Milwaukee Brewers Season Preview: Will They Brew Up a Winning Campaign?

Last season was bad for Milwaukee. Will 2014 be any better?

The 2013 Brewers finished fourth place in NL Central Division with a record of 74-88. Considering how many unexpected issues popped up for Milwaukee, that record could have been even worse.

Ryan Braun was hurt and then suspended for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, and injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart left the offense in shambles for most of the season. The constant changes to the lineup didn't help on defense either, as the Brewers were the worst fielding team in the National League.

It was a year to forget for the Brewers. Can they turn it around in 2014?

Who’s On First?

The addition of Mark Reynolds should help provide some power to the lineup, which is needed considering the collection of Brewers first basemen last year had the lowest batting average (.206) and on-base percentage (.259) in the majors.

Reynolds won’t help with the batting average part (career .233 average), but he hit 21 home runs last year between Cleveland and New York, so he can certainly help in that department. However, his impressive power numbers can be linked to his record-breaking strikeout totals. Reynolds has led the majors in strikeouts four times, with his most coming in 2009 when he had 223 strikeouts for the Diamondbacks.

If the Reynolds experiment doesn't work, Milwaukee can turn to a familiar face. Lyle Overbay returns to his former club after spending time in Toronto and New York, which should help the Brewers as they continue to try to replace the naturally large void left by the departure of Prince Fielder two seasons ago.

Another all or nothing player the Brewers have at first base is Juan Francisco, as Milwaukee acquired him last season from Atlanta. Francisco hit 18 home runs last season, with 13 of them coming in a Brewers uniform. However, he strikes out a lot like Reynolds, and all of his home runs came off of right-handed pitching. Those type of stats don't fit will with an everyday first baseman.

The Brewers’ offense struggled to produce last season, in large part to being without the meat of their lineup (Braun, Ramirez and Hart). Rickie Weeks fought to get over the Mendoza line, finishing with a .209 average. With a WAR of -1.1, it’s safe to say he didn't do very much to help last year. After all was said and done, the Brewers finished the year with a .398 slugging percentage and had the fewest walks in the National League with 407. Mix it all together, and you get a league-low .629 OPS.

Braun is back from his suspension (and thumb injury), and that can only bring optimism for this year’s Brewers team. Ramirez is healthy again, too, after only playing in 92 games last season, but he isn't getting any younger, as he sits at the ripe age of 35. The Brewers had All-Star seasons from Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez in 2013, which provides plenty of optimism as well.

Better Late Than Never

Milwaukee was quiet at the beginning of free agency, but have since made a couple of splashes with the signings of Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Garza. Rodriguez was traded away from the Brewers last season to Baltimore, but he provided quality appearances during his time with Milwaukee, earning 13 saves, as well as an emotional spark.

Garza’s signing was the headliner though. It was the largest free agent contract ever for Milwaukee - a four-year deal worth $50 million. Garza struggled down the stretch last season, posting a 4.38 ERA in 13 starts with Texas. But before that he was performing well with the Cubs, compiling a 3.17 ERA in 11 starts. The former Tampa Bay standout will certainly improve the Brewers pitching staff.

The projected rotation features Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Tyler Thornburg will more than likely fill in when needed.

The Brewers went into last season with John Axford as their closer. He struggled to close out the 2012 season, and couldn’t shake his slump. Axford was the reliever of the year in 2011, posting a 1.95 ERA to go along with a league-high 46 saves. His 35 saves the following year doesn’t seem bad, but it came along with a 4.67 ERA. Yikes. His ERA was 4.45 with the Crew before he was traded to St. Louis.

Jim Henderson assumed the closer role, even when Axford was still in Milwaukee. He carries that job over into this season, and will provide a good duo with Rodriguez. Henderson finished last season with a 2.70 ERA and 28 saves. Those aren’t bad numbers, but if he struggles, it will open the door for K-Rod to close out some games.

Is It Bad? Well, It's Not Good

Fielding for the Brewers can’t get much worse than it was last season. Their 114 errors led the National League, as well as their .981 fielding percentage. Gomez helped improve that with his gold glove season, but it takes more than one player to make a difference.

While people will be looking in the outfield to see Gomez try to make another game-saving catch at the wall, they will also be looking to see how Braun handles the transition to right field. The former left fielder is moving over to help provide time for Khris Davis, who played well in Braun’s absence last season. Health will again play a factor in the quality of defense the Brewers play. If they are shuffling lineups again, don’t be surprised if the errors continue to pile up.

Will the “Real” Ryan Braun Please Stand Up?

As noted, the player everyone is going to be keeping an eye on is Ryan Braun. His PED ban put a black cloud around the Brewers organization - after denying his involvement, only to later admit he lied to everyone, 2014 is going to be Braun’s chance to get back to baseball.

The Brewers have paid him a lot of money to be the face of the franchise, and up until last season Braun was rewarding them for that. He’s an MVP player, and if he can continue to put up numbers like he has (without performance enhancing drugs), things should get better in Milwaukee.

Segura will be another player to watch for Milwaukee. Can the young shortstop have another All-Star season? Filling the shortstop position for Milwaukee was tough after trading away J.J. Hardy years ago, and hopefully for Milwaukee they won’t have to worry about that position for quite some time.

The other side of the infield, in addition to the musical chairs at first base, will see a battle for playing time between Weeks and second-year player Scooter Gennett. The Brewers got better results out of Gennett compared to Weeks last season, with Gennett posting a +2.1 WAR and Weeks struggling with a -1.1 WAR. In 2010, Weeks posted a +3.0 WAR and followed that up with a +3.7 the next season, so it's not like Weeks has consistently underperformed. Last year was Gennett's first in the league, so Milwaukee fans will have to wait and see if he can keep his positive WAR going. If not, they may be seeing more of Weeks at second.

Recipe For Success

Small market teams like the Brewers rely heavily on building up a strong farm system. This way they aren't trying to overpay free agents, similar to teams like the Yankees and Dodgers.

The Brewers hit a home run a few years ago, bringing up prospects Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun. That core of players helped bring Milwaukee a division title. But that core of players is also now gone, so many Brewer fans will look very closely at what the future will bring from the minor leagues.

Unfortunately, the Brewers haven’t been able to find success in the recent drafts. They spent some high draft picks on pitchers like Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley, but they haven’t seen as much progress as other high picks throughout the league. Time will tell if they can turn into future major league starters.

The same can be said for last year’s second-round pick Devin Williams. Much like Jungmann and Bradley, he’s young and will need time to develop. Luckily for the Brewers, they are still a couple years away from contending again so these prospects aren’t in any major rush to produce at the big league level.

Some position players to keep an eye on for Milwaukee are shortstop Orlando Arcia and outfielders Tyrone Taylor and Mitch Haniger. All in all though, some experts are referring to the Brewers’ minor league system as the worst in baseball. Considering small market teams build through their farm system, the future doesn't look very bright.

At the Bottom of the Deck

Many experts have the Brewers projected to finish last in the NL Central. Unfortunately for Brewers fans, there’s a good chance that those experts are right. Last year was a horrible season for Milwaukee, but that doesn't mean the same will happen in 2014.

However, Braun is back, and the addition of Garza helps improve the depth of the pitching staff. And if players like Weeks and Ramirez can play like they have in the past, it’s not a stretch to think Milwaukee will be competing for a wild card spot. A strong Central Division will make that difficult though. While the Public Relations department should be happy last year is over (thanks again Braun), Brewer fans should expect only a slight improvement. And a slight improvement from last year means the Packers and the release of Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest will continue to be the highlights of fall in Wisconsin.