Dan Shafer
True Blue

Milwaukee Brewers 2012 Season Preview

By - Mar 30th, 2012 04:00 am
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The National League playoff race is wide open in 2012, and the Milwaukee Brewers will be in the hunt. This is because of one man, and he’s not a member of the Brewers organization.

Shyam Das, the arbitrator who cast the deciding vote in Ryan Braun’s suspension appeal, is the reason for this beginning-of-the-season sense of hope in Milwaukee. After losing Prince Fielder to Detroit and without the reigning MVP, the Brewers would have as much of a chance of winning the Stanley Cup as they would the World Series.

Perhaps the sample was mishandled as reports indicate, perhaps the positive test was due to an unrelated health condition (wink, wink), or maybe it was just karma from the baseball gods for allowing David Freese to morph into Joe DiMaggio in the 2011 postseason, but the MVP(ee) will be back in left field for the full 162.

The response from opposing fans will be like nothing Braun has ever seen before, and some have said this will affect him greatly, but I don’t see that happening – he’s just too competitive and too good a player. Maybe if he was wired like the rest of us mortals, it would be different. But I think Braun is the type of player that will enjoy silencing fans in opposing ballparks. He’s a bit like Kobe Bryant in that regard, in that he may be a bit of a jerk at times, but in a way that works to his advantage as a competitor.

Number 28’s departure will be a significant blow to the offense, but Owner Mark Attanasio and GM Doug Melvin have adjusted well. Fueled by record-setting attendance numbers, the smallest market in baseball has a top 5 payroll in the National League. They’ve spent wisely, by returning the majority of (and adding other pieces to) an excellent pitching staff, adding depth to the outfield, and revamping the infield, replacing Fielder, Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt with Aramis Ramirez, Mat Gamel and Alex Gonzalez. Of course, Gamel is the gamble, but going from Betancourt to an actual major league baseball player is a significant upgrade, much less to someone who was one of three Gold Glove nominees at shortstop in the NL in 2011. The defensive upgrade addresses the biggest reason for the Brewers’ 2011 NLCS collapse (5 errors in Game 5. Yes, I’m still extremely bitter).

This year’s NL Central is a three horse race between Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is, as always, a year or two away, Chicago’s Lovable Losers are in Year One of their latest rebuilding project, and the 2012 Houston Astros might be the worst major league baseball team ever assembled.

St. Louis faced a similar offseason to the Brewers in losing Pujols to the Angels, signing Carlos Beltran, and returning the majority of a team that just won the World Series. The main differences being the departure of Tony LaRussa and the return of ace Adam Wainwright (who suffered a season-ending injury in 2011). The Cards’ bullpen also begins the season in infinitely better shape than they did in 2011, with closer Jason Motte poised for an Axfordian breakout.

The main problem for the Cards is, with the exception of David (#&@$-ing) Freese, a few supporting cast members and villainous henchman/All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, the lineup is getting older and has a history of injury. Lance Berkman, Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday all have the potential to make the All-Star team, but have all been around the block and then some. Much of the team’s success could depend on the health of these four players. They aren’t the favorites to win the division, but there’s hardly a doubt that they’ll be in the mix come September.

The favorite to win the division has to be the Cincinnati Reds. Even with closer Ryan Madson’s season-ending injury, things have really lined up for the Reds in 2012. Pujols and Prince out of the division…the trade for 25-year-old semi-ace Mat Latos…Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce in their primes…Prince and Pujols out of the division…some young pitchers with upside … an above average manager, and did I mention Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are out of the division? Injury or not, the ingredients are still in place for Cincy to make a playoff run. Remember, they won the division in 2010 (before they were no-hit by Roy Halladay in the playoffs), and they always give the Brewers problems; the Crew was 8-8 against Cincy last year, and 3-11 in 2010.

But the Brewers have something the Reds don’t, and that’s a strong one-through-five group of starters. The Brewers come into 2012 with the best pitching staff in the division. Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke will anchor the group, and both have spent their respective offseasons improving their arsenal of pitches, with Greinke adding a cut fastball and Gallardo adding a revamped change up. Marcum, Wolf and Narveson are as good of a 3-4-5 of any team in the NL other than Philly and San Francisco, and a with a full season of K-Rod anchoring the 8th and Axford in the 9th, Milwaukee could also boast one of the league’s best bullpens.

The lineup is certainly more of a question mark, and without Prince, leans a bit too heavily on right-handed hitting. It’s extremely important that Mat Gamel and Nyjer Morgan – the only two lefties in the starting lineup – punish right handed pitching, because that’s where Weeks and Hart in particular are less effective. If teams know they can stack righties against the Brewers and don’t have to get extra-creative with their bullpens in order to win (like LaRussa had to last year), it could spell trouble. But if Weeks, Hart and Ramirez stay healthy and play up to their potential, if the pitching comes through like I think it will, and if the Legend of Tony Plush continues, this could be a really good ballclub.

Final prediction: 89 wins.

Postseason prediction: Cincy wins the Central, Atlanta wins the East, and Arizona wins the West. Milwaukee and Philadelphia square off in MLB’s new Wild Card Round, with both teams holding off San Francisco (won’t have the bats), Miami and Washington (both a year away) and St. Louis (age, and let’s be honest, personal bias) for the final spots.

So thank you, Mr. Shyam Das, for giving us hope. At the beginning of the 162-game season, that’s just what we need.

Click here of the first installment of True Blue. Follow Dan Shafer on twitter @danshaferMKE.

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