Milwaukee Brewers: 5 Variables That Will Determine the Fate of Their 2011 Season

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIMarch 18, 2011

Milwaukee Brewers: 5 Variables That Will Determine the Fate of Their 2011 Season

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    The Brewers have good reason to be optimistic heading into 2011.
    The Brewers have good reason to be optimistic heading into 2011.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    The Milwaukee Brewers enter the 2011 season with high hopes and expectations of contending in the National League Central.

    The Brewers have gone all in this year. They held onto first baseman Prince Fielder, who will be a free agent after the season, and made a splash with offseason acquisitions such as Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Takashi Saito.

    Fans can count on a few things from the Brewers in 2011. Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart will provide steady offensive production. The catcher position will once again be the weakest link in an otherwise potent offense. The sausage races will continue to be a popular attraction at Miller Park.

    However, several key factors will determine the fate of the Brewers' season. Read on to find out what needs to happen for the Brewers to make a deep postseason run.

1. Injuries

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    ST. LOUIS - JULY 4: Stating pitcher Yovani Gallardo #49 of the Milwaukee Brewers leaves the game with an unknown injury against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on July 4, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Cardinals beat the Brewers 7-1.  (Photo b
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Injury problems have been the Achilles' heel of the Brewers in recent seasons.

    Several key players must avoid injuries in order for the Brewers to play to their full potential.

    Rickie Weeks has struggled with injuries for nearly his entire big league career. In 2010, he finally avoided the disabled list. Only Prince Fielder played in more games than Weeks.

    The increased playing time allowed Weeks to set career highs in nearly every offensive category. If he can avoid the injury bug in 2011, Weeks could be well on his way to becoming one of baseball's elite second basemen.

    Zack Greinke has been making headlines since the Brewers acquired him in December, but lately he's been in the news for the wrong reasons.

    Greinke fractured a rib playing basketball before the start of spring training, and he'll have to start the season on the 15-day DL. The Brewers are counting on Greinke to be their ace in 2011, and he can't do that if he's not healthy.

    Other key players with injury concerns include Yovani Gallardo, Ryan Braun and Shaun Marcum.

    Gallardo was selected as an All-Star in 2010, but couldn't play because of a strained left side muscle.

    Although Braun has spent little time on the DL in his career, he was bothered by an elbow irritation in 2010 and this spring has missed several games due to strained muscles in his rib cage.

    Marcum has started more than 25 games only once in his career, and this spring has dealt with tightness in his shoulders. Brewers fans hope he can stay healthy and throw 200 innings for the first time in his career.

    If the above players can avoid being sidelined by injuries in 2011, the Brewers' playoff hopes will shine much brighter.

2. Coaching

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    PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 18:  Manager Ron Roenicke #10 of the Milwaukee Brewers speaks with teammates during a MLB spring training practice at Maryvale Baseball Park on February 18, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Brewers have struggled to find an effective manager in recent years.

    Ned Yost was sacked during the 2008 playoff run with just 12 games left in the regular season.

    Interim manager Dale Sveum led the Brewers to their first postseason appearance in 26 years but was not offered the full-time job after a playoff loss to the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

    Ken Macha took over at the helm from 2009-2010 but finished below .500 and nowhere near a playoff berth in both seasons.

    Owner Mark Attanasio fired Macha following the 2010 season and hired former Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke as Macha's replacement.

    Milwaukee fans are hoping that Roenicke can lead the young and talented Brewers roster back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

    In addition to the managerial change, the Brewers added three new members to their coaching staff. Three previous members returned to their roles.

    Will the changes have a positive effect on the team's performance in 2011? Only time will tell, but clearly something needed to be done after two years of subpar performances.

3. Bullpen

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    PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 18:  Pitcher Takashi Saito #40 of the Milwaukee Brewers participates in fielding drills during a MLB spring training practice at Maryvale Baseball Park on February 18, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Im
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Brewers bullpen last season was an unqualified disaster.

    It ranked 12th in the NL with an ERA of 4.48. Todd Coffey, Carlos Villanueva and others served up home run after home run. Closer Trevor Hoffman struggled out of the gate and quickly lost his job.

    John Axford provided a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Brewers bullpen. Promoted to the big leagues on May 15 and handed the closer's role, he converted 24 of 27 saves for the year. Axford struck out 76 batters in 58 innings and posted an 8-2 record with a 2.48 ERA.

    Returning bullpen coach Stan Kyles and new pitching coach Rick Kranitz have their work cut out for them as they try to prevent the problems that plagued the Brewers bullpen in 2010.

    The most important offseason addition was Takashi Saito, who provides an instant upgrade to the bullpen. In 56 games with the Atlanta Braves last season, Saito posted a 2.83 ERA and struck out 69 batters in 54 innings.

    John Axford looks to cut back on the number of walks and prove he deserves to be the Brewers closer for another season. Kameron Loe, Zach Braddock and Manny Parra figure to play significant roles in a much-improved Brewers bullpen as well.

    The keys will be keeping the ball in the park and throwing strikes.

    Walks and home runs allowed played a major role in many 2010 bullpen meltdowns, and if those problems can be addressed, the bullpen can become an asset rather than a liability for the Brewers as they seek a playoff berth in 2011.

4. Can Weeks and McGehee Repeat Breakout 2010 Seasons?

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    HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 15:  Second baseman Rickie Weeks #23 of the Milwaukee Brewers makes a backhand stab on a ball hit up the middle by the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on September 15, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Rickie Weeks and Casey McGehee had career years in 2010. Both players are extremely talented and have the potential to be All-Star caliber players.

    Weeks, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft, led NL second basemen in games, at bats, runs and total bases, and was second in home runs, hits and RBI. Weeks also ranked in the top five in doubles, triples, slugging, walks and OBP.

    During the offseason, the Brewers rewarded Weeks with a four year, $38.5 million contract extension through 2014 with a chance for up to $50 million over five years.

    McGehee played his first full season in 2010 and exceeded all expectations. McGehee was voted Brewers Most Valuable Player, edging out Weeks and Corey Hart. He led NL third basemen in doubles, hits and RBI and ranked among the leaders in home runs, total bases, runs and slugging.

    Whether Weeks and McGehee can repeat their stellar 2010 performances remains to be seen. If they can, the Brewers' potent offense should be second to none in the National League.

5. How Will the Brewers Respond to the Pressures of a Pennant Race?

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    MILWAUKEE - SEPTEMBER 28:  Ryan Braun #8 of the of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates his game winning two run home run against the Chicago Cubs with teammate Prince Fielder #28 in the eighth inning at Miller Park on September 28, 2008 in Milwaukee, Wiscons
    Darren Hauck/Getty Images

    The final variable to the Brewers 2011 season is the ultimate X-factor: Will the team thrive as summer turns to autumn and the playoff race heats up? Or will this Brewers team fade out of the pennant race as has been the case in recent seasons?

    It is impossible to know for sure how the players will respond to the pressure of the team's hopes and fan expectations.

    Many key Brewers were with the 2008 playoff team, including Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks.

    The collective experience of that playoff run should help the team as a whole, but for players who have never before played for a playoff contender, there is no way to know how they will react to the added pressure and excitement of the pennant atmosphere.

    It will be essential for the players to keep their emotions under control, not pay too much attention to the daily changes in the standings, and not allow the disappointment of individual losses to linger.

    The players must recognize they can only control their individual actions from day to day.

    If the Brewers coaching staff and players can take each game as it comes and maintain their focus on the fundamentals of the game, the Brewers will be celebrating this fall as winners of the NL Central division and possibly much more.

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