Continuing our look back at 2012, the next installment comes to us as a guest post via the Editor of Reviewing the Brew, appropriately enough.
Author: Colin Bennett
The Milwaukee Brewers of 2012 were, for lack of a better term, a test of faith.
The 2012 season that started with so much optimism and hope, and it ended quite the same. So long as you discount the three months in between where everything came apart at the hinges. The 2012 Brew Crew fell into that strange space between potential and actualization, but somehow still managed to make waves despite being lost at sea for the better part of a season. They lost a high-caliber pitcher to general mediocrity, several players to injury, and a few more became combat ineffective thanks to the ravages of pressure, exposure, or good old-fashioned hype. With all that accounted for, the Milwaukee Brewers achieved a great moral victory – finishing third in the National League central and a record above .500, which is more than most fans could have hoped for by the All-Star break.
What Went Right
Well, there’s no question that things got off on a good foot as the season began despite being a result of some really bad news. We can’t avoid it, so we might as well get it out of the way right now – The overturning of Ryan Braun’s 50 game suspension for a positive test was, regardless of anyone’s personal feelings on the matter, imperative to the success of the club. He was a pivotal part of an offense that was as prolific as it had ever been for most of the season. He put up MVP numbers again during a season that many thought would lack the firepower – and therefore the success of Braun himself – with the loss of Prince Fielder.
Two deals were made for Milwaukee during the off-season that amounted to major success for Milwaukee before 2012 even began. One of them was a well-known name in the Major Leagues, and one of them no doubt will be by the end of his career.
Aramis Ramirez was picked up as a free agent during the winter, and his job was to fill some of the power vacuum left by the loss of Prince Fielder to Detroit. Though he struggled in the first two months of the season to find a comfort zone at the plate, by season’s end he was hitting nearly .300 and had knocked in 50 doubles on the year. He became an all-around threat in Milwaukee’s lineup, and fit in nicely behind Braun. Ramy had one of his best years in a career filled with quite a few good ones – and had Milwaukee been able to stay above water earlier, he may have been in the discussion for some hardware.
The other big signing for Milwaukee before the regular season began was a little-known Japanese player named Norichika Aoki. I say little-known because at the time, the first and only name coming out of Japan was Yu Darvish, and Milwaukee’s history of international signings amount to nearly nothing outside of Latin America. But Aoki was a beast in the Japanese Professional Leagues – having a career average over .300 and a perennial batting champion in five years in the league. He took all of that and more to Milwaukee and put forth one of the most productive rookie seasons in the Majors this year.
I know, on the outset, it seems a little strange that we should champion giving away one of the best pitchers of a generation – but it was a pretty shrewd move by GM Doug Melvin. At the time, there was little reason to expect great things from Milwaukee, and the farm system desperately needed some new life. The trade worked out perfectly for Milwaukee. Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Marco Estrada proved they belonged as part of the starting rotation, and Yovani Gallardo was already cementing the title of staff ace, so getting rid of Greinke at the top of his game guaranteed to get the team high-level prospects. Jean Segura, the Angels’ shortstop of the future, became the Brewers’ best prospect almost instantly. And even though he needs a little more improvement, he showed far more potential than anyone else on the team in filling that hole in the infield. Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena will make a difference for this club – either as starters or relievers – in the very near future. It wasn’t as sexy a deal as a starter-for-starter trade, and it didn’t bring any big names in, but this deal will work for Milwaukee for years to come.
The Month of September
When talking about what went right for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, you really need to look no further than the last full month of the season. Everyone had already concluded that the Brew Crew would not be playing for the postseason heading down the stretch.
Everyone except for the Milwaukee Brewers, that is.
The team went on an unholy tear through the final month of the season, going 15-5 over their first 20 games of the month. They climbed all the way to within one and one-half games of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot and suddenly made this season seem like 2008 or 2011 all over again. This team looked unstoppable for most of the month. The team hit .278 that month, drove in a league-best 137 runs, hit 97 extra-base hits (including 37 home runs) and stole 40 bases. All in September alone. Though post-season play was not meant to be, the moral of Milwaukee’s final month of play was that this team was not willing to give up and would play to win the whole season through. That might be more important than any stat looking ahead to 2013.
