The Milwaukee Brewers held first place in the National League Central for 149 days in 2014. On September 1, they dropped to second place. Less than a week later, they were in third.
The Brewers had led the division by as many as 6.5 games. They finished the year barely clinging to an above-.500 82-80 record.
On June 28, the Brewers were 51-32, almost 20 games over .500. They surprised everyone at the start of the season -- including the defending World Series champion Red Sox, who Milwaukee swept in Fenway in April. From June 29 on, they went 31-48. It was one of the biggest collapses in franchise history, and completely took the wind out of the sails for Brewers fans. For so long, the team stood on top. Just not when it mattered most.
That collapse led to an organization-wide 'extensive review' following the end of the season that, well, didn't serve to change a whole lot. Manager Ron Roenicke and GM Doug Melvin remained in place, as did most of the coaching staff. The only changes were letting hitting coach Jerry Narron and first base coach Garth Iorg go and replacing them with Darnell Coles and Mike Guerrero, respectively.
The Brewers also had a largely quiet off-season. As soon as they could they acquired first baseman Adam Lind from the Blue Jays. Then they were dormant for months before a shocking trade of starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo. Despite those two moves, however, most of the roster is the same. Despite the second-half collapse, the Brewers have decided to go into 2015 with a largely unchanged roster.
A quest for a playoff spot isn't getting easier, either. The Cardinals will still be the Cardinals in 2015 -- even if things go wrong, they'll sign a guy from the Frontier League who will hit 25 bombs. The Pirates are young and talented and still improving. The Cubs won't be good enough this year to mount a challenge to the division, but they won't be the pushovers of the past. All in all, the NL Central might be the toughest division in baseball this season, and that makes things hard for Milwaukee to break through.
That's not to say the Brewers can't rise back to the top. They're a big part of why the NLC is going to be tough. They might need a little luck to get there, though.
Fun new toys
A first baseman! A real, actual, true, honest-to-god first baseman! There should be no reason to be this excited about one of the least-demanding defensive positions on the field, but here we are. Over the last two years, the Brewers have tried Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Juan Francisco, Yuniesky Betancourt, Sean Halton, Alex Gonzalez, etc. etc. at first base. None impressed, with Reynolds being the best of the bunch.
An early off-season trade for Lind, however, gives the Brewers their first true option at first base since Corey Hart tore out both his knees prior to 2013. Lind hit .321/.381/.479 in 96 games with the Blue Jays last year. He's projected by ZiPS for a .291/.356/.468 line this year. He may not be able to hit lefties but previous Brewers first baseman couldn't hit lefties or righties.
Coming over from the Rangers in the Yovani Gallardo trade, Knebel already has major league experience despite having just been drafted in 2013. He didn't do great in eight MLB appearances for the Tigers (prior to being dealt to the Rangers) but he has absolutely wrecked minor league batters. Knebel might be unlikely to start the year with the Brewers, but should be there at some point and has the potential to be a top relief pitcher. That's exciting.
Jimenez is 27, has a .559 career major league OPS, and could be a big part of the Brewers this year and in the future. But he's barely played 50 games in the majors; in the minors he has a career .843 OPS and has shown in ability to hit 20+ home runs. As of this writing he hasn't been killing it in spring training, but still has a good shot to end up on the roster as a bench corner infielder. With the questionable health of Aramis Ramirez, that could mean big playing time for Jimenez. General Manager Doug Melvin has had a deft hand at finding scrap heap pickups, perhaps Jimenez is the next notch in that belt.
Sardinas also came over in the Gallardo trade and also has a shot at making the Opening Day roster as a utility man. The 21-year-old has no shortage of talent but, so far, has not been able to break out at the plate. He had a trial run in the majors last year and hit just .261/.303/.313 with the Rangers. Thus far in Spring, he has 19 plate appearances with one hit and five strikeouts.
The most likely end to spring will see Sardinas optioned to the minors for more work. He's been a top-100 prospect each of the last two years but is still young and developing. Rushing him could do more harm than good at this point, and he hasn't put up eye-popping numbers in the minor leagues that would force the Brewers hand.
