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Brew Crew trying to put disappointing 2013 behnd them
Despite coming off their worst season in nearly a decade, the Milwaukee Brewers largely stood pat heading into 2014. While on the surface that might seem crazy, there was a method behind the madness for general manager Doug Melvin. He’s banking on his team not being hammered by injuries, the starting pitching showing up for the first half and Ryan Braun returning to his 2011 National League MVP form after being suspended for the final 65 games of 2013 for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. It’s an awfully fine line to walk for the Brewers if they want to compete in what was the toughest division in baseball a year ago. But the belief is that there’s more than enough talent returning to catch lightning in a bottle and get back into the mix with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.
Milwaukee forfeited its first-round draft choice by signing free agent Kyle Lohse at the end of spring training in 2013. And while the reasoning was solid, it took the veteran righthander and the rest of the Brewers’ starters half a season to get up to speed. By then, the team was well out of the race. So, this winter, the Brewers acted a bit more quickly to bring Matt Garza into the fold, the only significant addition over the winter. The former Twin, Ray, Cub and Ranger signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee. He isn’t a superstar by any means, but he should fit nicely into this established rotation. Last season, Lohse & Co. rebounded in the second half in a big way, posting one of the best staff ERAs in the majors at 3.31 over the final 81 games. The belief is that Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada can build off the momentum from that and hit the ground running in 2014. The biggest question will be whether Gallardo can return to form. His velocity was down and his pitch counts up last season, leading to a 12–10 record — and trade rumors. Gallardo has lots of mileage on his right arm but is still only 28, which works in his favor. With a full winter off, he should be rested up and looking at a bounce-back campaign. Peralta is the future ace of the staff with a high-90s fastball and devastating sinker that produces lots of ground balls. If he can continue to keep his emotions in check when facing adversity, he could become the team’s next 20-game winner. Estrada racks up big strikeout numbers with a deceptive fastball and effective changeup but hasn’t been able to be counted on for a full season since becoming a full-time starter. That needs to change this year.
The Brewers’ relief corps was one of the only areas of the team that actually surpassed expectations last season. Two of the most pleasant surprises — Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler — return to the closer and setup roles, respectively. Henderson is still relatively new to the job, however, and relying almost exclusively on his fastball can be dangerous. Kintzler pitched his way into the setup role after beginning 2013 as something of an unknown quantity, and it’s possible he might even get a chance to close games at some point. The Brewers brought Francisco Rodriguez back for another tour. Rodriguez had 10 saves in 25 games with Brew Crew last season prior to a trade to Baltimore. At the time of the trade, Rodriguez had a 1.09 ERA and 1.054 WHIP. He wasn’t as effective with the Orioles, but both strikeout and walk ratios improved. Tom Gorzelanny and Will Smith figure to be the team’s two left-handed relievers, and both can provide length as long men as well. The rest of the bullpen could feature youngsters Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten who made their debuts with the Brewers in 2013. The hope is the starting pitching won’t place as big of a burden on the relievers as it did early on a year ago.
The Brewers are excited about their projected starting middle infield, and rightly so. Jean Segura is coming off his first All-Star nod, and second baseman Scooter Gennett blossomed as the team’s starter after Rickie Weeks was lost to injury early last August. Both are only 24 years old. Segura showed in 2013 that he could do it all. A late-season slump left him just short of .300, but he flashed some decent power with 12 homers while also banging out 12 triples, finished second in the NL with 44 stolen bases and also played a strong shortstop. Gennett, meanwhile, seized his opportunity when Weeks went down and led the NL by hitting .358 from Aug. 5 through the end of the season. Gennett hit .324 overall with a surprising six homers while playing a better-than-advertised second base. Weeks could earn the opportunity to play against lefthanders. His $11 million salary, age, injury history and declining skills make him tough to trade, and the Brewers aren’t likely to release him. Either Segura or Gennett will fill the leadoff role left vacant by the trade of Norichika Aoki.
The Brewers need major bounce-backs at both first and third base a year after injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez killed their lineup. First base figures to be a work in progress. Hart signed a free-agent deal with Seattle, leaving Melvin to work with a group that included Juan Francisco, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Prospects Sean Halton, Taylor Green and former minor-league Player of the Year Hunter Morris may see some action there before the summer is over, but for now it’s likely a platoon between Reynolds and Francisco. Both players feature terrific raw power, prodigious strikeout totals and shaky defense. It’s not likely that the club will keep both Francisco and Overbay — both left-handed hitters — on the roster. Ramirez, meanwhile, is aiming to return to his normal productive self after appearing in just 92 games due to a left knee injury he suffered in spring training. The Brewers need him back in the cleanup spot and driving in runs, and the 35-year-old Ramirez needs a healthy, productive season if he has any hopes of securing another long-term contract.
