Playing Pepper 2014: Milwaukee Brewers

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Milwaukee Brewers
74-88, fourth in the NL Central

While the results on the field were not what Brewers fans had come to expect over the past few years, there’s no doubt that Milwaukee’s season was interesting nonetheless.  Whether it was the late signing of Kyle Lohse, the suspension of Ryan Braun, or Carlos Gomez not being allowed to score by Brian McCann, the Brewers always seemed to be popping up in the news.

A lot of the surrounding noise should be quieter this season, but will that make for a Brewers team that contends with the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates of the Central?  To find out, I asked the following:

  • Nick from The Brewers Bar, part of the Bloguin network.  Nick turned the tables on me and asked similar questions, which should be up on his site sometime this week.  You can Tweet at him @TheBrewersBar.
  • Jaymes from Disciples of Uecker, which is the Milwaukee blog on ESPN’s Sweetspot network.  Jaymes is on Twitter @JaymesL.
  • Justin from Fansided blog Reviewing The Brew.  @JSchu23 is his Twitter handle.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

BB: I would grade the offseason at a B. For months the Brewers were the lone team that had not signed a free agent to a major league deal. Until the splashy Garza signing, things were looking pretty bleak in terms of patching the roster. They had an obvious void at first base after using the Band-Aid-on-a-gaping-wound approach in 2013, and I felt they needed to add at least one starting pitcher and get some help for the bullpen. The Garza signing does a lot to make the rotation competitive in the division, because without him I don’t think they’re in the same stratosphere as the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates. K-Rod was a nice piece to add to the bullpen to add some experience and firepower to the relief corps, and bring in a backup closer in case Jim Henderson falters. They could probably use more in the bullpen, still. As far as first base goes, the market this year in free agency was pretty thin and after Corey Hart signed with the Mariners, I was OK with what they did in adding former Brewer Lyle Overbay and mercurial slugger Mark Reynolds on low-risk contracts. I certainly didn’t want to see them go with Juan Francisco full-time at first base or go with a carousel of players like they did in 2013. They also didn’t have many great options in the trade market due to the Brewers’ weak farm system. I think a combination of Overbay/Reynolds/Francisco would be a good platoon for 2014 at least. Hopefully they get the Reynolds that mashed for the Indians in early ’13 and not the guy who forgot how to hit later in the season. This platoon approach is not a long-term answer for first base, of course, but considering what their options were, I’m fine with it…for now.

DU: Probably a C+. That’s not an indictment of the moves they made, it’s just that there weren’t that many. It seemed like quite a few fans were frustrated to see the Brewers sit out most of the offseason, with the only move made for much of the winter being the trade of Norichika Aoki to Kansas City. The Matt Garza signing at the end of January pushes the grade to C+ for me, otherwise it was a mostly average offseason. It’s pretty clear that for whatever reason, the Brewers’ front office didn’t see the need to make many changes. They’re buying heavily into the young pitchers at the back end of their rotation and in the bullpen, and they’re praying for better injury luck.

RTB: I would give the Brewers offseason a solid B.

C70: How excited are fans about the return of Ryan Braun? Will there be any repercussions?

BB: I think fans are cautiously optimistic that Ryan Braun will come back and be the player they saw prior to 2013. His PED suspension clearly throws his abilities into question and folks are rightfully concerned about how that will affect his play. Braun will also be transitioning to a new position in 2014, right field. I think if Braun comes back and hits well, a lot will be forgiven or forgotten. If he doesn’t hit well, the fans and the Brewers are in a lot of trouble because there’s a lot of money and time invested in the guy. There are already repercussions to Braun’s actions. I think fans will give him some time to make a comeback, but he’s hurt the franchise with his actions and the fans are hurt because their franchise player turned out to be a cheat. Regardless of what exactly Braun did and why, which is still unclear, he tried to cover up what he did and that’s the worst part about it. He gets a lot of flak that other guys, including the Cardinals’ Jhonny Peralta, don’t get because he said plainly to the media that he was innocent and then turned out to be guilty. But he’s our guy, so I’m thinking most fans would love to serve a shit sandwich to folks around the league by having Braun mash and put up big numbers in 2014. But damage has been done and can’t be undone.

