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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.

Giants acquire Eduardo Nunez from the Twins

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 07: Eduardo Nunez #9 of the Minnesota Twins throws for an out at first in the fourth inning during a game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on July 7, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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The Giants have acquired All-Star infielder Eduardo Nunez from the Twins in exchange for minor league pitcher Adalberto Mejia, the club announced on Thursday night.

Nunez, 29, went 0-for-4 in Thursday night’s game against the Orioles. He’s hitting .296/.325/.439 with 12 home runs, 47 RBI, 49 runs scored, and a league-best 26 stolen bases in 391 plate appearances this season. Nunez has played mostly at shortstop this season, but has also logged significant time at third base and a handful of games at second base, so he’ll give the Giants some versatility.

Nunez will likely play a lot of third base for the Giants as Matt Duffy is still sidelined with a strained left Achilles. He’s earning $1.475 million this season and will enter his third and final year of arbitration eligibility heading into 2017.

Mejia, 23, was considered the Giants’ seventh-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He earned a promotion to Triple-A Sacramento last month after posting a 1.94 ERA with Double-A Richmond. In seven starts with Sacramento, he has a 4.20 ERA with a 43/11 K/BB ratio in 40 2/3 innings.

With a roster spot open, the Twins called up infield prospect Jorge Polanco from Triple-A Rochester, per MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger.

Report: Mariners’ Taijuan Walker drawing “strong” trade interest

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 08:  Starting pitcher Taijuan Walker #44 of the Seattle Mariners looks on from the dugout after completing eight innings against the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field on June 8, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY reports that the Mariners have received “strong” trade interest for starter Taijuan Walker. The right-hander is currently on the mend from tendinitis in his right foot.  He’ll throw a bullpen on Friday at Wrigley Field with scouts in attendance.

Walker, 23, has a 3.66 ERA with an 80/18 K/BB ratio in 86 innings this season. It’s his first bit of sustained success at the major league level. What’s arguably just as intriguing is the fact that Walker will be under team control through 2020.

The Mariners have been hovering around .500 for the last month and entered Thursday six games behind the first-place Rangers in the AL West and 4.5 games out of the second AL Wild Card slot, behind three other teams as well as the two Wild Card leaders. It’s enough uncertainty which could push the Mariners to sell.