Monday, March 24, 2014

2014 NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers with @RDTopp

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2014. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is about a week away and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

The past two years I have done an NL Central preview where I get together with some of the best bloggers from around the NLC and get them to talk about their teams and what we can expect from them. As it was last year I will ask each of them 15 questions and they will give you the low down on what to expect in 2014.

After the four previews from around the division there will be a three part series previewing the Pirates. The Pirates preview is, um, extensive.

The third part of the preview series is going to be the Milwaukee Brewers and today I will be talking with Ryan Topp from Disciples of Uecker. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. They do great work and were nice enough to come back from last season.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers.

1) 2012 wasn’t a great year for the Brewers but they were still on the verge of the playoffs but 2013 was even worse finishing with only 74 wins. What was the biggest problem last season?

DoU: Thanks for having me back again. Always look forward to talking with you about the Brewers and Pirates. 2013 was a really strange season in a lot of ways. Many Brewers fans like to trace their woes back to a 6-22 run in the month of May, which effectively knocked them out of the playoff race for good. The calendar isn’t the reason they lost, though. They just happened to have the most go wrong in that particular month in a season where lots of things went south. First base was particularly brutal in May, thanks to some hard regression from Yuni Betancourt, and the starting rotation largely struggled that month. Both things were problems much of the year, though; they just came to a head in May.

2) Ryan Braun coming back is obviously a big deal. He is going to be looked at to carry the offense. Do you expect that from him and how do you think he will be received in his first week back in Milwaukee?

DoU: I’m not really expecting him to carry the offense, and there is a pretty decent chance he won’t have to. They’re really strong offensively (and defensively) up the middle with Jonathan Lucory, Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez. If they can scrape one more decent season out of Aramis Ramirez at third and work some useful platoons at first, second and maybe left, they could have a very balanced and dangerous offense even if Braun isn’t back to his 2011-12 form. I honestly have no idea what to expect from Braun, and I’m not even talking about PED’s. He’s dealt with nagging injuries much of his career, including the one to his thumb that caused him to miss quite a bit of time in 2013 before the suspension. He’s also now on the wrong side of 30, and players can start slipping quite a bit around then, especially if they have injury issues. Honestly, anything from an .800 to a 1.000 OPS wouldn’t shock me. As for how he’ll be received, there are some tough talkers on sports talk radio and these here interwebs, but if the standing ovation he got at the Brewers fan event is any indicator, his problems with fans are going to come almost exclusively on the road.

3) Carlos Gomez was outstanding last season but his 2013 (.284/.338/.506, .363 wOBA, 130 wRC+) was well above his career line (.255/.303/.406, .311 wOBA, 90 wRC+). Do you expect Gomez to be that good offensively? Will he regress hard to his mean?

DoU: I’m not as optimistic as some of the other writers on my site on this count, but I’m definitely not expecting a full on regression. Gomez has made approach changes and always had the tools to be a very good player, so I don’t see a cliff fall in his future. Split the difference between the season and career lines and I’d have a hard time taking the over or the under.

4) Jean Segura played a nice shortstop last season and held his own at the plate (107 wRC+). What do you see from him this year?

DoU: This is really a big question. He was outstanding in the first half, and faded hard in the second half. A lot of people chalked that up to fatigue, which is probably part of the problem, but does it explain the entire fall off? Probably not, but he’s also young enough that expecting improvement isn’t crazy either. His all fields approach and high contact rate give me hope that he can continue to hit well, even though his home run power probably is going to take a step back this year. I’ll also be interested to see if his defensive numbers continue to be solidly-above-to-well-above average, or if he slips down more into the range that was expected coming up through the minors.

5) The Brewers lost some of its offense with Norichika Aoki being traded to Kansas City and Corey Hart no longer in the mix. Granted Hart missed all of last year with an injury but Aoki played the most games on the team and posted a nice OBP for a team that was 21st in baseball at getting on base. Who picks up his production?

DoU: The Brewers appear ready to try and improve their combined left field and first base production with strength in numbers and some massive raw power. Juan Francisco came over from Atlanta in early June last year, and he brings some real pop and improving plate discipline to the table. Mark Reynolds will probably also see time at first, and he’s also got some huge pop and plate discipline, though both obviously struggle mightily to make contact at times. Perhaps most interesting is Khris Davis, who is the reason the Brewers felt comfortable dealing Aoki. All he’s done is hit and confound scouts his whole minor league career. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been waiting years for him to be exposed and it just hasn’t happened yet. If he actually is something like the player his MiLB numbers and brief MLB tenure suggest, they’re actually getting a big upgrade in the non-Braun corner of the OF. If he does struggle, they do have Caleb Gindl waiting the minors, and he seems like at least a decent platoon partner until a long-term solution becomes apparent.

6) Jonathan Lucroy is one of the best pitch framing catchers in the game. Talk about him a little defensively and then tell me what you expect him to be like offensively this year.

DoU: Yeah, he’s one of the more underrated players in the game. If you believe Jon Heyman, at least one GM thinks he’s among the top two backstops in the game, ahead of Buster Posey. That seems nuts, but his pitch framing numbers are really outstanding, and he’s done it over time with lots of different pitchers. His arm isn’t the best, but he more than makes up for that with the framing and a pretty underappreciated bat, at least outside of Wisconsin. As I wrote here, he doesn’t do anything particularly well offensively, but he also doesn’t do anything poorly. If he’s healthy, I fully expect him to continue to be one of the best values in the game.