While Carlos Gomez will continue to man center and look to build on a career year both offensively and defensively, there will be major changes in the corners as Braun moves from left field to right to make room for up-and-comer Khris Davis in left. The thinking in the moves is that Davis’ substandard throwing arm makes him only a candidate for left, while Braun is athletic enough and has enough of an arm to make the switch to right. The Brewers thought enough of Davis, who hit 11 home runs in 136 at-bats with Milwaukee last season, to trade the popular Aoki to clear space for him as a starter. Now he’ll need to deliver.
Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2013, with his 18 homers and 82 RBIs ranking him among the league leaders at his position. He was also durable, avoiding injury for the first time and playing 147 games. Lucroy’s next challenge is to continue to improve defensively while also continuing to hone his game-calling. He has become one of the team leaders.
Manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t had the veteran pinch-hitters he prefers since his initial season in Milwaukee in 2011. He probably won’t have any again this season, although outfielder Logan Schafer has shown the ability to succeed in the role. The non-starting half of the Reynolds-Francisco combo will also be available, as well as Weeks. Schafer is also terrific defensively and will likely be a frequent late-inning substitute in left field. Jeff Bianchi can play every position in the infield, making him a valuable piece if he can avoid injury. Catcher Martin Maldonado doesn’t hit much, but he adds so much defensively and in the clubhouse that he’ll remain the backup.
Melvin is hamstrung by the Brewers’ small-market status. And while team principal owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend on a case-by-case basis — see the Lohse signing last spring — it’s not expected that Milwaukee’s payroll will deviate much from the mid-$80 million mark. So Melvin will continue to scour the bargain bins looking for ways to buy low and catch lightning in a bottle. The minor-league system has been bereft of impact talent at the top levels since Melvin traded much of it away in an attempt to make a run in 2011. Just about anyone deemed close to major-league ready got a shot with the Brewers in 2013. The majority of high-ceiling talent has yet to make it above Class A in the organization. Roenicke is well-regarded by his players and within baseball. He’s done a nice job under some difficult circumstances.
Melvin resisted a complete tear-down and rebuild, believing his team can compete if it stays healthy and performs up to its capabilities. Those are big ifs, however. The top of the NL Central will be tough to crack with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all expected to be strong once again, meaning that even if everything goes according to plan it still might not be enough for the Brewers to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
SS Jean Segura (R)
Coming off first All-Star Game appearance, but hit leadoff only twice in ’13. Needs more plate discipline.
2B Scooter Gennett (L)
Possesses surprising pop, and his left-handed bat is a nice piece for a righty-heavy lineup.
RF Ryan Braun (R)
Returns to his customary No. 3 spot, where he hit .298 with nine HRs and 38 RBIs over 61 games in 2013.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
His left knee wasn’t right all season, and his 12 homers were his fewest as a full-time player in the majors.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Became a run-producer by default last year, and he delivered career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (82).
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Hit in every spot in the lineup in 2013, and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
LF Khris Davis (R)
Averaged a homer every 12.4 at-bats in 153 plate appearances, finishing with 11 and 27 RBIs.
1B Juan Francisco (L)
Big power, but 138 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances in 2013 don’t suggest that he’s a viable everyday player.
INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Singles hitter whose greatest value lies in the fact he can play any infield position, as well as in the outfield.
OF Logan Schafer (L)
Tremendous outfielder. Has proven he can deliver as a pinch-hitter, which will likely be his role once again.
C Martin Maldonado (R)
Great defensive catcher whose rapport with Wily Peralta has made him a valuable piece of the puzzle.
1B-3B Mark Reynolds (R)
Batting average hasn’t touched .225 since his 44-homer season in 2009.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Three-year batting average decline (.269-.230-.209) has Brewers concerned his career is approaching an end.
RH Kyle Lohse
His 11–10 record in 2013 was deceiving. His bulldog mentality and veteran leadership are much needed.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Took a big step back last season as his velocity dropped and his numbers suffered.
RH Matt Garza
The veteran is 5-6 with a 4.62 ERA in his career against the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals.
RH Wily Peralta
Big righthander has ace-type stuff and began to show his tremendous promise in the second half last year.
RH Marco Estrada
Has been dominating in stretches, but just can’t stay healthy. Has also performed well in long relief.
