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.

Larry Walker to wear a Rockies cap on his Hall of Fame plaque

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I guess this came out the day he was elected but I missed it somehow: Larry Walker is going to have a Rockies cap on his Fall of Fame plaque.

While it was once solely the choice of the inductee, for the past couple of decades the Hall of Fame has had final say on the caps, though the request of the inductee is noted. This is done to prevent a situation in which a cap truly misrepresents history. This issue arose around the time Wade Boggs was inducted, as he reportedly had a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to pick their cap on his plaque which, to say the least, would’ve been unrepresentative.

There have been some mildly controversial picks in the past, and some guys who would seem to have a clear choice have gone with blank caps to avoid upsetting the fan base of one of his other teams, but Walker’s doesn’t seem all that controversial to me.

Walker played ten years in Colorado to six years in Montreal and two years in St. Louis. His numbers in Colorado were substantial better than in Montreal. His MVP Award, most of his Gold Gloves, most of his All-Star appearances, and all of his black ink with the exception of the NL doubles title in 1994 came with the Rockies too. Walker requested the Rockies cap, noting correctly that he “did more damage” in a Rockies uniform than anyplace else. And, of course, that damage is what got him elected to the Hall of Fame.

Still, I imagine fans of the old Expos will take at least some issue here. Those folks tend to be pretty possessive of their team’s old stars. It’s understandable, I suppose, given that they’ve not gotten any new ones in a decade or two. Add in the fact that Walker played for the 1994 Expos team onto which people love to project things both reasonable and unreasonable, and you can expect that the Expos dead-enders might feel a bit slighted.

Welp, sorry. A Rockies cap is the right choice.  And that’s Walker’s cap will feature.