Michael P. Bischoff

Do the Milwaukee Brewers face the end of an era?

A questionable and young bullpen, outgoing stars and injuries are making things look bleak for the Brewers.

By - Feb 23rd, 2013 04:56 am
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The Milwaukee Brewers are in Arizona for spring training, and for many familiar faces it could be their last spring with the team. First baseman Corey Hart is entering the final season of a 3-year extension signed in 2011. Centerfielder Carlos Gomez is rounding into the multi-faceted player Milwaukee always thought he’d become, but his expiring contract and minor league outfield depth could make him a valuable trade chip. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez and second baseman Rickie Weeks, who, along with Hart, have the highest salaries on the team for 2013, could also find themselves on the move as the Brewers plan for the future. Indeed, only left fielder Ryan Braun, starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo and catcher Jonathan Lucroy are signed beyond next season.

How quickly the Brewers face the decision of whether or not to trade depends largely on how they perform early in the season.

As it is almost every spring, the biggest questions come from the pitching staff. Gallardo and Marco Estrada headline a starting rotation that could feature as many as three players with fewer than 25 major league appearances. Reports are positive about left-hander Chris Narveson, but he’s coming back from surgery on his pitching shoulder, so any expectations are premature at this stage.

Milwaukee has staunchly avoided adding a veteran starting pitcher through free agency, though Kyle Lohse is routinely mentioned as a possibility. The Brewers would be wise to keep the checkbook closed, if recent history is any indication. Jeff Suppan (4 years, $40 million in 2007) and Braden Looper (1 year, $4.75 million in 2009) were abject failures, while Randy Wolf (3 years, $27.8 million with $1.5 million buyout in 2010) coaxed out one good season in between two very poor ones.

Lohse, for his part, has been a mediocre player over his 12 major league seasons. While he’s coming off his best year, he’s 34 years old and unlikely to repeat last season’s performance. Milwaukee needs to discover what they have in their own young pitchers before depending upon an aging journeyman. Furthermore, Lohse would cost any team who signs him their upcoming first round draft pick, a price too steep for a middle-to-small market team which must perpetually rebuild itself from within.

The Brewers were sunk into an early hole in 2012, chiefly by the performance from their bullpen. The beleaguered staff led the National League with 29 blown saves. Compare that to the league average of 19, and it’s clear the bullpen was part of the difference between Milwaukee’s 83-win finish and the 93 wins that would have given them a Wild Card in the expanded postseason. Nearly the entire staff was released or left unsigned; closer John Axford and Jim Henderson, a 29 year-old rookie in 2012, are the lone holdovers. Axford had a rough season, himself responsible for 9 of those blown saves, but he ended the year strong, only allowing 5 runs over his final 19 games.

Henderson was one of last season’s few pleasant surprises in the bullpen. He only allowed 1 home run in 30.2 innings of work, something desperately needed in a ‘pen that spent most of its time turning and watching how far the ball would fly.

To restock, the Brewers signed veterans Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez as free agents and acquired Burke Badenhop from Tampa Bay in exchange for a career minor leaguer.

Conversely, the 2012 squad was as consistent with the bat as ever, leading the National League in runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage, all without slugging superstar first baseman Prince Fielder, who signed a free agent contract with Detroit before the season started.

Corey Hart replaced Fielder at first base admirably, batting .270 with 69 extra-base hits. But Hart underwent foot surgery on January 25 and his return time in unknown, though he has optimistically set the date at April 20, three weeks into the start of the season. Compounding that news, the 2012 Opening Day starter at first base, Mat Gamel, recently tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time in as many years and will miss the entire season, leaving the team without an obvious internal option at the position to start the season. Suggestions have included everything from former Brewer Lyle Overbay to the Milverine.

There is also the remote possibility that All-Star left fielder Ryan Braun could face a 50-game suspension. Braun’s name has been linked to a clinic suspected of providing performance-enhancing drugs to Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and others. The evidence may be suggestive, but it is still only circumstantial. Neither the federal government nor the State of Florida have received any grounds for investigation, severely limiting MLB’s ability to link any players to actual purchase or use of PEDs from the clinic.

The Brewers went 29-13 over the last quarter of the 2012 season, and their offseason has made them a better team than they were at that point. However, it’s unlikely that they’ll carry over that kind of success into this season. There’s uncertainty with any young player, and the Brewers are depending upon too many of them to be certain about anything. It’s happened before; young players have reinvigorated teams and propelled them into contention. The Mets of 1969 and 1984 did it. So did the 1991 Braves. Milwaukee has enough veteran talent that this possibility isn’t entirely farfetched. However, the law of averages says the young pitching staff will struggle, and the Brewers will struggle with them.

The Milwaukee Brewers host the Oakland Athletics at 2:05 PM (CST) Saturday, February 22nd in their first spring training game. Streaming broadcast coverage is available at MLB.com.

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