RH Jim Henderson (Closer)
The big Canadian became Brewers’ regular closer in 2013, when he converted 28-of-32 save opportunities.
RH Brandon Kintzler
Came out of nowhere to become Brewers’ setup man with a decent fastball and great slider.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Held left-handed hitters to a .156 average last season; curiously, righties hit a robust .342.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Coming off shoulder surgery. Can both start and relieve but was more consistent out of the bullpen in 2013.
RH Alfredo Figaro
Fireballer had his moments as both starter and long man, but couldn’t get his breaking balls over regularly.
RH Rob Wooten
Pitched like a savvy veteran rather than the rookie he was in some tough late-inning situations last season.
LH Will Smith
Gave up 24 hits and struck out 43 in 33.1 innings with the Royals last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Devin Williams, RHP
The Brewers lost their first-round pick for signing free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse toward the end of spring training in 2013. They were delighted when Williams fell to them in the second round, where they snapped him up with the 54th overall pick. Milwaukee went 33 percent over slot in giving Williams a $1.35 million signing bonus, but needed to in order to persuade him to pass on a scholarship to the University of Missouri. The 6'3" fireballer already has team officials excited with his power arm and high ceiling. In 34.2 innings of Rookie ball, he gave up 28 hits and struck out 39. Williams, only 19, is still a long way away from the big leagues, but the future appears bright for the Hazelwood, Mo., native.
CF Tyrone Taylor (20)
Considered the team’s best overall prospect, he dominated the Rookie League as an 18 year old in 2012. His progressed continued last season at Low-A.
OF Victor Roache (22)
Taken 28th overall in 2012 by the Brewers, the slugger hit 22 bombs and drove in 74 at Low-A Wisconsin last summer.
RHP Johnny Hellweg (25)
Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 who struggled mightily in two separate major league stints. Still shows promise.
1B Hunter Morris (25)
Morris hit 24 homers in Triple-A in 2013, but the Brewers don’t feel he’s a finished product. Needs improvement defensively.
1B Jason Rogers (26)
Former 32nd-round pick who was named Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2013. Being tried at third base and in the outfield as well.
OF Mitch Haniger (23)
Advanced former college player who stood out in the Arizona Fall League. Should debut in Double-A some time this season.
RHP David Goforth (25)
Went 4–3 with 3.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP after call-up to Class AA last season.
C Clint Coulter (20)
He was drafted in the first round in 2012 as a potential impact bat, but he has played only 33 games above rookie level heading into 2014 and is quickly falling out of favor.
RHP Taylor Jungmann (24)
Former college star who’s likely ticketed for Triple-A. Lacks electric stuff. Projects as a No. 4 or 5 starter in the majors.
Beyond the Box Score
Day-zed and confused Among the more confounding issues for the Brewers in 2013 was their inability to compete when the lights weren’t on. Milwaukee finished the season with an 18–35 record in day games, including an 8–20 record in day games played at Miller Park. Shadows creeping across the playing surface under the afternoon sun have been an issue at home since Miller Park opened in 2001, and the Brewers hit just .234 during the day compared to .261 at night.
Golden once again Carlos Gomez ended a 31-year streak for the Brewers by winning the Rawlings Gold Glove in center field in 2013. The last Milwaukee player to be so honored was Robin Yount at shortstop in 1982, when the Brewers were still in the American League. Gomez was dynamic, being credited with 38 defensive runs saved — tops among all MLB centerfielders — to go along with 12 assists. Gomez also made five home run-saving catches, far and away the most for a single season in that category.
Miserable May The Brewers knocked themselves out of contention almost from the get-go in 2013, tying a franchise record for futility in a single month by going 6–22 in May. That left them 15 games behind the pace in the NL Central — far too big of a deficit in the best division in baseball. Poor starting pitching was mostly to blame for the Brewers’ struggles, and an injury-riddled offense missing some of its big bats just couldn’t make up the frequent early deficits.
Worst at first With Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green all out for the season with injuries, the Brewers had no choice but to fill the void at first base with stopgaps. That left seven different players — none of whom had ever started a game at first previously in the majors — to split the position. The result: an MLB-low combined .629 OPS and spotty defense.
Youth was served All the injuries and inconsistency allowed the Brewers to get a good look at their top advanced prospects. In all, 10 different players from Class AAA Nashville — five pitchers and five position players — made their debuts. One, leftfielder Khris Davis, played himself into a starting spot for 2014, while others like pitchers Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten and outfielder Caleb Gindl proved they could at least contribute in the bigs.