The Brewers had a much more quiet offseason this past winter than they did following the 2011 season. There was no major free agent like Prince Fielder leaving town. There was no need to replace Fielder with someone like Aramis Ramirez. Milwaukee simply attempted to strengthen their club with deals that weren't very sexy, but would help out a ton this year, especially when it comes to their bullpen.
Outfield. The offensive firepower of the Brewers outfield may not be what it was a couple years ago when Corey Hart was still a part of the unit (he’s moved to first base, and will miss the first month or two of the season), but it’s still a group that’s above-average with the bats. Of course, the presence of Ryan Braun would probably push any outfield unit into that category, but his fellow starting outfielders aren’t too bad with the bat, either. In right field, Norichika Aoki is coming off a rookie season in which he hit .288/.355/.433 and stole 30 bases on 38 attempts. In center, Carlos Gomez -- known mostly as a defensive specialist -- had a bit of an offensive breakout in 2012, hitting .260/.305/.463, going 37-for-43 on steal attempts and hitting a career-high 19 home runs. It’s easy to forget that Gomez will only be 27 in 2013, so there’s still some room to grow. He’s also a free agent at the end of the year and represented by Scott Boras.
Catching. There are some teams that don’t even have one quality catcher on the roster. The Brewers have two they’d be comfortable starting every day in Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado. Lucroy is the more offensively-inclined of the two, coming off what’s likely a career year in 2012, when he hit .320/.368/.513 in 96 games (he missed about a month with a broken hand), including a ridiculous .389/.411/.611 with runners in scoring position. Those numbers are almost certainly unsustainable, but he should still be a valuable contributor with the bat. Lucroy is also a solid defender, consistently ranking among the best pitch-framing catchers in the game. Lucroy is no Maldonado when it comes to defense, though. Maldonado’s been called the best defensive catcher in the Milwaukee system since his days in Double-A, and after making his big league debut last season in Lucroy’s absence, fans saw why. Not only a very good receiver, Maldonado has the kind of arm behind the plate that could draw comps to fellow Puerto Rican Yadier Molina.
Pitching Depth. The Brewers may be lacking star power behind Yovani Gallardo, but they do have a slew of guys who project as #4 or #5 starters in the majors. While that’s not exactly exciting -- or even confidence-inspiring -- it can prove to be valuable if/when injuries start to hit the rotation. Currently behind Gallardo, the rotation projects to be some combination of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Chris Narveson and either Wily Peralta or Mark Rogers. Waiting in the minors and likely ready this year are Tyler Thornburg, Hiram Burgos and Johnny Hellweg. In a year or so, Ariel Pena, Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley may be ready to join that group, too. The ceiling may not be too high on most of those guys, but they will provide something valuable to baseball’s smallest market: cheap, cost-controlled pitching, allowing the team to allocate more resources elsewhere.
Starting Pitching. With all that said about depth, the rotation is still a big concern for the team in 2013. After two years of Zack Greinke, the Brewers now lack that ace-potential-type at the top of the rotation once again. They also lost Shaun Marcum, and even though he missed quite a bit of time while in Milwaukee, he provided quality innings when he was healthy. For the most part, it’s not that the Brewers’ rotation is bad, it’s that they’re unproven and nobody really knows what to expect. Gallardo is a consistent 200-strikeout guy, but walks so many batters and works into so many deep counts he struggles to go deep into games. Estrada would be a solid #4 on most teams, but he’ll likely be the team’s #2. Fiers has put up impressive numbers his entire professional career, but doesn’t have the stuff to make people believe he can keep doing it. Narveson is coming off a torn labrum, Rogers pitches like Gallardo but has an injury history a mile long, and Peralta will be a rookie with a history of control problems. Overall, it’s a group with a limited ceiling but also a low floor, which is a little scary.
Bullpen. Nobody blew more saves in 2012 than the Brewers. No bullpen had a worse ERA in 2012 than the Brewers. The only bullpens with a worse WPA than the Brewers in 2012 were the Astros, Mets and Cubs. Even after Doug Melvin blew it all up this offseason, the basic nature of bullpens lands them here -- after all, heading into last season, it was considered one of the Brewers’ biggest strengths. John Axford and Jim Henderson will be the only holdovers from last year’s group, and...well, did you see the last couple innings of USA-Canada in the World Baseball Classic? There’s still plenty of concern about the bullpen’s ability to throw strikes and hold leads.
