Milwaukee Brewers Preview

It was a lost season for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. The year got off to a bad start on the field, then rotation ace Yovani Gallardo got a DWI, something that was akin to gathering storm clouds. Then the hammer dropped, when left fielder Ryan Braun, the face of the franchise and heart of the lineup, was suspended for PED use. Braun is back and both he and the team have a lot of repair work to do, both in the community and on the field. Our spring training review here at TheSportsNotebook continues with the Brewers’ Notebook Nine, the nine talking points for the coming year.

*Braun is naturally the focal point and skeptics—which include me—are wondering how he’ll perform now that he’s presumably going to have to be drug-free. His background playing college baseball at Miami—alma mater to Alex Rodriguez—lead me to conclude Braun’s entire career has been marred by PEDs. He’s set standards of consistently slugging well over .500, of hitting over 30 home runs and going over 100 RBIs. Can he do that again, or does he settle for being a pretty good 20 HR/85 RBI player?

*Milwaukee has some other players who can hit for power, so at least Braun doesn’t have to carry the load. Aramis Ramirez continues to be a productive third baseman at age 35. On the other side of the age spectrum, Khris Davis came up and got 136 at-bats, and popped 11 home runs. Carlos Gomez has hit 43 home runs over the last two seasons combined. Jonathan Lucroy has respectable power for a catcher. And the team signed Mark Reynolds to play first. Reynolds isn’t the best all-around player, but he’s good for 20-30 bombs.

*Gallardo’s off-field problems and on-field struggles weren’t as publicized last year, but they are almost as important as Braun’s The nominal staff ace, Gallardo is usually good for an ERA in the high 3s and over 200 innings worked. That’s somewhat sketchy for a #1 starter in the National League to begin with, and then Gallardo slipped just a bit last season. At minimum, he needs to turn around the negative pattern.

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*The rotation overall is very well balanced. Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada all have performance records similar to Gallardo. But the difference is that Garza and Lohse have each shown an ability to win big games at previous stops (Garza in Tampa Bay, Lohse in St. Louis). If you combine them with Estrada, and promising 24-year-old Wily Peralta, this rotation can make up for in depth what it lacks in a true ace.

*Milwaukee cut the cord with John Axford after the closer failed to rebound from his miserable 2012 season and then further struggled in setup roles after his demotion. Jim Henderson got the gig and the big power-throwing righthander did a nice job, closing 28/32 chances with a 2.70 ERA.

*The bridge between the rotation and Henderson isn’t very deep. Francisco Rodriguez has been consistent in the eighth-inning role, and if Brandon Kintzler has another good year, then all will be well. But you like to have a lot of options in relief, given the fickle nature of these spots and with Tom Gorzelanny still out with a shoulder injury, Milwaukee’s margin for error here is non-existent.

*There’s a lot of promise and at least a few question marks in the middle infield. Jean Segura, the prize of the Zack Greinke deal in July of 2012, got off to a blazing start at shortstop. Segura cooled after the All-Star break and finished with a .329 on-base percentage/.423 slugging percentage, but his promise is undeniable. And the Brewers finally tired of waiting for Rickie Weeks to get his act together. Weeks is still a part of the team, but after two straight bad years, he’s battling Scooter Gennett for the second base job. Gennett got 213 at-bats last year and had a stat line of .356/.470.

*Segura and Gennett/Weeks need to swing the bat well—or at least draw walks—because otherwise getting runners on base could be an issue. Gomez’s .338 OBP isn’t bad, but nor is it great. Lucroy is in the same range. Reynolds is a massive liability, and here again we don’t know about Braun. He’s consistently been in the .400 neighborhood through his career. But if his power dips, pitchers might not be as afraid to come into him, and we don’t know how he’ll respond.

*Thus we conclude where we began, and it’s the question marks about Braun. The smart money is inclined toward the pessimistic side, with the Brewers’ Over/Under win number at 79.5. This makes sense—the team won 83 games in 2012, Braun’s last full year, when he posted MVP-caliber numbers. Docking them four wins for the question marks isn’t out of line. The odds to win the National League pennant are 35-1 and the World Series price is an 80-1 longshot.

I actually feel somewhat optimistic about this year’s Milwaukee Brewer team though. It’s not because of Braun, it’s because I like the pitching. I’m very high on Garza and Lohse, and I see Peralta continuing to become more effective. At the very least, the Brewers will keep things interesting into September this time around and their wins will be Over 79.5.