Milwaukee Brewers: Big Collapses, Bigger Recoveries
I can clearly recall the I had excitement going into the 2007 Milwaukee Brewers season. The Brewers started 24-10, the rotation was headlined by Ben Sheets and free agent signee Jeff Suppan (remember when HE got us excited?), and Ryan Braun made his debut in Milwaukee. The team spent 130 days in first place, had an 8.5 game lead in June, and a 4.5 game lead at the All-Star break. The Crew wet the bed in the second half however, finishing 83-79, good enough for second in the division after the Cubs. This collapse set the stage for the Brewers dramatic 2008 season and run to the playoffs.
I can also clearly recall the excitement I had going into 2014, although that excitement may not have been shared by many. I thought the Brewers had a real shot to compete, but even I was surprised how they continually found ways to win. In the end, however, it was an even worse collapse this time, 150 days in first place and yet a third place finish at 82-80. The players were no doubt disappointed with how they finished, and they should be hungry to prove they are winners in 2015.
The Brewers made several moves prior to and during the 2008 season that helped push them into the playoffs, none bigger than the July blockbuster trade for C.C. Sabathia, who posted a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts while pitching often pitching on short rest. The team also added Mike Cameron, Guillermo Mota, Salomon Torres, and Jason Kendall, and fired manager Ned Yost with 12 games left in the season. All of this added up to 90 wins and and the Brewers first playoff birth in 26 years.
Milwaukee and GM Doug Melvin have been much quieter this offseason, with the addition of Adam Lind standing alone as the biggest move. While the Brewers will likely add some bullpen pieces before Spring Training, it should be safe for the most part to assume that what you see currently is the roster that the Brewers will head into the 2015 season with. Given that, can we expect a similar run from this Brewers team that we saw in 2008? Let’s compare the two teams:
2008: The Brewers featured young Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of their order, both of whom slugged their way to a 130 OPS+. The team also got solid seasons from Mike Cameron (111 OPS+) and J.J. Hardy (115 OPS+). Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart performed slightly below a league average clip, while Bill Hall and Jason Kendall were both offensive disappointments. Collectively, the team averaged 4.63 runs per game, had a .325 OBP and struck out at a 19.2% clip.
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2015: Ryan Braun is the only holdover from that 2008 lineup, though he is a big question mark going into this season. If Ryan can come back successfully from offseason thumb surgery, he could make a huge difference for a team that averaged only 4.01 runs per game last season. The best two players returning from last season are Carlos Gomez (130 OPS+) and Jonathon Lucroy (132 OPS+), with Braun managing a 114 OPS+ despite his well documented injury issues. The Brewers added Adam Lind to the fold at first base, who was an extra base machine last season, but comes with platoon issues and back problems. Khris Davis, Aramis Ramirez, and Scooter Gennett were all solid last season. Davis could be better this year, we’re praying for Ramirez to remain productive at 37, and Gennett has even worse platoon issues than Lind. Jean Segura was awful for most of last season but bounced back somewhat in September. The team collectively had a .311 OBP and struck out at a 19.7% rate.
The trio of Gomez/Lucroy/Braun produced at roughly the same rate as Braun/Fielder/Hardy in 2008, and hopefully Braun can produce at roughly the same rate this year as he did in ’14, if not better. I expect that Khris Davis takes a step this year and could produce stats similar to Mike Cameron for the ’08 team, and Jean Segura should be better this year as well. If Ramirez and Lind can stay healthy and productive and Scooter Gennett hits lefties like the front office thinks he can, this 2015 could be a force to be reckoned with. While the team only averaged 4.01 runs per game, that number STILL ranked above the NL average of 3.95 runs per game, and was skewed significantly by a 2.73 mark in September when the team was in full free-fall. I think the 2015 lineup has more upside than the 2008 lineup did, and should therefore outperform both the 2008 lineup and the numbers the team put up in 2014.
2008: The Brewers went into the season with a rotation fronted by Ben Sheets and young Yovani Gallardo, followed by Suppan, Dave Bush, and Manny Parra. Gallardo suffered a torn ACL early in the season, however, resulting in guys like Seth McClung and Carlos Villanueva stepping in for spot starts. That changed on July 7th, however, when the team acquired C.C. Sabathia for a package of prospects headlined by Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta. Sabathia basically put the team on his back during the second half of the season, completing seven of his 17 starts and finishing fifth in the Cy Young vote.
2015: Heading into 2015, we’ll see basically the same starting rotation that finished out last year. Some order of Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, and Yovani Gallardo will round out the top four, with either Jimmy Nelson or Mike Fiers slotting in at number five (though I prefer Fiers at this point). While the knock on this rotation is that they lack a clear ace like a Sheets or Sabathia was, the top four starters all had above average ERA+ marks and Fiers mowed hitters down to the tune of 2.13 ERA (2.99 FIP) in 71.2 innings. Wily Peralta improved significantly from 2013 to 2014, and with his stuff, he could be the one to develop into that shutdown starter that the Brewers have lacked.
While we may never see another season in Milwaukee like Sabathia had in 2008, the 2015 Brewers rotation is much more complete top to bottom than the top heavy 2008 staff was. Both Mike Fiers and Wily Peralta have shown flashes of ace-like ability and should be primed for big 2015 campaigns, and I would take Garza/Lohse/Gallardo over Suppan/Bush/Parra any day of the week.
2008: The Brewers featured a remarkably productive bench during their 2008 playoff run. Veteran players like Russell Branyan, Gabe Kapler, Craig Counsell and Ray Durham all provided great versatility and Mike Rivera was a capable but lightly used backup catcher. Each had a knack for getting on base, with no one posting worse than a .340 OBP, while Branyan and Kapler provided power with 12 and eight home runs, respectively.
2015: Milwaukee has seen their top three bench bats all leave following the 2014 season: Weeks’ option was declined, Mark Reynolds signed with St. Louis, and Lyle Overbay retired. Beyond those guys, Brewers pinch hitters posted a .180 average last season. Elian Herrera and waiver claim Luis Jimenez figure to be the top infield backups, top flite defenders Gerardo Parra and Logan Schafer as likely backup outfielders, and Martin Maldonado returning as the reserve backstop.
All offseason, I’ve been preaching to anyone who will listen that the Brewers need to bring in one or two proven bench bats. While Parra is a strong defender and had a palatable 96 OPS+ last year, I’d rather the Brewers move him and his bloated arbitration salary before the season begins. Herrera (74 OPS+) and Schafer (55 OPS+) are nearly worthless offensively and Jimenez has all of 151 career major league plate appearances (with a total OPS+ of 60). Add the defense-first Maldonado to that mix, and this 2015 Brewers bench couldn’t hold a candle to the 2008 team. I think the weak bench could be the Brewers biggest hangup as they chase division title this year.
2008: The Brewers most expensive bullpen addition of the 2007-08 offseason, Eric Gagne, quickly flamed out after starting in the closer’s role, while another highly paid reliever, David Riske, also struggled. Fortunately, Salomon Torres was there to pick up the pieces, saving 28 games and posting an ERA+ of 121. Brian Shouse posted an ERA+ of 151 while making 69 appearances as the team’s designated LOOGY. Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, and Guillermo Mota each managed seasons slightly above league average, while Mitch Stetter and Mark DiFelice pitched well in shorter samples.
2015: Like their bench, the Brewers have also waved goodbye to several significant contributors from last season. Gone are lefties Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny, while Marco Estrada was flipped to Toronto for Lind and last year’s closer Francisco Rodriguez remains a free agent. The Brewers are counting on Jonathon Broxton as closer, despite his falling fastball velocity and the fact he hasn’t been a full-time closer since a 2012 trade from Kansas City to Cincinnati. Will Smith was great early on and late in the season, but suffered through a dismal July during which he allowed 14 of his 27 total earned runs. Jeremy Jeffress was a pleasant surprise, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain his 2.2 BB/9 mark from last season after years of command struggles. Jimmy Nelson struggled while a starter, and may profile better as a relief pitcher until he can develop and effective third pitch. Brandon Kintzler and Rob Wooten both had up-and-down seasons in 2014, and Tyler Thorburg and Jim Henderson are still question marks as they work back from injury. Melvin remains adamant that he likely won’t add any more arms until we are near Spring Training.
Advantage: Toss Up
The Brewers bullpen wasn’t a strength in 2008, and it’s unlikely to be a strength in 2015, either. Broxton is a former flamethrower that no longer is throwing flames, but Torres was more of a finesse pitcher by the time he was closing games for the Brewers. Smith throws much harder than Shouse did as a LOOGY, but he needs to cut down on his 4.2 BB/9 mark. If Thornburg and Henderson can come back healthy, it will make a big difference to this bullpen. The biggest key could be Jeffress; while the Brewers lacked a shutdown setup man in 2008, Jeffress can bring it up to triple digits and could get the first call as closer if he pitches well and Broxton falters.
Overall Advantage: 2015
While the 2008 Brewers were able to come back strong from their collapse and make a run to the postseason in a highly competitive NL Central, I think that the 2015 team has an even better chance to recover. Though the 2008 squad had a much stronger bench, the 2015 team has a better starting lineup and pitching rotation. While the bullpens were considered a toss up, the return of a healthy Thornburg and Henderson and the continued emergence of Jeremy Jeffress could swing the advantage to the 2015 squad.
The 2008 NL Central featured four of six teams winning at least 86 games, with the Brewers and Cubs making the playoffs. As the Cubs, Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals have all made significant additions this offseason, 2015 figures to be just as competitive. Though the Brewers faltered last season, I believe the players have learned from the experience and are hungry to show they can compete. The pieces are in place for another rebound and run to the postseason, and it will be even better than the one we lived through in 2008.