The N.L. Central Farewell Tour: Milwaukee Brewers Edition


The next stop for our virtual tour bus is America’s dairy land. Milwaukee Wisconsin is home to the sausage races and some of the most dedicated baseball fans in the country. In 2007 scores of Brewers “bucket heads” pledged to pee their pants if the Brewers ended a 25 year drought by making the playoffs. The Brew Crew came up short that year but won the wildcard in 2008. Last year Milwaukee won their first ever N.L. Central Division title. The Brewers moved from the American League East back in 1998. No team has switched leagues since, but the 2013 Astros will end that streak.

In the late nineties Bud Selig (owner of the Brewers at that time) got taxpayers to chip in more than $300 million to construct a state-of-the-art baseball facility. Miller Park opened in 2001 and also served as the Astros home away from home in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008. That is a sore subject and I refuse to elaborate any further. Former Astro Wade Miller must have thought the park was named after him. Miller compiled a 6-1 record and a 2.00 ERA in eight starts there.

Brad White is our special guest this time around. Brad is the newest staff writer at Reviewing the Brew, a great site for comprehensive Brewers infotainment. Brad has agreed to climb the hill  with us and answer a few questions about the 2012 Brew Crew. In an attempt to properly initiate Brad, we tried to come up with some hard-hitting questions that only a real Brewers fan could handle.

Alex asks:

I’m sure the Brewers’ fan base is still pretty shocked over the Braun drug test. What is the vibe and has Braun lost a bit of his popularity?

"When ESPN first reported the news, the whole fan base was really caught off guard. At this point, it’s kind of sunk in that we may lose Braun for the first 50 games, but, as of late, it seems like the fans are being led to believe that he’s going to be proven innocent, although a positive drug test has never been overturned before. Braun hasn’t lost much popularity, at least among the die-hard fans. I’ve noticed that the fair-weather fans (in other words, fans who pretend to care about the Brewers) have lost faith in him, but, in my mind, their opinion doesn’t matter. All we can hope for at this point is for Braun to make history."

With Fielder gone, does that open up some excess cash to go out and make a move down the road or did the Ramirez and K-Rod signings put the payroll at its max capacity?

"Surprisingly, Fielder’s departure didn’t leave the Brewers with as much payroll flexibility as they thought it would. Obviously, they didn’t expect K-Rod to accept arbitration, but he actually took a significant pay cut and is owed $8 million in 2012, much less than expected. Ramirez is owed $6 million in 2012, as he doesn’t receive most of his pay until the second and third years of his three-year deal. Only Doug Melvin knows whether or not the payroll is actually at its max capacity, but, if he’s given us any indication, there probably isn’t much room for a big signing. This is probably because players who are already signed to extensions will be making more money next year, such as Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and so on."

Brian asks:

The Brewers just wrapped up a fairly successful season in which they won the NL Central and advanced to the NLCS. What do you believe is needed to keep the Brewers at the top of the division for the foreseeable future?

"First of all, they need to fill- or at least try to fill- the void that Fielder left in the lineup. Ramirez will help with that a bit. Braun not getting suspended for the first 50 games would also be nice. Secondly, the defense needs to be better than it was last year. Alex Gonzalez at shortstop is a huge defensive upgrade over Yuniesky Betancourt, and whoever ends up playing first will probably be a better defender than Fielder was. Lastly, the starting rotation needs to be as good- if not better- as it was last year. It’s about time Gallardo had a breakout season in which he was a true ace, meaning putting up a sub-3.00 ERA. If Zack Greinke can get back to his 2009 form, they would be one of the best 1-2 punches in the Majors. Shaun Marcum needs to bounce back from his rough postseason, in which he put up a 14.90 ERA. And, Chris Narveson might have a decent season after having two full seasons under his belt. All of these things need to happen for the Brewers to stay atop the NL Central and compete with the Cardinals and Reds, who will be the probable contenders in 2012."

The farm system seems to have taken quite a hit in the past few years with the trades for CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, and Shaun Marcum. Are there any prospects you feel can reach the big leagues this year and make a significant contribution?

