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.

The Giants might be ready to part ways with Hunter Pence

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Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area hints that the Giants may be done with outfielder Hunter Pence. It’s not clear just how seriously the club is contemplating such a decision, but there are six days remaining on Pence’s rehab assignment, at which point they’ll be able to recall him, reassign him to the minors or release him.

The 35-year-old outfielder has struggled to make a full recovery after spraining his right thumb during the first week of the season. Pence bounced back for a 17-game run with the Giants in April, during which he slashed a meager .172/.197/.190 with one double and one stolen base in 61 plate appearances, but was eventually placed on the disabled list with recurring soreness in his finger. He currently sports a promising .318/.359/.388 batting line with four extra-base hits (including a grand slam) over 92 PA in Triple-A Sacramento.

Despite his recent resurgence in Triple-A, the Giants may not need the additional outfield depth just yet. Mac Williamson, who was recalled in the wake of Pence’s DL assignment, has already cemented the starting role in left field and is off to a strong start at the plate as well. Of course, if the Giants decide to say a premature goodbye to their veteran outfielder (who, it should be said, helped them to two World Series championships over the last seven seasons), it’ll cost them the remaining balance on his $18.5 million salary for 2018.