As the offseason is drawing to a close, this time of year becomes a popular time for predictions to come out. With pitchers and catchers set to report tomorrow, most teams across baseball have their rosters pretty well set and have at least a general idea of what their lineups and rotations will look like as we head into the season. The popular sports betting site Bovada recently released their over/under lines for how many games each MLB team will win, while ESPN released their 2015 regular season predictions last week. Neither of the entities seem to be sold on the Milwaukee Brewers, with Bovada setting the over/under at 78.5 wins and ESPN predicting a 78-84 finish for our beloved local nine.
Last season, the Brewers obviously struggled through a devastating collapse that put a negative connotation on the entire year, but the team still managed to finish above .500 at 82-80. The Brewers addressed their biggest offensive need early in the offseason, trading for first baseman Adam Lind from the Toronto Blue Jays. Brewers’ first baseman have had the lowest OPS at the position for two years running, and while Lind does come with platoon issues and a less-than-stellar defensive reputation, he has posted an .857 OPS and 4.2 wins above replacement over the last two seasons. Should Lind be able to stay mostly healthy, his presence is already a marked improvement for the lineup.
The Brewers have also improved by subtraction, moving Yovani Gallardo to the Texas Rangers for a package of three prospects. This opens up a spot in the rotation for Jimmy Nelson, who despite difficult results on the surface last season, actually had a better FIP, better home run rate, and a similar strikeout-to-walk ratio to Gallardo in 2014. Jimmy’s ERA of 4.93 was greatly inflated by an extremely high .344 BABIP (league average is .300) and 66% strand rate (73% is league average), which would have been the worst BABIP and 6th worst strand rate among all starters, had Nelson pitched enough innings to qualify. Nelson was ranked the #38 prospect in all of baseball at midseason last year after a video game like season at Nashville, and by all accounts should be able to make some big strides this year in a guaranteed role. Beyond Nelson, the Brewers have former top pitching prospect Tyler Thornburg reportedly healthy this season and current top pitching prospect Taylor Jungmann at AAA ready to step in should there be an injury to another starter. The Gallardo trade also netted flame-throwing reliever Corey Knebel and versatile infielder Luis Sardinas, who could both have an impact at the major league level in 2015.
The Brewers have young players like Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett in their everyday lineup, and both should be able to improve in their second full seasons as starters. Jean Segura should be able to bounceback some as well, and had a strong September while the rest of team seemed to crumble. The biggest comeback candidate for this team is Ryan Braun, who is apparently healthier than he has been in a long time. Braun posted a .266/.324/.453 line last season, all career lows, while dealing with a nerve issue in his right thumb. Braun received cryotherapy treatment in October, and if he is as healthy as he says he is, should be able to get back to getting on base at a .360 clip and slug 25-30 home runs.
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The biggest question remaining for the Brewers is the bullpen. Gone are Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny, and current free agent Francisco Rodriguez is reportedly seeking a $10 mil deal for 2015, which would fall out of the Brewers price range. The Brewers courted Jonathan Papelbon for awhile, but that deal seems to be on life support at the moment. Though Neal Cotts was brought in, minor league deals for Dontrelle Willis and Chris Perez are not likely to be enough to finalize the Brewers relief corps. If Jim Henderson and Thornburg are healthy and ready for Opening Day, as they say they will be, it would go a long way to solidifying the bullpen. Still, I am looking for the team to add at least one more free agent (Mike Adams or Rafael Soriano, perhaps?) before the season begins.
Another concern that reared its head recently is the health of Jonathan Lucroy. After feeling discomfort in his hamstring last season, Lucroy was diagnosed with a strain in his right hamstring last week, and will miss four to six weeks while healing. Though that puts him on pace to be recovered in time for Opening Day, some concern is still warranted. Lucroy plays the most physically demanding position on the diamond, and caught a career high 136 games last season. In order for the Brewers to keep their star catcher healthy for the long grind of the season, Lucroy must see more regular rest from behind the plate. Luc will get likely get a break from catching against lefties, as he will play some first base in a soft platoon with Lind. The Brewers have a capable backup in Martin Maldonado, so they should be comfortable giving him about 40 starts while Lucroy rests his legs.
Most people look at the 2015 Brewers as a team of “ifs,” but I see it more as a team of “shoulds.” The Brewers should be bringing in another free agent reliever. The offense should get better, as guys like Khris Davis, Ryan Braun, and Jean Segura should all be better than they were last season. The rotation should be just as good with Jimmy Nelson as it would have with Yovani Gallardo. Over the course of baseball history, the collapse the Brewers experienced last season has happened only three other times. That’s close to 150 years. A collapse like that shouldn’t (and won’t) happen again.
The Brewers are far from a guarantee, but if I was a betting man, I would say it’s a no brainer to take the over on the Brewers to win 78.5 games. This team should be better than it was last year. The Cardinals will still be the Cardinals (and are the heavy favorites for the division), yes. But the Cubs are still young, need to figure out their fifth starter, and hope that Arismendy Alcantra and Javier Baez are better than they were last year. The Pirates replaced Edinson Volquez with a 38 year old A.J. Burnett and lost Russell Martin. The Reds traded two-fifths of their starting rotation and have a lot of players that need to prove they can return from injury. The NL Central might be the most competitive division in baseball in 2015, but I think the Brewers are better than their projected fourth place finish. Conservatively, I would say that the Brewers, as assembled, should win around 84 games, but could win as many as 88. Put your money down today on the over, and when the Brewers are in the hunt for the playoffs at the end of the season, be ready to collect your winnings.