"It’s true that the farm system has taken quite a beating. A few key pieces the Brewers have lost who had Major League potential are Brett Lawrie, Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, Matt LaPorta, and so on. But, there are a few left who I think can make the Majors and have an impact in 2012. Mat Gamel may finally lose his prospect status this year, as he’s the top choice to take Fielder’s position at first. Taylor Green, who we saw a bit of last year, is also an option there. A few pitchers I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the bullpen this year include Brandon Kintzler, Mike McClendon, Wily Peralta, and Mike Fiers. Kintzler could play a key role next year, and his big fastball leads me to believe he can be a setup man in the future. In my opinion, McClendon’s mechanics are a little odd, but if he can continue to make them work, he could be a long reliever next year. Peralta is definitely going to be in the rotation within the next few years, so a bit of time in the bullpen to get him prepared couldn’t hurt. Those are the prospects I see possibly making the Brewers out of Spring Training next year, but you never know who could impress and make it."

Greg asks:

Manny Parra missed all of last season due to back and arm injuries. Will he be ready to go this spring? And what other lefties are in the mix for a bullpen spot?

"It appears Parra is finally back on track after several surgeries and should be ready out of Spring Training. I know a lot of people have already given up on him, but I personally love his stuff. Plus, he’s the only Brewers pitcher capable of throwing a splitter. He’ll be a great lefty out of the bullpen next year. One other possibility for a left-handed reliever who comes to mind is Juan Perez, whom the Brewers signed to a Minor League deal in December. Then there’s Zach Braddock, who has great stuff, but he had severe anxiety and personal issues last year, and who knows when he’ll be back on the right track."

Last month the Brewers signed 30-year old Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki. What can you tell us about him?

"Like most Japanese players, a lot still remains unknown to us about Aoki until he hits a U.S. field for the first time this year. But, judging on what we’ve heard, he sounds like your typical Japanese position player. He doesn’t hit for much power, but is speedy and can hit for average. Aoki also has a wide range in the outfield, but his weak arm would probably limit him to a left fielder in the Majors, which could work out if Braun does end up getting suspended (but let’s hope it doesn’t go that far). Aoki is considered the “purest hitter out of Japan” since Ichiro, which sounds great. But, you never know what you’re getting from Japanese players- it seems they’re either a huge success, or a failure, and no in between. It would be nice if he turned out like Ichiro, but there’s always the possibility that he could turn out like Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who had an injury-plagued year in his first season with the Twins, and hit below .200. But I doubt that will happen to Aoki- odds are he’ll be a fourth outfielder, so the odds of him getting injured are slight. Anyway, I can’t wait to see him play next year, because it isn’t often that the Brewers get a player fresh out of Japan."

Thanks Brad, nice job. Now here’s my take on the 2012 Brewers.

Without Prince Fielder this just isn’t the same team that led the N.L. in slugging last year. If Braun is suspended the pitching staff will have to carry the team for the first 50 games. That isn’t out of the question. Last year’s staff was third in the N.L. with a 3.58 xFIP. The rotation, anchored by Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, remains intact. Number three starter Shaun Marcum recently signed a one-year $7.725 million contract to stay in Milwaukee and Randy Wolf just gets people out. I’m not completely sold on Marcum’s ability to duplicate his last two seasons, but Narveson could be ready to step it up a notch.

John Axford is solid in the ninth inning and K-Rod is still around to setup. Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins are gone, but Jose Veras comes over from Pittsburgh to fill the void. As Brad mentioned, the Brewers have plenty of young arms that are ready to make an immediate impact. The pitching should be fine, it’s the offense that Brewers fans need to worry about.

Mat Gamel and Taylor Green have some big shoes to fill. That could be a problem. At least the Brewers have two potential replacements for Fielder. That increases the odds that one of them has a good spring, wins the job, and starts the season with some confidence. Aramis Ramirez should slide into the cleanup spot and try to bridge the gap but it could be tough sledding if Braun isn’t there to provide some protection. Corey Hart will need to avoid another slow start and Rickie Weeks must stay healthy.

Alex Gonzalez should provide about the same offensive output as Betancourt did and, as Brad mentioned, he is an upgrade defensively. Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez are an adequate combination in centerfield, but nothing to write home about. Jonathan Lucroy and George Kottaras are a pretty decent tandem behind the plate.

As Brad said earlier, everything will need to go right in 2012 for the Brewers to be contenders. Honestly, I just don’t see that happening. Prediction: Brewers finish in third place.