After winning the NL Central Division in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers and their faithful followers commenced on a steep downward spiral that nearly transformed into a harrowing free fall.
The team spent portions of the 2013 season in the NL Central cellar, which meant it was actually playing worse than the hopeless Chicago Cubs.
After reaching the NLCS in 2011, the Brewers lost two of their three best players when Prince Fielder and Zack Greinke departed through free agency and a trade, respectively. Last season, the third domino fell when MLB nailed Ryan Braun to the wall on a PED-related suspension.
Talk about a rough couple years...
To make matters even worse, one of the team's former future stars, Rickie Weeks, hit a multi-year skid that made his immense salary the type of anchor that can often sink a small-market franchise like the Brewers.
Had Weeks been the only problem in 2013, the Brew Crew may have been able to overcome that obstacle with some extraordinary performances from their other big-ticket contributors. Unfortunately, Braun was suspended, Aramis Ramirez spent much of the year on the disabled list, and Corey Hart was lost for the entire campaign.
Entering the 2014 season, things didn't look a whole lot better for the Brewers as the number of questions facing the team seemed to outnumber the known quantities.
The Brewers lost their planned starter at first base, Corey Hart, to free agency. The team was also still married to Rickie Weeks at second base because of his guaranteed $11 million salary. The fact that Braun and Ramirez hadn't played much in 2013 only added to the team's question marks in 2014.
Consistent, effective starting pitching has also been a problem in Milwaukee since the team traded away its ace, Zack Greinke. During the offseason it looked like the Brewers would enter 2014 with only two legitimate starting pitchers—Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse.
During spring training, much of the chatter around the team suggested the Brewers would only be competitive if at least a couple unknown factors panned out in their favor.
The Brewers needed to find a serviceable first baseman. They needed either Weeks or his understudy, Scooter Gennett, to emerge as the clear starter at second base. They needed a healthy Aramis Ramirez at third base. They needed Ryan Braun to shrug off the suspension and return to the team hitting lights-out as he'd done since his rookie season.
And they needed their somewhat-suspect starting pitching rotation to perform at the high range of its potential. The bullpen was, of course, another wild card.
Typically, one would expect that only a couple of those challenges would be answered favorably during the regular season. Baseball is a numbers game, and the Brewers simply didn't have statistics on their side heading into Opening Day.
Amazingly, the least likely outcome appears to be playing out (at least early on), as the Brewers have kicked off 2014 with a 7-2 record and looked every bit an early contender in the process.
After dropping two of their first three games at home against the Atlanta Braves, the Brewers went on the road and absolutely crushed some tough competition.
The team went to Boston and pounded last year's champions at Fenway Park. Then, the Brewers flew down to Philadelphia and continued where they left off by shelling the Phillies. The Brewers swept both teams in three-game sets.
So far, almost every outstanding question the team faced entering the season has been answered with a moderate to strong positive statement.
Ryan Braun looked much like his old self when he smashed three home runs in a single game against the Phillies. Matt Garza, the Brewers' surprise free-agent pitching acquisition, nearly threw a no-hitter in his first outing.
The Brewers' entire pitching staff has been unusually efficient through its first nine games and has compiled a minuscule ERA of 1.95, which leads the league.
Additionally, the team's platoon at first base involving Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds has been more productive than spring training would have suggested. Milwaukee's emerging star at second base, Scooter Gennett, is hitting .273 and looks to be entrenching himself as the new everyday starter.
On top of that, the team's new face in the outfield, Khris Davis, has acquitted himself very well. Braun and Ramirez are also mostly healthy and playing at a level in line with their high-quality historical averages. As if that weren't enough, the team's emerging stars, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura, have picked up right where they left off last year.
The net result is that the Brewers' on-field product looks more balanced and complete than possibly any squad in franchise history. The Brewers are in first place and do not appear like they'll be slowing down anytime soon.
With 162 games during the year, the professional baseball season is obviously more of a marathon than a sprint. Sustaining their extremely high level of play will be difficult for the Brewers, and there's no doubt the team will have to overcome its fair share of adversity if it truly wants to contend for its first World Series title.
However, the fact that the Brewers are playing such complete ball cannot be minimized, either, especially given the adversity they've faced in recent years.
Team chemistry is a difficult quality to measure, and the Brewers appear to be drawing directly from this mystical energy source through their first nine games.
Going forward we'll find out if the Brewers can remain healthy and productive enough to translate their early season success through the summer and beyond.
The fact that the team has shrugged off some preseason question marks and transformed into a unit with few discernible weaknesses suggests the Brewers may go far in 2014.
Statistics are accurate as of Friday, April 11.
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