The Brewers' 2013 season will ultimately be defined by Ryan Braun's 65-game suspension, but the year was over before Braun's ban was even handed down. A 6-22 month of May sent the Brewers from a half game out of first place to 15 games out, dooming them to the cellar for the rest of the season. The worst month in franchise history made things seem worse for much of the year than they really were: outside of May, the Brewers were 68-66 overall, and 33-32 following Braun's suspension. The definition of mediocre, sure, but not nearly as disastrous as things were looking two months into the season. With Braun set to return in 2014, the Brewers will look to post their third winning season in four years.
First base was a disaster of historic proportions for the Brewers in 2013. To be fair to general manager Doug Melvin, it's hard to plan for both plan A (Corey Hart) and plan B (Mat Gamel) tearing ACLs in spring training. At the same time, Melvin never really made an effort in-season to find an adequate replacement, and as a result, Brewers first basemen combined for a .206/.259/.370 line. It's bad enough that Yuniesky Betancourt played in 137 games. The fact that he made 46 starts as a first baseman should tell you how bad things were. A midseason deal for Juan Francisco at least brought some pop to the position, but having never played the position in his big league career, he was a mess defensively. Hart is a free agent after missing the entire season with his knee injuries (he hurt the other knee while rehabbing his torn ACL), but has indicated he'd be willing to return on a one-year deal to prove he can stay healthy. The Brewers tried to sneak Gamel through waivers, but he was claimed by the Chicago Cubs.
While the pitching was surprisingly solid, the Brewers could still use a true top-of-the-rotation starter, as Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo would likely be #3 starters in a contender's rotation. With their payroll constraints, however, solidifying the bottom of the rotation is probably more realistic. It may make more financial sense for the Brewers to just stick with in-house options (Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg, Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann) to fill the last rotation spot or two, but owner Mark Attanasio has shown he prefers having veterans in the rotation.
Mike Gonzalez is a free agent this winter and is unlikely to be brought back, so it's possible the Brewers could be shopping for a veteran lefty specialist again this offseason to go with Tom Gorzelanny. While the Brewers have quite a few little-known bullpen arms stowed away that could be successful in the big leagues, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Melvin also add a righty reliever with this past season's exodus of experienced bullpen pieces.
The Brewers already have $80 million in payroll obligations locked in before even getting to their arbitration-eligible players, so they don't have a ton of money to play with in the free agent market. If they pass on bringing Hart back for one more year, they could look for a platoon partner for Francisco, or opt to continue using Sean Halton, who platooned with Fat Juan in September. Hunter Morris would have seen a lot of support for the first base job after being named Milwaukee's minor league player of the year two seasons ago, but a lackluster offensive year in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League has caused him to lose much of his prospect shine.
If the Brewers are going to look to collect more #4/#5 types, names like Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm could come up — guys who are likely to take one- or two-year deals without breaking the bank. The Brewers would likely prefer to have at least one left-hander in the rotation, so unless Gorzelanny moves there full-time, they could kick the tires on other lefties in addition to Maholm. The club is familiar with Chris Capuano, for example, who pitched in Milwaukee from 2004-2010.
The deals for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum before the 2011 season thinned out the farm system to the point where it was regarded as one of the worst in baseball for awhile. While the Brewers have been slowly rebuilding talent, they still don’t have anyone that could be truly be considered an impact prospect. That will hurt if the Brewers look to add any significant pieces through trade. The prospects the Brewers do have project more as bottom-of-the-rotation starters, bullpen arms, or role players that aren’t likely to be everyday players on good teams.
If the Brewers ever opted to go for a full rebuild instead of an annual push for .500, they would have pieces to move. Aramis Ramirez would be a nice option for a team looking for some power at third base, although he may be better suited for DH. Gallardo and Lohse both saw their names pop up in trade rumors this past July. Jim Henderson has fared well enough in the closer’s role that someone is bound to consider him a Proven Closer. Rickie Weeks will be in the final year of his contract, is coming off a pair of disappointing seasons and his eventual replacement (Scooter Gennett) played well in the majors after Weeks tore his hamstring. Norichika Aoki is a solid, cheap leadoff man or possible fourth outfielder on a contender. As we said back in July, if the Brewers want to trade away veterans, they have options. It just doesn’t seem likely.
Speaking of unlikely: the Brewers have been nothing but supportive of Braun (while being simultaneously “very disappointed”), and have given no public indication of wanting to rid themselves of the PR nightmare, or the $100 million they still owe him. Still, they’ve been careful not to promote him for next season — everything is centered around Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy — and they wouldn’t be the first team to move on from a player caught up in a PED mess. The Brewers would have to eat so much money and take back so little in return for him, though, that it just makes more sense to grit their teeth and bare it.
It’s probably safe to say the Brewers won’t be in on any of the big-name trade targets this winter. After taking that route to a division title in 2011, the Brewers just don’t have the trade chips to make a deal like that happen (not to mention such a move wouldn’t make sense, considering the squad they have now would need some luck to get to 80 wins). A starting pitcher with more than one year of team control left would maybe pique Melvin’s interest, but even average pitchers with team control don’t come very cheap via trade these days. Melvin could elect to address the first base problem in a deal, or try to find the third baseman of the future, assuming this is Ramirez’s last year in Milwaukee. With so much money tied into so few players already for 2014, it’s looking like it will be a long, quiet winter for Brewers fans.