What Went Wrong
Lack of Depth
This was a hard section to nail down, because Milwaukee – despite their many admirable qualities – had plenty of deficiencies in 2012. One of the most glaring was the complete lack of depth in terms of bench players. While injuries do occur, and there is a case to be made that Milwaukee took the lion’s share of injury problems, it is not unreasonable to assume a team should have a plan for when injuries happen. This year’s club did not look that way. Travis Ishikawa, Milwaukee’s back-up first baseman, is servicable at best. Hence why Corey Hart had to move from the outfield to first – although his play this season at first has been remarkable. Cesar Izturis and Cody Ransom are barely back-ups, they are relics and they did very little to improve or even stabilize the infield. When Rickie Weeks was struggling so mightily over the middle part of the season, the team did not have someone to replace him. Many fans and analysts saw this coming since Spring Training, and I suppose we just all collectively hoped that Brooks Conrad and some extra farm hands would turn the tide and pan out to be Major League Players. When that is what you’re banking on for a team’s season, you have some serious problems.
What can we say about this year’s bullpen that hasn’t already been said about a nuclear test site? It was bombed out, completely depleted, and should serve forever as a warning to future generations. To put it more succinctly, it was a colossal failure. The Brewer bullpen chalked up 33 losses in 2012, with 18 of those defeats coming while the back end – Jim Henderson, John Axford, and Francisco Rodriguez – were on the bump. Though Axford had turned himself around rather well in the end of the season and still managed to collect 35 saves on the year, the damage was done and the casualties of 2012 were well counted before he got on track. K-Rod simply imploded. Kameron Loe performed admirably and appeared in 75 games all told. Jose Veras turned out to be a terrible pick-up and seemed to find locating his curveball an insurmountable task.
It may appear that I’m being unnecessarily harsh on the bullpen, but for nearly the entire season they failed to hold up their end of the bargain, especially in the first half of the season. It’s the main reason that Milwaukee’s bullpen coach was fired, and why the Brewers were 24-32 in one-run games and 7-11 in extra-inning affairs. In short, if the bullpen had been even a fraction better earlier in the season, I might be writing this review a few weeks later
Looking ahead to 2013
For the remainder of the winter, the questions surrounding Milwaukee aren’t as pressing as they were in years prior. Francisco Rodriguez and Shaun Marcum are Milwaukee’s only Free Agents, and there’s little evidence from their seasons that the team will make any considerable effort to keep them. There is a laundry list of players on arbitration, chief among them being John Axford who failed to negotiate an extension this season. The team would likely benefit in the long-run by giving him a multi-year deal, despite his struggles, considering the depth of available talent in the closer market. He’s more than effective enough, and definitely affordable if a cooperative long-term deal can be reached.
There still may be some work to be done in free agency, as the outfield needs a solid back-up to Carlos Gomez to pick up the slack from Nyjer Morgan. Everything that went right for Tony Plush last year seemed to go wrong this year, and he left a hole in the lineup. The team may also be on the lookout for another veteran starter, with the (presumably) impending departure of Marcum. While Fiers, Estrada, and Gallardo seem to be staples going forward, there are obvious questions surrounding the return of Chris Narveson from a season-ending injury and whether the young guns in Tyler Thornburg and Wily Peralta can maintain success throughout the season.
Beyond that, the problems with Milwaukee lie mainly – like this past season – in filling in the holes behind the starters. Mat Gamel‘s return from injury, depending on how he can play after tearing his ACL, solve some of that. Gamel can play first, third, and even fill in spots in the outfield. His bat certainly helps with the extended Interleague schedule as well. Segura will still need help at shortstop, and it is unclear what the team’s position on Alex Gonzalez, the team’s starting shortstop going into 2012, will be since he failed to reach his vesting option for plate appearances due to a (you guessed it) season-ending injury. He might not be the answer specifically, but look for the team to search for dependable veteran help while the young guys get their feet wet.
Like every season, the Brewers in 2012 were made up of hundreds of small moments and opportunities, many of which went the other way. When things happen that way, it takes patience and faith in order to see it through to success. Luckily for the fan base in Milwaukee – they have faith in spades.
Colin Bennett has lived in Wisconsin for most of life, and has been a Brewers fan since childhood. He has been writing about baseball (among other things) since 2009. Find him at Reviewing the Brew, on Twitter (@ReviewngTheBrew) or just look for the lone person complaining that he can’t watch the MLB playoffs at any bar in the heart of Packer Country.