The Cubs picked up Peterson off of waivers from the Athletics on December 19 then the Brewers claimed him from the Cubs on December 23. Peterson only has two games in the majors, but has always hit the ball well in the minors with a career .284/.376/.421 line. He has experience at every outfield spot and first base, as well, which lends good depth for Milwaukee. He's another player with a shot at the Opening Day roster, in this case as a fifth outfielder.
Cotts signed a one-year deal for $3 million and, having struggled heavily this spring, is already starting to draw the ire of Brewers fans. Over a nine year career, he's had two great seasons (including a 1.11 ERA over 58 games in 2013) and seven pretty poor campaigns. The Brewers don't have a significant investment in him, but enough of one that he's likely assured a spot on the roster.
So long, old friends
It's hard to name many starting pitchers who have come up through the Brewers system over the past decade or two. Ben Sheets was one of the lone bright spots of the early 2000s, then there was little until Gallardo came along as a 21 year old in 2007. Though he never became a true ace, Gallardo ended up being the top starter for Milwaukee for years and was consistently very good. He never got many accolades, but he finished his Brewers career holding team records and cementing a spot in team history.
The Brewers traded him to the Rangers for a trio of strong prospects. It opens a spot for Jimmy Nelson to enter and become, perhaps, the next Gallardo. It's always tough to see a long-time Brewer go, though.
With Estrada, it was a little less hard. For one, the Brewers got Adam Lind in return which so far seems pretty great. For another, his outings seemed more like home run derbies than competitive baseball. Estrada always seemed like he could be a diamond in the rough, and there was a little shine for a couple of years. Then he became a human launching pad and gave up a league-leading 29 homers last year, despite being pulled from the rotation midway through the year.
Estrada has already given up two home runs in fewer than five spring training innings sooo...yeah, doesn't seem like the Brewers are going to lose this trade.
Weeks has spent 11 years in the majors, all of which have come with the Brewers. When he was chosen second overall in the 2003 draft, there was an expectation that he would become a superstar talent. He never lived up to that, but he became a solid to excellent second baseman for a while. If he hadn't suffered the wrist injuries early in his career, maybe things would have been a bit different. But the Brewers have a younger player to take over at second, and no more room for Weeks. It's a little sad -- Weeks was a fan favorite among many -- but nobody sticks around forever, and it was his time to go. He signed with the Mariners this off-season, where he'll spend time as a utility player.
Reynolds ended up reviving his career a bit in Milwaukee last season and proved to be better than most expected. That's mostly because of his surprising aptitude on defense and 22 home runs. His actual batting line (.196/.287/.394) would have looked terrible on any team that hadn't just dealt with a season of Alex Gonzalez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Juan Francisco at first base. Reynolds decided to sign with the Cardinals as a free agent, the traitor.
Overbay was arguably the Brewers' most effective pitcher last year, earning a 0.00 ERA and 0.00 WHIP while tossing a sterling 0.1 innings. He also didn't hit much better than a pitcher, with a .233/.328/.333 line. He probably provided veteran leadership, though.
Prior to 2014, Duke had to settle for a minor league contract from the Brewers. This off-season, he got $15 million for three years from the White Sox. That's how good he was in 2014, posting a 2.45 ERA and 11.4 K/9 in 74 games. His departure hurts the bullpen, but he would have been a bit expensive to keep around and he's not getting any younger.
In the 21 innings he did pitch in 2014, Gorzelanny managed to get by with a 0.86 ERA despite a 1.43 WHIP. It helped that he barely gave up any home runs and had good strikeout numbers, but it's also a small sample size because he was hurt for much of the year. After two solid years in Milwaukee, Gorzelanny has moved on to the Tigers, where he's earning $1 million on a one-year deal.
Projected Starting Lineup
C Jonathan Lucroy
1B Adam Lind
2B Scooter Gennett
3B Aramis Ramirez
SS Jean Segura
LF Khris Davis
CF Carlos Gomez
RF Ryan Braun
What will cause the Brewers to make the playoffs?
1. Wily Peralta takes the next step forward and becomes the closest thing to an ace the Brewers have had since Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia left post-2008.
