2011 Record: 96-66, 1st NL Central
2011 Prediction: 85-77, 1st NL Central
Impact Player: LF Ryan Braun
Impact Pitcher: RHP Zack Greinke
Best Reliever: RHP John Axford
Top Prospect: RHP Wily Peralta
Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin decided last winter that the window for his franchise to contend and potentially win a World Series was closing. In light of this he decided to cash in his modest minor league assets to acquire a deeper pitching rotation. He traded confirmed Maple Syrup wizard Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for righthander Shaun Marcum and then dealt a package of prospects to the Royals for enigmatic ace and former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.
Those two trades, although they stripped the farm system to the bone, gave the Brewers perhaps the most complete team in the NL in 2011. Their offense was good, but not great and their pitching was about the same. They managed to win 96 games and cruise to the NL Central title, their first division championship since they won the AL East in 1982, before losing to the World Champion Cardinals in an entertaining six-game NLCS.
The most prolific slugger in team history now plies his wares with the Tigers, but the Brewers shouldn’t take much of a step back in 2012. A lineup that includes reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez will score their fair share of runs and Milwaukee still has a deep and talented starting rotation. All is not lost without Prince.
Zack Greinke missed the first month of the 2011 season with an injury, but came back in May and put up surreal peripheral numbers right from the start. Bad defense and worse luck kept his ERA in the 5.00’s for what seemed like forever, but he was eventually able to turn in a 3.83 ERA. His peripherals still suggest that he was much better; among the very best in baseball in fact. He led the NL in strikeout rate at 10.54 K/9, xFIP at 2.56 and was fourth in K/BB ratio at 4.47. With some improved infield defense and less unfortunate BABIP flukes, Greinke could easily get back to contending for a Cy Young Award. He’s one of the few legitimate aces in baseball.
Yovani Gallardo seems to get better and better every year and last year was no different. He drastically improved his walk-rate and pitched more than 200 innings for the first time in his career. He seems to have a propensity for giving up the long ball but if he can rein that in, he’ll be a dominating number two behind Greinke.
Shaun Marcum is apparently battling some sort of shoulder injury, but it’s unknown as of yet how serious it is. He’s scheduled to pitch two innings in a AAA game today and if he’s alright, it’s assumed he’ll be ready for opening week. Most people expected Marcum’s numbers to take a big step forward moving out of the AL East to the much less daunting NL Central, but the opposite occurred. Marcum saw a slight drop in his strike out rate and a slight increase in his walk-rate with the move to Milwaukee. None of those numbers, however, declined enough to cause much worry. He’s an above-average mid-rotation starter at worst provided he’s healthy.
The final two spots in the rotation will go to lefthanders Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. The Brewers were widely chided for signing Wolf to a three-year, $29.75-million contract ahead of the 2010 season, and it appears as though the critics were right to some extent. Wolf has posted below average peripherals across the board but has managed to outpitch them. Still, his combined 2.2 fWAR over the past two seasons speaks to a deeply flawed pitcher. However, the Brewers know they can count on somewhere around 215 innings from Wolf and he’s certainly not terrible so I’m sure the Brewers are happy with him at the back-end of their rotation. Narveson, meanwhile, isn’t going to blow anyone away, but has more than enough talent to be a solid fifth starter.
If Marcum isn’t healthy to start the year, swingman Marco Estrada and minor leaguers Michael Fiers and Amaury Rivas could step in, as could top prospect Wily Peralta, although he’s likely to start the year in AAA to improve his command.
Milwaukee has all the makings of a dominant, shutdown bullpen with closer John Axford and setup men Francisco Rodriguez and Kameron Loe pitching the last few innings. Axford has become one of the best relievers in baseball and had a ridiculous year in 2011. He pitched to a 2.85 xFIP and had a 3.45 K/BB ratio in 73.2 innings. K-Rod accepted arbitration and came back on an $8-million contract for 2012 once the closer market dried up and he still has all the tools of a lights-out reliever. He’s become somewhat of an underrated commodity and should provide a ton of value setting up for Axford. Loe had a nice breakout campaign in 2011, pitching 72 innings and posting a most excellent 2.78 xFIP. If it’s sustainable, he could be one of the best seventh inning guys around.
The Brewers acquired Jose Veras from Pittsburgh after he put up a decent season there in 2011. His strikeout rates are very good, although he walks too many and gives up a lot of flyballs. Joining him in mid-relief will likely be righthanders Brandon Kintzler, Tim Dillard or Mike McClendon. Lefthanders Manny Parra (who’s coming off another injury-plagued campaign, but still has great raw ability) and Zach Braddock will also compete for a spot.
The Brewers finished fifth in the NL in runs scored, but led the league in both home runs and slugging percentage. It might be difficult to imagine them doing that again with the loss of Prince, but there are still plenty of good hitters in this lineup.
The two main pieces are leftfielder Ryan Braun and second baseman and leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks. Braun won the NL MVP in 2011, leading the league in slugging percentage at .597 and finishing with a surreal 179 wRC+. He was also had the second 30-30 season in Brewers history, joining Tommy Harper who accomplished the feat in the club’s first season in Milwaukee back in 1970. Weeks, meanwhile, is a monster when healthy, but he often struggles with that caveat.
The Brewers’ infield left-side was a nightmare defensively last season with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee. To help remedy that, they signed Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop. He’s not a good hitter, but provides enough value with the glove to be a viable starter. They also signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez who is probably worse than McGehee defensively, but is still a good hitter. He had a 133 wRC+ last year and can be moved to first base if his defense deteriorates much further.
In the meantime, former top prospect Mat Gamel will get every opportunity to stick at first base in 2012. He’s already 26, but still has some offensive upside. If he doesn’t figure things out this season, it will likely be his last chance with the organization. Travis Ishikawa could also get a look.
Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan will join Braun in the outfield in right and center respectively. Hart, who according to reports does in fact wear his sunglasses at night, may miss the beginning of the season with a knee injury. When healthy, he’s an extremely undervalued player. Last year, he had a 4.2 fWAR and a better wRC+ than both Weeks and Ramirez. Morgan, or Tony Plush, seemed to find himself last year and posted an excellent .304/.357/.421 slash line and posted excellent defensive metrics. He has very quietly posted 10.3 fWAR over the past three seasons.
At catcher, the Brewers will likely employ a platoon between George Kottaras and Jonathan Lucroy. Neither are particularly good, but neither are awful either. Kottaras showed some pop in limited at bats last year and posted a .330 wOBA while Lucroy hit 12 home runs in 468 plate appearances. Lucroy will likely see a bulk of the playing time.
The Brewers signed 30-year-old Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki in the offseason, but he saw a sudden drop off in his power last year in the Japanese league. He can play all three outfield positions and will fit in well as a fourth outfielder who can step in if Hart isn’t 100% to start the year. Joining him as an extra outfielder will be defensive wizard Carlos Gomez who might be the best defensive centerfielder in the NL, but can’t hit. He should see quite a bit of time in centerfield though, especially against lefties. Brooks Conrad and Cesar Izturis should make the team as extra infielders.
Everybody assumes that the Brewers will take a giant step back in 2012 because of the loss of Fielder, but they still have all the pieces of a contending team. According to their Pythagorean record, they were lucky to win 96 games a year ago, but there’s no reason to think they can’t challenge for the NL Central again this season. The farm system is still scarily thin so if the Brewers are going to win a World Series, they better do it in the next year or two; there are some lean years ahead.
2012 Prediction: 90-72, 2nd NL Central