There's an old saying among baseball writers: the two best types of teams to cover are either a really good team or a really bad one. Our beloved local nine falls into the latter category in 2016. In all likelihood, the Milwaukee Brewers won't be competing for the playoffs this year. The club plays in the best division in baseball and is in year one of a rebuild under new GM Slingin' David Stearns, who has stripped away most of the veteran talent in favor of younger players with untapped potential. While this process should help to set the Brewers up for success over the long-term, the amount of losses it could lead to this season might be difficult for some fans to swallow.
Just because the Brewers won't be bringing home a championship this year doesn't mean there won't be plenty of intrigue surrounding the club. Here are five Brewers-related stories that I'll be paying close attention to this season:
1. When will Lucroy get dealt?
It seems as though the writing has been on the wall for too long now for Brewers' catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The club declined to engage in extension talks with him prior to last season, and 2015's free fall made it all but certain that Luc will be traded away at some point. Jonathan himself has only exacerbated the issue by repeatedly expressing dissatisfaction with his employer to the media, saying over the winter that he'd prefer to be traded and telling Bob Nightengale last week that he's not sure why he's still in a Brewers' uniform.
Lucroy hasn't suffered any ill-effects from a concussion suffered late last season and has been an excellent contributor on the field so far this spring, helping to alleviate some of the doubts created by a down and injury-plagued season last year. All indications are that Stearns is seeking a king's ransom in exchange for his catcher, though I argued this past winter that once the regular season starts his value will decline precipitously.
The Rangers are reportedly among the teams that are still searching for help behind the plate and have been linked to Lucroy multiple times this winter. Will they pull the trigger on a deal, or will we have to wait until summer comes to see Lucroy moved?
2. Ryan Braun's health
Given the nature of rooting for laundry with the word 'Brewers' written on the front, I try not to get too attached to specific players. In this case though, I'll say it unabashedly: I love Ryan Braun. He's one of, if not the best hitter the franchise has ever employed. He's been a part of some of the most memorable moments in the club's history. In the first game I ever took my kids to late last August, his 1st inning home run against Cincinnati sent the crowd into a frenzy and Bernie down the slide, giving my kids their first Brewers memory and prompting my two-year-old daughter to say "let's go to the baseball game daddy!" whenever we drive past the stadium on I-94.
Unfortunately, Braun is also an aging, expensive ballplayer with significant health concerns. His long-ailing thumb now seems to be well-managed through periodic cryotherapy treatments, but that issue has now been replaced by a balky back. Braun underwent surgery early in the offseason and after a late start to the spring, he has been limited to just four games and has sat out the last several days with soreness.
Braun had a bounceback season last year with 25 home runs and an .854 OPS, and he is hitting .571/.667/.714 in nine plate appearances this spring. At age 32 he should still be capable of playing at a high level so long as his various ailments are cooperative. If The Hebrew Hammer is both healthy and productive, the Brewers may be able to find a suitor for him and his five year, $105 mil extension and clear future payroll space while also netting a couple prospects.
Personally though, I'd be just fine if the club kept Ryan Braun around until the end of his deal. He could be an important contributor to the club's World Series run in 2019, playing at first base of course!
3. Who wins the center field job?
The most unsettled position on the club heading into the regular season is in center field. Manager Craig Counsell has indicated that several players will get their share of playing time, though one would have to think that if a specific player outperforms the others that player will be given a majority of the playing time.
There's no shortage of candidates, though my personal favorite, Rymer Liriano, will begin the season on the disabled list after suffering a gruesome injury when he was hit in the face with a fastball. Thankfully the injury wasn't as bad as it could have been given the possibility of concussions and brain injury whenever we talk about getting struck in the head, and Rymer should return at some point this season.
Until then, I'm rather intrigued to see what Keon Broxton might be capable of at the big league level. He's certainly able to bring the crowd to their feet with his exciting defensive ability, channeling the recently departed Carlos Gomez in that aspect. I'm also a big fan of Michael Reed and am curious to see if he'll get a chance to play some center field for the big league club this season, as well.
4. Orlando Arcia's arrival
After posting a 126 wRC+ and leading his Biloxi Shuckers to the AA Championship game last season, scouts have been raving about Orlando Arcia all winter. He's the club's consensus top prospect, and MLB Pipeline ranks him as the sixth best prospect in the game. Arcia has the capability of becoming a .300+ hitter with Gold Glove defense at shortstop in the big leagues and is easily the most heralded prospect the Brewers' have had since Ryan Braun was called up in 2007.
Arcia was never a threat to make the big league team out of spring training, but he might not be with AAA Colorado Springs for all that long. The club could call him up as soon as April 16th while still preserving his full six additional seasons of control under the reserve clause. They could wait until June in order to stave off Super Two status. Hell, they might even wait until rosters expand in September (though I doubt they will). No matter when it happens, there will surely be plenty of hoopla surrounding Arcia's debut with Milwaukee.
5. Which post-hype player will break out?
Slingin' Stearns threw more than a few plates of spaghetti at the wall over the winter. Under-the-radar type deals brought in Liriano, Broxton, Jonathan Villar, Garin Cecchini, Ramon Flores, Will Middlebrooks, Colin Walsh, Sean Nolin, Junior Guerra, and several others who figure to get a chance to prove their worth in Milwaukee this year. How many of them stick and become productive big leaguers, if any, could help determine how long this rebuild lasts.
All of those players have their share of intriguing tools, but also have some warts that have kept them from making a major impact in the big leagues to this point in their careers. I like certain things about each of them, but obviously I'm partial to Liriano and I still think he could have the upside of a starter in The Show. If you're a regular reader you ought to be familiar with my love affair with Junior Guerra, as well (#2016BrewersAce). Beyond those two, I think Colin Walsh could have a long career as a productive utility player and I like Jonathan Villar's tools and think he could entrench himself at either second or third base for the next several seasons if it all comes together.
Of course all of those players could flame out spectacularly too and help contribute to a 100 loss season for the Brewers. Who knows? That's why they play the games, right?
The Brewers don't figure to be very good this year, but they won't be a boring team by any stretch of the imagination. These are a few of the many potential story lines I'll be paying close attention to this season and you can bet I'll be watching just about every game in 2016. What story lines will get you excited about the Brewers this season and bring you out to Miller Park?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs