MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 16: Two Milwaukee Brewers fans look on dejected after they lost 12-6 against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Six of the National League Championship Series at Miller Park on October 16, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
The answer to the question posed in the title really depends on your assumptions. To set up a model to project the amount of wins a team will have, you're going to have a necessary tradeoff between simplicity and practicality. The more assumptions you make, the easier and more practical it is to evaluate the model, but it's also going to be less realistic or accurate. There are a lot of assumptions built in, which is why anyone jumping in right now and saying "this team is 2 wins better than the 2011 team" is going to have to back that up with a full explanation of what, exactly, they mean by that.
The first subject that needs to be addressed is the baseline used for comparison. In my mind I see a few possibilities.
You could be looking at the 2011 team as a 96-win team, and then use projections to replace production from the new players while basically assuming the same production everywhere else from returning players. It's probably the simplest version and it's the version that's most prevalent in simple forecasting.
From that standpoint, it's easy to make an argument that the 2012 Brewers will be improved if Braun's not going to be suspended. You just say, conservatively, Ramirez is +2.5 wins at third base, Gonzalez is +1.5 at short, K-Rod is +1 being here the whole season, and Fielder to Gamel is a 3 win dropoff, and Saito and Hawkins are a loss of 1 win. That comes out to +1 overall. That's a nice, clean argument but it's so simple it's essentially meaningless.
There's a lot of problems in that but the biggest one is probably the baseline. It assumes that in retrospect the 2011 Brewers had a true talent of 96 wins. Is that a valid assumption? Maybe. But there's also a good argument that they slightly overperformed their context-neutral production. BP's third order wins gave them an adjusted record of 92.3-69.7. Clutch performances might have lifted up the total win level just a bit. There's nothing wrong with that, the Brewers were still far and away the best team in the NL Central, by 5 third order wins, and were second to the Phillies in the NL in that category.
That's not even touching on the changes in production from year to year. Production from 2011 is a reasonable starting point for projection for players in their prime, but it's not perfect. I'm not even getting into that yet.
The best projection for 2012 is going to take into account projections going forward and not use a comparison to 2011 because there are far too many variables in play to make that shoddy model mean much of anything. Be skeptical of anyone who makes bold conclusions based on something like that.
The reason I bring all of this up is to make my conclusion a little less mind-bending. Right now, I think the 2012 Brewers are better than the 2011 Brewers. How many wins do I project for the 2012 Brewers, right now? I'm saying 90-94. It's very possible, logically, to think that this team is better but still project a smaller amount of wins. And that the Brewers will be right in contention with that number.