2013 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Milwaukee Brew Crew.

The Big Question: Do the Brewers have enough pitching to contend for a playoff spot in 2013?

The offense isn’t a problem. Ryan Braun slugged a career-high 41 home runs and registered a National League-high .987 OPS in 154 games last season, finishing second only to Giants catcher Buster Posey in the MVP balloting. Aramis Ramirez exceeded even the loftiest of expectations in the first chapter of his three-year, $36 million free agent deal, leading the NL with 50 doubles and posting his best set of power numbers (27 homers, 105 RBI, .540 SLG) since 2008. Norichika Aoki was another good newcomer, hitting .288/.355/.433 with 10 homers and 30 stolen bases in 151 games as a rookie. Carlos Gomez took a big step forward and Rickie Weeks had a promising second half after initially stumbling out of the gate.

The Brewers produced the third-most runs in the major leagues last season — despite losing Prince Fielder to the Tigers over the winter — and the starting lineup looks plenty-stacked heading into the 2013 campaign.

But Milwaukee had a 4.22 staff ERA in 2012 — which ranked 22nd out of 30 — and didn’t make the kind of improvements this offseason that would justify a better finish in the National League Central standings.

Yovani Gallardo is rock solid and Marco Estrada has made significant strides over the past two seasons, but Michael Fiers is probably due for some regression and left-hander Chris Narveson owns a 4.67 career ERA and 1.37 career WHIP in over 394 major league frames. Wily Peralta looked great in his cup of coffee last year, but he had an underwhelming 4.66 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 146 2/3 innings at Triple-A Nashville before his call-up. And it’s not like this club has a crop of electric young starters on the way.

The Brewers boast a strong starting lineup that probably ranks third in the NL Central behind the Cardinals and Reds. Their rotation, however, sits dead last in the division. And it’s going to kill them yet again.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Help for the rotation is one call away in free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse, but the Brewers haven’t had much luck handing out multi-year deals to veteran starters (see: Jeff Suppan, Randy Wolf) and would have to forfeit the 17th overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft in order to add the 34-year-old Lohse. Giving up a first-round selection doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an organization that lacks high-impact talent on the farm. Even if Lohse opens himself up to one-year offers, a marriage seems unlikely.
  • The Brewers’ bullpen also needs some upgrades. John Axford was a menace to opposing teams in 2010 and 2011, but he posted a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP across 75 appearances last season while blowing nine saves. And there are no dominant arms accompanying him. Jim Henderson, who finally made his major league debut last year at the age of 29, is penciled in right now as the primary setup man.
  • Corey Hart underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on January 25 and is not expected to be ready to play in major league games until mid-to-late May. The Brewers were hoping to start Mat Gamel at first base in Hart’s absence, but Gamel required surgery two weeks ago for a re-torn right ACL and has already been ruled out for the entire 2013 season. Which leaves Alex Gonzalez — that’s right, the veteran shortstop — as Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter at first.
  • There’s a lot to like about 23-year-old shortstop Jean Segura, who was the centerpiece in last summer’s trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels. Segura batted .304/.358/.413 with seven home runs and 37 steals in 102 games at the Double-A level in 2012 and has been hitting everything in sight this spring in the Cactus League. He shows good range defensively and has a strong, accurate throwing arm.

Prediction: Fourth place in the National League Central.

Seattle Mariners to make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani

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Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team-sponsored podcast the other day that the M’s will make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani. To that end, Dipoto said that the M’s would be willing to let the two-way star to pitch and to hit, which is something Ohtani is interested in doing in the United States. Not all clubs are likely to let him do this, with most likely seeing him as a starting pitcher only.

Ohtani, who is expected to be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as early as today, can sign with anyone he wants. He is, however, subject to the international bonus pool caps, so the bids on him will be somewhat limited. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available: $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees. The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million left. Twelve teams — including the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros — are limited to a maximum of $300,000, having met or exceeded their caps for this signing period already.

Ohtani, however, is said to be less motivated by money than he is by finding the right situation. While a lot of guys say that, the fact that Ohtani is coming over to the U.S. now, when his financial prospects are limited, as opposed to waiting for two years when he is not subject to the bonus caps and could sign for nine figures, suggests that he is telling the truth. As such, a team like the Mariners that is willing to allow him to hit and pitch could make up for the couple of million less they have in bonus money to spend.

As for how that might work logistically, Dipoto said that the team would be willing to play DH Nelson Cruz a few days in the outfield to accommodate Ohtani, allowing him to DH on the days he’s not pitching. That might be . . . interesting to see, but given how badly the Mariners could use a good starting pitcher, they have an incentive to be creative.

Ohtani, 23, suffered some injuries in 2017, limiting him to just five starts and 65 games as a hitter. In 2016, however, he hit .289/.356/.547 with 22 homers in 342 at-bats and went 11-3 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of 146/51 in 133.1 innings as a starter.

Five clubs have more money to spend on Ohtani than the Mariners do. None of those teams are on the west coast, which some Asian players have said in the past they preferred due to faster travel back home. The Mariners, owned for a long time by a Japanese company which still retains a minority interest in the club, and long the home for high-profile Japanese players such as Ichiro and Hisashi Iwakuma, likely have a better media and marketing reach in Japan than most other teams as well, which might be a factor in his decision making process. Is all that enough to sway Ohtani?

We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.