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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.

Colin Rea loses no-hit bid in the seventh against the Mets

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Colin Rea works against a Pittsburgh Pirates batter during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Update (12:01 AM EDT): And it’s over. Yoenis Cespedes drove a ground ball single to right field with two outs in the seventh inning to end Rea’s no-hit bid.

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Padres starter Colin Rea has tamed the hot-hitting Mets lineup so far this Thursday night. The right-hander has walked only one, the lone batter above the minimum he has faced. Rea has also struck out three while accumulating 76 pitches.

The Padres’ offense provided Rea with five runs of support, scoring once in each of the first, second, and third, as well as twice in the sixth. Wil Myers smacked a solo homer off of Jacob deGrom in the first inning. Rea helped himself with an RBI single in the second, Alexei Ramirez brought in a run with a double in the third, Derek Norris drove a solo homer in the sixth, and Jon Jay shortly thereafter hit an RBI double.

The Mets entered play Thursday tied for the National League lead in home runs hit as a team with 40. Rea, meanwhile, came into Thursday’s action with a 4.61 ERA and a 22/13 K/BB ratio in 27 1/3 innings spanning five starts and one relief appearance.

If Rea is able to complete the job, he would become the first pitcher in Padres history to throw a no-hitter. Jake Arrieta threw the first no-hitter of the 2016 season on April 21 against the Reds.

We’ll keep you updated as Rea attempts to navigate through the final three innings.

Jason Heyward hopes to return to Cubs’ lineup on Friday

Chicago Cubs' Jason Heyward hits a double to drive in Dexter Fowler off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher J.J. Hoover during the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Cincinnati. The Cubs won 8-1. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward hasn’t played since Sunday due to a sore right wrist, but he’s hoping to be included in his team’s lineup on Friday, MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat reports. Matt Szucur, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant have handled right field while Heyward has been out.

Heyward, 26, has gotten off to a disappointing start, as he’s batting .211/.317/.256 with only four doubles, no home runs, and 13 RBI in 104 plate appearances. He signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs back in December.

Heyward said he hurt his wrist putting emphasis on it during hitting drills. He said, “I was doing some work off the tee and doing a drill with a donut on the bat, swinging, trying to stay through the middle, and I put more emphasis on [his wrist] and strained it from that.”

Cardinals plan to get creative to keep Aledmys Diaz in the lineup

St. Louis Cardinals' Jedd Gyorko high-fives with Matt Carpenter as they and Aledmys Diaz, center, leave the field following the Cardinals' 11-2 victory over the San Diego Padres in a baseball game Saturday, April 23, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
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Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta is expected to return from the disabled list in early June, which means current shortstop Aledmys Diaz would return to the bench. There’s only one problem: Diaz has been one of the best hitters in baseball. The 25-year-old owns a sparkling .381/.422/.679 triple-slash line with 14 extra-base hits (including five homers) in 90 plate appearances.

The Cardinals plan to get creative to keep Diaz’s bat in the lineup. Per Jon Morosi of FOX Sports, the club is considering using Peralta at first and third base. Peralta, 33, last played third base in 2010 with the Indians and Tigers. He has logged only three games and nine total defensive innings at first base in his major league career.

Diaz isn’t about to displace Peralta. Last season, Peralta was one of the best-hitting shortstops, finishing with a .275/.334/.411 triple-slash line with 17 home runs and 41 RBI in 640 plate appearances. He was even more productive in 2014, his first year with the Cardinals.

Chris Bassitt will undergo Tommy John surgery on Friday

Oakland Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt sits in the dugout after being relieved against the Detroit Tigers in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Thursday, April 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery on Friday, MLB.com’s Jane Lee reports. He was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament over the weekend, so this news doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

Bassitt, 27, is certainly out for the remainder of the 2016 season and will likely miss a sizable portion of the 2017 season as well. The right-hander made five starts for the A’s to begin the season, but put up an ugly 6.11 ERA with a 23/14 K/BB ratio in 28 innings.

Jesse Hahn took Bassitt’s spot in the Athletics’ starting rotation. Hahn is expected to start next on Saturday versus the Orioles.