Milwaukee Brewers 2015 Season Preview

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Winter is over. We made it. 158 days since the Giants defeated the Royals in the 2014 World Series, the 2015 baseball season is ready to begin anew. Today is officially Opening Day for Major League Baseball, with the Cardinals heading to Chicago to face off against the Cubs tonight.

Just about every other team with kick off their season tomorrow, including our beloved local nine, the Milwaukee Brewers. After being picked to win 79.5 games last season by Bovada, the Brewers charged out of the gates, getting off to a 20-8 start thanks to a stellar bullpen and plenty of timely hitting. Milwaukee managed to hang on to first place for over 150 days last season before the wheels fell completely off down the stretch. The Brewers offense was non-existent during the season’s final month, and Milwaukee finished 9-22 over their last 31 games to fall all the way to third place. At 82-80, the Brewers failed to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

Following the brutal collapse, there was plenty of doubt about whether GM Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke would return to Milwaukee for 2015. It was decided that both would return shortly after the season, and Roenicke has recently had his 2016 contract option exercised, giving him some job security for next season, as well. Still, the Brewers headed into the past offseason with plenty of questions. Were they the team that was at one point 19 games over .500? Were they the team that had the worst offense in baseball in the season’s final month? Or, were they somewhere in between?

To the surprise of many, the Brewers had a relatively quiet offseason. They have enough to pieces to be a dangerous team, but they lacked the financial flexibility to go after a free agent who could put them over the top. The Brewers’ took a sort of middle road, but GM Doug Melvin again showed why he is one of baseball’s best by making some smart and shrewd moves this winter.

Hello, Goodbye

Adam Lind should provide a big boost to the Brewers lineup this year, as long as his back cooperates. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers made an early splash this offseason, trading for a legitimate big league first baseman just days after the season ended. Following a disappointing season in which he led the league in home runs given up, the Brewers shipped non-tender candidate Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays for Adam Lind, which remains as the most underrated move the Brewers pulled this offseason. Lind has battled injury throughout his career, including playing in only 96 games last season while dealing with back and foot injuries. Lind is also considered a less-than-stellar defender, and has spent plenty of DH in his career. However, the left handed hitting Lind has proven to one of the game’s most dangerous hitters over the last few years. Among players with a minimum 250 plate appearances last year, Lind led the league against right handed pitchers with a .354 batting average and was third with a .942 OPS. The big slugger has 82 extra base hits in 239 games over the past two seasons, and has topped 20 home runs four times during his career. Given that the Brewers’ have received league worst offensive contributions from their first basemen over the last two seasons, Lind should be able to provide a huge boost to the middle of the order that already ranked 6th in the NL in scoring last season.

After the Lind trade, Milwaukee did little in the terms of major moves until January, giving fans a nearly three month window with which to complain that team wasn’t doing enough. Then, much to the surprise of just about everyone, word came the Brewers’ had shipped off their erstwhile “ace,” Yovani Gallardo, to the Texas Rangers. Yo was originally drafted the Brewers in 2004, and while he never truly lived up to the “ace” moniker that he had been stuck with, he firmly placed himself among the best pitchers in franchise history during his eight seasons in Milwaukee. His 1226 strikeouts are a franchise record, while his 89 wins, 3.69 ERA, 211 starts, and 1289.1 innings pitched all rank among the best in Brewers’ annals. Gallardo was in the final year of his contract and will make $13 mil this season, so the Brewers sold on Yo while they could get the highest return. In exchange for the pitcher who topped 180 innings and 30 starts for six consecutive seasons (and the $4 mil the Brewers sent in the trade), the Brewers received a promising gaggle of prospect from the Texas Rangers. RHP Corey Knebel and SS Luis Sardinas are both highly touted prospects who should make their major league debut sometime this season, while RHP Marcos Diplan is an 18 year old international signee with a power fastball and promising potential.

Milwaukee waved goodbye to one of the most polarizing players the franchise has ever seen, as Rickie Weeks left after 11 seasons in Milwaukee to join the Seattle Mariners this winter. Weeks had seen his playing time dwindle to that of a platoon player by the end, but one has to wonder what the 2nd overall pick in the 2003 draft could have become if not for the injuries that plagued him throughout his career. The Brewers also saw bench players Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay depart via free agency, as well as left handers Zack Duke and Tom Gorzelanny. In their place, the Brewers brought in LHP Neal Cotts via free agency, added INF Luis Jimenez from the Angels on a waiver claim, and re-signed closer Francisco Rodriguez.