Peralta was arguably the best pitcher on the Brewers' staff last year with a 3.53 ERA, a 7.0 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. He'll consistently reach the mid-90s on his fastball, but can rely on it too often. His only other pitch is a slider, which works best against lefties. Not having a true third pitch hurts him, but other pitchers (like Sheets) have made do with two strong pitches in the past. If Peralta can up his strikeouts, he could be a force to be reckoned with. Or he can move forward with similar stats to 2014 and be the next Yovani Gallardo. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but the team could really use someone to step up as an ace.
2. Jimmy Nelson and MIke Fiers exceed expectations
It's hard to say what the expectations for the two even are, really. Nelson is getting his first true look at the major league rotation and Fiers...we can't expect Fiers to be as good as he was in 2014, can we? Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are pretty sure things to be above-average, as is Peralta. If the four/five starters also get up there, the Brewers rotation is a solid strength.
3. The rotation stays healthy, as a whole
That is, it's a strength if they stay healthy. Taylor Jungmann is the team's sixth starter, but has no major league experience. Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek have both been stretched out some just in case, but neither is an optimal option. Sixth and seventh and eighth starters can't be a priority for teams, but they'll be needed at some point. Milwaukee's rotation was remarkably healthy in 2014 and needed just seven pitchers to make starts. That's rare, and banking on a similar year is probably a mistake. Still, that's what Milwaukee is facing and it's kind of terrifying.
4. Everyone else stays healthy.
It's not just the pitching depth. The Brewers are, once again, lacking depth almost everywhere else as well. The only positions with a competent backup are catcher and outfield, but having Jonathan Lucroy or Carlos Gomez or Ryan Braun miss extended time is going to be awful. Aramis Ramirez is going to get hurt at some point, but hopefully Luis Jimenez or someone else steps up to show they can handle third base for a while. Adam Lind has had back issues. Jean Segura missed time last year. The Brewers are not a team of iron men, but only Gerardo Parra and Martin Maldonado are proven players on the bench.
5. Oh god, please, just don't have any big injuries
6. Jean Segura takes a step forward
Segura has a rough 2014 season both on and off the field and it seems there are some analysts who are now down on him moving forward. The Brewers don't need him to become an MVP candidate or something, but he'll need to hold his weight and show some of the skills that earned him an All Star nod in 2013. Smart baserunning and a .330 OBP or so will go a long ways, along with his usually-solid defense.
7. Ryan Braun helps prevent the ups and downs of last year
If Ryan Braun's thumb is healthy and he can come anywhere close to the Ryan Braun of old, the Brewers are a contender. The Brewers collapsed in the second half of 2014 in large part due to prolonged slumps by several batters. That includes Braun, who hit just .227/.299/.357 over the final two months of the year. Braun is the best hitter in the Brewers lineup when healthy. He has been and can be a true star. The consistency he is capable of providing is important.
What will cause the Brewers to fail horribly?
1. The bullpen collapses
Relievers have such small sample sizes in one season that it's hard to predict how they'll actually fare. With Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Will Smith, Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg, the Brewers bullpen could be great. Or Rodriguez collapses under the weight of all his home runs, Henderson and Thornburg reinjure themselves, Smith slumps in the second half again and Broxton ends up eating Scooter Gennett.
2. One or both of Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson fail to hold a starting spot
Taylor Jungmann is inexperienced and hasn't been that good in the minors. He's had a real nice last couple of years, and could still be a strong 4th/5th starter. The Brewers can't rely on that. After him, who knows who the actual seventh starter is? Thornburg or Blazek or whoever, it's a dangerous game the Brewers are playing.
3. Ryan Braun's thumb still hurts
All indications are that Ryan Braun's thumb is good to go after receiving cryotherapy this past off-season. But he said he felt pretty good in spring of last year, too, and that clearly did not work out for the best. If Braun's thumb remains an issue and sees him start to struggle a little ways into the season, that's devastating for the Brewers not just in 2015 but in the next five years after, as well. Braun is the only player on the team locked up long-term. He is the Brewers, for better or worse. And he needs to be healthy.
As stated above, the Brewers just don't have the depth to deal with most injuries long-term. They need their starting lineup to stay healthy and, even more so, need their starting pitchers to remain healthy. Relying on their 6th/7th/8th starters isn't likely to go well.
