2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

The Big Question: Are they good enough?

It is an overly straightforward question — one you’d be asking about any team in any division this time of year. But it’s also the only thing worth asking about a club that spent 153 days in first place last summer and then wound up eight games back of the division-champion Cardinals with a final record of 82-80.

Jonathan Lucroy earned his first All-Star nod and finished fourth in the 2014 National League MVP balloting after producing a .301/.373/.465 slash line in 153 games (including 133 starts behind the plate). He’s only 28 years old, so there may be even better production ahead. Carlos Gomez, who’s 29 years old, boasts an .838 OPS, 47 home runs, and 74 stolen bases in 295 games over the last two seasons and plays great defense in center field. Ryan Braun is no longer a perennial MVP candidate, but offseason cryotherapy seems to have solved his chronic right thumb discomfort and he should be capable of a bounceback at age 31. That’s an ultra-talented core of relatively young stars, and they’re the first three hitters (Gomez, then Lucroy, then Braun) in the Brewers’ batting order.

But as you move down the lineup, the player snapshots get less and less impressive.

Aramis Ramirez has watched his OPS drop from .901 to .831 to .757 over the last three seasons and he turns 37 years old in June. He’s owed $14 million in the final year of a four-year, $46 million deal. Adam Lind had a productive final two summers in Toronto, but consistency and health have both been big issues. His defense at first base is dreadful. Khris Davis possesses good raw power and Miller Park is a power-friendly place, but the 27-year-old outfielder delivered a rough .299 on-base percentage in 549 total plate appearances last season and he batted .186/.253/.314 with two home runs over his final 30 games as the Brewers completed their late collapse. Those are the next three hitters in Milwaukee’s batting order, and it’s rounded out by Scooter Gennett (who has regressed in predictable fashion) and Jean Segura (who we’ll talk more about below).

This was a top-heavy group last year and it killed them down the stretch. It’s top-heavy again in 2015.

What else is going on?

  • The starting rotation is a mixed bag — lacking a true ace but potentially pretty good if everything goes right. Matt Garza had a 3.64 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 163 1/3 innings last year. He needs to log his first 200-inning season since 2010. Kyle Lohse is 36 years old and doesn’t miss many bats, but it feels like we can pencil him in for another sub-3.50 ERA, 30-start campaign. That is what he’s done for four years straight. Wily Peralta has the arsenal of a front-line starter and greatly improved his control in 2014. It’ll be huge for the Brewers if he takes another step forward at age 26. Mike Fiers has teased this club before, but it’s hard to argue with the excitement over his 2014 numbers: a 2.13 ERA, 0.879 WHIP, and 76/17 K/BB ratio in 71 2/3 frames. Jimmy Nelson carries quite a bit of promise after dominating Triple-A.
  • It’s rare that a team will make it through a full season needing only five starters, and the Brewers are severely lacking in organizational rotation depth. Yovani Gallardo was entering his contract year, so Milwaukee’s cost-conscious front office shipped him off to the Rangers this winter in exchange for three minor leaguers. The Brewers don’t have any prospects in Baseball America’s Top 50 and the two guys that cracked the Top 100 are position players — outfielder Tyrone Taylor (ranked 93rd) and middle infielder Orlando Arcia (ranked 94th). An injury or two in the rotation will be very problematic.
  • Back to shortstop Jean Segura. He made the National League All-Star team in 2013 and boasted a .325/.363/.487 slash line with 11 home runs, 27 stolen bases, and 54 runs scored in 92 games at the break. But his production fell off a cliff in the second half of the 2013 season and he was a mess throughout 2014. Personal tragedy struck last July when Segura lost his nine-month-old son to a sudden illness. Segura is still young and remains the crown jewel of the Zack Greinke trade, but right now he looks like nothing more than a base-stealer — and his success rate in that department hasn’t been all that great.
  • After an entire offseason of dancing, the Brewers finally re-signed closer Francisco Rodriguez to a two-year, $13 million free agent contract on February 26. K-Rod converted 44 saves last season and should have plenty left in the tank at age 33. But, again, there’s an issue of depth in the Milwaukee bullpen. Jonathan Broxton seems to alternate good years and bad years, left-hander Will Smith struggles mightily against righties, and Jim Henderson is still trying to regain his form following right shoulder surgery.

Prediction: If the Brewers have good luck with the health of their rotation and get something unexpected from a down-lineup hitter, they can hold relevance all year in the National League Wild Card race. But it’s hard to see them challenging for the National League Central championship when the division houses four other good teams. I don’t think enough will go right for Milwaukee in 2015. Fourth place, NL Central.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.