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The Milwaukee Brewers claimed its first division title since 1982 last season; it was only the second playoff appearance in that time period (*). The 2011 season was a great one for the club. Many thought they were primed for a possible World Series championship. Ultimately, the team lost in the National League Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. A season with the highest of hopes was nearly realized. The offseason did not bring what the organization was hoping for as Prince Fielder decided to move on and join the Detroit Tigers. The loss of Fielder hurts for a variety of reasons on-and-off the field but the team still has a decent group of players in a division up for grabs.

(*) And only the organization’s fourth playoff appearance in its 42-year history. 

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

Replacing a player as good as Prince Fielder is a tall task to say the least. Fielder has been one of baseball’s best hitters since entering the league. But the Brewers have no choice but to move on and hope they can overcome losing such a high impact bat. The lineup still boasts one of the best hitters in the game in Ryan Braun. It was a crazy offseason for last year’s National League MVP. Reports came out that Braun failed a Major League Baseball drug test and was facing a 50 game suspension. Though it looked like the left fielder would have to sit out a big chunk of the season he unexpectedly won his appeal. Questions remain but Braun will be in the lineup Opening Day, a huge plus for the club (**). The front office brought in Aramis Ramirez in the offseason to help offset the loss of Fielder. Ramirez certainly does not have Fielder’s lethal bat, but he has proven to be a good middle of the lineup bat during his career. Ramirez was a good get for this offense. A player the team will be hoping steps up is Fielder’s replacement, former big time prospect Mat Gamel who hasn’t been able to figure it out in his brief stints in the Major Leagues. There has been a lot of good press about Gamel’s Spring Training this season though of course the regular season is a completely different animal. No one expects Gamel to be close to Fielder, but if he is decent (hit close to 20 HR, hit somewhere in the .270s or better) at the plate that would be a nice development for the team. One of the team’s remaining impact bats, Corey Hart, will likely start the season on the disabled list after knee surgery, but could return early in the season. Rickie Weeks is one of the most talented second basemen in the game but is injury prone; in his career he has surpassed 130 games played only one time. With the loss of Fielder it is even more critical that Weeks stay healthy and in the lineup. The team will be looking for a repeat season out of Nyjer Morgan who hit .304 in 119 games. Morgan doesn’t have any power to speak of and has a low walk rate, but he can hit and run – even though he only stole 13 bases last season after swiping 42 and 34 the previous two seasons. He also has a good glove and seemed to be a good clubhouse presence last year. Jonathan Lucroy is coming off a decent first full season and new shortstop Alex Gonzalez should provide good glove work. If things go right the Milwaukee Brewers offense should be somewhere just outside the top 10 in runs scored this season; if things don’t turn out so well whether it be Aramis Ramirez not being the offensive force he was brought in to be, Gamel not being developed, Weeks and/or Hart being hurt for big stretches or something else entirely, the Brewers offense could end up in the bottom half of the league in run scoring and hamper the team’s playoff chances.

(**) People have theorized that Braun’s offseason may lead to less production because he may be “off” what he was taking or the pressure of clearing his name may affect his on the field performance. I’m not buying much of any of this.

Ryan Braun will be under more pressure than any other time in his career in 2012 (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

With an offense that is expected to be weaker than last season, the starting rotation takes on more responsibility to lead the team. The Brewers have a very good starting rotation, led by Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Gallardo has the tools to be a front end starting pitcher in the big leagues. Thus far in his career he has had some problems pitching deep into games because of a high walk rate resulting in a high pitch count. But he seems to get a better understanding of how to pitch at this level as his walk rate has lowered in each of his seasons as a member of the starting rotation allowing him to pitch 21 2/3 more innings than any time in his career a year ago. At 26, Gallardo has a chance to establish himself as one of the best starting pitchers in MLB. Next to Gallardo is the talented Zach Greinke. He is coming off a solid season in which his advanced statistics were better than his results even though he went 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA. Greinke’s career high 10.54 K/9 mark will likely come down in 2012, but he is a strong starting pitcher forming a nice 1-2 punch with Gallardo. Behind them is changeup specialist Shaun Marcum. He only throws his fastball in the mid-80s but Marcum has five pitches to work with including that great changeup. The right-hander is a good pitcher to have in your number three spot. Randy Wolf is the fourth starter for the Brewers. Somewhat surprisingly, Wolf has turned into a reliable starter in recent years – by reliable I mean he has not been injured; for the most part he has been effective when healthy in his career. At the age of 35, Wolf’s stuff appears to be losing its effectiveness a touch, as his strikeout rate has dropped for four consecutive season from 8.24 K/9 in 2007 all the way to 5.68 a year ago. Still, Wolf has overall been effective and if healthy should provide 30+ starts and 200+ innings which will be welcome out of a fourth starter. Chris Narveson is the last pitcher in the starting rotation and will look to eat some innings in the five spot. The Brewers have two starting pitchers any team would be happy enough to build a staff around at the top in Gallardo and Greinke. Having Marcum gives the team three very good starting pitchers. If healthy, the rotation should be able to step up for the Brewers this season.

