Paul Heinz

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Milwaukee Brewers Season Preview

The following will appear Full Spectrum Baseball in the near future.

Any optimism the NL Central champion Brewers had going into the winter meetings was attenuated with news of MVP Ryan Braun’s potential fifty game suspension.  Now that this threat is over, the Crew goes into spring training with a buoyed sense of hope despite losing Prince Fielder to the Tigers, and the hope is justified.  After all, the Brewers set a franchise record with 96 wins in 2011, advanced to the NLCS, and were within two games of making the World Series for the first time since 1982.  Furthermore, all five starters, as well as the Brewers’ set-up man Francisco Rodriquez and closer John Axford – whose one-two punch baffled opponents down the stretch last season – are returning this year, making this the first spring training in memory with no key openings on the pitching staff. 

Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke return as the likely number one and two starters, and Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson should handle the back end of the rotation.  The big question mark that isn’t getting a lot of attention is Shaun Marcum, whose stellar season came to a crashing halt last September and into the playoffs.  Both his velocity and command were off, which usually spells arm trouble, but aside from recent shoulder discomfort, there’s been no word of a more significant injury coming from either the Brewers or the press, so perhaps all is well.  But it does beg the question: why did the Brewers opt not to extend Marcum’s contract despite his wishes to do so?  Marco Estrada, who did a competent job as a fill-in starter in 2011, could join the rotation if someone goes down, as could Mike Fiers, who had a tremendous second half in Triple-A last season.

Brewer relievers didn’t give up a lead after the 7th inning from July 4th on last season, and with Rodriguez and Axford set to return, the only question marks on the Brewers’ staff are the middle relievers.  After LaTroy Hawkins and Akashi Saito signed elsewhere in the offseason, the Crew picked up Jose Veras from Pittsburgh.  Right-handers Frankie De La Cruz and Kameron Loe are sure to be in the mix as well, and unlike last season, the Brewers hope to carry a consistent lefty in the pen, with Manny Parra and Zack Braddock looking to make the cut.

Ultimately, the success of the Brewers’ 2012 season will likely hinge on the corners, where newly signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez will join first baseman Mat Gamel.  It’ll be interesting to see how Ramirez, who’s coming off an effective season for a subpar Cubs team, hits at Miller Park behind the league’s MVP.  Gamel, who’s only played sporadically in the majors, will finally get his due after another great season in the minors.  Utility infielders Travis Ishikawa, who was acquired in the off-season, and Taylor Green, who filled in nicely late last year as a utility man, will likely complete the infield roster, and both are getting experience at first base should Gamel become injured or underperform.  Right fielder Corey Hart could see some playing time at first as well.  Ishikawa and Green may be key, as second baseman Rickie Weeks is prone to injury, and newly acquired shortstop Alex Gonzalez’s will need to sit out from time to time.  Gonzalez is hardly an improvement at the plate over last year’s Yuniesky Betancourt, but he is a defensive upgrade, something the Brewers focused on this winter after the four regular infielders last season committed on average an error every two games.

Like the pitching staff, the entire outfield returns, including Braun in left, Corey Hart in right, and the centerfield platoon of Nyjer Morgan and Garlos Gomez.  Norichika Aoki, acquired from Japan primarily to fill in for Braun if suspended, will now likely start the season in right since Hart just had successful arthroscopic knee surgery.  Also in the mix is Logan Schafer, a September call-up last season who had an impressive 2011 in Triple A.

Jonathan Lucroy returns as catcher with backup George Kottaras.  Lucroy struggled offensively in the last half of 2011, but his command behind the plate improved, particular his ability to block balls.  However, he only threw out only 21 percent of would-be base stealers, a statistic he’s sure to focus on in 2012.

One big concern for the Crew is its propensity to strike out.  Gomez struck out a whopping 26% of his plate appearances, and Hart wasn’t much better, striking out 21% of the time.  Not a great stat for a leadoff hitter.  Rickie Weeks struck out more than Prince Fielder, despite having 130 fewer at-bats, and Matt Gamel hasn’t shown great plate discipline thus far in the majors or minors. 

My predictions for the Brewers 2012 season:

Team MVP: Aramis Ramirez

Team Ace: Yovanni Gallardo

Team's 2012 record: 91-71

Team's 2012 finish in division: first

Team's 2012 finish in post-season: NLDS

Though history can’t justify it, I expect big numbers from Ramirez at Miller Park (where he has a lifetime average of just .216).  The Brewers staff didn’t have an ace last year, but if I had to pick one for 2012, I’d choose Gallardo.  As for the team’s finish, in the NL Central anything is possible but I predict another division title, though just barely, and a loss to the Marlins in the NLDS.

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