Why the Brewers will win the pennant

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

On Opening Day, everyone can dream a little... or a lot

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This Brewers team is probably closer to "contending if everything goes right" than "legit force to be reckoned with." The simple fact remains that the Brewers have not done a lot to dramatically alter a team that only won 74 games last year. The Brewers' likely group of everyday position players features seven players who finished the season on the roster in 2013, and if Juan Francisco wins the job at first base they could go a full 8-fo-8. Similarly, Matt Garza is the only addition to last season's starting rotation.

That said, optimistic Brewers fans will remind you that the 2013 club was not a terrible team outside of one terrible month. They went 6-22 in May, the worst month in franchise history, but 68-66 in the season's other five months. Two games over .500 for the season wouldn't have made them a playoff contender, of course, but it would've put them somewhere near respectability.

It's also worth noting that the Brewers played reasonably good baseball down the stretch without Ryan Braun, who was serving his 65-game PEDs suspension, and with only sporadic contributions from Aramis Ramirez, who was limited all year by a knee injury. When healthy and eligible to play, they were key parts of the offense that led the NL in runs scored, home runs and slugging in 2012. If the offense is going to return to that level, though, the Brewers are going to need sustained production from some players who surprised with big seasons in 2013. Carlos Gomez had a career year in 2012, then improved upon it with his 24 home runs and Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field in 2013. Jean Segura's offense was a revelation in the first half before leveling off a bit after the All Star break. Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett were a pair of somewhat unheralded minor leaguers who played their way into an opportunity by hitting the cover off the ball down the stretch last season. All four are key parts of the Brewers' plans going forward, so a step back from any of them would be a step back for the team.

On the pitching side, Kyle Lohse was a very late spring addition to the 2013 team but turned out to be their most reliable starter and now projects to get the ball on Opening Day. He is rarely spectacular but gets outs consistently and can work deep into games, saving a Brewer bullpen that was otherwise heavily taxed.

Having Lohse in the ace role takes some pressure off of Yovani Gallardo, who has struggled to fill that role when asked over the years. Gallardo is coming off his worst MLB season but was still serviceable in 2013, riding a late hot streak to a 4.18 ERA over 180.2 innings. He had arguably his best season in 2011, when pitching behind Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum meant he wasn't expected to carry the team. He's in a similar situation this year. Matt Garza, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta give the team a pretty solid 3-5, although all have question marks. Garza has made just 42 starts over the last two seasons, Estrada has never pitched a full season as a major league starter and the Brewers are counting on Peralta to provide more consistency than he did in his first full season.

In the bullpen, Jim Henderson returns as closer after recording 28 saves in 61 appearances a year ago. 2014 will be his age-31 season but just his second full campaign in the majors after spending 10 years wandering the minors as a member of three organizations (he was originally drafted by the Expos in 2003). He has a big fastball and gets enough strikeouts to thrive in the late innings, but his ability to remain successful may depend on his somewhat erratic secondary pitches.

The Brewers recently added a bit of insurance behind Henderson by re-signing Francisco Rodriguez for a third tour of duty in Milwaukee. Rodriguez was a key addition to the 2011 team, returned to the Brewers for a less successful 2012 campaign, then was a late pickup for the 2013 team and was effective before being dealt to the Orioles. Henderson enters spring training as the primary candidate to close, but if he falters then we'll likely be reminded that Rodriguez is second among active relievers with 304 career saves.

Rodriguez's addition made a lot of sense for this team because the other relief options behind Henderson are somewhat unproven. Brandon Kintzler has a limited major league track record, Rob Wooten has pitched just half of one season in the majors, Tom Gorzelanny is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and the collection of candidates behind them are hardly household names.

Of course, any conversation about the Brewers' playoff chances needs to include a mention of the fact that they'd need to unseat at least one of the NL Central's three playoff teams from a year ago. It would be an uphill battle, to be sure, but the talent is here to make a run if the Brewers can avoid the bad luck, injuries, inconsistencies, and suspensions of a year ago.

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