Years of trading away minor league talent finally caught up to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. The team finished just 74-88 last season, its worst record since 2004, and had to endure the headache caused by Ryan Braun's 65-game Biogenesis suspension.
Despite boasting a farm system that isn't going to offer any impact help for a long time, the Brewers aren't in a bad position heading into the 2014. A lot of things have to go right for them to compete for a wild-card spot, but there's talent at a lot of key spots to make a push.
As is so often the case, the team's playoff hopes will come down to pitching. Kyle Lohse was a late signing last winter, had a typical season with a solid ERA and good command and will lead the rotation in 2014.
Matt Garza, who signed a $50 million contract with the Brewers in late January, will join Lohse in the rotation.
There are a lot of volatile situations around baseball, but looking at the Brewers right now, this team might have the greatest boom-or-bust potential. They are walking a fine line where nothing can go wrong or the entire ship falls apart.
As the Brewers prepare for spring training, here is a recap of what has happened in the offseason and stories to watch before the regular season begins.
RHP Matt Garza (free agent), LHP Zach Duke (free agent), 1B Lyle Overbay (free agent), 1B Mark Reynolds (free agent), RHP Francisco Rodriguez (free agent), LHP Will Smith (traded from Kansas City Royals), LHP Luis Ortega (traded from Boston Red Sox)
2B Yuniesky Betancourt (free agent), 1B Mat Gamel (free agent), LHP Mike Gonzalez (free agent), OF Corey Hart (free agent), OF Norichika Aoki (traded to Kansas City), RHP Burke Badenhop (traded to Boston)
If Matt Garza can stay healthy, something he hasn't done since 2011, the Brewers are going to get a bargain. He thrived in the National League Central as a member of the Chicago Cubs, posting a 3.45 ERA and 355-115 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 372.2 innings.
Team owner Mark Attanasio raved about Garza in the pitcher's introductory press conference, believing him to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball, via MLB.com's Adam McCalvy:
There was an article recently that profiled on different bases the top 25 pitchers in baseball. You look at all these different metrics, and [Garza] routinely grades out as [one of those pitchers]. So I'd rather talk about his upside, what he brings in terms of performance to the staff, and also what he brings in leadership.
Garza is the big prize for the Brewers, with the rest of the additions just being spare parts. Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds could make a nice platoon at first base. Overbay had a .748 OPS against right-handed pitching last season, while Reynolds had a .725 OPS against lefties.
Those aren't exactly dominant numbers, but with both players on minor league deals, the Brewers don't have a huge financial investment in them.
Norichika Aoki will be the biggest loss for the Brewers. He wasn't a prototypical right fielder because the power wasn't there, but a .355 on-base percentage isn't easy to replace.
Will Smith, who was acquired for Aoki, has the potential to dominate out of the bullpen, an area in which the Brewers have needed help for a long time. He had a 43-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in just 33.1 innings last season.
Rickie Weeks, 2B
A constant presence on the disabled list throughout his career, Rickie Weeks missed 58 games last season after suffering a torn hamstring that required surgery on August 7 in a game against the San Francisco Giants.
Adam McCalvy of MLB.com wrote after Weeks' surgery on August 16 that he would need four to six months of rehab. Brewers trainer Dan Wright was quoted in the piece explaining why surgery was the best option for Weeks:
That's the advantage -- you try to get the leg as back to normal anatomy as you can. Without doing that, the leg can still heal and function, but theoretically you're working on two-thirds of the hamstring as opposed to the full hamstring.
If Weeks' rehab takes the full six months, he will be back to normal right around the time the team reports to spring training.
Milwaukee Brewers 2014 Coaching Staff (Seasons with Team)
|Manager: Ron Roenicke (4th season)|
|Hitting Coach: Johnny Narron (3rd season)|
|Pitching Coach: Rick Kranitz (4th season)|
|First Base Coach: Garth Iorg (4th season)|
|Third Base Coach: Ed Sedar (4th season)|
|Bench Coach: Jerry Narron (4th season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Lee Tunnell (2nd season)|
This will be an important season for Ron Roenicke and his staff. He took over as manager of the Brewers in 2011, walked into a great situation, won 96 games in his first season and made an appearance in the National League Championship Series.
In the two years since that playoff appearance, Roenicke's win total has dropped to 83 and 74. He's entering the last guaranteed year of a contract extension signed in 2012. There is an option for 2015, with general manager Doug Melvin being signed through 2015.
If Roenicke's win total drops again, the already thin ice he is standing on will evaporate, leading him to search for a life boat.
Roenicke's staff has been, for the most part, in place since he took over. If there is a managerial change after the season, it would be hard to imagine the rest of this crew returning in 2015, especially if Melvin is fighting to keep his job beyond next season.
