RotoWire Partners

2014 Brewers Team Preview: A Braun-y Crew

Kevin OBrien

Kevin OBrien

RotoWire staff

2014 Milwaukee Brewers Team Preview

The Brewers sat three games above .500 at the end of April last season, but the team never recovered after going a brutal 6-22 in May, and spent the summer out of playoff contention. In addition, the face of the franchise, Ryan Braun, endured a trying season and saw his reputation tarnished by a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. The Brewers had to be happy when their season finally came to a close at the end of September.

There were some bright spots, however. Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy were among the top players at their position in the NL. On the pitching side, Wily Peralta showed glimpses of his potential as the season wore on, and Jim Henderson established himself as the new closer in Milwaukee with a dominant campaign.

Though last season was a rough one for the Brewers, there is reason for optimism in 2014. Braun will return, the youngsters should continue to improve, and the Brewers made a splash during the offseason by inking Matt Garza to a four-year deal. The NL Central should again be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball, but with Braun and Garza added to the mix in 2014, the Brewers should have more of a say in who comes out on top.

Offseason Moves

Signed starting pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $52 million contract.

The Brewers played their cards close to the vest with Garza, and after Masahiro Tanaka announced his signing with the Yankees, the Brewers shortly followed with an announcement of their own: they had come to terms with arguably the second-best starting pitcher on the market. It took a few days for all the details to be worked out, but in Garza the Brewers get an established starter who has finished with an ERA of 3.95 each of the last seven seasons. He will slot in somewhere among the Brewers’ top three starters.

Traded outfielder Norichika Aoki to the Royals for pitcher Will Smith.

Aoki served as the Brewers’ leadoff man for much of the previous two seasons, but with just one year left on his contract, and powerful young outfielder Khris Davis waiting in the wings, the Brewers decided to move him for a useful piece, and sent him to the Royals in exchange for Smith. While Smith is unlikely to enter the Brewers’ rotation, he does have 17 major league starts under his belt, and he posted a 2.45 ERA in 18 appearances out of the Royals’ bullpen last season. He will likely open as the long man in the Brewers’ bullpen.

Signed relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.

With the Brewers looking to add one more reliever late in the offseason, the team turned to a familiar face, and brought back Rodriguez on a one-year deal. Rodriguez pitched for the Brewers for part of all of each of the last three seasons, and while he is not the dominant pitcher he was earlier in his career, he has remained effective, posting a 3.05 ERA and 9.9 K/9 rate over the last four seasons. Rodriguez will likely open 2014 in a setup role, but he gives the Brewers a proven ninth-inning option to turn to should closer Jim Henderson struggle or suffer an injury.

Signed first basemen Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to a minor league contracts.

The Brewers got some of the worst first-base production in baseball history last season, and while they attempted to re-sign Corey Hart during the offseason, he ultimately ended up in Seattle, and the Brewers were left to sign two veterans who spent much of last season with the Yankees. Reynolds and Overbay will compete with Juan Francisco for roster spots during spring training, but it’s likely only two of them will be kept around, with Francisco and Reynolds having the upper hand. It remains to be seen if Reynolds and/or Overbay can provide an upgrade, but one thing is for certain if the favorites make the cut: the Brewers’ first basemen would strike out a ton.

Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)

1. Jean Segura, SS
2. Carlos Gomez, CF
3. Ryan Braun, RF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C
6. Juan Francisco/Mark Reynolds, 1B
7. Khris Davis, LF
8. Scooter Gennett/Rickie Weeks, 2B

On paper, the Brewers’ offense has the potential to be one of the better groups in the National League. They lead the league in stolen bases last season, and most of the pieces that helped the team score the most runs in the NL in 2012 remain. Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez are coming off breakout seasons, Ryan Braun will return to the lineup after finishing last year on the suspended list and move to right field to make room for Davis, and Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy are proven run producers. However, there are question marks up and down the lineup. With Norichika Aoki no longer around, who will serve as the team’s leadoff hitter? Can Braun return to the level of play that allowed him to win the MVP in 2011? Will Ramirez stay healthy? Will the 6-8 spots in the order produce enough? These questions need answers, but if the Brewers can find them, their offense could take a jump in 2014.

Projected Rotation

1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Kyle Lohse
3. Matt Garza
4. Wily Peralta
5. Marco Estrada

The Brewers’ rotation was a mess in 2013, as ineffectiveness reigned, and injuries forced the team to often dip into the minor leagues -- and even the bullpen -- to find starting pitchers. However, as a whole, the unit performed much better following the All-Star break, and there is reason for optimism in 2014. Kyle Lohse gave up 26 home runs last season, but he also posted a respectable 3.35 ERA and started a team-high 32 games. Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada struggled earlier in the season -- possibly due to time spent preparing for and pitching in the WBC -- but both pitched much better after midseason stints on the disabled list. Wily Peralta struggled during the first two months last season, but he posted a 3.48 ERA from June through the end of the season and started showing some of the signs that made him the Brewers’ top prospect. The key to the rotation will be Matt Garza. He has had injury issues in the past, but if he can stay healthy, he should help stabilize the rotation and give the Brewers a trio of quality starters atop the rotation.

