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Brewers' Team Preview: Strong Brew

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The Brewers entered last season with hopes of taking the next step after reaching the NLCS in 2011, but an ineffective bullpen cost the team early and led to the trade of ace Zack Greinke. The Brewers surprisingly played better after the trade, but alas, a late-season run at a Wild Card spot fell short.

Despite just missing out on the postseason a year ago, the Brewers had a quiet offseason from an acquisition standpoint. Relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez were added to a revamped bullpen, but Alex Gonzalez, who is set to serve as a utility player, was the only other key addition, after re-signing late in the offseason. The Brewers are optimistic that an offense that finished with the most runs in the NL a year ago and did not suffer any losses will be able to carry the team again.

The offense will once again by led by perennial MVP candidate Ryan Braun, and the rotation will be headed by the steady Yovani Gallardo. However, the rest of the rotation is relatively unproven. Runs should not be hard to come by for the Brewers, but they will need several starters to step up, and the relief corps to do a better job, if they hope to make a true run at a postseason spot in 2013.

Offseason Moves:

Signed relief pitcher Tom Gorzelanny.

The Brewers spent the majority of last season with the inconsistent Manny Parra as the lone left-hander out of the bullpen, so their top priority this offseason was addressing that need. The first addition to the squad was Gorzelanny, who posted a 2.88 ERA in 72 innings over 45 appearances with the Nationals a season ago. As a former starter, Gorzelanny figures to slot into somewhat of a swing role for the Brewers, being called upon for one batter, or for multiple innings.

Signed relief pitcher Mike Gonzalez.

Continuing the theme of adding left-handed relievers, the Brewers picked up Gonzalez, another former National himself. Gonzalez figures to be used more situationally than Gorzelanny given the .472 OPS he allowed against opposing left-handers last season; however, as a former closer, he will likely be among the options should incumbent closer John Axford struggle to get the job done.

Signed shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

Gonzalez signed with the Brewers prior to the 2012 season and knocked in 15 runs over his first 24 games with the team, but a torn ACL suffered in May knocked him out for the rest of the campaign. Gonzalez received marginal interest as a free agent this offseason, but after proving he would be healthy by the time the regular season rolls around, the Brewers decided to bring him back for another year. Jean Segura is expected to serve as the starting shortstop, so Gonzalez figures to open in a utility role for the Brewers. However, he provides the club with a proven shortstop who should only help Segura improve, especially defensively.

Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Norichika Aoki RF
2. Rickie Weeks 2B
3. Ryan Braun LF
4. Aramis Ramirez 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy C
6. Mat Gamel/Corey Hart (inj.) 1B
7. Carlos Gomez CF
8. Jean Segura SS

Besides Corey Hart, who figures to open the season on the DL, the Brewers' Opening Day lineup will look exactly like the one that scored the most runs in the NL last season. Norichika Aoki and Rickie Weeks give the Brewers two quality OBP guys ahead of Ryan Braun, who finished second in NL MVP voting last season, and Aramis Ramirez, who is coming off his first 100-RBI campaign since 2008. The key for the Brewers will be the bottom half of the order. Both Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez had big seasons for the Brewers in 2012, but Milwaukee will need them to at least repeat last year's success for the offense to stay strong. The other two regulars, Mat Gamel and Jean Segura, are relatively unproven, but each has the offensive potential to make a strong Brewers lineup even scarier.

Projected Rotation

1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Marco Estrada
3. Wily Peralta
4. Chris Narveson
5. Mike Fiers/Mark Rogers/Tyler Thornburg

Yovani Gallardo has been an above-average starter since entering the league, but as the lone established starter in the rotation, the Brewers will be counting on him to pitch like a true ace in 2013. The team's No. 2 starter, almost by default, will be Marco Estrada, who pitched effectively last season but has just 32 career starts under his belt. Beyond the top two, the last three spots in the rotation are up for grabs. Wily Peralta is the favorite for the third spot based on his pedigree and his late-season showing a year ago. Chris Narveson figures to grab the fourth spot if healthy, but he missed most of last year with a shoulder injury and will have to prove he can still get the job done during the spring. Mike Fiers is likely the leader for the fifth spot after posting a 3.74 ERA in 22 starts last season, but he struggled mightily over his final 10 starts, and he will need a strong spring to hold off Mark Rogers, who is out of options, and Tyler Thornburg, considered the Brewers' top pitching prospect behind Peralta.

Closer: John Axford - Axford blew just five combined saves over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but he was much more human a year ago, blowing nine saves and posting a bloated 4.67 ERA. Despite his struggles, Axford converted 17 of his last 18 opportunities and struck out 93 batters over 69.1 innings. Both his past and 2012 late-season success have him primed to open the 2013 campaign as the Brewers' closer, and his strikeout rate in particular makes him an intriguing fantasy prospect. He will likely have a bit of a leash without many other ninth-inning options on hand, but if Axford struggles, consider Jim Henderson and Mike Gonzalez the top options to replace him.

Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise:

Can the inexperienced rotation get the job done?

The Brewers entered last season without many questions in the Opening Day rotation. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum gave the Brewers one of the top trios in the NL, and the other two starters in the group, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, combined for 61 starts the year before. However, Greinke was traded last year, Narevson is coming off an injury, and both Marcum and Wolf were let go during the offseason. Thus, entering the 2013 campaign, question marks are everywhere. Can Yovani Gallardo become an ace? Can Marco Estrada maintain the improvement he showed last season? Can Mike Fiers get his groove back, and sustain the level he showed? The Brewers hope to find some clues during spring training, but it's likely that most of the answers will not come until after Opening Day. The club will need several starters to either grow up or step up this season, but if that happens, the Brewers should be playing meaningful games in late summer.

Will the second-half offensive surge carry over?

The Brewers essentially waved the white flag last season when they traded Zack Greinke, but a funny thing happened - the team, particularly the offense, started to play better. Norichika Aoki settled into the leadoff role, Carlos Gomez found his power stroke, and Jean Segura, acquired in the Greinke trade, began to show the bat skills that helped make him a top prospect. What was just an average offense prior to the All-Star break developed into a dangerous one after, and thanks to the strong second half, the Brewers finished the season with more runs scored, more home runs, and more stolen bases than any other team in the National League. Both Gomez and Segura will need to prove they can hit over a full season, and the team will miss Corey Hart's pop for a few weeks early in the season, but with an established middle of the order, and Ryan Braun leading the way, the Brewers should have no trouble reaching home plate plenty in 2013.

Will the bullpen be better?

Awful would be a fitting word to describe the Brewers' bullpen a year ago. The team's top two relievers, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, struggled mightily at times and were shuffled in and out of the closer's role. However, they weren't the only two who had trouble getting batters out. Nearly every other reliever allowed far too many runners to reach base, and the group as a whole blew an astounding 29 saves. The Brewers cleaned house during the offseason, and of the bullpen members who pitched more than 35 innings a year ago, only Axford remains. The additions of Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez will help add balance to what was a righty-heavy relief corps the last couple years, and both Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler are hard throwers who, despite a lack of experience, are intriguing late-inning options. Axford could provide a big boost to the relief corps if he is able to pitch like he did in 2011 and lock down the closer's role for the season.

Strengths

The Brewers return nearly every piece from a lineup that scored the most runs in the NL last season, so offense will not be an issue.

Weaknesses

No other rotation in the league will have as many question marks as the Brewers', and it remains to be seen if the improvements made in the bullpen this offseason will work. This could be an ugly formula that severely offsets the expected production of the offense.

Rising: Jonathan Lucroy - You will find Yadier Molina ranked among the top three catchers on most cheat sheets, but Lucroy's .881 OPS was actually better than the .874 mark Molina posted a year ago. Yes, Carlos Ruiz had a better OPS than Molina too, but Lucroy is just 26 years old and has made tremendous strides with his bat each of the last two seasons. Lucroy will likely be around the 10th catcher taken in most drafts, but if he can even maintain the success he had a year ago, and stay healthy for the entire season, don't be surprised to see him as a top-five catcher by year's end.

Falling: Rickie Weeks - Weeks was a questionable pick for this spot given that he posted an .800 OPS after the All-Star break last season, but it should be noted that he turned 30 last September, and that his slugging percentage fell off considerably on the whole, from .468 in 2011 to .400 in 2012. Weeks could still be an effective fantasy player if he stays healthy and holds down the second spot in a loaded Brewers lineup, but consider him just an average option in standard leagues this year rather than the top-five option he was expected to be in the past.

Sleeper: Mat Gamel - Gamel opened last season as the Brewers' starting first baseman, but a knee injury suffered in May ended his season early, and allowed Corey Hart to take over as the starting first baseman. This year, the roles are reversed some, with Gamel getting another shot at first base while Hart recovers from a knee injury of his own. Gamel doesn't have much of a track record at the big league level, but he was starting to come on when he got injured last season, and he did post an .873 OPS over seven minor league seasons. If Hart - a pending free agent, is traded mid-season, or either Norichika Aoki or Carlos Gomez struggles to repeat their success from a year ago, Gamel could find himself with regular at-bats beyond the season's first few weeks.

Supersleeper: Jim Henderson - Henderson made his major league debut last year at the age of 30, and will open 2013 in a setup role, but if John Axford struggles, Henderson could be the top option for the closer's role. Though he lacks experience in the job, there is a lot to like - Henderson struck out 45 batters over 30.2 major league innings last year and gave up just one home run. His ability to miss bats and limit the long ball gives him a chance to find success in the ninth inning if he ends up with the job.

