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2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

The Big Question: Can they bounce back?

The Brewers won only 74 games in 2013 after averaging 85 wins per season between 2007 and 2012. Last year’s squad had a combined rotation ERA of 4.20, which ranked 21st out of 30, and the offense produced a combined OPS of .708, which ranked 18th. The pitching problems were predictable, and Ryan Braun’s 65-game PED suspension can shoulder some blame for the lacking run production.

But diagnosing a team’s issues and that team making the necessary fixes are two very different things.

Braun is back from suspension and destroying baseballs this spring in the Cactus League and the Brewers signed right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million free agent contract in late January to help bring a dose of stability to the starting pitching group. Those two items alone make an improvement over last year’s dismal 74-88 record a fair expectation, but the National League Central now houses three upper-crust teams in the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates, and the Brewers are still lagging well behind those 2013 postseason participants. Bovada has Milwaukee’s over-under win total for the 2014 season set at 79.5. St. Louis leads the pack at 90.5 wins, Cincinnati is listed at 84.5 wins, and Pittsburgh stands just under the Reds at 83.5 wins. The Cubs, for those curious, are at the bottom of the division with an over-under win total of 69.5.

The Brewers do seem poised for a rebound, but not to a level that would push them back into division-title contention. The lineup is good but not great and the pitching staff is still short on dominant arms.

This is an organization deciding between Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds to start at first base.

What else is going on?

  • The Brewers struck gold — not an alternate jersey pun — when they landed shortstop prospect Jean Segura from the Angels in July 2012 as part of a three-player return package for starting pitcher Zack Greinke. Segura batted .294/.329/.423 with 12 home runs and 44 stolen bases in 146 games last season for Milwaukee while playing steady defense at the shortstop position. He was a 3.4 fWAR player in 2013 — ranking sixth in that category among major league shortstops — and he just turned 24 years old. Greinke, meanwhile, is pitching for the other Los Angeles baseball club.
  • Khris Davis was given a chance to claim regular outfield playing time last summer when Braun was suspended and absolutely rose to the occasion, posting a .949 OPS with 11 home runs and 27 RBI in 56 total games. He is now set to open the 2014 regular season as the Brewers’ starting left fielder — Braun is shifting to right — and will look to ride the momentum that he established at the end of 2013. The 26-year-old former seventh-round pick had a .288/.392/.506 batting line in 415 minor league games, so the thought is that last year’s power outburst wasn’t simply a case of small sample size theater.
  • Brewers closer Jim Henderson didn’t break into the bigs until age 29, but he quickly established himself as a highly-reliable high-leverage presence. He posted a 2.70 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 61 appearances last season for Milwaukee while fanning 75 batters across 60 innings. The native of Alberta, Canada notched 28 saves. The Brewers should be able to turn most of their late leads into wins on the shoulders of Henderson and other steady relievers like Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith, and Brandon Kintzler.
  • The Brewers operate in the smallest market in Major League Baseball but still pack the house regularly at Miller Park. They sold more single-game tickets at this year’s annual Arctic Tailgate than they did last year despite a disappointing on-field showing in 2013 and a relatively inactive offseason. A unique pregame atmosphere should keep ’em coming even if the 2014 product is buried in the division standings.

Prediction: A summer of mediocrity nets the Brewers 78 wins. Fourth place in the NL Central.

Minor League Baseball established a political action committee to fight paying players more

DURHAM, NC - JULY 28:  The Chicago White Sox play the Most Valuable Prospects during the championship game of the 2011 Breakthrough Series at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on July 28, 2011 in Durham, North Carolina.  Most Valuable Prospects won 17-2 over the Chicago White Sox. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
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Josh Norris of Baseball America reports that Minor League Baseball has established a political action committee to continue fighting against a lawsuit brought by a group of former minor league players seeking increased wages and back pay.

You may recall that, earlier this year, two members of Congress — Republican Brett Guthrie of Kentucky and Democrat Cheri Bustos of Illinois — introduced H.R. 5580 in the House of Representatives. Also known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” H.R. 5580 sought to change language in Section 13 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In doing so, minor leaguers wouldn’t have been covered under a law that protects workers who are paid hourly. Minor League Baseball publicly endorsed the bill. Bustos withdrew her support after receiving widespread criticism.

The whole thing started when Sergio Miranda filed a lawsuit in 2014, accusing Major League Baseball teams of colluding to eliminate competition. The lawsuit challenged the reserve clause, which binds minor leaguers into contracts with their teams for seven years. That suit was dismissed in September 2015. However, another lawsuit was filed in October last year — known as Senne vs. the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball — alleging that minor leaguers were victims of violations of state and federal minimum wage laws. Senne et. al. suffered a setback this summer when U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco dismissed class certification. That essentially meant that the players could not file a class-action lawsuit. As a result, the players’ legal team led by Garrett Broshuis amended their case to only include players who play in one league for an entire season. As Norris notes, that means that the included players’ experiences are uniform enough for inclusion in a class-action lawsuit.

So that’s why Minor League Baseball established a political action committee (PAC). A PAC, for the unfamiliar, is an organization created with the intent of raising money to defeat a particular candidate, legislation, or ballot initiative. In other words, they’re getting serious and want Capitol Hill’s help.

Minor League Baseball president Stan Brand said, “Because of procedurally what has happened in the Congress and the difficulties in getting legislation, we’ve got to adjust to that. We were lucky. We had the ability because of the depth of the relationships and involvement in the communities to not have to worry about that. And now we do, I think. The PAC . . . gives us another tool to re-enforce who we are and why we’re important.”

Norris mentions in his column that Phillies minor league outfielder Dylan Cozens received the Joe Baumann Award for leading the minors with 40 home runs. That came with an $8,000 prize. Cozens said that the prize was more than he made all season. The minor league regular season spanned from April 7 to September 5, about six months. Athletes aren’t paid in the other six months which includes offseason training and spring training. They are also not paid for participating in instructional leagues and the Arizona Fall League. Minor leaguers lack union representation, which is why their fight for fair pay has been such an uphill battle.

Report: White Sox, Nationals making “strong progress” on a Chris Sale deal

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 27:  Starting pitcher Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox deliivers the ball against the Tampa Bay Rays at U.S. Cellular Field on September 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that the White Sox and Nationals are making “strong progress” on a trade involving ace Chris Sale. Most reports coming out on Monday night suggest that a deal isn’t likely to be consummated until Tuesday at the earliest.

Sale, 27, has pitched in the majors over parts of seven seasons. He owns a career 74-50 record with a 3.00 ERA and a 1,244/260 K/BB ratio in 1,110 innings. The lefty will earn $12 million in 2017, then has a club option for 2018 worth $12.5 million with a $1 million buyout as well as a 2019 club option worth $13.5 million with a $1 million buyout. Relative to what he would earn if he were a free agent today, Sale’s remaining salary is a bargain.

The Nationals would likely have to part with several of their top prospects. MLB Pipeline lists pitcher Lucas Giolito, outfielder Victor Robles, and pitcher Reynoldo Lopez in the club’s top-three.

Adding Sale would arguably give the Nationals claim to the best starting rotation in baseball as he would join 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

There are other teams in the mix for Sale. The Red Sox and Astros have also talked with the White Sox about the lefty’s services.