Philadelphia, PA – The Milwaukee Brewers took a step back in 2012.
Following one of the best seasons in franchise history in 2011, the Brewers stumbled out of the gates a year ago and batted .245 before the All-Star break, 13th among the 16 teams in the NL. They scored the fifth-most runs, but inconsistency up and down the lineup kept them producing at an even higher level.
Things changed for them around the All-Star break, as the Brewers started to resemble the team everyone thought they'd be. Milwaukee swatted 101 homers over the second half, second only to the Washington Nationals, and the 392 runs they scored trailed by just two to the major league-leading Oakland Athletics.
Still, the team dealt ace right-hander Zack Greinke at the trade deadline and a leaky bullpen kept them from really making a mark on the playoff chase, as they finished 83-79.
Milwaukee still has perhaps the best hitter in the National League in Ryan Braun, but again he starts a season surrounded by allegations of performance- enhancing drugs.
The injuries that reared their ugly heads last year seem to be doing the same again this year, as first base prospect Mat Gamel will miss the season with an ACL injury, while slugger Cory Hart is expected to be sidelined the first month of the year after offseason knee surgery.
Then there's the pitching staff, which figured to be very young and inexperienced up until Monday when they signed righty Kyle Lohse to a 3-year, $33 million deal.
Add it all together and it appears like another .500 record is in manager Ron Roenicke's future.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Brewers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2012 FINISH (83-79) - Third Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Michael Gonzalez (LHP), Tom Gorzelanny (LHP), Burke Badenhop (RHP), Kelvim Escobar (RHP), Bobby Crosby (INF), Donnie Murphy (3B), Kyle Lohse (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Fautino de los Santos (RHP), Shaun Marcum (RHP), Manny Parra (LHP), Yorvit Torrealba (C), Livan Hernandez (RHP), Nyjer Morgan (OF), Kameron Loe (RHP), Travis Ishikawa (1B), Francisco Rodriguez (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Norichika Aoki (RF), Rickie Weeks (2B), Ryan Braun (LF), Aramis Ramirez (3B), Jonathan Lucroy (C), Carlos Gomez (CF), Alex Gonzalez (1B), Jean Segura (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Yovani Gallardo (RHP), Marco Estrada (RHP), Michael Fiers (RHP), Chris Narveson (LHP), Wily Peralta (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: John Axford (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Roenicke
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH RYAN BRAUN?
There is no question Braun is one of the best players in baseball.
Once again Braun put up an MVP-caliber season, hitting a career-best 41 homers and driving in 112 runs. Just his presence seemed to elevate the rest of the lineup, as Corey Hart belted 30 homers for only the second time in his career, and Aramis Ramirez hit 27 homers while driving at more than 100 runs for the first time in four years.
But, for the second straight winter Braun has had to deal with PED allegations. This time, he's been linked to the Miami anti-aging clinic that has also fingered noted steroid users Alex Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera among others.
Where there's smoke there's usually fire and you have to wonder if a 50-game suspension isn't looming at some point. But, if he is in the lineup for 145 games or so he should once again garner MVP attention.
WILL THE BULLPEN BE BETTER?
Despite the team's struggles, the Brewers still found themselves in playoff contention in September only to see those hopes fade thanks to a horrific bullpen that led all of baseball with 29 blown saves.
After dominating from 2010-11, closer John Axford struggled mightily, pitching to a career worst 4.67 ERA with nine blown saves. He'll start the year again as the team's closer, but the rest of the group is going to look different from the end of last season, as Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, and Jose Veras were all shown the door.
Now Axford's main setup man figures to be lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who pitched to a 2.28 ERA in his first year as a reliever last season with the Washington Nationals.
Others who figure to set the bridge to Axford include righties Burke Badenhop, Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler, as well as left-hander Mike Gonzalez.
CAN THE BREWERS WIN WITH SUCH AN INEXPERIENCED STAFF?
Yovani Gallardo is a bonafide ace. The right-hander seemed poised for a stellar season after his 17-win campaign in 2011, but like the rest of the Brewers struggled to get going. In the end, though, he still finished with 16 wins and pitched to a 3.66 ERA and matched his career-high from the previous season with 33 starts.
Lohse, meanwhile, had spent the past five seasons with St. Louis and was coming off the best year of his career in 2012. He was 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 33 starts. It was actually kind of odd he was still available so late in the game here, but teams were unwilling to surrender a draft pick to sign him.
But, those two are the only sure things in a rotation that will feature plenty of young arms.
Gone, of course, is Greinke, but Shaun Marcum left as a free agent as well.
Now, following Gallardo will be righties Marco Estrada and Michael Fiers and lefty Chris Narveson, who has showed some flashes, but missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery.
The wild card of the group may be righty Wily Peralta, who pitched to a 2.48 ERA in his five starts. With Lohse now in the mix the 23-year-old Peralta can get some seasoning at Triple-A, but will likely be the first one re-called should Fiers or Estrada struggle.
X-FACTOR: COREY HART: The biggest question with Hart is can he stay healthy? Well the answer to that question at least right now, is no. Hart is going to miss at least the first month of the season following a knee operation. When he is in the lineup, though, Hart is one of the more productive players in the NL and serves as terrific protection for Braun's lethal bat. With Gamel also lost for the season with an ACL injury, it's imperative for Hart to get back quick, which appears to be the case, as he is supposedly ahead of schedule. Even if he misses a month Hart is still a threat to hit 30 home runs.
The Brewers were some decent pitching and more particularly, a decent bullpen, away from making the postseason in 2012. Pitching -- from both the rotation and the bullpen -- figures to be a roller-coaster ride this year, but the bats will keep them in just about every game they play. But, not enough that they'll contend for a National League Central crown.