DU: There are some Brewers fans who aren’t happy to see him back, but it’s hard to tell if there’s a significant number of them or if they’re just a very vocal minority. We’ll probably figure that part out when Braun steps to the plate for the first time at Miller Park. I’d like to think that most people are happy to see him back, though. Even if you’re a PED hardliner, he served his time — more time than he was required to accept under the CBA — and has as much right as anyone to step onto the field. The entire saga may have made him more unlikeable as a person, but fans will still cheer the player as long as he hits .300 with 30 homers. Fans in Milwaukee want to win more than anything, and if he helps them do that, he’ll eventually be accepted back, even if he’s no longer Everyone’s Favorite Brewer.

RTB: Fans should be excited about Ryan Braun’s return solely because he makes the team better. Without him, the Brewers a vastly different team. I expect some Brewer fans will boo him, but for the most part, he will be welcomed back.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

BB: As far as position battles are concerned, there are a few that will be worth watching in spring training this year for the Brewers. Perhaps the biggest question is what happens at second base, where the Brewers have incumbent Rickie Weeks returning from injury and on a huge contract. Unless he’s traded, it will be very revealing just how well Weeks competes for the second base job with Scooter Gennett, who can easily outplay Weeks in the field defensively but has a questionable bat. The 2014 season will likely be a crossroads at second base for the Brewers. Does Weeks make the team and platoon with Gennett? Do they trade Weeks before the season starts? With the rotation basically set with Garza, Gallardo, Lohse, Peralta and Estrada, there are few questions there. It will be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes out, but the other intriguing roster battle will probably be over playing time at first base and then subsequently who is able to grab the remaining bench spots. Logan Schafer (outfield), Martin Maldonado (backup catcher) and Jeff Bianchi (infielder) likely are locks to make the 25-man, but after that it’s unclear what will happen. One never knows until the games start how players will produce in spring training and whether injuries will be a factor. As much as the Brewers indicate they’re done adding pieces, a few minor additions could be made before the season starts, and trades can always occur, too.

DU: There’s a couple of different options here. One is the Rickie Weeks/Scooter Gennett battle at second base that everyone is focusing on. The other is the situation at first base, which is still pretty much a mess. Brewers first basemen literally put up one of the worst season-long performances in Major League history last season. This spring, you have Mark Reynolds, Juan Francisco and whatever’s left of Lyle Overbay competing for the job, with Sean Halton, Hunter Morris and Jason Rogers having an outside chance. None of them are exactly Prince Fielder or even Corey Hart over there, although even just a full season of Juan Francisco would’ve been better than what they trotted out to first base last year. At second base, Weeks is likely in his last season with the Brewers, and much of the fan base has turned on Weeks and his low-average, high-walk rate, high-strikeout style in favor of the ever-gritty Gennett (think David Eckstein with less patience at the plate). The two would at least make a very good platoon, but the organization seems to love Gennett and Weeks is probably going to be traded at some point.

RTB: I’m excited to watch the second base situation unfold. It’s clear that Scooter Gennett is the favorite to be the starter, but what if Rickie Weeks has a monster spring and Gennett flounders? The Brewers are paying Weeks $11 million in 2014. Are they really going to make him sit on the bench?

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

BB: Pitchers Michael Blazek (acquired from the Cardinals in the John Axford trade) and Wei-Chung Wang (picked up from the Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft) along with outfielder Khris Davis will be young players that could have a significant impact for the Brewers in 2014, with Khris Davis having the best shot to really change things. Wei-Chung Wang is a young Rookie leaguer but he pitched professionally in Taiwan before coming to the States, so he may find a spot in the bullpen if he pitches well. As far as pure rookies go, starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson will probably have the chance to make the biggest impact. Nelson made one start for the Brewers in late September last year and he’s one of the few starting pitchers to rise quickly through the system in recent years and is knocking on the door. The team may not have a spot for him out of spring training, but should a starter miss time for whatever reason, Nelson would be an impact arm that could help the Brewers supplement and bridge the gap. Nelson and pitcher Tyler Thornburg are probably the two young pitchers with the potential to make the greatest impact on the team’s fortunes in 2014.