Milwaukee Brewers Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Rickie Weeks, 2B|
|2. Jean Segura, SS|
|3. Ryan Braun, RF|
|4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B|
|5. Jonathan Lucroy, C|
|6. Carlos Gomez, CF|
|7. Juan Francisco, 1B|
|8. Khris Davis, LF|
|Martin Maldonado, C|
|Mark Reynolds, 1B|
|Scooter Gennett, 2B|
|Jeff Bianchi, IF|
|Caleb Gindl, OF|
Assuming Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez each play 150 games, Milwaukee isn't going to have problems scoring runs. Braun was one of the best players in baseball from 2007-12. Ramirez has a .294/.364/.513 slash line in two seasons with the Brewers.
Jonathan Lucroy flies under the radar because it's hard to get noticed when you play in the same division as Yadier Molina, but he had a .340 on-base and .455 slugging percentage in 2013.
Carlos Gomez is one of the best defensive players in baseball, saving 38 runs in center field last year, and added some thump to his offensive game with a career-high 24 homers in 2013.
Rickie Weeks is penciled into the starting second base job because the Brewers have an $11 million investment in him this year and might be able to trade him with a productive first half, but Scooter Gennett's .324/.356/.479 line will be hard to keep on the bench.
Gennett isn't going to duplicate that line without a lot of luck, because he's a slap hitter without a lot of natural power or patience. So for all Weeks' flaws, his upside is greater than Gennett's.
Milwaukee's first base situation is worth watching. Juan Francisco is an effective platoon player, slugging .464 against righties in his career, but he should not play more than 100 games. Mark Reynolds could be the right-handed half of that platoon, though his inability to make contact limits his upside.
Milwaukee Brewers Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 Kyle Lohse, RHP|
|No. 2 Matt Garza, RHP|
|No. 3 Yovani Gallardo, RHP|
|No. 4 Wily Peralta, RHP|
|No. 5 Marco Estrada, RHP|
The top of Milwaukee's rotation has potential to be one of the better units in baseball. Kyle Lohse isn't going to overpower hitters, but he pounds the strike zone and gets hitters out. His consistency from year to year is why he should start on Opening Day.
Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo are two wild cards that the Brewers have high hopes for. Garza has to start 30 games, which is something he's struggled to do the last two years.
Gallardo has the most upside of any Milwaukee pitcher. He will turn 28 at the end of February, still very much in the prime of his career, yet he saw a drastic dip in performance last year. His 144 strikeouts and 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings were career lows. His ERA has gone from 3.52 in 2011 to 3.66 in 2012 and 4.18 in 2013.
As J.P. Breen of FanGraphs.com noted, Gallardo's issues seem to stem from an inability to throw the breaking ball for strikes:
Gallardo has never possessed a high swing rate — and once again, his 41.6% swing rate was the lowest amongst qualified starters — but it’s more directly applying to his curveball. Teams understand he struggles to throw his curveball for strikes; thus, teams have started to lay off his curveball more often which forces him to come in with more fastballs and sliders.
Unless Gallardo can start throwing the breaking ball for strikes, or at least get ahead early with the fastball and slider, hitters won't respect it enough to offer at it.
Speaking of throwing strikes, Wily Peralta didn't do enough of that in 2013, walking 73 in 183.1 innings. He generates a lot of ground balls (51.5 percent last season, 12th-best in MLB), so even a slight reduction in walks could lower his ERA from 4.37 to 4.00.
Marco Estrada is just a good innings-eater. He gives up too many home runs (19 in 128 innings last year) to be an impact starter, but he throws strikes and misses enough bats to stick in the back of a rotation.
Milwaukee Brewers Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Jim Henderson, RHP|
|Setup: Brandon Kintzler, RHP|
|Setup: Francisco Rodriguez, RHP|
|Reliever: Tom Gorzelanny, LHP|
|Reliever: Alfredo Figaro, RHP|
|Reliever: Will Smith, LHP|
|Reliever: Rob Wooten, RHP|
The Brewers put together a patchwork bullpen last season that worked quite well. They finished fifth in ERA (3.19), despite having to throw the sixth-most innings (524). Getting more innings from the starters will be crucial for this group to hold up for 162 games again.
Adding Will Smith to the group was a bold strategy. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, averaging just 91 mph with the pitch last year. But he increased the use of his slider and got hitters to swing and miss it 56 percent of the time, per Brooks Baseball.
Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler provided stability in the back of games, combining to throw 137 innings with just 110 hits allowed and a 133-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Francisco Rodriguez is no longer "K-Rod," but he somehow managed to manipulate his way to a 2.70 ERA in 2013.
Rodriguez did lose whatever magic he had after being traded from Milwaukee to the Baltimor Orioles, posting a 4.50 ERA with 25 hits and five homers allowed in 22 innings. It just shows the difference in competition between the AL East and NL Central.
The Brewers finally have guys who can finish innings, close games and keep things close if/when a starter doesn't have his best stuff.
Hunter Morris, 1B
Even though the Brewers have brought in Lyle Overbay and have Juan Francisco on the big league roster, Hunter Morris might be the team's best option for a platoon bat at first base with Mark Reynolds.
