By any measure, the 2013 season was a disaster for the Milwaukee Brewers. A 6-22 month of May sent the Brewers crashing down to the bottom of the NL Central standings, and they were never able to fully dig themselves out. Of course, there was also the matter of Ryan Braun’s involvement in the Biogenesis case — rumors of a looming suspension plagued Braun for much of the first half, as well as a nagging thumb injury that sapped him much of his power. The hammer finally fell on Braun after the All-Star Break, and as he served his 65-game suspension, Khris Davis burst onto the scene. Davis made such an impression that the Brewers trade Norichika Aoki to make room for him, and moved Braun over to right field. Now, after signing Matt Garza, the Brewers hope to return to playoff contention.
Depth Chart (as of 3/11):
C: Jonathan Lucroy
1B: Juan Francisco / Mark Reynolds / Lyle Overbay
2B: Rickie Weeks / Scooter Gennett
3B: Aramis Ramirez
SS: Jean Segura
LF: Khris Davis
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Ryan Braun
SP: Kyle Lohse
SP: Matt Garza
SP: Yovani Gallardo
SP: Marco Estrada
SP: Wily Peralta
CL: Jim Henderson
Garza was the only major addition in a quiet offseason for the Brewers, and his signing didn’t come until the final days of January. He’ll join last year’s late pitching signing, Kyle Lohse, near the top of the rotation along with Yovani Gallardo. There are some health concerns, but when healthy, Garza should give the Brewers one of the more solid starting trios in the division. Mark Reynolds was brought in on a minor league contract as a possible solution to the Brewers’ first base woes, but even if he doesn’t win the starting job, he figures to be insurance for Aramis Ramirez at third base.
Aoki, a free agent at the end of the year, was traded in early December for lefty Will Smith. With Aoki gone, the Brewers will have to figure out a way to replace the .355 OBP Aoki put up while mostly hitting from the leadoff spot. Corey Hart, who the Brewers may have been counting on to come back and man first base, spurned Milwaukee on the free agent market in favor of a deal with the Seattle Mariners. Hart missed all of last season after having surgery on both of his knees, so the Brewers are used to playing without him, but when Hart signed elsewhere, they were left scrambling to find a solution at first base for the second straight year.
With one of the thinnest minor league systems in baseball, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about in terms of rookies who could make an impact this season. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle — the Brewers traded away their best prospects for veterans to help them win in the short-term, and now that they have no major league-ready prospects, they have to keep signing veterans, and some of them have cost the team draft picks that would’ve been used to build the farm system back up. If there’s one rookie that may end up playing a role this year, it may be Jimmy Nelson, the tall righty with a power sinker that will start the year in Triple-A. He’s likely the first one called up after an injury or two in the starting rotation, and while he’s not a top pitching prospect, he figures to be a solid starter in the big leagues.
First base is still mostly a mess for the Brewers, but at least this year they’ll try to actually play first basemen at the position, as opposed to Yuniesky Betancourt. Juan Francisco has the power to hit over 20 home runs if given the chance to play a whole season, but the Brewers aren’t crazy about his strikeouts and are especially not crazy about his defense (at a position he never played before last season, but I digress). Mark Reynolds was brought in, and like Francisco, hits a lot of home runs while striking out a bunch and making a lot of mistakes in the field, but he does it as a right-handed hitter. The defensive concerns are apparently so great that the Brewers felt the need to give Lyle Overbay a chance at making the team, and it looks like he just might despite there being doubts about his ability to still hit major league pitching.
Second base is the other battle this spring, with Rickie Weeks likely in his final season as a Brewer and Scooter Gennett pushing for playing time. Gennett is your typical small, gritty infielder without much pop, and like Weeks isn’t the best defender. He did play well while Weeks was out with a torn hamstring last season, though, and it’s only a matter of time before he does take the job as his own, whether it’s this season or next.
Garza, as many people are fond of dwelling on, has a screw in his elbow and is generally regarded as a ticking timebomb who is already coming off of two injury-plagued years. The Brewers are at least better-equipped to handle rotation injuries than they have been in the past, but if Garza does go down, they’re essentially the same team they were last season. Aramis Ramirez missed a significant chunk of last season with knee problems that started when he sprained it last spring. He’s 36 this season, and there’s always a chance those knees and hamstrings could flare up again. Weeks also has an extensive injury history and is coming off of a significant hamstring tear, and Carlos Gomez’s all-out play in the field means there’s a nonzero chance he’ll land himself on the DL by crashing into a wall or diving for a catch.
The Brewers seem to be betting that last year was a fluke, with Braun’s suspension and a slew of injuries robbing the team of its true potential. If everyone does stay healthy this year, Khris Davis proves last year’s half-season power surge was for real, Jean Segura doesn’t fade in the second half and Braun proves to still be an MVP-caliber player post-suspension, they could be a serious contender for a wildcard spot. The Cardinals are likely too good to catch in the Central, but with the Reds and Pirates facing significant losses, the Brewers could sneak into second place.
If Braun can’t hit like he did in 2012 after his first run-in with the JDA and Ramirez misses time, suddenly the Brewers’ lineup looks a lot less fearsome. A Garza injury in year one of the biggest free agent deal given out in Brewers history would also be disastrous. Khris Davis could go back to being the kind of guy that never got a lot of attention as a prospect after the Brewers bet so much on him. Enough of these things go wrong — or break like they did last year, even — and the Brewers could find themselves in 4th place again, with only the maybe-sorta-still-tanking Cubs keeping them out of last place.
Braun hits more like he did in 2009 or 2010, but whether that’s because he’s off whatever he was taking or it’s because of simple regression — he is 30 now — is anyone’s guess. Without Braun performing at an MVP level, the Brewers are a solid team, but on the outer fringes of the playoff race — better than quite a few teams, competitive in just about every game they play, but not at the level of the teams that will spend the year leading the wildcard standings. It’d be pretty safe to peg them for the 80-83 win range.