On the Mend

The Brewers saw several key contributors deal with injury throughout last season, and should be getting bounce back performances from a couple of important cogs. None of these will be more integral to the Brewers’ success in 2015 than Milwaukee’s right fielder, Ryan Braun. Braun’s struggles in 2014 have been well documented, as the former MVP saw his production drop to career lows in terms of home runs, batting average, runs batted slugging, OPS, and wins abover replacement. Braun has been dealing with a nagging nerve issue in his right thumb for most of the last two seasons, and chose to undergo a cryotherapy procedure following the 2014 season to deaden the nerves and dull the pain that Ryan had while gripping a bat. Early results have been encouraging, as Braun has been vocal about the positive state of his health this spring. After starting 0-13 this spring, Braun finished with a 1.252 OPS and three home runs in 16 games this spring.

Tyler Thornburg also missed most of last season with a UCL injury after getting off to a promising start in relief. Thornburg managed to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery in the offseason, and again begin this seasons in the Brewers’ bullpen. Aramis Ramirez has dealt with knee and hamstring issues during the last two seasons, and with a regular rest plan in place, he should be able to stay fresh and productive throughout the season. After dealing with foot and back issues last year and a minor back issue early in the spring as well, new addition Adam Lind looks ready to be a big contributor this season, as well.

The Lineup

The Brewers’ fielded this starting lineup during Cactus League action on March 31st, and it was later announced that this would be the Brewers starting lineup on Opening Day. The Brewers return seven of eight starters from a lineup that averaged 4.01 runs per game last season, ranking 6th in the NL. The addition of Lind at first base should provide a huge offensive boost for the Brewers, who have dealt with a black hole at the position since Corey Hart’s solid 2012 season. Carlos Gomez has been among the best players in the league over the last two seasons, and should continue to provide a rare combination of speed, power, and new-found on base ability at the top of the Brewers lineup. Behind him is Jonathan Lucroy, the best catcher in baseball and fourth in MVP voting last season. Luc led the NL with 50 doubles last season, and led the Brewers with a .373 OBP. If Braun is healthy, he should be able to return to the player with a career 143 OPS+, rather than the more pedestrian 114 he produced last season. Aramis Ramirez and Jean Segura should be able to bounce back to some degree from trying 2014 seasons, and Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis should continue to improve after each showed solid performances in their first full seasons as starters last year. If everyone plays to their capablities in 2015, the Brewers offense should be among the best in baseball.

The Bench

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The Brewers will head into this season with a bench consisting of infielders Luis Jimenez and Hector Gomez, outfielders Gerardo Parra and Logan Schafer, and catcher Martin Maldonado. The Brewers bench figures to be strong defensively, with all five players considered above average or better defenders, including the two time Gold Glove winner Parra. Maldonado and Parra have proven the ability to be about league average offensively in the past, but Logan Schafer and his .603 career OPS provide little offensive value. Jimenez and Gomez have posted strong offensive numbers at AAA over the past few seasons, but can they bring those results to the major leagues with them? Jimenez’s contributions will be of particular importance, as he will likely be the primary backup for oft-injured starters Aramis and third base and Lind at first.

The Rotation

Last season, the Brewers starting rotation ranked 15th in baseball with a 3.69 ERA, tied for 21st with a 9.9 WAR, and seventh with 992.1 innings pitched. The Brewers shipped out two of the starters from last year’s Opening Day rotation, with the dynamic duo of Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson slated to replace Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada in the rotation. The rest of the rotation will take shape with the familiar faces of Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta. Lohse and Garza have long track records of being above average MLB starters, and there is little reason to believe either of them will regress this year. Garza has been fragile over the past few seasons, however, failing to top 30 starts or 180 innings pitched in any season since 2011. Wily Peralta took big strides last season, lowering his ERA and walk totals while striking out more batters and inducing grounders at a 53.6% rate. Peralta has the best stuff of any pitcher on the Brewers, and could become the ace of the staff before the year ends. Nelson and Fiers are both wild cards, with strong minor league track records but inconsistent major league results. However, if Fiers and Nelson can combine for better than a 4.01 ERA and 1.0 fWAR, they will have already outperformed the duo they are set to replace.

