MLB March Report: Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers had about as rough an offseason as is possible for a franchise that won its first division title of the post-1994 realignment era (when the leagues went to three divisions) and then won a playoff series against Arizona. It was no surprise that Prince Fielder took a big-money offer to go to Detroit, but no one was expecting the turmoil that Ryan Braun went through, first with steroid allegations and then an unprecedented vindication by the MLB arbitration panel on appeal . Now it’s time to just play baseball, so TheSportsNotebook takes a look at how the Brew Crew sizes up in terms of their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

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ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: It starts here with Rickie Weeks. The second baseman is good for an on-base percentage anywhere from .350 to .370, and though he doesn’t steal many bases, Weeks has good speed once aboard. Nyjer Morgan is the big key. He stepped up with the best year of his career, hitting .304. The key for Morgan will be better plate discipline—that average only got him a .357 OBP, so there needs to be more walks along with the hits. While his track record suggests the production won’t be as good, we also need to note that his poor year in 2010 with Washington was an even bigger aberration. Milwaukee would be further helped if catcher Jonathan Lucroy can rediscover the hitting stroke that made the first part of his first year as a big-league starter such a success last season.

POWER: We can’t diminish the importance of losing Fielder, but the cupboard is hardly bare in Brewtown. You can start with Braun, the reigning NL MVP, for whom the questions are more psychological—how will we stand up to the pressure and the certain heckles that will trail him all year, with many fans—and reportedly even many players—who seem to feel he snookered the arbitration panel. But let’s not overlook the signing of Aramis Ramirez to play third base. The former Cub has slugged over .500 and had an OBP well over .350 each year since 2004, with only one exception in ’10. At 33 years old and with a high salary, it made sense for a rebuilding Chicago team to let him walk. It made even more sense for Milwaukee to snag him up. Corey Hart plays rightfield and had his best year since 2007. He needs to avoid the pattern that befell him after ’07 which was to basically disappear. Weeks has popped 49 home runs over the last two seasons and presumably could muscle up some more if the team wants him to stop worry about table-setting and focus on table-cleaning. Finally we come to new shortstop Alex Gonzalez. The 35-year-old vet is in the majors because of his exquisite defense and a look at his offensive numbers will confirm that. But every once in a while Gonzalez gets on power tears that leave you scratching your head and wondering where it all came from. Even one of those this summer would be a welcome bonus for the Milwaukee offense.

STARTING PITCHING: Zack Greinke was brought to town from Kansas City in exchange for four good prospects because Milwaukee felt like he could be an ace. Yovani Gallardo is still the #1 starter because the Brewers feel he can be an ace. Now it’s time for both pitchers to start performing like aces. Gallardo has been respectable the past few years, making his 30-plus starts, picking up around 15 wins with an ERA in the high 3s. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Gallardo can do better. Greinke won the Cy Young Award with Kansas City in 2009, but had a down year in 2010 as his ERA jumped to 4.17. Last year he missed six weeks early, and still finished with a 3.83 ERA that was arguably worse than his last year in Kansas City once you adjusted for the loss of the DH when he switched leagues. Gallardo and Greinke need to be the cornerstone of Brewer success this year and those ERAs need to be under 3. Shawn Marcum’s two-year stats look consistent, as he’s made his 30-plus starts with an ERA in the mid-3s. That doesn’t reflect how awful Marcum pitched down the stretch and in the postseason. Will he be set to return to form? Randy Wolf has been a model of reliability, making 134 starts over his last four seasons, with ERAs in the 3s or low 4s. Chris Narveson is functionable at #5.

RELIEF PITCHING: John Axford has been the closer for two seasons. He’s gotten 75 save chances and nailed down 70, while maintaining an ERA close to 2. It’s safe to say the Brewers can feel confident in the ninth. And they can feel even more confident in the eighth, as Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly didn’t leave to become a closer elsewhere when he hit the open market last offseason. If you want to beat Milwaukee this year, do it in seven innings. Kameron Loe, Jose Veras and swingman Marco Estrada are respectable options for Ron Roenicke to use as he bridges the gap from the rotation to the two back-end relievers.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 85—Before I went to look at the number here, I was thinking that this Brewer club had an 85-win feel to them. I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt the way, so now it’s a tough decision on which way to play it. On the one hand…given Milwaukee won 96 games last year, this is a lot of disrespect, even allowing the offseason problems. Picking them to win 85 isn’t an act of disrespect, but setting that number as a presumed median ground? That’s pushing it. Because of their pitching, I would consider Milwaukee a better bet to end up 90-72 than I would to finish 80-82. Hence, the pick is the Over.