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.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Giants 7, Blue Jays 6: Kevin Pillar made his first return to Toronto after being traded away a couple of weeks ago, got a warm welcome from his former hometown crowd ad then knocked in a run in the second inning. I feel like that’s the baseball equivalent of coming back home during Thanksgiving break during your freshman year in college, seeing “old friends” that you were JUST hanging out with in early August and having them buy you shots. I mean, it’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not pretend this is some long-in-coming reunion or whatever. To extend this tortured analogy, Pillar’s Giants teammates were like the guys from his dorm who nonetheless came back with him and who were kinda rude to all his old high school buddies. Pablo Sandoval, Joe Panik, Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt all homered, which is the equivalent of them drinking too much, hitting on the old high school friends’ sisters and just not knowing how things are done back home, man. “You’ve changed, Kevin” they said. “Why don’t you go back to college. You seem to like those guys more anyway.”

Padres 6, Mariners 3: For the second time in three days someone ally-ooped a would-be fly out into a homer. Here it was Mallex Smith, who did the honors for Austin Hedges:

It didn’t matter that much — the Padres had already established what would be their winning margin — but guys should really stop doing that. Franmil Reyes homered twice for the Friars. He required no assists in doing so.

Astros 10, Twins 4: Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 lead and then was outscored 10-1 the rest of the way. José Altuve hit a three-run homer. Alex Bregman drove in three. Michael Brantley had an RBI single.

In related news, ten years ago today Michael Brantley went 0-for-4 with a strikeout for the Columbus Clippers in a 9-7 win over the Indianapolis Indians. I know this because, as Facebook reminds me this morning, that was the first baseball game I ever took my kids to. That game also featured Andrew McCutchen leading off, Neil Walker at third base, Luis Cruz at second, Garrett Jones in right and Erik Kratz catching for Indy. For Columbus, in addition to Brantley, David Delucci was in left, Luis Valbuena (RIP) at short, and Chris Gimenez at DH. Matt LaPorta played in that game too. He’s the guy the Brewers sent to Cleveland the year before in the CC Sabathia trade. I thought he’d be a good one, but alas. Torey Lovullo was the manager for the Clippers. My son, not yet four, got kinda sick to his stomach on cotton candy that evening. My daughter, then five, wore all pink, which would mortify her today (she can blame her mom for that). They’re gonna kill me for posting photos too, but I don’t care. Ah, memories.

Tigers 7, Red Sox 4; Tigers 4, Red Sox 2: Chris Sale was a lot more Chris Sale-like in game one of yesterday’s doubleheader, striking out ten guys in five innings and looking much sharper than he’s been. The Red Sox bullpen has continued to be a tire fire, though, coughing up five runs in four innings of work. Josh Harrison hit a tiebreaking, two-run double in the eighth. Ronny Rodriguez had three hits, including a homer. Xander Bogaerts homered twice in a losing cause. Detroit took the nightcap too, with Brandon Dixon hitting a three-run double and Ron Gardenhire using eight pitchers in a nine inning game. This when his starter went five. Dear God, his feet must be tired from walking out the mound so much. But hey, results are results. The Tigers have won four of five.

Marlins 3, Indians 1: Carlos Carrasco was cruising until he injured his knee and had to leave. That sucked for this game but sucks worse long term if he has to miss a lot of time. As soon as he left, Jorge Alfaro homered on the first pitch from reliever Neil Ramírez, giving the Fish a 1-0 lead. They’d never trail in the game thanks to solid starting work from Pablo López, who allowed only one run, unearned, while pitching into the seventh.

Mets 9, Phillies 0: Zack Wheeler struck out 11 dudes in seven shutout innings doubled in two and hit a homer and scored a run on another play. What a night. Todd Frazier hit a grand slam. Late in the game Mets reliever Jacob Rhame sent a couple of fastballs over Rhys Hoskins‘ head, apparently in retaliation for a plunking in Monday’s game. The benches halfheartedly cleared but nothing came of it. Anyway, the Phillies look terrible lately. They’ve lost five of six.

Diamondbacks 2, Pirates 1: Luke Weaver outdueled Trevor Williams, allowing one run to Williams’ two while scattering six hits over six and a third. The winning run came on a diving slide by Jarrod Dyson, who was on third but dashed home on a hot shot to second base with the corners drawn in. He was originally called out but was ruled safe on replay:

Wheels, man.

Reds 7, Braves 6: Yasiel Puig is heating up. He was 2-for-3 with a homer and three driven in. The Reds blew an early 3-0 lead, though, and found themselves trailing by the sixth before battling back and then holding on to thwart a second Braves rally. Reds batters drew nine walks off of Atlanta pitching. Woof. In related news, I’ll be at tonight’s Braves-Reds game, sitting behind home plate. I’ll be the guy in the Braves cap wondering how he’s gonna drive home two hours after the game and get enough sleep to wake up to do tomorrow’s recaps. If the game is anything less than crisp I may just put up a list of scores tomorrow. We’re all allowed to mail one in, right?

Orioles 9, White Sox 1: Dwight Smith Jr. hit a three-run homer and teammates Renato Núñez, Chris Davis and Joey Rickard all went deep as well, all off of Ivan Nova. Andrew Cashner gave up one run over seven innings to win his fourth straight start. It’d own if the O’s lost 100+ games but Cashner somehow won 20. He’s currently in a five-way tie for the AL lead in that department and is on pace for 26 right now.

Rays 5, Royals 2: Jalen Beeks — who came in in the second inning following an opener — struck out seven in four and two-thirds shutout innings and Mike Zunino homered for the second straight game to break the Rays’ losing streak. The Royals, however, have dropped five in a row.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 3Paul DeJong hit a tie-breaking, leadoff homer in the eighth and Yadier Molina had three hits and two RBI. All three of the Brewers’ runs came on solo homers. All Milwaukee’s runs came on home runs in Monday’s big loss too. If they were the Yankees three columnists would be writing “do they hit too many homers” columns today. Thank god they’re not the Yankees. The Cardinals have won four in a row. The Brewers have lost five of six.

Cubs 7, Dodgers 2: Chicago built up a 6-0 lead after the second inning and skated from there. Willson Contreras‘ bases-loaded double in the first was the biggest hit, Anthony Rizzo‘s two-run homer in the second the next biggest. Javier Báez homered for the Cubbies as well. Báez also did this:

Which was somehow not called as running out of the baseline but since he got stranded at first base and since it didn’t matter in the game’s outcome who cares? It was fun.

Nationals 6, Rockies 3: Patrick Corbin pitched six pretty strong innings and singled and scored a run when Víctor Robles hit a three-run double. Not a bad night for a pitcher at Coors Field.

Yankees 7, Angels 5: Luke Voit hit two solo homers as the walking wounded Yankees won again. Mike Ford, who is a person I’ve totally heard of before today, yes sir, also homered. The Yankees have won five straight and seven of their last eight despite having 13 players on the injured list. A dead cat bounce? Maybe. Playing a bunch of games against the Royals and Angels helps too.

Athletics 11, Rangers 5: Seems like every Rangers game features someone scoring 10-12 runs every night, be it them or the opposition. Last night it was the opposition as Matt Chapman homered and walked three times, Marcus Semien had a two-run double and Stephen Piscotty banged out four hits and scored three times. The A’s put up a six-run fourth inning. Game over.