|Will the Crew be able to repeat as NL Central Champs?|
With pitchers and catchers having reported and position players coming within the next few days, it's finally Brewer season again. Last season was the best in almost 30 years for the franchise when they advanced to the National League Championship Series and were crowned National League Central Division Champs. However, there are tons of questions coming into this season. Prince Fielder's gone and MVP Ryan Braun may be gone for the first 50 games. What do the Brewers do without their two best players? The answer: Rely on their pitching staff that almost carried them to the promised land last season.
Here I'll break everything down giving you projected opening day lineups, pitching rotations, under the radar players and stories, and things to look for in the upcoming 2012 season.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
1. 2B Rickie Weeks
2. CF Nyjer Morgan
3. LF Ryan Braun*
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez
5. RF Corey Hart
6. 1B Mat Gamel
7. SS Alex Gonzalez
8. C Jonathan Lucroy
*The asterisk here is a rather dry, depressing form of irony. No one has ever successfully appealed a suspension for Performance Enhancing Drugs. Unless last season's MVP becomes the first, expect to see some combination of Carlos Gomez in CF with Morgan and three-time Japanese batting champion Norichika Aoki splitting time in left.
RHP Yovani Gallardo
RHP Zack Greinke
RHP Shawn Marcum
LHP Randy Wolf
LHP Chris Narveson
Closer - John Axford
Setup man - Francisco Rodriguez
Setup man - Jose Veras
- Transition to Pitching and Defense - With Fielder's departure, the questions surrounding Braun, and offseason acquisitions like shortstop Alex Gonzalez replacing Yunieski Betancourt and third baseman Aramis Ramirez replacing Casey McGehee, the 2012 Brewers strengths look different than last year's. The left side of the infield is drastically improved defensively which should only help the pitching staff, especially those who pitch to contact like Marcum, Wolf, and Narveson. Instead of relying solely on offense this season, expect the Crew to ride their pitching staff, bullpen, and much improved defense.
- Replacing Fielder - Brewer manager Ron Roenicke told GM Doug Melvin his biggest concern this offseason was finding a cleanup hitter, so Melvin went out and signed former Cub Aramis Ramirez to hit behind Braun. Mat Gamel is expected to get every opportunity to replace Fielder at first base, and when given that opportunity in the minor leagues, Gamel has hit. However, he hasn't gotten consistent playing time in the big leagues, and this is his chance to show he can do it at the major league level. By all indications he's worked harder than ever this offseason and is ready to run with the everyday first baseman job. He and Ramirez are going to have to combine to replace the offensive output we've been used to with Fielder if the Crew are going to repeat as division champs.
- Free Agents - Greinke, Marcum, and Wolf are all entering their final guaranteed years in Milwaukee. Closer John Axford will likely see a huge chunk of change enter his pocket after this year when he's eligible for arbitration. The team's payroll will be pushing past $100 million for the first time in franchise history, something I never thought I would see. While Fielder was obviously a huge loss, it may only be the beginning of the changes we'll be seeing in the next few seasons, which makes it even more important to get it done now.
Under the Radar
- RHP Wily Peralta - Rated the top prospect in the Brewers minor league system, Peralta seems ready to contribute this year should the need arise. Whether a starter goes down due to injury or someone just isn't producing, Peralta will be the next man up. A big, tall, power pitcher, Peralta represents the direction the Brewers have been going with their young pitchers and he could be a major contributor by the time the season's over.
- LHPs Manny Parra and Zach Braddock - Both are still young and have a lot of potential, but are coming off of injury-filled and issue-riddled years. With the losses of Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins at the back end of the bullpen, these two may be called upon a lot to be key relievers for the Crew. Both can be dominant against left handed hitters, something that's currently lacking in the Brewers' bullpen.
- Marcum's Bounceback - While Marcum may have been our most consistent starting pitcher last year, he clearly faded badly in the playoffs when we needed him most. He says he's tweaked a few things in his delivery that should help him stay stronger for longer, but who knows how that will play out. If the Brewers are going to go beyond what they did last season, Marcum can't disappear in the playoffs again.
This all comes down to what happens with Braun. If he's there for the first 50 games, I see somewhere between 85 and 90 wins, good enough for an NL Wild Card berth and another trip to the playoffs. If he's not? Somewhere closer to 75 wins. As a Brewer fan, I'm hoping for the former.