I'll start off by saying this: I think that everyone is massively downplaying how good this Brewers team can be in 2014, and doing so at their detriment. I've seen Milwaukee consistently picked to finish in the 75-80 win range, barely displacing the last place Cubs, but this team has quite a bit of top shelf talent at the major league level and a possibility of full seasons from Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez could provide a huge lift over the Brewer club that finished the 2013 season on a downward trend.
The issue, of course, is that they basically have to avoid any and all injuries to any of their top 15 - 20 players. Not just the key ones, but any injury whatsoever to any player expected to play a major role this season. Why? Because there's an absolute dearth of talent to replace any of those players with in the high minors. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zip. We can giggle all we want at Kyle Lohse. But when the option is Kyle Lohse and "sub-replacement level pitching prospect C" who has more walks than innings? You better bet Lohse is the better option (loss of draft pick due to signing of terrible Kyle Lohse contract not withstanding -- thanks for Rob Kaminsky, fellas!)
That's not to say that there's no impact talent in the entire farm system in Beer-land. It's just that those impact guys are way down the totem pole, have significant questions to answer, and are in no position to help this team this year unless they pull some sort of Marlins level stunt and have a bunch of guys skip development time in A+ and AA to fill holes in the big leagues. I'm pretty certain that Victor Roache and Tyrone Taylor aren't the type of guys you do that with, but when a team gives up a first round pick to sign Kyle Lohse, any and all bets are off the table.
Here's a few players that could help the Brewers in 2014 if needed:
1. Jimmy Nelson, RHP
Nelson made his big league debut last year after moving through both AA and AAA with above average strikeout and ground ball rates at both stops. After a few relief appearances Nelson did make a start the last week of the season against the Mets, perhaps as a sort of audition for a rotation spot in 2014. Then the club signed Matt Garza, basically rendering the competition between Nelson and Wily Peralta for the last spot, which Peralta snagged with a decent spring training. Rather than put him in the bullpen, the Brewers decided to stick Nelson in the rotation at AAA, filling the role of 6th starter for them -- the first guy they'll call on when someone gets hurt.
A second rounder in 2010 out of Alabama, Nelson has the profile of a right handed reliever: Plus fastball with good velocity and movement, plus slider, a fringey third pitch, and relatively no idea where any of them are going most of the time. His walk rate is the reason that Peralta was the choice for the 5th spot in the rotation, but his stuff and ability to pitch down in the zone makes him more valuable as a starting pitching prospect right now than a bullpen arm. If Peralta struggles and Nelson can curtail his walk rate a bit at AAA (where he walked 13.6% of the hitters he faced last year) he might get a shot to start mid-season. If not, there's a good chance he's a September call up if nobody gets hurt, just like he was last year.
2. Ja'Unter Rogorris
This is my nickname for the interesting AAA platoon of 1B/LF candidates Jason Rogers and Hunter Morris, who have been replaced at the big league level by Mayle Reyverbay (Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay), an older, wiser, more expensive platoon but relatively similar to their younger counterparts. Rogers probably doesn't get enough credit for his minor league track record -- he hit 22 homers in AA last year while slashing .268/.344/.466 from the right side of the plate. Morris has a bit more pedigree and ripped 53 XBH from the left side in AAA last season, but really, really struggles against left handed pitchers, slashing just .211/.256/.411 against them.
Together, these guys could make a pretty darn good platoon -- much like Overbay and Reynolds likely will: Good power, low contact rates, a few walks, lots and lots of strikeouts. How much impact they can have on the 2014 Brewers will depend on how productive their veteran doppelgangers can be, but I doubt we see either unless there's a significant injury.
Of note: Rogers got a look in the outfield in the AFL last fall, and also took some instruction time at third base over the winter at the Brewers Dominican academy. I don't think he's got enough talent to play either position well, but he could be a stop gap in case the ever fragile Aramis Ramirez goes down. It would be worth watching how much time he gets at 3B in AAA this season for this reason.
3. Bullpen Dudes
There's nobody else that can really fill any gaps for this team that projects anywhere above replacement level as a position player or starting pitcher, but they do have a few interesting bullpen arms in the high minors.
- Johnny Hellweg is a huge man: 6'9", 230 and possesses a huge fastball to match. However, like most of the other Brewers hurlers he generally has no idea where it's going. Pair that with some inconsistent secondary stuff and his upside has fallen from "mid-rotation starter" to "possible set up guy".
- Taylor Jungmann is the big miss for the Brewers in the last few drafts. Taken in the first round out of Texas a few drafts ago, most draft evaluators thought he was a real first round reach at the time and that's proven true. As a solid college arm with innings eater potential but little relative upside in terms of stuff, he now looks like a 5th starter at best and a long relief/middle innings role being most likely. Could help the 2014 team in the bullpen but I'd expect him to be far behind Nelson as a rotation candidate. If Jungmann has to make more than 2 starts for this Brewer club, they're in serious trouble.
- David Goforth successfully transitioned to the bullpen at AA last year and the results were excellent. He can pound the strike zone with an upper 90's fastball that's a true plus-plus pitch and his cutter and slider are both solid secondary offerings that certainly play better in the bullpen than the rotation. Goforth doesn't have the wipeout type stuff that you'd expect from a true ROOGY or dominant setup pitcher (like a Jeff Nelson) but could certainly be the 7th or 8th inning guy on a good club. Not to mention all the interesting possibilities Roenicke could use when calling for him on the bullpen phone: "Goforth, to the mound!" or "Goforth, may you swill the mead of the vanquished!".