Probably the most important thing the Milwaukee Brewers will have to endure in 2014, at least for the first couple of months, is how to deal with controversy.
You see, Ryan Braun is back and will, perhaps, be the most hated player on earth now that Alex Rodriguez isn’t suiting up any time soon. Braun, as we all know, was slapped with a 65-game suspension last season for PED involvement, costing the slugger over $3 million in lost salary. And although the sentence has been served, it’s likely he will be roundly jeered in every baseball stadium other than Miller Park. This means teammates will have to be mentally tough and grow an extra layer of thick skin. That said, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
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Braun is a superstar, cheater or not, and his teammates are tickled pink to have him on their side. So is Brewers majority-owner Mark Attanasio, who believes in second chances. Why? Because his team has a good thing going on. First off, the pitching is solid, at least in the starting rotation. Secondly, the farm system has produced some key players who are now varsity ready. And the club has a nice balance of speed and power that will produce a barrel full of runs.
Could the talents of Braun for a full season put this improved team over the top? That’s a question that will be bettered answered a bit further down the road.
When I look at this edition of the Brewers, I see a team that now has the depth to compete, unlike last season when they played without Braun and Corey Hart and the young kids weren’t quite ready. Basically, the club just seemed unsettled; although there were some bright spots near the end of the season.
In the infield, it looks like the now-healthy Aramis Ramirez will join Jean Segura, Rickie Weeks and Juan Francisco around the horn. It was hoped that non-roster invite Mark Reynolds might split time with Francisco as a right-handed bat, and also fill in for Ramirez when the veteran needed a breather. That could still happen, but Reynolds has struggled at the plate and opened the door for Jeff Bianchi, who is looking to establish himself after playing 100 games last season. Versatile, switch-hitting Elian Herrera, the ex-Los Angeles Dodger, also has an outside shot to make the team.
The speedy Segura, 24, is the Brewers shortstop for the long haul, and a possible contract extension is being discussed. The Dominican’s future partner up the middle is Scooter Gennett, also 24, who is starting to figure things out and has natural leadership qualities. This would seem to be problematic for Weeks, a guy who has spent his entire career in Milwaukee. The issue is that the flamboyant Floridian suffered a season-ending ruptured hamstring that required surgery last year. And prior to that mishap in August, Weeks was hitting only .209 in 92 starts. Rickie is now set to earn $11 million in the final year of his deal, and I would be shocked if he is still around by the trade deadline.
One of the reasons Milwaukee General Manager Doug Melvin traded Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals last winter, aside from the fact the Japanese favorite was approaching free agency, was the Brewers needed to find a spot for power-hitting Khris Davis. A home-grown product with good lineage, the 26-year-old Arizona resident is still a work in progress but will be penciled in with patience as the starting left fielder. The rest of the outfield is set with All-Star and Gold Glove-winner Carlos Gomez in center, and Braun, with his above-average arm, making the transition to right field. Fleet-footed defensive wizard Logan Schafer, a lefty bat, will see plenty of playing time as the fourth outfielder.
The Brew Crew is solid in the catching department. Durable Jonathan Lucroy improved his power numbers over 147 games last season and can also play an adequate first base. And that would allow more time behind the dish for Martin Maldonado, a solid backup receiver with some pop in his bat.
The Brewers starting rotation is definitely a strength, especially since free-agent prize Matt Garza is now in the fold. The SoCal Mexican-American has scuffled this spring, but insists his body feels great and it’s only a matter of getting mentally sharp.
Five-time opening day starter Yovani Gallardo is still the king in Milwaukee, and #49 will always go to war with Teddy Higuera’s number on his back. Joining Gallardo and Garza will be Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Tyler Thornburg has thrown with mixed results this spring but is still in line as an emergency fifth starter or long reliever. The lack of a southpaw to open games makes the Brewers vulnerable. But big lefty Will Smith, acquired in the Aoki swap, could be helpful in that regard.
The bullpen boys were bolstered by the resigning of Francisco Rodriguez, whose spring has been hampered by stepping on a cactus. In all probability, K-Rod will compete with Canadian Jimmy Henderson for the closer job, due to the lack of a better option. Smith will likely start the season in the pen, at least until Tom Gorzelanny is fully recovered from shoulder surgery. Brandon Kintzler has done well in camp, and the Las Vegas native will play a key setup role.
Without a doubt, the most intriguing story this spring has been Rule 5 draft pick Wei-Chung Wang, a 21-year-old, string-bean southpaw from Taiwan who has been both lights out and fearless on the hill. Originally signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011, Wang had elbow issues and would undergo Tommy John surgery, missing all of the 2012 season. The kid was left unprotected by the Pirates, and the Brewers took a gambler’s chance. Although Wang has never pitched higher than the Class A level in the U.S., he does not lack confidence and intends to make the most of his opportunity.
“I know I can do this,” nods the personable youngster, who speaks mostly Mandarin and needs the help of a hired interpreter. “I feel like I have a chance to win the lottery.”
Opening day lineup
1. Jean Segura, ss
2. Rickie Weeks. 2B
3. Ryan Braun, RF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Carlos Gomez, CF
6. Juan Francisco, 1B
7. Khris Davis, LF
8. Jonathan Lucroy, C
The Brewers have done an excellent job drafting and developing their young talent, with Gennett and Davis as prime examples. Right-handed pitcher Jimmy Nelson, 24, a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2010, looks like the next big thing in Milwaukee. Projected as a starter with a good sinking fastball, the 6′-5″, 240 pound giant will start at the triple-A level to get consistent work, but will keep his cell phone handy.
The front office and coaches are also high on Taylor Jungmann, a University of Texas alum who is fine-tuning his mechanics but getting close to the show. Nick Delmonico, formerly a Baltimore Orioles prospect, could become the Brewers future third baseman.
The Milwaukee Brewers play in baseball’s “black and blue” division, the NL Central, and success always depends on survival of the fittest. In a capsule, this club is the ultimate crapshoot, but I see them winning, perhaps, as many as a dozen more games over last year. Will 86 wins be good enough for the postseason dance? Not likely. But Brewers fans should get ready for a wild ride.