Following last year's exit from the NL Championship Series, the Milwaukee Brewers have endured a tumultuous offseason. The major blow to the Brewers was the defection of Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers through free agency.
Despite losing Fielder, the Brewers will enter spring training as a serious contender for the NL Central crown. Here are the five reasons why the Brewers could find themselves playing October baseball once again in 2012.
With the departure of Fielder and the looming 50-game suspension for Ryan Braun, the Brewers' starting rotation is the obvious strong point of the team. Led by ace Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers' rotation is arguably a top-five rotation in the MLB.
Following Gallardo is Zack Greinke, who despite early season struggles in 2011 rounded into form as the season progressed. Greinke's improvement gave the Brewers one of the best one-two punches in the MLB. Shaun Marcum will man the third starting spot in the rotation and will look to build on last year's solid debut as a Milwaukee Brewer.
The No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation will go to Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson respectively, who combined for 24 wins in 2011. If the Brewers want to make a return trip to the postseason in 2012, they will need the rotation to match if not exceed their performance last season.
Ron Roenicke will look to lead the Brewers back to the Postseason
With spring training approaching, the NL Central looks like the most wide-open division in the majors. Like the Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals lost their own superstar first baseman in Albert Pujols. The Cincinnati Reds feature a potent offense but the pitching staff is a question mark.
The Chicago Cubs ushered in new management this offseason and still appear a couple years off from truly contending. In Pittsburgh, the Pirates took a positive step forward last year but don’t have the pieces in place yet to challenge for the NL Central crown. Lastly, there is the Houston Astros who look like the worst team in baseball.
The bottom line is the NL Central will be up for grabs in 2012. While the Brewers do feature their fair share of question marks, the same could be said for each team in the division.
While the Detroit Tigers paid Prince Fielder a king’s ransom, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was busy spreading his available cap space around to multiple players. Offseason additions thus far have included Aramis Ramirez, Norichika Aoki and Alex Gonzalez among others.
Both Ramirez and Gonzalez figure to be Opening Day starters at third base and shortstop respectively. The new acquisitions on the left side of the infield should be upgrades over last year's starting tandem of Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee.
With Ryan Braun more than likely being suspended at the start of the season, the Brewers appear set to open spring training with Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki starting in left field. Replacing Braun’s production will be a team effort that will be boosted if Aoki makes a smooth transition into the Brewers' lineup.
Following the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez midway through last season, the Brewers' back end of the bullpen became one of the best in the majors. With Rodriguez settling in as the setup man leading up to closer John Axford, the Brewers were nearly unbeatable if they led heading into the eighth inning.
The same combination of Rodriguez and Axford will return in 2012 for their first full season together. Pitching behind the strong starting rotation, Rodriguez and Axford figure to get plenty of chances to close out games in 2012.
The departure of Fielder and the 50-game suspension for Ryan Braun means that returning right fielder Corey Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks will have to shoulder more of the offensive load.
Both Hart and Weeks had solid seasons in 2011 but the Brewers will need more out of them if they wish to contend in the NL Central. With both players in their prime at 29 years old, breakout seasons for one or both of them would go a long way toward bolstering the new-look offense.