The bullpen features four pitchers who made at least 70 appearances and threw at least 70 innings last season; each of those pitchers – John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, and Jose Veras – had nice 2011 seasons. The team’s closer is the hard throwing Axford who in short time has pushed himself into one of the game’s most effective late-innings throwers. Francisco Rodriguez, acquired at mid-season in 2011, comes back to setup for Axford. If anything happens to the Brewers closer, Rodriguez should be able to step in nicely. Loe and Veras will likely work the seventh inning quite a bit. Loe is an underrated reliever. Veras has to work on his command/control to stay effective. The pen also has southpaw Manny Parra and long reliever Marco Estrada. One spot remains which may be filled by Tim Dillard or Mike McClendon. The Brewers should be able to throw four effective relievers at teams in the late innings.

Many do not expect the Brewers to repeat as division champions given the loss of Prince Fielder. He will certainly be missed, but the team is still in decent position to compete for the division, especially if they avoid misfortunes. The Cardinals should be weaker after losing their big time first basemen as well, though, the Reds are improved enough to challenge. It should be a close three team race for the division. The team will suffer a bit on offense but still has chance to comfortably be on the top half of the league particularly if Ryan Braun is able to lead them. The top of the starting rotation is strong and is good enough to improve in 2011. There shouldn’t be many issues with the bullpen either. The Brewers may have lost some of their mojo in the offseason, but are good enough to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • Aramis Ramirez (3B) – free agent
  • Alex Gonzalez (SS) – free agent
  • Norichika Aoki (OF) – free agent
  • Jose Veras (RHP) – trade with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Brooks Conrad (IF) – free agent
  • Cesar Izturis (IF) – free agent

Subtractions:

  • Prince Fielder (1B) – signed with Detroit Tigers
  • Mark Kotsay (IF/OF) – signed with San Diego Padres
  • Casey McGehee (3B/1B) – trade with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Yuniesky Betancourt (SS) – signed with Kansas City Royals
  • LaTroy Hawkins (RHP) – signed with Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
  • Jerry Hairston Jr. (IF/OF) – signed with Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Takashi Saito (RHP) – signed with Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Craig Counsell (IF) – unsigned
  • Josh Wilson (IF) – signed with Atlanta Braves

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. Rickie Weeks – 2B

2. Nyjer Morgan – RF

3. Ryan Braun – LF

4. Aramis Ramirez – 3B

5. Mat Gamel – 1B

6. Jonathan Lucroy – C

7. Alex Gonzalez – SS

8. Carlos Gomez – CF

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Yovani Gallardo – RH

2. Zach Greinke – RH

3. Randy Wolf – LH

4. Shaun Marcum – RH

5. Chris Narveson – LH

Projected Bullpen:

  • John Axford – RH
  • Francisco Rodriguez – RH
  • Jose Veras – RH
  • Kameron Loe – RH
  • Manny Parra – LH
  • Tim Dillard – RH
  • Marco Estrada – RH

Projected Bench:

  • George Kottaras – C
  • Brooks Conrad – IF
  • Cesar Izturis – IF
  • Norichika Aoki – OF
  • Logan Schafer – OF

Projected Disabled List (start of the season):

  • Corey Hart – OF

Variables:

