mound for the Brewers against Kyle Hendricks (14-7, 4.77 ERA in 2021) in a battle of right-handers.
The Brewers finished 95-67 and won the NL Central by five games over the St. Louis Cardinals last season before falling in four games to the eventual World Series champion Atlanta Braves in an NL Division Series. The Cubs faded after a fast start and finished in fourth place at 71-91 — their first losing season and lowest finish in the division since 2014.
With everyone else in the division except the Cardinals in some phase of rebuilding, the Brewers are an overwhelming favorite to extend their team-record streak of playoff appearances. But Milwaukee, which hasn’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since a seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2018 NL Championship Series, has bigger things in mind than just extending its postseason streak.
The Brewers retained their young core — including Burnes and fellow hard-throwing rotation mates Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff as well as three-time Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader and former MVP Christian Yelich — while adding veteran outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who hit 31 homers last season for the Boston Red Sox, as well as catcher Pedro Severino and another ex-NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen.
This October marks the 40th anniversary of the Brewers’ only trip to the World Series, a seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“This team knows what it’s like to go to the playoffs — the players talk about taking the next step,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said last month before invoking the name of perhaps the biggest franchise icon of all, beloved 88-year-old radio announcer Bob Uecker.
“That’s the mission. ‘Ueck’ has got one World Series ring. We tell him we want to get him a second one.”
Multiple World Series rings seemed likely when the Cubs finally snapped their 108-year championship drought in 2016. But the past five seasons have been an exercise in diminishing returns for Chicago, which made the playoffs in 2017, 2018 and 2020 but hasn’t won a round since a Division Series triumphed over the Washington Nationals in 2017.
Theo Epstein, who put together the title-winning team, exited as president of baseball operations following the 2020 season. The Cubs were alone in first place into mid-June last year but closed the book on an era by trading a trio of 2016 icons — Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — at the July 31 trade deadline.
The Cubs are hopeful this rebuild won’t be as arduous as the one overseen by Epstein, whose first three teams all finished with at least 89 losses. Chicago fortified its rotation by claiming Wade Miley off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds — Miley will open the season on the injured list due to left elbow inflammation — and signing Marcus Stroman to a three-year contract before inking Japanese slugger Seiya Suzuki to a five- year contract.
“We’re going to make moves to compete,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last month. “But certainly we’re not going to do things that are inconsistent with what we’ve done over the last 16 months.”
Burnes is 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA in 11 career games (five starts) against the Cubs. Hendricks is 10-7 with a 3.30 ERA in 27 career starts against the Brewers, whom he’s opposed more than any other club.
–Field Level Mean