If a pattern that started six years ago holds true, the Milwaukee Brewers are in line for a big season in 2014. Back in 2008, the Brewers snuck into the playoffs as the wild card with a 90-72 record and were promptly dispatched by the Philadelphia Phillies. The following year, the Brewers were unable to replicate that performance and finished 80-82. It got worse in 2010, as the team fell to 77-85. In 2011, the Brewers bounced back in a big way, winning the division with a franchise record-setting 96-win season. Since then, records of 83-79 and 74-88 have prevented the Brewers from experiencing the postseason.
The Brewers were 28-33 with Ryan Braun, but managed just a 46-55 without their top offensive force. Braun was in the lineup for the first two months and a week of the season before a bruised thumb and then a suspension kept Braun from being with the Brewers. Braun played in four games after the thumb injury and missed the final two-and-half months of the season. With Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart missing significant time, the losses of Braun, Ramirez, and Hart handcuffed the Brewers offensively and they scored 136 fewer runs.
The Brewers actually allowed 46 fewer runs in 2013 than they did in 2012, but the offensive losses coupled with a top-heavy National League Central Division with three teams that won 90 or more games made for tough sledding for the Brewers. The Brewers also had a lot of difficulty with left-handed pitchers, posting a 16-28 record against southpaw starters. Without the offense to compete, the Brewers were 34-56 against teams .500 or better, including a 21-36 mark against the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds.
What was particularly interesting about the Brewers season is that their home-field advantage evaporated. Miller Park is widely-known as a good hitter’s park. The Brewers were 49-32 there in 2012 and a staggering 57-24 in 2011. The Brewers were just 37-44 at home in 2013 and were outscored by 44 runs. That’s something to keep in mind as you read through this analysis on the Brewers.
The oddsmakers are expecting an improvement with Ryan Braun back. BetOnline.ag and 5Dimes.eu both have the Brewers win total lined at 80, with 5Dimes juicing the under at -125. BOL is at -115 both ways. Bovada.lv is at 79.5 with -115 both ways. BetDSI.eu is at 79 with the over juiced at -115.
Key additions: Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds, Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith
Key losses: Norichika Aoki, Burke Badenhop, Yuniesky Betancourt, Corey Hart, Mike Gonzalez
Not included in the key additions is Ryan Braun, who missed the final 65 games of the 2013 season due to a suspension from the Biogenesis scandal and the subsequent circus that followed his drug test. He might as well be listed because he’s a huge bat, but this section is mostly reserved for offseason transactions.
Mark Reynolds is a very intriguing bat for hitter-friendly Miller Park. Reynolds had a tumultuous 2013 after having a ridiculous April for the Indians and then falling off the face of the earth. He landed with the Yankees and played well over the final couple of months of the season. He’ll likely have the starting first baseman job to himself and it’s his to lose.
Francisco Rodriguez and Will Smith add depth to a bullpen that desperately needs it. Rodriguez will replace Burke Badenhop, who made 63 appearances for the Brewers last season. Will Smith is likely going to be a matchup lefty for the Brewers, but he could add starting depth. That role belonged to Mike Gonzalez, who led the Brewers in appearances last season.
Matt Garza is the big-name acquisition for the Brewers. Twelve different pitchers made starts for the Brewers, even though three pitchers made 31 or more starts, so Garza’s addition is huge for both the rotation and the starting pitching depth.
Norichika Aoki is the biggest loss from that list. Aoki did a lot of things well to set the table for the middle of the order, with a high batting average, good contact skills, and a little bit of speed. His departure creates the biggest hole for the Brewers.
Why bet the over?
This is a pretty talented team that got a real bad rap last season. Between the Braun, Ramirez, and Hart injuries, the back-end of the rotation was in a constant state of flux. Fifteen different players spent time on the disabled list for the Brewers including Alfredo Figaro, Chris Narveson, Hiram Burgos, Marco Estrada, Mark Rogers, Tom Gorzelanny, and Yovani Gallardo. That would wreck any team’s pitching depth and the Brewers were no exception. Aramis Ramirez spent 63 days on the DL. Corey Hart missed the entire season. Injuries decimated the Brewers.
The return of Ryan Braun is a big deal. We’ll see what he looks like without the performance-enhancing drugs, but Braun has five seasons of 30 or more home runs and was coming off back-to-back seven fWAR seasons before the suspension. Even with a drop in production, PED-related or not, Braun should still be a four or five-win player for the Brewers, a big jump from the 1.7 fWAR he accumulated in 2013.
