It's been 178 days since the Brewers played their last regular season game on October 4th, a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs. It's been a long winter, but in just five more days we'll have baseball again! Despite all of the roster turnover and rebuilding talk, spring and Opening Day are a time to begin anew and to have hope after battling through the cold and arduous winter months. So rather than be pessimistic about our local nine and their chances, how about some bold predictions about what the Brewers just might be able to accomplish in 2016?
1. Jimmy Nelson takes the next step
After some scuffles during his rookie season in 2014, Jimmy Nelson took some nice steps forward last season was the best pitcher among the Brewers' starting staff. Nelson developed and featured a curveball as a significant part of his arsenal, and he saw and increase in his swinging strike rate and his strikeout rate en route to posting a 4.11 ERA and 4.10 FIP in 177.1 innings pitched.
Coming into spring training this season Nelson vowed to work on improving his changeup, the pitch that his new found curveball essentially replaced last season. Jimmy threw his changeup only 1.2% of the time last season and Pitch F/X's rated it as -0.1 runs above average, or essentially close to a league-average offering. There's a small sample size caveat there of course, but it's not as though Jimmy is starting from scratch with the pitch. It's more of a matter of developing confidence in the pitch and being comfortable enough to throw it more often during the game. If Nelson's changeup can become a more reliable offering it would give him an additional weapon to neutralize left handed hitters, who gave him fits last season as he allowed an .876 OPS against to southpaws.
So I'll say that Jimmy does in fact master his changeup, giving him a full five pitch arsenal with his fastball, sinker, curveball, and dominant slider. With an improved ability to keep lefties at bay and a little bump up with his command and strikeouts, Nelson should see his ERA drop precipitously. Maybe something along these lines this for overall production:
2. Keon Broxton settles in as the regular center fielder
When spring training started, I'd hoped that we'd be penciling in Rymer Liriano to see plenty of time in center field for the Brewers. Unfortunately thanks to Matt West's 97 MPH fastball, Liriano won't likely make his Brewers' debut until much later in the regular season. His unfortunate injury did however open up the door for Keon Broxton to make the club. Broxton seems to really have caught the eye of the Brewers' front office this spring, posting a .365 OBP and flashing some terrific defensive chops in center field.
It seems like a great majority of Brewers' prospects that we talk about these days are the kind that could have a strong big league future if they can keep their strikeouts in check, and the 25 year old Broxton is no different. He whiffed 28.6% of the time in 367 AAA plate appearances last season, but still managed a .256/.352/.423 slash that was good enough for a 126 wRC+.
So let's say that Broxton is able to keep his strikeouts at a manageable level at the big leagues, somewhere a little under 30%. He draws enough walks that even with a lower batting average he should be able to post a respectable OBP, and he's got a little bit of power and speed to burn. Combine that with great defense in center field, and maybe we'll see something like this:
3. Junior Guerra becomes the #2016BrewersAce
Shortly after Slingin' Stearns made Junior Guerra his first acquisition as GM of the Brewers (via waiver claim), I saw a GIF of his splitter and fell in love. Guerra might be the most interesting "prospect" in baseball; the 31 year old started his career as a catcher in the Braves organization after being signed out of Venezuela in 2001, converted to pitching in 2006, failed a PED test in 2008, spent 2009-2014 pitching in foreign and independent leagues, and then signed a minor league deal with the White Sox last year and eventually made his major league debut.
Guerra's stats between AA and AAA last season were nothing short of astounding given the road that his career has followed to this point. He threw 83.1 innings (31 appearances, 11 starts) and allowed just a 3.13 ERA and 3.06 FIP. Guerra struck out an outstanding 31.1% of batters he faced while walking 9.8%, allowing just a .195 batting average against and 1.10 WHIP.
Guerra has already been optioned to the minor leagues to start the season, but that doesn't have to stop him from making a significant impact at the big league level. We've already seen injuries ravage the Brewers' bullpen corps before the regular season has even started. We'll certainly see Guerra in the big leagues at some point this season, and I think he'll make the most of his opportunities.
So let's say that Guerra gets called up in late May, makes a few relief appearances and then gets inserted into the starting rotation. Using his mid-90s heater and dominant split-finger pitcher, Junior breaks out in 2016 and posts a stat line that looks like this:
4. Brewers approach a .500 record
Most projection systems and national prognosticators have the Brewers winning somewhere in the range of 67-72 games. PECOTA seems to be the highest on the 2016 Brewers, projecting a 77-85 record for the regular season.
While I don't believe the Brewers have much of a shot at making the playoffs, I don't think that a .500 record would be out of reach for the current roster. That's especially true if the players that I highlighted throughout this article come close to achieving the predictions that I laid out. As the club is currently constructed, they have several other players who could wind up as solid, if not unspectacular contributors.
The Brewers could easily push towards the 80 win threshold in 2016, and while that may not be the best outcome for draft position, it means that more than a few of the young question marks on this team have established themselves as solid regulars. Developmentally that's a huge net positive, and it could mean even more trade bait as the current crop of top prospects pushes towards the major leagues.