  • Filling the void – The absence of Fielder will undoubtedly be felt meaning that multiple players will have to step up.
  • Hart & Weeks – Two of the most important players for the Brewers because of their talent level. Both players need to be in the lineup during the season but Hart has already experienced an injury.
  • Gamel – Some people are predicting a breakout. If he is able to follow through on that it would help in the effort to offset the loss of the team’s former first basemen.
  • Financial flexibility – The team was not able to really be in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes because of payroll concerns. The team still increased its payroll by nearly $15 million from last year to over $98 million, so there have to be concerns about the ability of making an in-season move to help the club.
  • Production from the bottom – Jonathan Lucroy had a nice season but is still not a big force at the plate. Alex Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez (filling in until Hart returns) are light hitters to go with the pitcher’s spot. Needing more production from every spot in the lineup (with the exception of Braun), the bottom of the lineup may be an issue this season.

Fantasy Implications:

  • One of fantasy baseball’s best all-around players is Ryan Braun. He could be fantasy’s best outfielder though Matt Kemp, Jose Bautista, and others may have something to say about that. Braun is coming off a ridiculous season in which he went .332 AVG/33 HR/109 R/111 RBI/33 SB and he missed 12 games. It will be interesting to see how the loss of Fielder and his offseason effect him, but he has been one of the safest fantasy players since premiering in 2007.
  • Zach Greinke is pre-ranked as a borderline fantasy baseball ace. He had a big jump in his strikeout rate last season and finished well even though he missed some starts, making only 28. His ERA may come down this season but so too may his strikeout rate. If healthy through the season, Greinke should be a big factor in fantasy baseball.
  • Yovani Gallardo is one of the stronger number two fantasy starters. He doesn’t have a weakness but his ERA and WHIP may not be among the elite. I’ve always liked Gallardo who may be coming into his own.
  • Third basemen Aramis Ramirez is not a player anyone will get excited over but if he is able to repeat past performance he will be a valuable fantasy commodity and a nice fantasy starter. With the exception of stolen bases he should put up good numbers if he is able to stay in the lineup. He has a decent shot to finish as a top seven player at the position.
  • At second base, Rickie Weeks could be as good as the seventh best option at the position to start the season. If Weeks had a better track record with his health he could be a touch higher even. If you draft Weeks you must have a backup plan or like someone on the waiver wire. It’s too risky to think he’ll be healthy all season. When he is in the lineup he should have good power numbers for the position, an OK batting average, and some steals – though not as many as you may think. The talent is there, but is the health?
  • Though he is expected to miss the beginning of the season, Corey Hart should be back in time to have a fantasy impact – he may not miss much time at all. Hart is a solid fantasy contributor. If healthy he has power and a helpful average with good production. His stolen bases have come down in recent seasons. With a knee injury I wouldn’t expect his stolen bases to have an uptick. He could be a low 3/high 4 outfielder.
  • Shaun Marcum is a decent number three fantasy starter and a very strong number four starter. The ERA and WHIP should be steady though he is not a big strikeout guy. I think Marcum has nice fantasy value.
  • Mat Gamel is a sleeper for a lot of fantasy players. He’s been creeping up in drafts and rankings all spring. The former third basemen will gain first base eligibility early in the season though third base is the scarcer position. If Gamel is able to deliver he would be a nice steal for a team later in the draft, though I’m not sure how much people could reasonably expect. He’s a player that should be drafted but you could just as easily take other chances on your roster.
  • John Axford should be one of the best fantasy closers this season which means that he probably won’t be on any of my fantasy teams because I tend to wait on drafting relievers.
  • Jonathan Lucroy served as a nice fill-in catcher last season. This season he will likely do the same as he’s probably not good enough to start the season as a fantasy starting catcher but is a decent option if your catcher misses some games. He doesn’t do anything spectacular but if he does what he did last season he shouldn’t hurt you either.
  • If Nyjer Morgan can keep his batting average high and return to stealing bases he’ll find enough fantasy value to be owned in a good amount of leagues. He won’t help at all in power categories. Playing time could come to be an issue as well.
  • If for whatever reason Axford is out as closer run do not walk to get Francisco Rodriguez on your team. He’s the easy choice to close games behind him.
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