Aramis Ramirez seems to be a forgotten part of the Brewers offense. Whether that’s because of his consistency or his injury problems, Ramirez still posted a .366 wOBA last season, the fifth-best mark among third basemen with 300 or more plate appearances. He’s still productive when he’s in the lineup and hits lefties very well. Between he and Braun, the Brewers should improve on their record against southpaws. There’s a chance that Mark Reynolds could spot start at third base sometimes to keep Ramirez fresh. If Ramirez can manage 500 plate appearances, he should be worth two or more fWAR.
Carlos Gomez had a coming out party last season as he turned himself into one of the game’s most valuable players. He stole 40 bases, hit 24 home runs, and posted a slash line of .284/.338/.506. His .344 BABIP will probably come down, but the power numbers will continue to be park-supported and stolen bases create additional run scoring opportunities. Furthermore, Gomez was one of the game’s top defensive players. He was worth 7.6 fWAR for the Brewers, almost doubling his career nine fWAR entering last season. Even with the potential for regression, Gomez could easily be worth five wins this season. Having Braun to drive him in will help the offense.
Another player who opened a lot of eyes last season was shortstop Jean Segura. His production gradually fell off throughout the season, but it was his first full season in the Majors. He was a plus hitter and plus defender en route to 3.4 fWAR. Segura’s true value is somewhere between what he did in April and May and what happened in August and September. He’s a valuable piece who should improve in his second year and with more familiarity with MLB pitchers. His combo of steals, home runs, and above average defense is tremendous for the Brewers.
Jonathan Lucroy wasn’t as good with the bat in 2013 as he was in 2012, but he is an outstanding pitch framer. His caught stealing percentage still leaves something to be desired, but his impact in the crouch cannot be undervalued. Per StatCorner.net, Lucroy was 31 runs better than the average catcher at getting his pitchers additional strike calls. Between blocking pitches and framing, Baseball Prospectus puts his value at 35.9 runs saved. A more talented, more consistent pitching staff will benefit the Brewers immensely with Lucroy’s defensive chops and his ability to help the pitchers.
The aforementioned Mark Reynolds could be an interesting player for the Brewers. Miller Park was the fifth-best environment for run scoring and home run hitting according to ESPN’s Park Factor data. That plays right into Reynolds’s skill set as a free-swinging corner infielder with excellent power. With above average walk rates and a chance to get a full season worth of plate appearances, Reynolds could easily chip in 30 home runs and replace Corey Hart in the lineup. Like Braun and Ramirez, Reynolds will help against lefties.
Khris Davis has 30 home run potential as a big bat in left field. With the Aoki trade, Braun moves to right field to open up a lot of plate appearances for Davis. The Brewers could come close to leading the league in home with Reynolds, Braun, and Davis all in the everyday lineup.
The Brewers rotation is much improved just by the addition of Matt Garza. Garza fits nicely into the middle of the Brewers rotation and if he can bring his ground ball rate back to its 2011 and 2012 levels, he could be a very valuable starter. Health is the concern, as Garza has made just 42 starts since 2011, but he’s better than the collection of guys the Brewers were forced into last season.
Yovani Gallardo is the wild card of this rotation. There’s a reasonable chance that Gallardo pitched through some discomfort because the Brewers had pitchers dropping like flies throughout the season. Gallardo’s velocity dropped dramatically and strikeouts dropped with it. The velocity drop led Gallardo to be more of a ground ball guy, which certainly has its perks in Miller Park. With an offseason to rest and consider mechanical changes, Gallardo has a track record that lends itself to a bounce back season.
Kyle Lohse continues to be underappreciated as guy who possesses excellent control and can stay away from the barrel of the bat. He’s been durable throughout his career and was able to outpitch his FIP for the third straight season. He’s not flashy or dominant, but the Brewers offense will be better and Lohse will benefit.
Wily Peralta went through some growing pains last season, but his strikeout rate improved in the second half and his repertoire leads to a lot of excitement. He’s a fastball-slider-change guy with a heavy 95 mph sinker and a slider that he got more confident in throwing as the season wore on. He was a little bit unlucky with when he gave up hits, with a left on base percentage of just 66.6 percent. The National League average was 73.6 percent last season. Expect that number to improve and with it, Peralta’s performance.