Closer: Jim Henderson

Henderson quickly replaced John Axford as the Brewers’ closer and never looked back, recording 28 saves over the course of the season. Henderson’s calling card is his high-90s fastball, and though he gave up a few too many home runs, he also had an impressive 11.3 K/9 rate and did a good job keeping runners off base. Henderson will almost certainly open 2014 as the Brewers’ closer, and he will have no trouble holding onto the job if he is effective as he was last season.

Key Bullpen Members: The Brewers’ relief corps will feature many of the same pitchers that helped the team post a 3.19 bullpen ERA last season -- the third-best mark in the NL. Francisco Rodriguez was brought back via free agency and will serve as the team’s setup man. The next two pitchers in the pecking order, Brandon Kintzler and Tom Gorzelanny, were both reliable relievers last season. Offseason acquisition Will Smith will likely serve as the team’s long man, and Alfredo Figaro is a hard thrower who is capable of throwing multiple innings.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

What type of production can be expected from Ryan Braun?

2013 was a year to forget for Braun. A thumb injury plagued him for much of the season, he posted a career-worst .498 slugging percentage, and to cap it all off, he was suspended for the final 65 games of the campaign for violating the league’s Joint Drug Agreement. With all that in mind, there is plenty of doubt regarding what type of fantasy production Braun will provide in 2014. Critics will assume the dip in slugging percentage was directly related to him “going off the juice,” but the thumb injury played at least some role in the issue. Some fantasy owners may avoid him altogether based on principle. However, when it comes down to it, the .870 OPS Braun posted in limited at-bats last season -- the second lowest of his career -- was still the 11th best mark in the NL. Braun will be healthy and motivated in 2014, and he does still own a .938 OPS. Braun will not go at the top of the first round again given his question marks, but if he plays in 150 games as he did each year from 2008-2012, he is a fair bet to outperform his ADP.

Who will handle the leadoff duties?

The Brewers were able to rely on Norichika Aoki at the top of the order for most of the last two seasons, but with him moving on to the Royals, the Brewers will need to identify a new player to fill the leadoff spot. There are several candidates for the job, including Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, and the second base combination of Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks. Gomez has the speed to bat leadoff, but he also has 20-HR power, so he is better off lower in the lineup, even if it is just one spot. Gennett batted leadoff a lot late in the 2013 season, and Weeks has 2,430 at-bats out of the leadoff spot in his career, so each seems like a viable candidate. However, questions remain about each player’s ability to get on base consistently, and if the two share the second base duties, there could be too much movement atop the order for Ron Roenicke’s liking. That leaves Segura as the last man standing. The youngster saw just nine at-bats out of the leadoff spot last season, but he has plenty of speed to handle the role, does a good job putting the ball on the bat, and is a lock to see everyday at-bats at shortstop. Segura saw 623 plate appearances in 2013, but if he bats leadoff this season, don’t be surprised to see that number approach 700.

Who will be the best fantasy option among the Brewers’ starting pitchers?

Kyle Lohse was the best starter on the Brewers’ roster last season, but his lack of strikeouts severely limits his fantasy value. The Brewers made a splash by signing Matt Garza, but there are questions about his health, and he is now north of 30 years old. Wily Peralta has good strikeout potential, but he is still a bit unproven, and it would be nice to see a complete season out of him before gambling too much on him. That leaves Yovani Gallardo, who himself has question marks coming off the worst campaign of his career. However, he fared much better down the stretch, posting a 3.09 ERA over his final 11 starts, is the only pitcher in the rotation to record 200 strikeouts in a season (four times), and will turn just 28 in February. A normal spring training should benefit Gallardo greatly in 2014, and he is the best bet among the Brewers’ starters to put up useful fantasy stats during the upcoming season.

Strengths

The Brewers will feature a versatile lineup that can both hit for power and burn the basepaths.

Weaknesses

While the starting rotation is fairly deep, it lacks a proven ace. The bullpen could be good, but the back half lacks big league experience.

Rising: Carlos Gomez - Gomez posted an .809 OPS after the All-Star break in 2012 and followed that up with a career year in 2013, posting best-ever numbers in virtually every category. The combination of power and speed he provides is rivaled by few in the fantasy realm, as his totals of 43 home runs and 77 stolen bases over the last two seasons were matched by only Mike Trout and Alex Rios. Each of Gomez's 2013 slash numbers were the best of his career, and he is just entering his prime years, as he will be only 28 years old during the 2014 season, and it's possible that he could be even better.