7) Aramis Ramirez missed a bunch of time last season with an injury. He’s too old to continue to be productive, right?

DoU: Injuries did limit him to 91 games and 351 plate appearances in 2013, but that didn’t stop him from putting up a .283/.370/.461 line. That’s down from his peak years, but it’s also still way above the league average. If health permits him to be on the field, I expect him to be reasonably productive. I would be somewhat surprised if he was able to get close to the 149 games he played in both 2011 and 2012, but maybe I shouldn’t be shocked? This is a tough one.

8) Matt Garza got signed to a pretty nice deal by the Brewers (four years, $50M) and while that is solid value I have never really been sold on the guy. Sell me on him.

DoU: I’m not really sold on him myself, mostly because of the health questions. If you believe’s Keith Law, a lot of teams were scared off by his medical reports. When the details on the deal came out, though, it seemed pretty clear that the Brewers protected themselves about as well as possible from him collapsing due to health. If he’s on the field, he’s probably going to be the decent #2 starter he’s been for the bulk of his career. Starting to sense a pattern here?

9) The rotation doesn’t look all that bad at the top for the Brewers with Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, and Garza. What potential do you see there?

DoU: Yeah, if those guys can combine to give them 550+ innings, they really could be in pretty good shape. Gallardo showed some serious cracks last year, with declining velocity seeming to really cut into his strikeout rate, but Lohse was better than I expected him to be. If he can stave off old age another year, and Gallardo can adjust to the new reality or somehow regain velocity, and Garza can stay on the field, this group could be a quality start machine. Or Gallardo could continue to slip, Lohse could get old in a hurry and Garza’s elbow could explode. Your guess is as good as mine.

10) The rest of the rotation seems to be in flux. Guys like Marco Estrada and Tyler Thornburg got starts there last year. Will it be the same this year in trying to find guys to give some consistent back-end of the rotation starts?

DoU: Don’t forget about Wily Peralta, who came on really strong in the second half and has one of the very best sinking fastballs in MLB. He’ll be the #4 to open the year, with Estrada likely to be the #5 and Thornburg probably ticketed for the pen. Add in Baseball America top 100 prospect Jimmy Nelson and lefty Will Smith, who came over in the Aoki trade, and the Brewers have more rotation depth than I can ever remember. They can probably survive some underperformance and injury because of it.

11) What is the first base situation like. Last year that group as a whole struggled (206/.259/.370) so what does the team look like there this year?

DoU: Yeah, that was the Black Hole of Milwaukee last year. About the only nice thing about production that bad is that improving upon it isn’t overly hard. Saw somewhere that it was the very worst first base production in the recent history of major league baseball. As I mentioned earlier, the combo of Mark Reynolds and probably Juan Francisco figures to hit a lot of home runs and strikeout quite a bit. If they can be worth a win or win and half, it’s potentially a six win improvement from their -4.6 fWAR last year at first.

12) Who is going to be the biggest wild card this year for the Brewers. Who might be overvalued heading into the year?

DoU: Can I answer “2/3 of the roster?” This time of year, there is always a lot of swing in the possible outcomes for any team, but this team seems to have a particularly large number of players with a wide range of potential outcomes. As far as overvalued players goes, Scooter Gennett became a fan favorite before he even came to the majors, largely on the strength that he’s not Rickie Weeks. He also showed power in his brief stint in the majors that he’s never shown in the minors and had an almost certainly unsustainable BABIP of .380. He was also somewhat better defensively than expected, something that may or may not last either. My best guess is he ends up in a platoon with Weeks, at least for a while.

13) Scooter Gennett or Darwin Barney. Who is a more real person (answer: neither is real).

DoU: Somewhere, a couple of pots of gold are missing their leprechauns.

14) What are your overall expectations for 2014 and what are the wins and losses going to be this season?

DoU: My heart says that 90 wins really isn’t insane, if more things break their way than against them. My head says that PECOTA’s best guess of 81-81 makes a lot more sense. If I have to take the over/under on 81 wins, though, I’m going to take the over. I think there is enough depth on this team, and possibly some hidden upside, that they’re going to be at least in it deep enough into the year that they won’t be pulling a major sell off at the deadline. That plays reasonably well in Milwaukee, even if it really doesn’t do much to help them in the long term.

15) You guys over at DoU have been pretty high on the Pirates the past few years. It finally came true last year. What are your thoughts on them this season?

DoU: I’m a little confused why Huntington didn’t push harder for more short term contracts with vets to bridge the gap to the next wave of prospects coming up, but they certainly shouldn’t have been in the business of giving out bad long term deals or giving up draft picks. Not with the core of young talent they have. I suspect they’re in for a pretty big step backwards this year, maybe even back into 4th place in the division, but I’m confident it will be a short term regression only. There is nothing wrong with that, especially considering they were better faster than anyone really should have expected. I expect the next half dozen year will feature some very entertaining races between them, the Cardinals and Cubs. If the Brewers aren’t competing, at least I’ll have one team in that group I don’t utterly loathe to root for. Kinda.

Finally I just want to give a big shout out to Ryan for taking some time to answer my questions for the preview. Make sure you follow him on Twitter and check out the blog, even if it is about the Brewers.

Tune back in tomorrow when we take a look at the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals.

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