Morris isn't the kind of hitter who will hit for average or draw a lot of walks, but he's got a ton of power and hasn't slugged under .450 in the minors since 2010.
A left-handed hitter who can tee off on right-handed pitching and costs next to nothing has some value, even if Morris lacks the impact potential to be a regular big leaguer.
Johnny Hellweg, RHP
Acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the Zack Greinke deal, Johnny Hellweg's first taste of the big leagues was a disaster. He gave up 40 hits with a 26-9 walk-to-strikeout ratio (yes, that's correct) in 30.2 innings.
Part of the problem is that Milwaukee tried to use Hellweg as a starter, where his well below-average control profile was never going to play. He's got a huge fastball and solid curveball that will play well in relief, even if his inability to throw strikes prevents him from pitching in high-leverage spots.
Jimmy Nelson, RHP
Everything you just read about Hellweg also applies to Jimmy Nelson. He's a big, powerful right-handed pitcher with below-average command and control, including 50 walks in 83 innings at Triple-A.
A 6'6" right-hander who can touch 97-98 mph with the fastball and backs it up with a hard slider has value, but you can't miss around the zone as much as Nelson does and profile as a starting pitcher.
Khris Davis, LF
The Brewers thought so highly of Khris Davis' 56-game audition in 2013 (.279/.353/.596) that they traded Norichika Aoki to Kansas City and will move Ryan Braun from left field to right field in order to keep his bat in the lineup.
Davis isn't going to hit that well overall in 162 games, but he's always shown big power potential in the minors, with at least a .474 slugging percentage in four seasons from 2009-12.
J.P. Breen of RotoGraphs talked to a scout after 2013 who said "that he’s excited to see what the 25-year-old can do with regular at-bats and thinks he can be a legit 20+ HR guy,"
Even with a low average resulting from a long swing and high strikeout numbers, Davis' power is legit and he should have no problems hitting 15-20 homers with a chance for a little more if the contact rates improve.
Wily Peralta, RHP
Wily Peralta was Milwaukee's top prospect one year ago, earning praise for his ability to induce ground balls and throw strikes. He doesn't have a high ceiling, but he should have a long career in the middle of a rotation.
Last year was a learning experience for Peralta, who turned things on in the second half of 2013 with a 3.99 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He's ready to turn the corner this season and reach that potential he showed down the stretch.
Second Base: Rickie Weeks vs. Scooter Gennett
With the exception of an outstanding 2010, Rickie Weeks has always been more promise than performance in his MLB career. In peak form, his bat speed and ability to crush a fastball made him one of the most dangerous offensive second baseman in baseball.
Unfortunately, those times were few and far between. Weeks has played more than 120 games just twice in the last five years and is now 31 years old, when his body isn't going to get stronger and more durable.
Scooter Gennett took over as the starting second baseman when Weeks went down with a hamstring injury in August and hit .324/.356/.479 in 69 games. It was a small sample size and doesn't show the kind of hitter Gennett really is (slappy, uses all fields, low power), but it's opened his window for a starting job.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke told reporters, via MLB.com's Mike Bauman, in December that there should be an open competition based on what happened last season.
I just saw Rick, and he's doing really well physically. But to say that, 'Scooter, you're on the bench and Rickie is our everyday guy right now,' I don't think that's real fair to Scooter.
We may end up needing both of them; you don't know what's going to happen. And we've got to get Rick back to where he was.
That last line is telling, because the Brewers have a lot of money and time invested in Weeks. It's in their best interest to make sure he's playing when physically capable, or else they will be eating a significant portion of their 2014 payroll.
Gennett clearly has fans in the right places, though it's still not quite time to give up on Weeks. One more injury or another disappointing start should change that, but if given the choice, Weeks should be starting on Opening Day.
Prediction: Rickie Weeks
First Base: Juan Francisco vs. Mark Reynolds vs. Lyle Overbay
If all things are equal, the Brewers probably don't want Juan Francisco starting at first base in 2014. He hit just .221/.300/.433 in 89 games.
Overall, Milwaukee first baseman hit just .206/.259/.370 last year. You can see why the front office wanted to give Roenicke as many options as possible to choose from, though none of them are exactly going to invoke memories of Prince Fielder.
Mark Reynolds is a streaky hitter who slugged .651 last April; .386, .253, .098 in May, June and July; and then came back with .510 and .414 marks in August and September. He could get hot in spring training, convincing the Brewers he can handle the job.
Lyle Overbay had a .295 on-base percentage last season, so it will take something impressive this spring to get him a spot on the 25-man roster.
In a field with no good option, Reynolds might be the winner by default simply because of his ability to hit the ball really far when he does make contact.
I'd like to see Hunter Morris get a real chance to win a platoon spot, but he didn't even get a look last September when the team was out of the race and had nothing to play for, so odds are stacked against him.
Prediction: Mark Reynolds
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