COMMENTARY| Once upon a time, the Milwauke Brewers had the strongest 3-4 combination in the league with former MVP Ryan Braun and prolific slugger Prince Fielder. The rotation had a bonafide ace in Zac Greinke, and Shaun Marcum had the best year of his career (and perhaps ever..see 2012). Closer John Axford set a team record for saves. They were headed to the NLCS for the first time in franchise history. They were the kings of the NL Central.
Since then things have gone from bad to worse. Their once top five minor league system is now ranked dead last by many. Fielder, Greinke, and Axford are all gone. With repeated injuries to Corey Hart, first base has become a question mark. The former MVP and face of the franchise, Ryan Braun, has become an untimely distraction to the team with a 65 game suspension for Performing Enhancing Drugs.
The NL Central is not the same as it was two years ago. No longer are the Houston Astros in the league for everyone to push around. The Pittsburgh Pirates are better than they have been in the last twenty years. The Chicago Cubs farm system is loaded with talent and should be a quality ball club for years despite last year’s follies. The Cincinnati Reds have a solid core of veterans who should keep them competitive. And then there is the St. Louis Cardinals who have the youngest and strongest rotation. Their lineup is so strong that they have to keep players like Matt Adams and other high quality players on the bench. The division is loaded.
So with all of these division powerhouses how can the Milwaukee Brewers keep up?
With the terrible 2013 season behind them, there are three things that the Brewers need to help them compete in 2014.
Avoiding Another Stinko De Mayo
First, they need to have a better May. Last season saying the Brewers were awful in May would be a gigantic understatement. They went an abysmal 6 and 22 and were outscored by 50 runs during those 28 games. Yovani Gallardo and rookie Wily Peralta were brutal during this stretch with a combined two and nine record and ERAs hovering around five and eight respectively. Take the brutal month away and the team finishes two games over .500.
Who’s on First
Secondly, they need production from first base. After losing both Corey Hart and Mat Gamel to season ending injuries, the team floundered at first base. Seven different players started at first base last year and batted a combined .206 (worst batting average at the position by a mile) and slugged just .370 (second worst only in front of the Mets). Whether they resign Corey Hart or play any other person it will be an upgrade.
Stay on the Field
Finally, they need to avoid injuries and players missing time. During the season manager Ron Roenicke constantly had to shuffle the line up to put healthy and available players in position to succeed. Being able to compete with a lineup consisting of Sean Halton, Jeff Bianchi, and Logan Schafer provides hope for a lineup that will return Ryan Braun and a healthy Aramis Ramirez.
Reasons for Hope
Even with all of these injuries and struggles, several underrated prospects rose to the occasion last year while getting unexpected playing time. Left fielder, Khris Davis, (the Brewers #18 prospect at the start of the season) found consistent playing time after the Ryan Braun suspension, and tapped into his enormous power potential by hitting 11 home runs from late July to September until a wrist injury shut his season down early. Second baseman Scooter Gennett was up and down in the farm system until an injury to Rickie Weeks allowed him to play full time. He became a reliable table setter and proved to have a steady glove at second base, while flashing more power than expected with six home runs in 213 at bats. And Tyler Thornburg proved that his early season struggles in the minor leagues were not a problem when he dominated as a starter having a 1.47 ERA and holding batters to a great Batters Average Against of .228.
The core of the pennant hopes begin in the middle of the field. Carlos Gomez, the Brewers 2013 team MVP, tapped into his enormous potential last season. He won his first career Gold Glove and had the strongest offensive season of his career. Jean Segura looks to be every bit of the top prospect he was said to be and could become the best shortstop the franchise has seen since Robin Yount. Jonathan Lucroy has become the new face of the franchise and has turned himself into a top five catcher in the league.
The rotation is set. The core is set. The prospects will keep developing. Braun will be back. Aramis will be healthy. Someone (anyone) at first base will hit. And the no matter how competitive the rest of the NL Central is, the Brewers will compete.