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2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers. 

The NL Central may be the most polarized division in baseball. Three of its teams – the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates – could each realistically win 90-plus games. The other two – the Reds and Brewers – very likely won’t reach 70 wins. The Brewers, like the Reds, are rebuilding, so while they won’t outright say they intend to lose, losing helps the team build towards a better future. A 68-94 finish last season earned them some more international spending money and the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft. A similarly putrid finish will provide the same rewards for 2017.

During the offseason, the Brewers traded closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers for minor leaguer Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later. With Rodriguez out of the picture, Will Smith was in line to either share or completely take ownership of the closer’s role, but he suffered a freak injury on Saturday. He was standing on one foot taking off his shoe after appearing in a minor league game, but the shoe didn’t come off and he twisted his knee in the process. The official diagnosis is a torn LCL, which may require surgery.

As a result, Jeremy Jeffress is the favorite to assume the closer’s role to open the season. Jeffress, 28, was a former starting pitching prospect in the Brewers’ system. After moving him to relief work in the minors, the club traded him in December 2010 in the Zack Greinke deal, and got him back in April 2014, signing him as a free agent. Jeffress has closer stuff, flashing a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s along with a curve about 15 MPH slower. In 68 innings last year, his longest stay in the majors, he finished with a 2.65 ERA and a 67/22 K/BB ratio over 68 innings.

The Brewers also traded shortstop Jean Segura and pitcher Tyler Wagner to the Diamondbacks in exchange for cash, major leaguers Aaron Hill and Chase Anderson, and minor leaguer Isan Diaz. The trade was mostly about dumping salary for the Diamondbacks, but the Brewers were able to finagle Diaz, who was ranked #11 in their minor league system by MLB Pipeline. Diaz, who plays middle infield, is only 19 years old but hit .360 with 13 home runs in 312 plate appearances in rookie ball last year, so he is quite projectable for the Brewers.

Jonathan Villar, acquired in a low-key November trade with the Astros, will handle everyday shortstop duties. Villar had his best year as a big leaguer last season, hitting .284 with seven stolen bases in 128 plate appearances. He won’t have the position for long, though, as prospect Orlando Arcia will overtake the position soon enough. He’s the Brewers’ #1 prospect, coming off a season in which he hit .307 in 129 games at Double-A Biloxi. As long as Arcia shows competency against Triple-A competition early in the season, he’ll earn a mid-season call-up.

Chris Carter joined the squad on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Which, all things considered, is a pretty good value. He hit 24 home runs with a .734 OPS for the Astros last season, considered a down year by his standards as he bashed 37 dingers with a .799 OPS in 2014. It’s a pretty good gamble for the Brewers – if Carter has a rebound first half of the season, the club can try to trade him for younger players ahead of the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

Jonathan Lucroy is also likely to be moved by the deadline. The Brewers drew some interest in the backstop over the offseason, but a deal never materialized. Lucroy logged only 103 games last season due to injuries and hit a lackluster .264/.326/.391 with only seven home runs. He finished fourth in NL MVP balloting the year before with an .837 OPS, 13 home runs, and a major league-best 53 doubles. Lucroy has a club option for 2017 at an affordable $5.25 million, so he’s quite the affordable option for a contending team in need of catching help.

Veteran Ryan Braun has moved back to left field from right field. He played in 140 games last season – his most since 2012 – and put up All-Star numbers, hitting .285/.356/.498 with 25 home runs, 84 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 24 stolen bases. At 32 years old, one wonders how much longer he’ll be a 20/20 threat, but if he did it at 31, he can do it at 32.

The starting rotation is largely uninteresting. Wily Peralta will get the honor of pitching on Opening Day after putting up a 4.72 ERA and a 60/37 K/BB ratio in 108 2/3 innings in 2015. Jimmy Nelson will be the most interesting starter to watch as the 26-year-old was considered a top prospect two seasons ago. Behind those two are Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann, and Chase Anderson. With all due respect, that’s a snoozefest.

A lot could go right for the Brewers, but they will still have trouble cracking 70 wins.

Prediction: 67-95, fourth place in the NL Central.

Report: Gerrit Cole has seven-year, $245 million offer from Yankees

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Bob Klapisch of The New York Times reports that free agent starter Gerrit Cole has a seven-year, $245 million contract offer on the table from the Yankees. As Klapisch also notes, the deal would set a record for total value and average annual value for a pitcher, besting Zack Greinke‘s $34.4 million AAV and David Price‘s $217 million total.

While it is possible that Cole signs before the end of the Winter Meetings on Thursday, clients of Scott Boras have tended to sign later in the offseason, so this may be a protracted process with today’s report as a jumping-off point. Both the Yankees’ and Angels’ front offices have received clearance from ownership to break the bank to sign Cole.

Cole, 29, could not have timed having a career year any better. During the regular season, he led all of baseball with 326 strikeouts and led the American League with a 2.50 ERA while also posting a 20-5 record and walking only 48 batters across 212 1/3 innings. He performed brilliantly in the playoffs as well, holding the opposition to seven runs on 21 hits and 11 walks with 47 strikeouts over 36 2/3 innings of work as the Astros narrowly missed out on winning another championship.

Cole is entering his age-29 season, so a deal of at least seven years would take him well into his mid-30’s. Teams, especially lately, have been hesitant to commit to pitchers, but as the Nationals showed with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, sometimes it leads to a championship.

For what it’s worth, Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports says the Yankees haven’t made a formal offer to Cole yet, though the club plans to make one this week. During this time of year, both sides — front office personnel and player agents — leak details to the press to help establish leverage. What we can generally take from this is that the Yankees are hot for Cole and he’s going to get a record-setting contract from some team, even if it’s not the Yankees.