Infield Defense. Aramis Ramirez had a surprisingly good defensive season in 2012, both by the metrics and by the eye test. But he still has that reputation of being a poor defender for years, and that’s hard to change this late in a career. At second base, Rickie Weeks is still a pretty brutal defender, with poor range and inaccurate throws to first. Shortstop Jean Segura is still raw and learning the position, and while he has the potential to be a good shortstop in the future, there’s still going to be some growing pains in 2013. At first base, it looks like Alex Gonzalez is going to be manning the position (one he’s never played before) until Corey Hart (who moved to the position mid-season last year) returns. Even though Miller Park gives up a ton of home runs, with this group, it might be a good thing the Brewers don’t have a groundball-heavy pitching staff.
Schedule. The Brewers start the year with one of the easiest April schedules in the league, including a season-opening homestand against Colorado and Arizona, two series against the Cubs, and a series in San Diego. With such young pitching, getting off to a good start may be important in building confidence. The Brewers are also opening the season with a dramatically lower payroll than they have in recent years, saying they’re saving room in the budget for any potential midseason acquisitions. If a hot start has the Brewers in contention in July, it could motivate them to make a midseason splash for another playoff push. Even if Milwaukee finds itself on the outer fringes of the playoff race at the end of the year, the extremely-division-heavy September schedule could help them get back into things: from September 2 to September 23, their schedule goes Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis.
The Cubs and Pirates. The NL Central doesn’t have the Astros to kick around anymore, but for the Brewers, that might be okay after struggling to go over .500 against Houston last season. The good news for the Brewers is that Chicago and Pittsburgh are still in the division -- the Cubs are still in full rebuild mode, while the Brewers haven’t had a losing season against the Pirates since 2006. In fact, from 2007 to 2012, the Brewers are 69-24 against the Pirates, including a 14-1 year in 2008. To put it plainly, Milwaukee has owned Pittsburgh, and with the Pirates still in the in-between stages of rebuilding and contending, they have a chance to do so again in 2013.
Ownership. As mentioned before, the Brewers are scaling back their opening day payroll, currently projected to be less than $80 million. Last year, the opening payroll was a franchise-record $98 million. Even though he’s tightening the purse strings this year, Mark Attanasio has spent more than anyone in Milwaukee could have possibly expected. When he bought the team, fans were just hoping for payrolls in the $40 million range (after all, the Seligs were crying poverty for years, claiming they were barely breaking even). As owner, Attanasio has shown the willingness to rubber stamp sudden big-ticket acquisitions in the middle of the season -- the trade for CC Sabathia in 2008 being the main example. If the Brewers can find a way to contend into July, Attanasio could again give the okay to make a move.
The Reds and Cardinals. There are two classes in the NL Central this year: Cincinnati and St. Louis, and then everyone else. While the Brewers may be able to beat up on the Pirates and Cubs, they’re still pretty clearly inferior to the top two teams in the division. Milwaukee went a combined 12-18 against those two clubs in 2012, and especially seem to have some sort of mental block when it comes to the Reds. They haven’t won a season series with Cincinnati since 2006, when they went 10-9. If the Brewers are serious about contending, they’re going to need to find a way to not completely fall over themselves when playing the division’s top contender.
Injuries. Ramirez played in 149 games for the second straight year, but will be 35 in 2013, and still carries a bit of an injury reputation from his days as a Cub. Rickie Weeks hits 30 this year and has only played 130+ games twice in his career. Hart’s already down to start the year with another balky knee, and Gomez’s all-out style of play is usually good for one DL stint a year. Basically, the lineup looks pretty strong on paper -- even without Hart -- but there are quite a few key guys liable to go down for a couple weeks.
Ron Roenicke. Brewers fans like to call the manager “RRR” for “Runnin’ Ron Roenicke,” but maybe they should call him Buntin’ Ron instead. Nobody in baseball called for more sacrifice bunts than Roenicke in 2012, and the Brewers ended the year with the second-most “successful” sacrifices in the league. When you only consider position players, the Brewers bunted 25% more often than any NL team. Oh, and then there’s the eight squeeze plays he used. Despite all of that, the Brewers still managed to lead the NL in runs, thanks mostly to the fact they also led in home runs, but they were also 158-for-197 in steal attempts. The Brewers haven’t put up back-to-back winning seasons because of Ron Roenicke, they’ve done it despite him.
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@mykenk (Hopefully) the last preview piece I have to do.