DU: With one of the worst farm systems in baseball — or at least one of the farm systems with the least amount of impact talent — there aren’t really that many to choose from here. The best chance of someone contributing is probably in the bullpen or rotation in the event of an injury. Johnny Hellweg was the Brewers’ minor league pitcher of the year last year, but has serious control issues, as seen by the 9:26 K:BB ratio in the 30.2 innings he threw in the big leagues last year. Jimmy Nelson is probably the most likely to contribute, featuring a power sinker and a slider that can serve as a strikeout pitch.

RTB: Jimmy Nelson is the only rookie that comes to mind. If he makes the team, he’ll probably pitch out of the bullpen. He was lights out during his short time in Milwaukee last season. I’m excited to see what he can do for an entire season.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

BB: It’s easy to be optimistic in February. After the addition of Garza, I feel a lot better in terms of the Brewers’ chances in the NL Central for 2014. I think they may still be a year away from being a truly competitive team, though. The Cardinals are the top dog in the division for good reason, and to me they’ll always be the biggest and most consistent threat. They know what they’re doing and they have the resources to keep it going. I’m not sold on the Reds or Pirates. To me, the Pirates were a great story last year and I was rooting REALLY HARD for them to beat the Cards in the NLDS. That said, I think the Pirates could regress this year. They haven’t made many significant additions this offseason, and a lot will swing on whether A.J. Burnett returns to their rotation. I just don’t think they have the offense to really scare me at this point. The Reds have some great pitching, but as with the Pirates, their offense is streaky and they lost Shin-Soo Choo. I think the Reds could have another good year and make the playoffs just as easily as they could have a year like 2011, when they went 79-83 and underperformed. I’m going to say the Brewers will finish 85-77, good for third place in the division behind the Cardinals and Reds. That may be a bit of wishful thinking, that they could outperform the Pirates, but I think either the Pirates or Reds will take a step back this year. Maybe even both. While I don’t think the Brewers have the pitching to win the division, I think the odds are that the Brewers will have a solid team that will be much improved from 2013. The offense had a severe down year in 2013, and with a rejuvenated offense (Braun and Aramis Ramirez back, Khris Davis for a whole year, etc.) and improved pitching staff, the Brewers could make some noise this year. I don’t necessarily think they’ll get a Wild Card spot, but it’s possible, which is light years ahead of what I was thinking in November and December. I will be happy if they are an entertaining bunch that flies under the radar but can be a wrecking ball. If they can’t make the playoffs, I’d love for the team to be a real thorn in other teams’ sides, particularly division teams. Finally, the Cubs will be bad again.

DU: The Brewers figure to at least be competitive again this year, but it’s still hard to see them in the division race. Anywhere between 80 and 85 wins wouldn’t be surprising, but where they finish in the division likely depends more on the Reds and Pirates regressing more than anything. Third place is probably a reasonable expectation for this group, unless quite a few things break their way.

RTB: I predict the Brewers will finish a few games over .500 and will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Adding Garza helped tremendously, but I don’t think it’s enough to make them playoff contenders.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

BB: I most enjoy watching Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee’s starting catcher. He just exudes focus and leadership, and quiet presence. You can tell he takes the game seriously, but not too seriously. He’s known for his pitch framing which helps the pitching staff tremendously. If it weren’t for the annoying omnipresence of Yadier Molina and Buster Posey in terms of winning all the NL catching accolades, Lucroy would be up there at the top. Sooner or later he will get his recognition. But yeah, I consider Lucroy to be the face of the franchise and the guy I enjoy watching the most. The Brewers Bar sponsored his Baseball Reference page.

DU: Carlos Gomez. It’s just fun to watch someone who has so much fun playing baseball. Sometimes his play can be a little out of control — he’ll get thrown out trying to take an extra base or hurt himself crashing into a wall — but it’s still fun to see him fly around the field. It helps that he’s one of the best centerfielders in the game, too. It’s comforting knowing just about every fly ball is going to be tracked down. The highlight reel catches are a bonus.

RTB: Without question, I enjoy watching Carlos Gomez the most. He brings so much energy to the field both offensively and defensively.

I appreciate all these guys bringing the heat when it comes to the Brewers.  While the Cardinals should have enough to hold them off, you can never be to sure where this team is involved.

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