Improved health would be big boost to Brewers in 2014
Braun, Aramis among vets eyeing rebound as Crew competes in tough NL Central
MILWAUKEE -- The calendar has flipped to 2014, so here are five big questions facing the Brewers as a new season looms:
1. Whither Ryan Braun?
He is one of the best hitters in baseball, the 2011 National League MVP Award winner and the 2012 runnerup. He is also a player who struggled with injuries for the first four months of 2013 before being suspended the remainder of the season for violations of Major League Baseball's drug program.
Which Braun will the Brewers get in 2014?
"I think I will be better," Braun said as he broke his silence in November. "I should be better."
Whether he is right will go a long way in determining what type of team the Brewers turn out to be, and will do more from a public relations standpoint than anything that comes out of Braun's mouth. For his part, Braun says he is sorry for using a cream and a lozenge containing a banned substance to speed his comeback from an injury, though he still won't identify the injury or the specific substance. He has expressed particular remorse for his February 2012 comments about Dino Laurenzi Jr., the collector who took the urine sample that led to the positive test that began the whole saga. Braun has apologized privately to many coaches and teammates.
Because he has not been transparent about some of the key the details that led to his suspension, expect the story to continue into Spring Training. Braun knows he will receive harsh treatment on the road, and he's unsure of what reception he will receive from fans at home.
"Obviously the whole thing is a huge regret," Braun said. "It was a huge mistake. I wish that I hadn't done it. I wish I could go back and do a lot of things different. I don't think I could specifically pinpoint one thing that I regret more than anything else. I regret all of it. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can't do that."
2. Who's on first? And second? And third?
We can answer the second two, albeit tentatively. Manager Ron Roenicke made clear that Scooter Gennett has earned the second-base job over Rickie Weeks, whose $11 million salary and comeback from hamstring surgery makes him a quite complicated fit for the '14 club. And at third base, Aramis Ramirez is returning from a season ruined by a knee injury, entering the final year of his contract. Given the premium on right-handed power at the moment, both Weeks and Ramirez could be key trade chips if they are healthy early in the season, despite their high salaries.
As for first base, it was "wide open," to borrow general manager Doug Melvin's characterization, on the first day of the offseason, and remained so at year's end. There appears to be little appetite in the Brewers' front office to start free-swinging Juan Francisco on Opening Day, although he is arbitration-eligible and the team's top internal option. Melvin vowed at the Winter Meetings that, "We'll get someone," so the search will continue in the New Year.
Whomever the Brewers choose for the position, they will probably be better than what the team had in 2013. Seven different players started at first base for Milwaukee, none of whom had ever started a Major League game at that position before. They combined for a Major League-worst .629 OPS.
3. Has the bullpen been ignored?
Because first base is such a priority, and the budget is relatively tight (with more than $70 million already committed to 10 players, including arbitration projections), Melvin has put his search for bullpen help on the backburner. He would still like to add a pitcher or two with experience closing games to what, at the moment, is an inexperienced group.
Jim Henderson will enter a season as a closer for the first time, and Brandon Kintzler as a bona fide setup man. Both right-handers were technically rookies in 2013, and were excellent, combining for a .219 opponents' batting average and 2.6 wins above replacement.
After that, question marks abound. Veterans John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez and Burke Badenhop have been traded away during the past six months. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny will return for the second season of his two-year deal, but he will be coming back from what assistant GM Gord Ash characterized as minor offseason shoulder surgery. Another left-hander, Will Smith, was acquired in a trade with the Royals, but he will get a look as a starter first. Relatively inexperienced players like Rob Wooten, Donovan Hand, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro, Mike Fiers and Hiram Burgos could be in line for more prominent roles.
Once first base is settled, look for Melvin to add more names to that list of options.
4. Will the outfield shuffle pay off?
Braun is moving to right field after playing the last six seasons in left, a move that Roenicke touted for its long-term effects. The manager and Melvin believe it is generally easier to find a good left fielder than a right fielder, and Braun is signed through at least 2020.
The shift could provide a short-term boost as well, if 26-year-old Khris Davis can grab the left-field job and replicate his performance late in 2013 over a full season. Davis' arm strength limits him, but his bat looks big league; he batted .279/.353/.596 in 56 games last season, mostly after Braun was suspended. Davis hit 11 home runs and 10 doubles in 136 at-bats, and his .949 OPS was eighth best among Major Leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances -- trailing Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Chris Davis, Mike Trout, David Ortiz, Carlos Gonzalez and Paul Goldschmidt.
The trick for the Brewers' Davis will be maintaining production over a full season, especially now that opponents have a better book on him. Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl are the top in-house options to man left field should Davis falter.
5. Can they catch the division leaders?
The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds ran away with the National League Central last year, and none of those teams look significantly diminished heading toward the 2014 season. Roenicke believes his own club will be better with good health and the sort of starting pitching the Brewers showed during the second half, but he is also realistic.
"It's a good division," Roenicke said. "We know what we're up against. We know everything has to go right. We certainly can't have any injuries we had last year. But that's OK. It's fun when you're not picked to win something and you end up having a great year. That's really nice to do."