Hi everyone, and welcome back to another season of Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball. 2014 was a fun year of manager nitpicking*, meme development, and corporate branding, and we expect to have more of the same in 2015.
*Note: Not nitpicking. I mean, that whole sequence was insane and I can’t believe it happened to a professional baseball team.
The Brewers aren’t exactly favorites this year, and many don’t see them as serious competitors, but this is the optimistic preview, so we’ll be looking at everything that has to go right for the Brewers to build off of 2014. Let’s start with the big one:
Ryan Braun’s thumb must heal.
Braun was hot garbage last year, especially in the second half where he hit a Yunieskian .226/.295/.374. Braun started out hot enough, but the thumb would eventually reduce his bat speed to the point where he actually changed his approach to exclusively take outside pitches to the opposite field. This worked for a time, but pitchers eventually realized he couldn’t get around on inside pitches, the thumb problem started to worsened, and he became essentially worthless. He is as responsible for the late-season collapse as anyone.*
The reason they didn’t do thumb surgery in-season is partially because they were contending, but also partially because was HIGHLY experimental. There was no guaranty that the surgery will actually work. By most accounts it’s been a success, and if the Brewers are to have any chance at all of contending they need a healthy Braun. We here at RRSMB knew the surgery went well because, well, he managed to track down Ryan Braun while he was rehabbing at his palatial estate, paparazzi-style. We evaded guard dogs, scaled a large, barbed-wire fence, all while trucking a comically large camera lens just so we could get a picture.
We caught a glimpse of him relaxing on his veranda with a few friends. We’d come this far; there was no going back now.
“Ryan, how’s the thumb?!”
And in return he lowered his glasses, glanced off into the distance, and gave us this gesture.
And we knew everything would be alright.
*If you’re going to talk optimism, we need to talk about just how smart of a player Ryan Braun is. I think it’s supremely difficult for baseball players to change their approach at the plate. This is why extreme shifts against left-handed hitters often work. It’s hard to take a pitch the other way, especially if the pitcher knows you’re trying to. Last year when Braun realized he couldn’t get around on pitches, he altered his game to focus on hitting to the opposite field, and he was great at it. It’s one thing to make that change, and quite another to make that change and continue to excel.
While last season ended in disappointment, it’s possible that Braun added a new weapon to his arsenal. If his thumb really is fixed and he is once again able to pull the ball with power, he may also be able to integrate his newfound ability to pound outside pitches. It’s possible that he won’t just be as good as he used to be. It’s possible that he’ll be better.
Jimmy Nelson must adequately replace Yovani Gallardo
Many scouts like Nelson better than Peralta long term. The weird thing about Nelson is that he tends to struggle for a season when he moves up, and then adjust and dominate. I have no idea if this will repeat itself at the MLB level, or if his 69.1 innings with the big league club last year “count” in this equation, but if Nelson can adjust and be at least a league average pitcher (or better!) then the Brewers should be just fine. And really, Gallardo was just a 1.7 WAR pitcher last year. Fiers was a 1.6 WAR pitcher in less than half of the number of innings. It’s not like he has to replace Clayton Kershaw. Jimmy Nelson is completely capable of being league average, with upside to boot.
Adam Lind is kind of a one trick pony, but oh, what a trick it is. He destroys righties. Last year he hit .345/.409/.533 against righties. In 2013 he his .309/.385/.539 against righties. He hasn’t been that good his entire career, but his career line is still an impressive .293/.349/.510. Lind is not without his flaws to be sure, but as a replacement for Lyle Overbay in the long half of the platoon, he is a gigantic upgrade. With the right platoon partner the Brewers may see above average play at first base for the first time since Corey Hart, and no matter what, they’ll have some good, bearded fun.
To be competitive you need a few star-level players, and the Brewers have three! Which is pretty good! Ryan Braun and his new mega thumb can still be a huge star. In fact, his new-found ability to destroy pitches to the opposite field could make him even more dangerous this year if everything is right. Jonathan Lucroy is debatably one of the five most valuable players in baseball depending on how you feel about framing. Carlos Gomez is still an elite center fielder with a very good bat. All of these players will be around for at least two more years (unless they’re traded), and all should still be very good players for at least two more years.
The Brewer farm system may be terrible (but improving!), but it’s cranked out some nice secondary players lately. Scooter Gennett is much better than I thought he’d be and provides needed balance from the left side of the plate. Khris Davis isn’t anything special but his power has at least kept him hovering around average.
Not every position will be manned by an all-star, but it’s important to avoid having to throw in the Yuni Betancourt’s of the world as much as possible, and the Brewer farm system will actually allow for that this season. It’s hard to remember the last time the Brewers didn’t have an obvious replacement-level player at some position, but this year looks pretty good in that regard. If Jean Segura were to regress on defense and not improve on offense he might fit the bill, but he’s still young and his defense should keep him solidly above replacement level even if he continues to be deplorable on offense. Aramis Ramirez may never be his old self again, but the third base position is weak across the league, and in his final season hopefully he can grit out one more good one.
The starting pitching has the potential to be better than last year.
Really! Look, I know it’s hard to replace 200 innings of league average starting pitching, but it’s worth noting that Marco Estrada threw 150.2 inning last year too, and they also get to replace that. Kyle Lohse is still a solid pitcher. Matt Garza is still a solid pitcher. Everyone is impressed by Wily Peralta as he has already met or exceeded expectations. Mike Fiers is an enigma, but I still believe that his bad season was primarily due to his mother’s failing health. I suspect that real Mike Fiers is what we saw last year, and still very good. Lohse+Garza+Peralta+newly adjusted Nelson + Good Fiers = winning.
Lucroy is a catcher, and a great one, but Martin Maldonado may be his defensive superior. Catching is also hard on a player and requires more rest than other positions, but resting Lucroy takes his bat out of the lineup. So what do you do? Well, the Brewers have already said he’ll get some time at first base, and as the short end of a platoon with Adam Lind, this is a great idea to keep Lucroy fresh, keep his bat in the lineup, and bolster the right-handed lineup. Speaking of which…
Since Prince Fielder left the Brewers have been extremely right-handed, and while that deficiency is sometimes overstated, it left them vulnerable to late-inning hard-throwing righty relievers, and made it easier on opposing managers. While they’re not the most balanced team ever, simply having Lind, Gennett, and Parra is a huge improvement over any recent Brewer lineup. The picnic area on Miller Park was basically made for Fielder, and they finally have a few guys who can capitalize on it.
The team is secretly well-designed. It’s almost clever. They addressed major holes in the off-season. They addressed balance. They dealt from a position of strength to help the farm system. I even like how they drafted. Most criticism’s of the Brewer farm system recently have focused on the lack of high ceiling talent. The criticism of this current class is that they focused too much on high-ceiling talent. That’s silly. If you need to crank out some stars three or four years from now, that’s what you have to do.
The bullpen looks, on its face, basically the same, perhaps a little worse, but bullpens are basically crap shoot anyway. Ryan Braun was only a 1.2 WAR player last year and the 1st base tandem was only a positive if you believe Mark Reynolds had absurd defensive value. Contending again is as simple as Braun and Lind just being what they should be. If the underlying talent performs like it should, this should be a very good team.
Optimistic Prediction: 92-70.
Coming soon: The Pessimistic Preview! I mean, The Pessimistic Preview. : (