It has been less than three years since the Milwaukee Brewers were in the NLCS and seemingly on their way to a second World Series appearance in franchise history. It seems much longer than that, and if 2014 projections are correct, at least another year will pass before the Brewers return to the playoffs.
Indeed, their biggest challenge this year might be to stave off the lowly Chicago Cubs for the ignominy that is last place in the NL Central. The Brewers will head to their spring training site in Maryvale, Arizona, where the first full-squad workout is Feb. 21, as long shots to win either the National League or World Series. Milwaukee is priced in the 50/1 to 65/1 range on the early MLB futures odds to go all the way, and around 30/1 to win the NL, similar odds as the Cubs.
Ron Roenicke's club is coming off a 74-88 effort which left the Brew Crew 23 games behind NL Central winner St. Louis. That's a drop of 22 wins since the 2011 campaign, Roenicke's first as manager, when they won the division before losing out to the same Cardinals in the NLCS.
It doesn't help matters that they play in the NL Central which has hogged five of the 10 National League playoff spots the past two seasons. It took 90 wins to reach the postseason in the NL a year ago, and the Brewers will need to not only make an improvement of 15 games or so, but also count on either the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds to stumble.
Rotation Deep, But Lacks True Ace
One thing you notice about some of the World Series favorites such as the Dodgers, Tigers, Nationals and Red Sox, it's they have two or even three aces in their rotations. The Brewers enter '14 without an arm that can be ranked in the true ace category.
Milwaukee does, however, have a deep group of starters for Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz to work with this spring. The Brewers return four hurlers that started at least 21 games for them in 2013, led by Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo. Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta finish off that quartet, and GM Doug Melvin went shopping this offseason and found Matt Garza willing to sign a 4-year, $50 million deal.
Whether or not that is the quintet that emerges from spring training with rotation jobs remains to be seen, but if it is, there isn't a lefty in the bunch. Top that with Garza being prone to serving up the long ball, and now pitching in home-run friendly Miller Park.
There was some talk before the Garza signing that Milwaukee might shift Will Smith, acquired this winter in a trade with Kansas City, to a starter's role. But it appears the southpaw will instead pitch in a middle-setup relief role in front of closer Jim Henderson. Brandon Kintzler will also be in the bullpen after a fine 2013, and keep an eye on Michael Blazek to win a middle relief role after he was part of the return last summer in the deal that sent John Axford to the rival Cardinals.
Can Braun Rebuild Status As Elite Hitter?
Ryan Braun once again says he's sorry for his PED usage, and it will be a continuing scene this season with reporters hounding him about his overturned suspension entering 2012 plus his ultimate suspension in 2013 as part of the whole Biogenesis scandal. He's also shifting from left field to right, and it remains to be seen what type of hitter the Brewers are getting back in '14.
In addition to Braun missing 65 games due to the suspension, Milwaukee also dealt with injuries to 2B Rickie Weeks and 3B Aramis Ramirez, who combined to miss about 130 games. A-Ram should be fine back at the hot corner, but Weeks is a complete mystery and it's possible he'll lose his job to Scooter Gennett.
Jean Segura is set at short, and a three-way battle for 1B will take place this spring between Juan Francisco and non-roster invitees Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds. Carlos Gomez is back in center, and will be flanked in left by Khris Davis, who mashed 11 homers in 153 at bats when Braun went on early vacation. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy gets overshadowed in this lineup despite hitting 30 homers and batting better than .290 the past two years combined.
It's an offense that is capable of producing far more than the 640 runs in 2013, right in the middle of the NL pack, and there's a good balance of power and speed. If the lineup can generate another 80 runs, there would seem to be enough pitching to keep the Brewers in the hunt for a wild card. But that's a big if, and 81 wins is the best I see for Milwaukee in 2014.