NL Central 2012 Preview: Looking Far(ther) Ahead

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1. Milwaukee Brewers

2011 Results: 96-66 (1st, Won Division, Lost in NLCS)

Key Losses

1B Prince Fielder

P Takashi Saito

P LaTroy Hawkins

IF Jerry Hairston, Jr.

Key Pickups

LF Norichika Aoki

3B Aramis Ramirez

SS Alex Gonzalez

P Jose Veras

With the exception of St. Louis, no team has rebuilt itself better for another playoff run like Milwaukee has in the NL Central. The Brewers lost Prince Fielder, so they picked up the Cubs’ biggest power hitter and a certified Japanese superstar. The middle relief was decimated by the loss of veterans Hawkins and Saito, so they pick up a gem in Jose Veras from the McGehee trade and a very intriguing reliever in Junan Perez from Philadelphia. Hairston’s absence left a gap in the infield, which was promptly replaced by the talents of Alex Gonzalez. With the pitching staff staying largely intact and totally healthy (for now), on paper the choice was obvious for Milwaukee to repeat as the Central’s champion.

The only lingering question is that of reigning MVP Ryan Braun’s status during his double-secret probation hearings. The proceedings are over, and now I imagine a bunch of MLB big wigs are sitting on large leather chairs, sipping brandy and smoking cigars while they discuss the fate of the Brewers left fielder. Word from unnamed sources around MLB, the Brewers, Ryan Braun, ESPN, Fox Sports, and God knows where else have all said it looks like Brauny is in the clear – but who knows. Until then, we need to look to Aoki as our man in Left for the time being. There are more questions in the outfield surrounding Gomez, Hart and Morgan. Nyjer was a big part of the team last year and an unquestioned catalyst when it came to the team’s energy. Can he keep his antics on the positive side in ’12? Can Hart play well with consistency? It’s something he needs to do desperately in order to keep his spot now. Will Gomez be able to perform off the bench?

Lastly, the first base issue is going to become very important in the next few weeks. Gamel is getting his shot, and he can’t afford to blow it – but that’s just beating a dead horse. Giving him competition this year is Travis Ishikawa, a former Giant who was out of the league last year but performed well up until then. If Ron Roenicke can keep this team on track like he did last year, none of these questions will be a problem in a few month’s time.

2011 At-a-glance

Batting Average – .261 8th in MLB, 3rd in NL

OBP -.325 10th in MLB, 5th in NL

SLG – .425 5th in MLB, 1st in NL

OPS – .750 6th in MLB, 2nd in NL

ERA – 3.63, 9th in MLB, 7th in NL

I’d like to take this moment to say, just like last year, that I am NOT picking Milwaukee to finish first for any other reason than on paper, they seem like the best team to take THIS division THIS year. The pitching staff is healthy and in their prime (for now) and they are still anchored by the best 8-9 inning tandem in the Majors. And, until someone beats them, they are still the division champs. Bask in that glory for a little while longer Brewers fans, because in a few weeks it’s back to square one.

OK boys and girls, now’s the time where you get to tell me how you think the division is going to stack up.