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Springtime Storylines: Is there life after Prince Fielder in baseball’s smallest market?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: A Battered Brew Crew.

The Big Question: Can the Brewers still be successful without their Prince?

Milwaukee put it all together last year, capturing its first-ever National League Central title while tallying the most regular-season victories (96) in franchise history. But a loss to the division rival Cardinals in the NLCS and a winter chock full of speed bumps has dulled some of the shine that only six months ago surrounded this baseball team.

First, longtime slugger Prince Fielder chased a nine-year, $214 million free agent contract to Detroit.

The small(est)-market Brewers never really stood a chance of re-signing him, and barely attempted an offer this offseason, but it’s nonetheless a bitter pill. Fielder batted .299/.415/.556 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI in 2011, good enough for 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

New first baseman Mat Gamel posted a superb .310/.372/.540 slash line with 28 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games last season at Triple-A and should be more than ready to handle the pressures of big-league life at age 26. But he’s been unsuccessful in his limited action with the Brewers to this point and will be lucky to make up for half of Fielder’s offensive production in his first full year as an everyday major leaguer.

Then there’s the Ryan Braun PED scandal, which has been settled on the legal end for weeks but is far from erased from the consciousness of your run-of-the-mill baseball fan. To most, Braun got out of his 50-game suspension by lawyering up and finding a loophole. And whether that thought is right or wrong, it’s a belief that will be expressed loudly and probably vulgarly at every road ballpark that the 2011 NL MVP visits this year.

Maybe Braun will be able to shrug it all off. He’s a confident enough dude. But let’s just note that he went 9-for-41 this spring while hearing a fraction of the jeers he’ll receive once games actually matter.

The Brewers should still be a force this year because they have talent in all areas of their roster and because they play in baseball’s weakest division. But they’re certainly not going to breeze back to the playoffs.

What Else Is Going On?

  • In 2010, the Brewers turned in a hideous 4.58 staff ERA. In 2011, that number fell to 3.63. Such are the yields when a team acquires two top-of-the-rotation arms — Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum — in one offseason. Greinke, 28, registered a 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 201/45 K/BB ratio across 171 2/3 innings in his first go-round with Milwaukee. Marcum, 30, had a 3.54 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 158/57 K/BB ratio in 200 2/3 innings. Combined with Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have a real three-headed monster.
  • The back end of the bullpen is also quite talented. Francisco Rodriguez caught Milwaukee’s higher-ups off guard this winter when he accepted their offer of arbitration, but the two sides were able to reach a reasonable one-year, $8 million agreement. K-Rod posted a lights-out 1.86 ERA and 33/10 K/BB ratio after joining the Brewers in an early-July trade. He will operate as a setup man again this year for John Axford, who tied Braves closer Craig Kimbrel for a league-leading 46 saves in 2011.
  • After watching Casey McGehee fall back to earth last season to the tune of a .626 OPS, the Brewers traded the husky third baseman to the Pirates in December for right-handed reliever Jose Veras and signed free agent veteran Aramis Ramirez to a three-year, $36 million contract with a mutual option for 2015. A-Ram batted .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI for the Cubs in 2011, and should represent a significant upgrade at the hot corner if he can maintain good health.

How Are They Gonna Do?

Braun should again challenge for the MVP and the front end of the starting rotation is beyond solid, but the Brewers lack lineup depth and are sure to miss the heart-of-the-order punch that Fielder was able to provide. They’ll drop to third in the National League Central, finishing behind the Reds and Cardinals.

Braves sign Jacob Lindgren to one-year deal

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 29:  Jacob Lindgren #64 of the New York Yankees watches Brett Lawrie #15 of the Oakland Athletics round the bases after he hit a home run in the eighth inning at O.co Coliseum on May 29, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Braves signed left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren to a one-year deal, according to a team announcement on Sunday.

Lindgren, the Yankees’ top draft pick in 2014, was nicknamed “The Strikeout Factory” after blowing through four levels of New York’s farm system in 2014. He started the 2015 season in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and was called up for his major league debut only two months into the 2015 season. The 22-year-old lasted seven innings with the club before succumbing to bone chips in his elbow, and underwent bone spur surgery in June before trying his luck again during spring training in 2016.

In August, the Yankees shut Lindgren down for the remainder of the season so the lefty could undergo Tommy John surgery. With a projected return date of 2018, Lindgren was non-tendered by the Yankees on Friday.

While the Braves won’t get the benefit of Lindgren’s top prospect skill set in their bullpen anytime soon, he will remain under club control if they keep him on their 40-man roster beyond the 2017 season (per ESPN’s Keith Law).

Report: Mark Melancon is fielding several four-year, $60+ million offers

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Mark Melancon #43 of the Washington Nationals works against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth inning during game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Free agent closer Mark Melancon is entertaining at least two offers in the four-year, $60+ million ballpark, reports FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. The teams thought to be in the running are the Giants and Nationals, with the Giants having a slight edge due to their strong interest in him last summer (per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick).

Crasnick also said that while the Giants are keeping tabs on the top three free agent closers this winter, the other two being Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, they’re leaning toward Melancon as a (slightly) more affordable option in the ‘pen. It’s worth noting that Melancon would not cost the Giants a draft pick if they decided to sign him.

Melancon had an outstanding season in 2016, nearly reaching career-best numbers with a 1.64 ERA, 2.42 FIP and 5.42 K/BB rate in 71 1/3 innings split between the Pirates and Nationals’ bullpens. The veteran right-hander earned his third career All-Star distinction after stifling opposing hitters with a 1.23 ERA and 7.9 K/9 rate in the first half, and went on to appear in his fourth consecutive playoff run.

Despite the Giants’ apparent lead in the bidding for Melancon, Rosenthal mentioned a third mystery team who might throw their hat in the ring as well. No clubs have been name-dropped as of yet.