NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

You can't outrun Joe Kelly. You can't. Don't try it. - Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers had a disappointing season in 2013, highlighted by their star player's suspension for PED use. There is some hope for optimism in 2014, with Ryan Braun's return and a solid rotation backing a potential surprise team this season.

A baseball team never wants its season to be known more for a player who is not playing than the players who are on the field. For the 2013 Milwaukee BrewersRyan Braun's admission of PED use and suspension generated far more attention than the rest of the team in a disappointing season. In addition to losing its best player, the team also had injuries to Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, and Mat Gamel (again) to go along with a step back from ace Yovani Gallardo and a huge step back from second baseman Rickie Weeks. Solid seasons from Johnathon Lucroy and Norichika Aoki were mixed in with breakouts from Jean Segura and MVP-candidate Carlos Gomez. Even with the suspension, injuries, and struggles, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Brewers season was this: Yuniesky Betancourt started 46 games for the Brewers at first base.

Despite a generally poor season, the Brewers have been labeled by some as a dark horse contender in 2014. The only significant departure for the Brewers during the offseason was Norichika Aoki, departing in a trade to the Royals. While Aoki is a solid player, his hitting line of .286/.356/.370 with solid defense in right field yielded just 1.7 fWAR. To replace Aoki, the Brewers will be moving Braun from left field to right field and installing Khris Davis as a regular after Davis filled in for Braun during his suspension last season. Expecting a full season of Davis' 2013 line of .279/.353/.596 would be extremely optimistic, but getting a full season from his ZiPS projections of .249/.330/.450 would put him right in line to replace Aoki's production.

Carlos Gomez put together an incredible season in 2013, hitting .284/.338/.506 to go along with 40 steals (caught just seven times) and stellar outfield defense. Another great season and the return of Ryan Braun for a full season should give Milwaukee two of the top ten players in the National League. Lucroy is solid at the plate and abehind it. Aramis Ramirez has always hit when healthy, and Jean Segura parlayed an excellent first half into a solid first season in Milwaukee after coming over in the Zack Greinke trade. Segura may not reach double figures in home runs like he did in 2013, but if he can continue to reach base at league average levels, run well, and play an average shortstop, he will be an above average player for the Brewers. Including Segura, the Brewers could have six lineup spots with above average production.

Rickie Weeks cratered in 2013, hitting .209/.256/.307 for a wRC+ of 86 and striking out more than 26% of the time. He eventually lost playing time to Scooter Gennett at second. Gennett played very well in limited time last season, posting .324/.356/.479 in 230 plate appearances. This performance is not likely repeatable. His last two seasons in the minors he did not have an OBP above .330 or a slugging above .400. It is not quite clear how playing time will shake out at second base, but unless Rickie Weeks rediscovers his stroke from a few years ago, the position is likely to be below average. First base is even worse, where Milwaukee is projected to platoon Juan Francisco and Mark ReynoldsFangraphs recently rated the Brewers first basemen as 27th out of 30 for this season, beating just the Pirates, Phillies, and Marlins.

After bringing in a mid-range starter each of the past two seasons, this year Matt Garza, the Brewers should have a solid, deep rotation in 2014. Yovani Gallardo had a disappointing 2013, with an ERA of 4.18, and a FIP of 3.89 in 180 2/3 innings. While his FIP was actually slightly improved from 2012 due to a drop in homers, his 7.17 K/9 (18.6 K%) was the lowest of his career by a wide margin. If the Brewers are to contend in 2014, Gallardo may be the key to a surprising season. Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza should be right around league average. Marco Estrada only made 21 starts in 2013, but he pitched well, striking out 8.3 hitters per nine innings (23.1 K%) while walking just 5.7% of batters. His ERA (3.87) and FIP (3.86) were both good, but his xFIP (3.63) indicates he could be even better in 2014 if he can do a better job keeping the ball in the park. Wily Peralta is the sort of low-risk, medium reward guy that is good to round out a rotation. In 183 1/3 innings last season, Peralta looked a lot like Joe Kelly. He does not strike out a lot of players, he walks too many hitters, but he is a high velocity, ground ball pitcher who lacked the same results as Kelly despite pitching the same way. Nobody on the staff is overwhelming, but having five average to above average starters will win a team a lot of games over the course of the season.

The end of the bullpen should be strong, with Jim Henderson continuing the role he had at the end of 2013 as closer and Francisco Rodriguez ably setting him up in eighth. The bench is not a strong one, and any injury or other prolonged absence by one of their better players would really hurt the Brewers. The cautious optimism surrounding the Brewers is understandable. With Gomez and Braun along with Segura, Lucroy and a decent rotation, the Brewers could be primed for a run at the playoffs. The most likely outcome is a few injuries here or there or some players not performing to expectations resulting in a record somewhere around .500.

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