After coming within two games of the World Series in 2011, the Brewers took a step backward in 2012, finishing 83-79 and missing the playoffs. They closed on a high note, though, going 29-13 after Aug. 19 and even putting a scare into the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot in mid-September. Alas, a stretch where they lost five of seven in late September buried the Brewers, but the last two months certainly provided a healthy dose of optimism heading into 2013. Let's take a look.
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1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C
6. Carlos Gomez, CF
7. Alex Gonzalez, 1B*
8. Jean Segura, SS
* - Until Corey Hart returns from injury
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
The Brewers didn't do much, other than some small bullpen tinkering, but I'm going with something they didn't do. They did not react to the blown saves issue of 2012 and go out and acquire a closer to replace Axford.
Axford blew nine saves last year and his ERA went from 1.95 to 4.67 in just one season. His walk and home run rates rose, too. So why no cause for concern?
Well, peripherals FIP and xFIP indicate Axford suffered from some bad fortune and those things tend to even out. He didn't lose any velocity on his fastball, so it's not like he's in regression mode. Plus, Axford successfully converted 17 of his last 18 save chances with 30 strikeouts in his last 19/13 innings. His midseason funk was simply that -- a temporary funk. He might not dominate like he did in 2011, but he's plenty good enough to close for a contender.
Fantasy bounce-back: Rickie Weeks
"The truth is Weeks has already bounced back, but you wouldn't know it by where he's projected to go on Draft Day. Over his final 97 games last year, he hit .269 with 16 homers, 11 steals and an .812 OPS -- which, if projected over a full season, is basically what he did in 2010 and 2011, when he was regarded among the best at his position. It's that .162 batting average over his first 60 games that scares people away. Keep in mind, though, he rushed back from a severely sprained ankle to take part in the playoffs in 2011. Just before spring training last year, he was still saying he hadn't fully recovered. Chances are the injury had some carryover effect in 2012, but once he got past it, he was the same old power-hitting second baseman as always. With a clean bill of health entering 2013, Weeks is once again poised to perform like a top-five second baseman." - Scott White [Full Brewers fantasy team preview]
Power, both on the mound and at the plate. Despite losing Prince Fielder from the previous season, the 2012 Brewers led the National League in home runs and slugging percentage. In Braun they have an elite slugger and including him could have six (Braun, Hart, Weeks, Lucroy, Gomez and Ramirez) players hit at least 20 homers this season. It's not just home run power, either, as the Brewers have extra-base power. Aoki had 37 doubles and four triples last year. Ramirez had a whopping 50 doubles. The team ranked fourth in the NL in both doubles and triples.
The Brewers' pitching staff has power, too. They led the NL in strikeouts last season and project to be a strikeout machine again in 2013. Gallardo, Estrada and Fiers have proven to be strikeout-per-inning guys while Peralta has that capability. In Axford and Henderson, the bullpen has some K-artists as well.
Entering the season, the situation at first base is a problem. It looks like Hart will miss at least a month of the season and we can't be sure how his knee will hold up upon his return. Until he gets back, the Brewers seem ready to go with Gonzalez at first. First base is the easiest position on the field, yes, but it that doesn't mean it's easy and Gonzalez has never played first in a major-league game. Not only that, he makes a ton of outs. His career on-base percentage is below .300 (.292) and it was .270 in his last full season (2011 in Atlanta). At age 36, it's hard to forecast better than that. His power potential does mitigate some of the outs, but it's not like he's Miguel Cabrera up there. In the past two seasons he only has 19 homers in 682 plate appearances.
The good news for Brewers fans is this issue will likely be in the rearview mirror by Memorial Day.
They could take the NL Central again if things break right. Let's say Hart returns a bit early, the bullpen avoids the meltdowns that plagued the Brewers in the first four months of last season, Fiers and Estrada improve upon good 2012 campaigns and Peralta rounds into a the quality starter most think he can be (he's only 23). With the offense that led the NL in runs scored and stolen bases last season -- in addition to the aforementioned power -- the Brewers absolutely have enough talent to again get into the mid-90s in wins and reach the NLCS. If not go further.
Look, the offense is going to be good, even under pessimistic projections. So is Gallardo. Any worst-case scenario involves steps backward from Fiers and Estrada while Peralta proves he's not yet ready to pitch regularly in the bigs. Meanwhile, the bullpen again falls apart, only this time it's not fixed by late in the season. Under that scenario, the Brewers would be mediocre at best and maybe lose 85-88 games. It's hard to see them being any worse than that, barring major injuries to the likes of Braun, Ramirez and/or Gallardo.
Most likely scenario
The Brewers appear to be slightly worse than the Reds and Cardinals while being better than the Cubs and Pirates, so a third-place finish is the likeliest of scenarios. That being said, there's enough good here to reasonably believe the Brewers crack the top two and make a serious run at returning to the postseason. At a bare minimum, expect the Brewers to hang around in the race well into September. This ballclub is absolutely a contender.
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