5. The Cardinals and Pirates are just too good
Not everything can be in the Brewers control. They could win 88 games and not make the playoffs. Having two wild card spots will help prevent that, but the Cardinals and Pirates are too good to just say 'oh, if things go well for the Brewers they'll get in'. Everything could go great for Milwaukee and they could still miss the postseason. Even the now-somehow-overrated Cubs could potentially find themselves in contention. The NL Central is one of the best divisions in baseball, now, which doesn't lend any favors to the Brewers.
On the Horizon
Once, the Brewers had one of the best minor league systems in the game. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, JJ Hardy and Corey Hart all worked out pretty darned well while other highly-lauded prospects like Ben Hendrickson, Jose Capellan, Manny Parra and Brad Nelson did not. Still, that system helped produce a couple playoff appearances and made the Brewers relevant again.
In more recent years, the Brewers minor league system has been lampooned. All the call-ups, couple of poor drafts, a lack of international signings, and trades for major league talent left the cupboards fairly bare. Looking at the Brewers roster, it's easy to see players like Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Lohse are soon on their way out, Adam Lind probably isn't here long-term, and Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy will be tough signs as soon-to-be free agents. Along with the Brewers' lack of high-end minor league talent, the easy outlook is the Brewers' future looks scary.
That's not entirely true, though, because it's what people have been saying about the Brewers the last five years, it seems like. CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees, and everyone thought that the Brewers were on their way down. Prince Fielder left, and the Brewers were thought to be done. Same when Zack Greinke was traded.
But the Brewers made smart moves, and they've pretty consistently remained in contention. They'll sign free agents like Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza and Aramis Ramirez to fill holes and they've found talent in the minors that was overlooked outside the organization. Jonathan Lucroy wasn't a big name as a prospect. Neither were Khris Davis, Mike Fiers and Scooter Gennett. But they worked out, and the Brewers remain a possibility for the playoffs.
Plus, realistically, the Brewers minor league system is looking healthier than ever. The 2014 class is extremely talented, though it's too early to tell whether it will be boom or bust. Orlando Arcia and Tyrone Taylor are getting high praise and Clint Coulter destroyed minor league pitching last year. Others, like Taylor Williams, Tyler Wagner, Jorge Lopez, Victor Roache, Wei-Chung Wang, and Tyler Cravy all give reason for optimism. A year or two from now, the Brewers could be a top-10 system. How well the 2014 draftees and international signing Gilbert Lara perform will go a long way to determining that, though.
Whatever happens, it's not owner Mark Attanasio's modus operandi to blow things up and start all over. The first choice will always be to stay as close to contention as possible, for better or worse. In recent years, it's worked out. That gives optimism that the same will be true as they continue into future years.
The most important person on the roster
Ryan Braun was not Ryan Braun in 2014. Ryan Braun was one-handed Ryan Braun, hitting with an injured thumb that caused him to underperform drastically. In 135 games, he hit just .266/.324/.453 with 19 homers. That's a far cry from his MVP campaign in 2011 or, really, any other season of Braun's career. His 2014 OPS was over 100 points lower than any other season of his career.
It didn't necessarily start out that way, either. Braun worsened as the season went on and the pain in his thumb increased:
Ryan Braun was RYAN EFFING BRAUN through May. After that, not so much. He was a shell of himself. He was out there as a placeholder, hoping that just having him in the lineup would help change how pitchers threw. After a bit, that didn't even work.
It's going to be impossible to have optimism over Braun until we see what he does over a full season. If he starts off hot in April/May, we can just point to how the same thing happened in 2014. He says he feels good in spring this year, but he did last year, too.
The Brewers owe Braun another $110 million through at least 2020. He's the only player signed past 2017. He's 31 years old. And he's probably the best player the Brewers have had since Robin Yount. Braun has a chance to be the best player in Brewers history. But he's not there yet -- he needs to come back from this injury and prove he can still carry the team for a little while longer. He needs to be Ryan Braun again.
My prediction, on how the NL Central will shake out
Screw that prediction on final NL Central standings. The Brewers are winning the damned World Series.