Brewers have a bright outlook heading into 2014
Sometimes in sports, you just have a bad year.
Losing nearly 90 games, having three other teams in your division win 90 games and make the playoffs, and having your Most Valuable Player suspended for more than 60 games for his connection to a Florida drug lab would definitely count as a bad year.
Toss is an additional 294 games missed with injury by four other former All-Stars (Corey Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo) and the year goes not from bad, but to the kind of hilarious bad you laugh about because when you say all that out loud it just doesn't make sense.
And all that makes it easy to wonder about the future, if the Milwaukee Brewers can once again be a contending team for the National League pennant. It makes it easy to sort of explain away legitimate silver linings, as sort of pressure-free one-offs.
But there is reason to not just hope the Brewers can knock on the door of 90 wins, there may be reason enough to expect it.
"We have some good pitching and we have some good offense so the team – we're good to go," said shortstop Jean Segura. "If we stay healthy we'll have a good ball club. As a team, we'll be trying to go to a championship or the playoffs. We have a good lineup, we have a good team."
Segura said that matter of factly, as well he should.
Let's examine why.
Manager Ron Roenicke is no doubt the envy of many of his colleagues around baseball, as he has five players with an All-Star appearance on their resume that he can pencil in to his everyday lineup.
Ryan Braun heads that list, and say what you want about him as a person, the guy will always be in the MVP conversation when healthy.
"Hey, I'll take it – the guy is a good player," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said of Braun. "Having him back in the lineup is a great thing."
Then you have young all-stars like Segura and Carlos Gomez, as well as veterans who may be on the decline but still present a threat when hot like Ramirez and Weeks.
And while Khris Davis and first base in general is a question mark, Lucroy is knocking on the door of his own All-Star selection.
according to 1 gm, their team ranks brewers jonathan lucroy as 1 of top 2 catchers, along with yadier molina. #highpraise— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) March 6, 2014
"I've pitched against them and I know what they can bring, and I know what a healthy Braun and a healthy Ramirez is," starter Matt Garza said of the Brewers lineup. "It's going to be an exciting year for us. We've got a great rotation, we'll have a solid bullpen and put up runs."
The signing of the right-handed Garza may be a coup for the Brewers, especially if they challenge for a playoff berth and do make the postseason. While he sports a mediocre, by definition, career record of 67-67 he's much better than that record indicates. In the four healthy seasons he spent in Tampa Bay and Chicago between 2008 and 2011 he started 125 games, threw 790 1/3 innings and sported a 3.72 earned run average.
In 42 starts over the last two years with the Cubs and the Texas Rangers, he has a 3.82 ERA over 259 innings.
Garza also has a career 3.48 ERA in 31 postseason innings, and has a American League Championship MVP award on his resume as well.
"I think he can be a difference maker," Braun said. "In facing him over the last few years I think he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, one of the toughest at-bats, great stuff, very competitive, a fiery competitor which I think is something that can really benefit the whole pitching staff and our whole team."
"He's an intense guy. Very aggressive," added Lucroy. "Very intense and he likes to get after it. I think he just adds that intensity and he likes to win. He likes to compete. He's going to make us all that much better."
The Brewers will be Garza's fifth team, but it's set up to be his longest stop and he has experienced success in the National League Central – including against St. Louis, posting a career 3-1 record with a 3.96 ERA in seven starts.
"It's fun," Garza said. "I like the Central. I like pitching in the Central. I like swinging the bat. It's a big plus for me. I enjoy that. I like competing and it's a fun division to be in."
Add Garza to the top of a rotation with Kyle Lohse, who has been one of the better pitchers in the National League the last three years (41-21, 3.19 ERA) and a former All-Star in Yovani Gallardo, and the Brewers have every right to expect 35-45 wins just out of those three alone. Wily Peralta won 11 games last year and finished the last three months of the season giving up 32 earned runs over 91 1/3 innings (3.16 ERA).
Fifth starter Marco Estrada had struggled with health the last two years, but when healthy he's effective, posting a 3.75 ERA while striking out 8.8 batters per nine innings.
"Having four or five guys that can go out there and dominate each time out – that's how talented it is," Gallardo said of the starting five.
Garza's addition also pushes emerging arms like Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg either into long relief or the minor leagues to bide their time.
"It's exciting," Lucroy said of the depth of the starting rotation. "I think Thornburg may be the odd man out here. Based on what he did at the end of the year (four starts in September, 2.16 ERA, .214 batting average against) last year so with a guy like that that's not, with the way he pitched, and chances are he's not going to be in the rotation, I think that's special. I think that's a pretty good rotation we had because he did really good."
On any team, this is the most fickle collection of players In any given season, a "no-name" can turn in a spectacular season while a talented veteran may completely fall off the table. The Brewers know this better than most, after dealing with the ups and downs of closer John Axford the last two seasons.
But the team does seem set at the back end of the 'pen, with a backup in place. After 97 career appearances, it seems safe to say you know what you'll get out of Jim Henderson (11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.98 ERA) and veteran Francisco Rodriguez (199 games over the last three years, 3.31 ERA, 9.7 K/9).
The Brewers are hoping that veteran Tom Gorzelanny and Brandon Kintzler continue to be solid, if not overwhelming, and that the young, power arms mixed in between keep developing.
No team is perfect, and the Brewers certainly aren't. As last year proved, a number of injuries or suspensions can could even the brightest of suns. And, there are always questions. Can the young players continue to improve, or make a leap in production? Can the older players stave off Father Time one more year? Will the key players stay healthy for entire season?
Fair enough, but you can't cross those bridges until you get to them, so at this point, with the dawn of a new season rising in three days, the Brewers feel the sky is the limit.
"I know where they're going to put us again this year, which is fine, but I like what I see with the club," Roenicke said. "I think if we keep everybody healthy and the young guys can perform the way we think they can and have shown that they can, I think we will surprise some people."
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