Top Prospects

Wily Peralta - Peralta had only an average season with Triple-A Nashville, posting a 4.66 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, but he surprisingly dominated in a late-season stint with the Brewers, flashing his dominant fastball and slider and posting a 2.25 ERA in his five starts. Peralta's showing with the Brewers reaffirmed his status as a top prospect and gives him an outside shot to open 2013 in the major league rotation.

Tyler Thornburg - Thornburg continued to shoot through the Brewers' ranks last season, appearing in games at every level from Double-A through the bigs. As a starter in the minors, he posted a 10-4 record, 3.20 ERA, and 113:37 K:BB in 112.2 innings; and while he fell victim to the long ball with Milwaukee, he at least got his feet wet in the majors. Thornburg figures to open the 2013 campaign in the minors, but he could be one of the top options should the big club need to add a starter. If the Brewers decide his secondary pitches are not good enough to cut it as a starter in the big leagues, he should at least develop into a useful late-inning option in the bullpen.

Taylor Jungmann - Jungmann held his own in his first pro season, going 11-6 with a 3.53 ERA over 26 starts. The 12th overall pick in 2011 only struck out 99 batters, but he also only give up seven home runs as well. Jungmann throws hard despite his lack of strikeouts, and he will turn 23 this season. Expect him to repeat High-A to open the season but earn a midseason promotion to Double-A Huntsville if he fares even a little better in his second year.

Hunter Morris - Morris' prospect status took a big jump forward last season as he hit .303 with 28 home runs and 117 RBI to win Southern League MVP honors. More importantly, he raised his OBP from .301 to .357 and made strides defensively by committing just six errors. At age 24 and coming off a breakout season, Morris figures to open 2013 as the starting first baseman at Triple-A Nashville. While he is not going to challenge Corey Hart next year, another big season could lead the Brewers to let Hart go via free agency and make Morris a candidate for the first-base job in 2014.

Jimmy Nelson - After an average season in 2011 at Low-A Wisconsin, Nelson came out firing on all cylinders at High-A Brevard County in 2012. In 13 starts, he had a 2.21 ERA with 77 strikeouts and a 1.08 WHIP before receiving a promotion to Double-A Huntsville in June. Nelson found mixed success in 10 starts at that level and finished with a 3.91 ERA while struggling a bit with command (1.1 K/BB). Overall, last season was a step forward for Nelson, and it re-established his place among the Brewers' better pitching prospects. He will likely return to Double-A to begin 2013, but could receive his first exposure to Triple-A in Nashville. If he fares well, a late-season big league callup is not out of the question given the lack of depth in the Milwaukee rotation.

Johnny Hellweg - The Brewers used Hellweg primarily as a reliever after acquiring him from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade, but he had a strong overall season in his first go-around at Double-A, posting a 3.29 ERA in 139.2 innings over 28 games, including 23 starts, between the two organizations. Hellweg's issues with walks are evident in his career 6.4 BB/9 rate, but he has also given up just 13 home runs in 325.1 career innings. The Brewers have yet to decide on Hellweg's role for this season, and though he is expected to spend spring training with the big club, it is likely that he will open 2013 in the minors, especially if the development plan calls for him to remain a starter.

Victor Roache - Knowing full well that he had suffered a serious wrist injury in February, the Brewers still selected Roache in the first round of the 2012 draft. The Brewers' risky selection did not come without reason; however, as Roach hit an impressive 30 home runs in 62 games as a sophomore at Georgia Tech in 2011. Roache's power could make him a steal for the Brewers if he can fully recover from his broken wrist, but we will have to see him make his full-season debut before getting a good read on where he is at with respect to the injury.

Scooter Gennett - Gennett entered last season as the Brewers' fifth-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America, and did not disappoint, hitting .293 with five home runs, 30 doubles, and 44 RBI in 133 games. Gennett's numbers are not eye popping, but at age 22 with a career .300 batting average, he is the Brewers' top second-base prospect. Gennett won't push Rickie Weeks off the keystone in Milwaukee, but he could be a replacement down the road if the Brewers avoid using him as trade bait before then.

Clint Coulter - Coulter wasted no time making an impression after being taken in the first round last year, posting an impressive .302/.439/.444 slash line in the Arizona League. He will not turn 20 until July, but his 37:40 BB:K ratio indicates he has an advanced eye at the plate. Even if Coulter begins his 2013 season in rookie ball at Helena, he could rise up the ranks quickly if he continues to hit.

Jed Bradley - A first-round pick in 2011, Bradley was expected to rise quickly through the Brewers' minor league ranks. However, he struggled in his first full year as a pro, posting a 5.53 ERA, 60:43 K:BB ratio, and allowing 136 hits in 107.1 innings over 20 starts. Bradley has plenty of time to improve, but he will have to miss a lot more bats to regain his status as a top prospect. Despite his disappointing showing, he will likely get a chance to prove himself at Double-A at some point in 2013.

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