2013 was a tale of two halves for the Milwaukee Brewers. In the first half, the team stumbled out of the gates, going 6-22 in May en route to a 38-56 mark at the All-Star Break in July. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, the unthinkable happened.
Ryan Braun lied.
That’s right, the face of the franchise, who remains under team control through the 2020 campaign, was, as you all know, suspended for the remainder of the season due to PED usage. But strangely enough, when many expected the Brewers to spiral further into irrelevancy, they did the opposite.
In the second half, Milwaukee posted a 36-32 mark – a drastic improvement from their first-half record, but thanks to the slow start, few took note of their play during the season’s final months.
The highlight of the Brewers’ offseason was the signing of former Chicago Cubs pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year deal worth $50 million, adding much-needed depth to the starting rotation behind Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo. They also brought back former Brewers’ first baseman Lyle Overbay and signed strikeout-prone Mark Reynolds to compete for the vacancy at first base.
Reynolds, 30, spent last season with Cleveland and the New York Yankees, and put up his usual numbers, hitting just .220 while popping 21 home runs and driving in 67 runs in 445 at-bats. His strikeouts continue to amass, as he tallied 154 in those 445 at-bats. His best career season came back in 2009 with Arizona, when he hit 44 home runs and drove in 102 runs while hitting a respectable .260 for the Dbacks.
Since that season, Reynolds’ highest single-season batting average is .221 and he’s tallied over 200 strikeouts at the plate three times in seven big league campaigns. He’ll provide power for Milwaukee, but will also come up empty with his strikeouts more often than not.
Overbay, who is heading into his age 37 season, spent last year in the Bronx, where he appeared in 142 games for the Yankees, hitting .240/.295/.393 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs, also adding 24 doubles. He’s no longer the solid offensive player he once was, but is a solid stopgap option for this club that is seemingly caught between an aging roster and an under-developed system of prospects.
In the trade that sent outfielder Norichika Aoki to Kansas City, the Brewers landed 24-year-old left-hander Will Smith. Heading into Spring Training, he is a candidate to make the starting rotation, but could also be a solid member of the relief corps. Last season with the Royals, the southpaw went 2-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances, including one start. He allowed just 24 hits in 33 1/3 innings, notching 43 strikeouts.
Other than that, the only addition is switch-hitting outfielder Elian Herrera, who was claimed off waivers from the Dodgers. At 29-years-old, he has just a handful of big league games under his belt, so it’s hard to consider him much of an impact piece.
Losing Aoki is undoubtedly a major loss for the Brew Crew. In his two years in Milwaukee, he averaged a .287/.355/.399 mark at the dish to go along with 26 steals and 170 hits per 162-game season. His ability to get on base and then utilize speed was a major asset for the Brewers.
The loss of Burke Badenhop via trade with the Red Sox leaves a piece at the end of the bullpen that will have to be filled internally. Last season, the now-31-year-old righty went 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA in 63 relief appearances with a 1.187 WHIP. With that being said, the loss of Badenhop pales in comparison to that of Aoki, but the front office has bigger issues at hand than the loss of these two players.
Milwaukee heads into 2014 with just over $94 million in payroll obligations, according to Baseball Prospectus. Its list shows veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez as the highest-paid Brewer, making $16 million this season. The newly-acquired Garza is slated to pull in $12.5 million, followed closely by the likes of second baseman Rickie Weeks, who, despite being the club’s third-highest paid player, isn’t slated to start at second after Scooter Gennett hit over .340 down the stretch last year after Weeks was injured.
Yovani Gallardo, another Brewer needing a bounceback season, will make $11.5 million. Rounding out the club’s top five is outfielder Ryan Braun, who is slated to make $11 million this year. Although a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the outfielder, he will actually get a raise next season to $12 million before jumping up to $19 million annually from 2016-2018, according to Baseball Reference.
Player to Watch
There’s no doubt that one player – and one player alone – will have the focus of the organization and fans alike in 2014. If Braun fails to maintain his pre-suspension level of production, the Brewers will be in a world of hurt.
The team scored 136 fewer runs in 2013 than in 2012, making the absence of Braun notable, especially in terms of offense. He has formed such an integral part of the Brewers’ heart of the order that a lackluster performance at the dish could leave a gaping void in the lineup.
Should that situation come to life, no team will touch Braun in a trade, leaving Milwaukee paying him for the next seven years. However, if he continues his MVP-like numbers from years’ past, fans will soon embrace him again as a favorite in Wisconsin. The future of the organization may very well depend on how he performs in 2014 and beyond.
The team chemistry in Milwaukee seemed to suffer, at times, in 2013. Reintroducing Braun back into the mix could make matters worse. He lied to his own teammates, is being paid astronomical money in the next several seasons and put the focus of the media on himself after he got suspended, rather than the team’s major turnaround in the season’s second half.
If the team has solid chemistry, Braun plays like he always has and Lohse, Gallardo and Garza pitch to their abilities, this team could be a dark horse candidate to put some pressure on the division’s top teams. They won’t win the NL Central, but they can put up more of a fight than they did for much of 2013.
Player Likely to Regress
Overbay, simply put, just isn’t the player he once was. Even signing him to a one-year deal and expecting consistent production could be a mistake for general manager Doug Melvin moving forward. He seems to be at least somewhat aware of this fact, given the signing of Reynolds during the offseason, as well.
From 2006 to 2006, during which Overbay spent two seasons with Milwaukee, the left-handed swinger hit .296. In his last three seasons (2011-2013), his average has fallen t0 a combined .244. His on-base percentage has followed suit, falling from .375 during those three seasons nearly a decade ago, to just .312.
Major Point/Question in 2014?
The biggest question is comparable to this team’s ‘x-factor’. If Ryan Braun doesn’t play to his full potential and this lineup fails to improve upon its .311 on-base percentage, which ranked 21st in Major League Baseball last season, then despite the additions of Garza and Smith, the pitching staff will have little support and fans in Milwaukee will be left with their heads in their hands by midseason.