Falling: Aramis Ramirez - Injuries limited Ramirez to 92 games and sapped his power last season, as he finished with his second-lowest slugging percentage in a season since 2003. Ramirez should be healthy to begin 2014 however, and he figures to hit out of the cleanup spot in the order. Don’t be surprised if the Brewers opt to sit him more often than most regulars in order to keep him in the lineup all season.

Sleeper: Khris Davis - Ryan Braun’s suspension was a black mark on the Brewers’ 2013 campaign, but a silver lining was found in the form of Davis. Although he was never really considered a top prospect, Davis showed impressive power in the minors, and he put that on display at the big league level by hitting nine home runs and posting a .972 OPS over 124 plate appearances after Aug. 1. The performance led the Brewers to trade Norichika Aoki and move Ryan Braun to right field during the offseason, which opens up a regular spot in left for Davis. He provides fantasy intrigue based on his power alone.

Supersleeper: Wily Peralta - Peralta’s first full season in the bigs got off to a rough start, as he sat with a 6.08 ERA on June 16. He turned things around in a big way, however, as he posted a 3.05 ERA over his final 17 starts. Peralta did not post big strikeout numbers last season, but he throws a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider, and comes with a pedigree, ranking as a top-70 prospect in all of baseball before the last two years. Peralta’s late-season numbers hint at his upside, and he could be a late-round surprise in 2014.

Top Prospects

Jimmy Nelson, RHP - Nelson emerged as the Brewers’ top prospect in 2013, posting a 3.25 ERA and striking out 163 batters in 152.1 innings across the top two levels of the minor leagues. His walk rate jumped sharply at Triple-A, but he still managed to give up just two home runs over 83.1 innings in the hitter-friendly PCL. Nelson features both a plus fastball and slider, and he is also working on developing a changeup. That pitch could be the key to his success, but the Brewers have high hopes for Nelson in the future. He figures to open 2014 as the ace of the Triple-A Nashville rotation, but should be among the top options if the Brewers need to call up a starter from the minors.

Tyrone Taylor, OF - While Taylor’s power faded down the stretch last season, he provided a glimpse at his upside by posting a respectable .738 OPS and stealing 19 bases -- while primarily playing center field -- in his age-19 season. Taylor has speed and athleticism, so there is a good chance he could handle center field long term. Taylor’s age may keep him at the Low-A level to start 2014, but a fast start could earn him a ticket to High-A in short order.

Mitch Haniger, OF - Haniger got his first professional season off to a quick start with Low-A Wisconsin, posting a .909 OPS over 41 games before earning a promotion to the next level. His numbers weren’t nearly as impressive at High-A, but he was one of the top players in the Arizona Fall League, and the former first-rounder has established himself as one of the Brewers’ better prospects. Expect Haniger, who split time between center field and right field last season, to open 2014 at High-A.

Johnny Hellweg, RHP - Though Hellweg earned his first trip to the big leagues by posting a nifty 3.15 ERA in the PCL last season, he received a harsh dose of reality with the Brewers, posting a 6.75 ERA and walking nearly a batter per inning over his eight appearances (seven starts). Despite the rough showing, all is not lost for Hellweg, as he was just 24 years old last season. He throws a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, but gets more movement when he throws in the lower 90s, and he is still learning how to get good hitters out having reached Triple-A for the first time in 2013. Hellweg figures to open there in 2014, but he could see some time in the Brewers’ rotation at some point.

Victor Roache, OF - Roache had a streaky 2013 campaign and struck out 137 times in 459 at-bats, but he flashed the power that made him a first-round pick in 2011, accumulating 40 extra-base hits over the course of the campaign. Roache will be entering his age-22 season in 2014, so there’s plenty of reason for the Brewers to be excited about their young outfielder. It remains to be seen if he will open with Low-A Wisconsin in 2014, or make the jump to the High-A level.

Devin Williams, RHP - The Brewers lost their first-round pick last season after signing Kyle Lohse, but they still snagged Williams, whom some considered a first-round talent, in the middle of the second round. Williams already throws a fastball in the mid-90s, and he could add more velocity as he matures. He still has some work to do on his curveball and changeup, and will need to cut down his walks, but he threw the ball well in his professional debut, posting a 3.38 ERA and striking out 39 batters over 34.2 innings. Williams will not turn 20 until next offseason, so the Brewers may opt to keep him in the Rookie Leagues for now. However, Williams has the potential to be a top-end starter a few years down the road.

Hunter Morris, 1B - Morris jumped up prospect lists after posting a .920 OPS with Double-A Huntsville in 2012, but his star faded a bit when he posted a .766 mark in the hitter-friendly PCL last season. Morris possesses good power, but he will also have to cut his strikeout rate sharply if he hopes to regain the success he had with the bat two years ago. Morris is still considered the Brewers’ first baseman of the future, but his average numbers from a season ago will likely have him ticketed for Triple-A once again in 2014.