Over the last few years, the Milwaukee Brewers emptied their farm system in order to acquire quality Major League talent understanding that they had a window to win. During the 2010-11 off-season, they dealt Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays to acquire starting pitcher Shaun Marcum and then dealt a package of prospects and established young players such as Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi to acquire Zack Greinke. They decided to go all out in the final season of Prince Fielder’s tenure with the team and it worked. In 2011, they won 96 games and went to the playoffs for the second time in four years.
Coming in to last season, the Brewers still had high hopes even with the departure of Fielder to Detroit. A strong pitching staff anchored by Greinke, Marcum and Yovani Gallardo was coupled with a deep lineup consisting of the likes of Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and newly minted Aramis Ramirez put the Brewers in good shape on paper. Then the season started and the wheels almost immediately fell off. By May 22, the Brewers were 17-26 and falling fast.
On July 28, with the team sitting 15 games out of the division, General Manager Doug Melvin waved the white flag and sent Greinke to the Angels for a package of prospects headed by shortstop Jean Segura trying to replenish a barren farm system. He had plans to trade Marcum and Randy Wolf as well, but ineffectiveness and injuries kept them on the team a little while longer. Then, because of course, the Brewers started winning.
In August and September, the Brewers went on an inspired 24-6 run that landed them with a 78-72 record and suddenly they were just a game-and-a-half behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot in the NL. They would come back down to earth a little in the season’s final weeks, but they still finished with a winning record on a year that looked totally lost in early August.
Whether or not the late season run changed the strategy of Melvin and company heading into the winter is unknown, but the Brewers were not busy this offseason, adding little more than some useful pieces to their bullpen. If they are going to contend in 2013, they’ll be doing it with nearly the same roster that finished last season and therefore are counting on the continued good performance of some serious regression candidates.
Only three National League clubs surrendered more runs than the Brewers last season, despite having a solid rotation for most of the year. A terrible bullpen that posted the highest ERA among their National League contemporaries and a defense that ranked second-to-last in defensive efficiency carries most of the run prevention blame for 2012. Still, the rotation looks drastically different from the one that opened last year. Gone are Greinke, Marcum and Wolf and in are Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers and top prospect Wily Peralta.
Gallardo still heads the group after throwing his second consecutive 200-inning season. Despite all the concerns that his wonky mechanics would cause his arm to explode, he’s actually been very durable over his four big league season, making at least 30 starts in each of them. He’s probably not a true ace, but he’s close and he could still have his best season ahead of him since he’s only entering his age-27 season.
Estrada and Fiers each had breakout seasons in 2012 despite not starting the year in the rotation. Estrada posted the same WAR according to FanGraphs as Gallardo in only 138 1/3 innings. He struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced and had excellent control, walking under two-per-nine. His 4.93 K/BB ratio was third in baseball for pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched behind only Cliff Lee and Kris Medlen. Fiers, meanwhile was equally as good in his 22 starts, posting a 3.74 ERA which his peripherals suggest should have been even better.
The problem with both Estrada and Fiers is that they are both in their late 20s and neither has come close to this kind of success before. If the Brewers are going to contend, they’ll need these two to be at least as good as they were last year over a full season—something that seems unlikely at best.
The last two spots in the rotation will likely go to Peralta and left-hander Chris Narveson who made only two starts last year due to injury. Peralta, meanwhile, looked excellent in his 29 late-season innings and has more upside than anyone on the pitching staff besides Gallardo. The Brewers will also give a look to both Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg, but both of those pitchers would seem to have profiles that would suit them better in relief.
The bullpen was the single-biggest weakness on the team last year and Melvin set out to improve that situation this offseason by signing two former Washington Nationals’ lefties in Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny. He also went out and grabbed Burke Badenhop who posted excellent numbers with Tampa. Those three join the Canadian duo of John Axford and Jim Henderson, who make up the likely eighth and ninth inning options. Axford struggled last season, but his peripherals suggest he was pretty unlucky, while Henderson’s 34.4% strikeout-rate has the Brewers salivating.
Even without Prince Fielder, the Brewers led the National League in runs scored in 2012 thanks to the surreal play of left fielder Ryan Braun who was again in the conversation for the MVP after hitting .319/.391/.595. He led the NL in wOBA, wRC+, isolated power, and home runs with 41. The first half of Braun’s career would make him a near shoe-in for the Hall of Fame if it weren’t such a joke.
Second baseman Rickie Weeks and third baseman Aramis Ramirez will join Braun to form the core of the lineup. Ramirez is now 35, but doesn’t appear ready to slow down any time soon. Last year, he posted a 142 wRC+ that ranked him third in baseball among third basemen behind only Miguel Cabrera and Chase Headley. Weeks, meanwhile, had an off year by his standards, but was much better after June 16. Until that point he was hitting just .162/.302/.282, but posted an .812 OPS from that point on.
The leadoff hitter will likely be right fielder Norichika Aoki who settled in nicely in his first season in North America. He got on base at a good clip, put up a 115 wRC+ and stole 30 bases in 38 attempts. Beside him in center field will be Carlos Gomez who finally had a decent season in 2012 and was rewarded with an extension that will keep him in Milwaukee through the 2016 season. The contract is not a huge one, but still has the potential to be a bit of a bust if his show of power in 2012 regresses.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy missed some time due to injury last season, but in his 96 games, he was one of the best catchers in baseball. He hit .320/.368/.513 with 12 home runs and excellent defense which led to a 3.9 WAR despite missing almost half the year. When he was out, Martin Maldonado stepped in and proved capable of holding down a Major League job.
The Brewers appear ready to give Jean Segura a full season to prove himself at short after an up-and-down Major League stint after the trade. Some still worry that his glove will eventually make him a second baseman, but he’s still young and athletic enough to greatly improve.
At first base will be Corey Hart eventually. Hart hit 30 home runs and was a well-above-average hitter again in 2012, but he could miss the first couple months of the year after a knee injury. Mat Gamel was expected to be given every opportunity to hold down the job until Hart returned, but he tore up his knee and will now miss the season (as a clearly superior person in the comments let me know in a totally rational way). Taylor Green and Alex Gonzalez (yes, the shortstop) will get the playing time unless the Brewers go outside the organization.
It stands to reason that the Brewers’ defense could get better in 2012, mostly because he cannot get much worse. A full season of Segura has to be better than a combination of Cesar Izturis and Cody Ransom and Carlos Gomez is an excellent center fielder. Lucroy is considered to be an excellent pitch-framer and defender despite the fact that he rarely throws out attempted base stealers. The Brewers are still suspect, however, in the outfield and infield corners and lack elite defenders outside of maybe Gomez.
The Brewers’ 30-game run in August and September should be taken with a decent-sized grain of salt considering they relied heavily on breakout performances from low-pedigree pitchers in their late-20s. If Estrada, Fiers, Narveson and Rogers all end up as valuable pitchers, some credit would need to go to pitching coach Rick Kranitz since all four are well beyond the age where sudden breakout performances are expected. Still, it’s hard to envision them getting a lot from a rotation that lacks high-impact names and a bullpen that’s only marginally better than it was a year ago. With Hart out and Ramirez getting older, it’s also difficult to see the Brewers outscoring the rest of the league again and there’s a startling lack of depth if injuries strike. It looks as though the window is closing quickly in Milwaukee.
2013 Prediction: 74-88, 4th NL Central