Marco Estrada was outstanding in the second half of last season. He posted a 2.15 ERA in his 58.2 innings of work and posted a ridiculously good 5.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s a guy that advanced metrics love because of his above average strikeout ability and tremendous control. His career 4.17 ERA is offset by a 3.81 FIP and a 3.37 SIERA.
With Mike Fiers, Johnny Hellweg, and Tyler Thornburg serving as the starter depth, the Brewers need to stay healthy, but going through 12 starters again seems highly unlikely.
The bullpen is a bit of a question mark but has talent. Jim Henderson struggled late in the season but has been tabbed the closer to start the year. Henderson used a fastball-slider combo to strike out over 30 percent of the batters he faced. Francisco Rodriguez will be the primary setup man and closer-in-waiting in case Henderson falters. He’s still a very effective reliever. Brandon Kintzler wound up being a pleasant surprise. He doesn’t have the prototypical reliever stuff, relying on control, ground balls, and a fastball hovering around 92, but he was durable and effective in 51 appearances.
Will Smith will be the chief matchup lefty for Ron Roenicke’s team. If healthy, Tom Gorzelanny may slot into the second lefty or in a long relief role. Beyond that, there are some depth concerns, but the big four of Henderson, Rodriguez, Kintzler, and Smith will be the ones pitching in the high leverage spots and that’s very promising.
Why bet the under?
If you don’t anticipate a drop-off for the Cardinals, Reds, or Pirates, finding an upgrade of six wins for the Brewers is hard to do. Over 35 percent of the schedule will be played against those three foes.
Starting with the lineup, there are concerns of injury and regression. Aramis Ramirez probably won’t see 500 plate appearances. Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez could very easily see drops in their BABIPs and power output. Nobody truly knows what type of hitter Ryan Braun will be after missing so much of 2013 and no longer being on the juice.
For the most obvious case of regression, look at Scooter Gennett. Gennett was fourth among position players in fWAR with 1.9 in just 69 games. Gennett had a .380 BABIP and six home runs in 230 plate appearances after hitting just 26 in 2,048 minor league plate appearances. Gennett’s plate discipline should improve, but don’t expect the impact he had in 2013 to be sustainable.
From the pitching side of things, the worst-case scenario, which is plausible, is that Garza gets hurt again, Gallardo continues to regress, and Peralta and Estrada don’t take the next steps forward. If that’s the case, the Brewers will have a below average rotation in a dangerous park. Gallardo’s velocity drop and control problems could simply be signs of deteriorating skills. Lohse’s home run rate climbed and his FIP was 4.08, 0.73 points higher than his ERA. A 4.08 FIP is below average in the National League, so Lohse’s BABIP and walk rate need to stay below averages for him to be effective. He also stranded over 79 percent of his runners, something that rarely happens with a guy so far below average at missing bats.
The bullpen is not deep and an injury to one of the three main righties has the potential to severely cripple that group. If Henderson, Rodriguez, or Kintzler go down, it will be very difficult to close out leads. Rodriguez is the oldest of the three at 32 and probably the most important of the three. He made just 48 appearances last season, which is certainly a red flag entering this season.
As a team, the Brewers saved 58 runs defensively, which doesn’t take into account what Lucroy saved as a pitch framer. The Brewers saved 14 and 16 runs, respectively, in 2012 and 2011. A drop-off in defense could make a precarious pitching staff situation even more dire.
Pick: Over 79 (-115, BetDSI)
It may just be me, but I’m really high on this rotation. I think it has plenty of potential, largely because of Estrada and Peralta. If they develop as they should, the Brewers rotation features five above average arms, which is more than a lot of teams can say. The offense looks much better with the return of Braun and the hope that Ramirez stays healthy. Even if he doesn’t, the Brewers will be better equipped to reestablish their home-field advantage with some power bats like Reynolds and Davis.
I also feel like the Pirates and Reds will come back to the pack, which should level the NL Central playing field. The Brewers are a darkhorse team to contend for a wild card spot if they stay healthy and the regression from some of their players is avoided altogether or gradual enough to be overcome.
Lucroy’s effect on the pitching staff is a huge deal that oddsmakers aren’t going to account for. The improvement in the win total is solely because of Braun’s return and the Garza signing. Plenty of upgrades and tweaks are unaccounted for in this line and the Brewers should be better than .500.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.