The biggest issue surrounding the rotation isn’t talent, it’s depth. Sitting sixth, seventh, and eighth on the starting pitcher depth chart are Tyler Thornburg, Michael Blazek, and Taylor Jungmann. Though all three of those look to have the ability to become average or better major league starters (specifically former top prospect Thornburg), none have a significant major league track record. Thornburg, the most experienced of the three, has ten big league starts for Milwaukee to his credit, however Blazek has never started a game at the major league level (and hasn’t appeared in the bigs since 2013), and Jungmann has yet to make his major league debut. Some more experienced depth would have likely been a wise investment for Milwaukee, who will be hoping for good health throughout the season.

The Bullpen

The Brewers bullpen will begin the season looking like this:

RHP Francisco Rodriguez (Closer), LHP Will Smith, RHP Jonathan Broxton, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, LHP Neal Cotts, RHP Tyler Thornburg,  RHP Michael Blazek

The Brewers spent most of last season basically fielding an 11 man bullpen, with Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang appearing in only appearing in only 14 games last year while often times going weeks without pitching. This season’s bullpen should automatically be deeper than last year’s, which will field seven major league quality pitchers. K-Rod was re-signed to a two year deal after a career renaissance last season, when he saved 44 games and produced a 3.04 ERA in 68 innings pitched. Rodriguez’s 4.50 FIP and 14 home runs given up last year raised some eyebrows, but he should provide stability and veteran leadership at the back end of the bullpen. Smith, Jeffress, and Broxton will form the setup committee, each with power fastballs (though Broxton’s has been declining for the past few years). Blazek and Thornburg should split long man/spot starting duties, and Cotts will be counted on as the bullpen’s second lefty (despite a reverse platoon split throughout his career). The Brewers have even more depth at AAA, with Rob Wooten, Brandon Kintzler, and Chris Perez all waiting in the wings should their services be needed in Milwaukee. The bullpen should be a strength for the Brewers this season.

The Competition

This year’s NL Central figures to be among the most competitive in all of baseball. The Chicago Cubs youth movement is on the cusp of breaking through, with hot prospects like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell knocking at the door. Given all of their young, inexperienced pieces, the Cubbies are likely another year away from seriously competing. The Pirates lost Russell Martin, but they feature the one of the best young outfields in all of baseball and should continue to score runs. The Reds traded away a couple of key starting pitchers, but the addition of Marlon Byrd and a healthy Joey Votto should provide an offensive boost. The perennially favored Cardinals should be tough again this season, adding all-star Jason Heyward to the mix while continuing to develop strong pitching from their system.

The Prediction

This year’s Brewers team is extremely hard to predict, as there are so many “ifs” about this team. If Braun returns to form, if Segura can bounce back, if Lind and Ramirez can be productive, if the rotation can stay healthy…but the Brewers aren’t the only team with “ifs” in the division. Each team faces their own question marks. If things go wrong for the Brewers, especially if injuries hit, we could have another season like the snake-bitten year of 2013 ahead of us. However, I have a good feeling about this team. I’m fully confident in Ryan Braun finding his swing again, and I think Jimmy Nelson and Mike Fiers should prove to be solid or better starters this year. This offense is too good to go through another stretch like they did last September, and the rotation should be good enough to win ballgames as long as everyone can stay relatively healthy.

While Bovada pegged the Brewers over/under at 78.5, I predict the Brewers will finish this season 85-77, an improvement of three games over last season. This should be good enough for the Brewers to remain in the mix for a postseason birth, and I believe they will sneak their way into the playoffs by capturing a Wild Card spot. Both World Series participants last season were Wild Card teams, showing anything can happen once the playoffs start.

The Milwaukee Brewers will kick off the 2015 Championship Season against the Colorado Rockies tomorrow afternoon, with first pitch scheduled for 1:10 PM CST. Kyle Lohse will take the mound for the Brewers, facing off against Kyle Kendrick.

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