Could the Ryan Braun and the Brewers make a run at the NL Central?

Mar 5, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun (8) slaps hands with third baseman Mark Reynolds (7) after hitting a fourth inning home run against the Oakland Athletics at Maryvale Baseball Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Last year wasn’t exactly the best year for the Milwaukee Brewers.

The team stumbled out of the gates, posting a terrible record in the season’s first half, only to see its second half turnaround overshadowed by the suspension of outfielder Ryan Braun due to the usage of performance-enhancing drugs – something he had adamantly denied for several years.

However, with Braun back in the fold and several key pieces added in the offseason, this Brewers club could be one that could turn some heads in the National League Central.

The biggest offseason signing for Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin was former Chicago Cubs right-hander Matt Garza. The Brewers inked the 30-year-old to a four-year, $50 million this winter, added more talent to a rotation that already featured some of the most underrated pitchers in the game in Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo.

Garza has spent three seasons pitching in the National League, where his numbers were better, almost universally, than when he pitched for Minnesota, Texas and Tampa Bay in the American League. In 60 starts with the Cubs, Garza went 21-18 with a 3.45 earned run average, posting a 3.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio and averaging 8.9 strikeouts per nine. Granted, it’s a much smaller sample size than his time in the American League, but in the A.L., his ERA was over half a run higher (4.01), his strikeout rate was almost two strikeouts lower  per nine innings pitched (7.2 SO/9) and his strikeout-to-walk ratio came in at 2.32 SO/BB.

Clearly, he had pitching in the National League Central figured out.

In the first half of 2013, which he spent in Chicago, Garza dazzled, going 6-1 in 11 starts, posting a 1.141 WHIP, which, if posted in a full season, would have been the best mark of his big league career. After the midseason trade to the Rangers, he struggled, going 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA. He allowed nearly a full two hits more per nine, with his average jumping from 7.7 hits per nine to nine-and-a-half in the season’s second half.

Apart from Garza, the Brewers made two significant signings at first base, adding former Milwaukee player Lyle Overbay and strikeout-prone corner infielder Mark Reynolds to fill a spot in the infield should they perform in Spring Training. They’ll join forces with Juan Francisco, who, as of Friday morning, is hitting .500 (6-of-12) with a team-high two home runs and six RBIs in five games. Reynolds has struggled to make contact, hitting just .182 over the course of six contests and Overbay has hit for a respectable .308 mark in five games, but is yet to tally a home run or an extra-base hit.

If Francisco can produce like the organization believes he’s capable of and either Overbay or Reynolds sticks as a backup option at first, the right side of the Milwaukee infield will be solid. Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks are battling for the second base job – and rumors of Gennett getting dealt have arisen of late. However, if either one of the two put together a solid season and maintains consistency, this will greatly alter the dynamic of the Brewers’ lineup.

Carlos Gomez emerged as the next face of the franchise in Braun’s absence, and will look to build on a season that saw him net both an NL All-Star nod and his first Gold Glove. The biggest question in the Milwaukee outfield will be Braun and what type of production he will offer in the heart of the lineup. In his first at-bat of the spring, he took a middle-in pitch and put it over the left field wall for a home run and through four spring games, he’s hitting a torrid .857 (6-of-7) with two home runs, three RBIs and is tied for the team lead in total bases with 13.

Although everyone is focused on the Cardinals returning to yet another World Series and both the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates looking to unseat them, if Braun hits and Garza pitches to his potential, Milwaukee could be a legitimate contender for a National League Wild Card slot – or even the division – come September.