Brewers optimistic for 2014, but must get healthy
Crew looking forward to return of injured players, standout rookies, key everyday guys
MILWAUKEE -- Center fielder Carlos Gomez emerged as one of the Brewers' chief cheerleaders during a dark season, so it was fitting when he stepped forward to make a case for a brighter outlook for 2014.
"The way we started, this was a good way to finish," Gomez said in September, with the Brewers in the midst of a second-half stretch of much better baseball. "The rest is in the past."
"The rest" was mostly confined to May, when the Brewers went 6-22 to match the worst winning percentage for a single month in franchise history. It removed any hope of competing in 2013.
Now the focus moves to '14, when the Brewers will hope for better health and better success, especially for the pitching staff in the early season. Gomez has some hope.
"I see us playing with a lot more intensity, and we have a lot of guys come up and show they are the real deal, like Scooter [Gennett], Khris Davis, some of the pitchers," Gomez said. "We have a good future. To be honest, we never had the whole team together. I wish that next year, we have better luck to put it together.
"We have a good team. We're young. We have starting pitching. ... The bullpen has been good. Put it together next year, and everybody will step up. We're going to have good competition, because the other teams, too, are going to have similar teams for next year."
Gomez doesn't believe the Brewers need wholesale changes to improve.
"I hope not," he said. "The guys here, they belong here."
First base is wide open for the Brewers next season, and second base a big question mark with the emergence of Gennett after another slump-and-injury-riddled year for Rickie Weeks. But third baseman Aramis Ramirez hopes to be healthy after a season spent nursing a bum left knee. Left fielder Ryan Braun will return from his suspension, and the 2014 Brewers could otherwise look a lot like they did in 2013.
Hopefully, manager Ron Roenicke said, with better luck and some fresh, young arms.
"I don't think there needs to be big moves. I don't know if we can make big moves," Roenicke said. "I think the big moves are going to be how these young guys -- especially on the mound -- end up for us. If they can progress the way we think that they can, that's a big move."
Said general manager Doug Melvin: "I don't think we're inclined to blow things up. I don't really know what that means -- like the Cubs? Every club has their own idea of how to do it. I've been on a club that won 54 games one year and won 88 the next year. It's hard to win, and our division is stronger. I hear about other divisions, but this division may be as strong as any."
Here's the Brewers' outlook for next season:
Arbitration-eligible: Right-handers Burke Badenhop and Marco Estrada, and infielders Juan Francisco (Super Two) and Mat Gamel.
Free agents: Infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, reliever Michael Gonzalez, first baseman Corey Hart.
Rotation: Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta will return, Lohse hoping essentially to repeat his solid debut season in Milwaukee (this time with a Spring Training), and Gallardo and Peralta each with something to prove. Gallardo dealt with a drunk driving arrest and diminished velocity early in the year, but pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in August and September. Peralta struggled to contain his emotions early, but improved with help from personal catcher Martin Maldonado. With a 96-98-mph fastball, he will be expected to take a big step forward in 2014.
The final two openings appear up for grabs. Estrada made a strong case after a two-month stint on the disabled list, but he was also effective in 2011 as a swingman out of the bullpen. Johnny Hellweg, who will turn 25 before Halloween, has terrific raw stuff but appeared overmatched at times during his Brewers starts. Is he big league-ready? Tyler Thornburg was steady late in the season, but Brewers officials seem reluctant to commit to him as a starting pitcher. The fact that top prospect Jimmy Nelson didn't jump right into the rotation in September could mean the Brewers intend to give him a bit more Minor League seasoning.
Some of those young pitchers will have to click in the coming seasons for the Brewers to be consistently competitive.
"These guys have big arms, and three of them are sinkerballers with Hellweg, Peralta and Nelson, and that plays in this ballpark," Roenicke said. "The other guys who are fly-ball pitchers, they better do something really well."
Bullpen: Melvin fixed the bullpen for 2013. Now, can he do it again for 2014? The unit underwent significant changes over the course of the year, with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford traded away and Brandon Kintzler and closer Jim Henderson thrust into much higher-profile roles during what was technically their rookie season. Badenhop will likely return after an uneven debut season with the Brewers, and righty Michael Blazek, acquired from the Cardinals for Axford, shows some promise. Melvin will probably have to look for another left-hander to supplement Tom Gorzelanny. Look for much more competition in Spring Training than the Brewers have had in recent years.
First base: The Brewers' most pressing position heading into 2014 is first base. The '13 season was a disaster after first basemen Hart, Gamel and Taylor Green all suffered season-ending injuries before the season's first pitch. The Brewers had hoped that the power-hitting Francisco could claim the job, but he settled into a rough slump in the middle of August, with a strikeout for every two at-bats. He'll work on a new batting stance in winter ball, designed to cut down those K's. The Brewers' decision not to promote 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Hunter Morris spoke volumes about where he fits in the plan for 2014.
The wild card is Hart, a free agent coming off a season lost to double knee surgery who wants badly to return to the Brewers. The question is whether the sides have the same idea of what a "discount" constitutes.
"I would take a discount to stay here, because I think I owe it to them to stay here and be a cheaper player," Hart said. "Nobody wants to play for free, but I've basically sat there and watched all season. I think I owe it to them and the fans to come back. That's kind of what we're hoping for, but at the same time, you don't know what's going to happen."
Second base: This will have to be handled carefully. On one hand, the Brewers have Weeks, a former All-Star who has gotten off to miserable starts in each of the last two seasons and is currently recovering from surgery for a left hamstring injury. He will earn $11 million in 2014, the final year of his contract. On the other hand is Gennett, who will still be 23 next Opening Day and has outplayed Weeks in every facet of the game this year.
Weeks' hefty salary makes a trade untenable (for now) and an outright release unlikely. Gennett has yet to prove he can hit Major League left-handers, so a platoon is possible to start next season.
Third base: Ramirez will earn $16 million -- $6 million of which is deferred -- in the final year of his contract. He has all the incentive in the world, both in terms of his own future and in terms of pride. It bothered Ramirez to play at a diminished level in '13, the result of knee trouble that began in Spring Training and bothered him all year, including 53 games of DL time. Ramirez's 162-game averages from 2003-12 were 28 home runs and 98 RBIs, and the Brewers would like to squeeze one more year of production out of him.
Shortstop: Jean Segura proved in the first half of 2013 that he could play, leading the NL in hitting for a stretch and winning a spot on the NL All-Star team, while playing terrific defense. Now the question becomes, can he do it over a full season? The job is his.
Outfield: The starting three should be the same -- Braun in left field, Gomez in center and Norichika Aoki in right. But the storylines are all different. Braun is returning from his suspension, and his every swing will be subject to intense scrutiny. Gomez will play with the burden of expectations after his terrific 2013 season. And Aoki, solid in each of his first two years in the U.S., could find himself the subject of trade rumors because of his looming free agency and the stable of young outfielders who made the most of their playing time.
Among that class of youngsters is slugging left fielder Davis, who was so good after Braun took his suspension that the Brewers have been brainstorming ways to get him in the lineup. One possibility is moving Braun to right field and splitting left between Aoki and Davis. That gets complicated, because Aoki hits left-handed pitchers better than right-handers, but it could be done.
Braun faces bigger challenges than a possible position switch. He figures to elicit strong sentiments everywhere the Brewers travel in 2014, and at the same time, still has work to do to win back his own clubhouse.
"I think his actions when he comes back are going to be the most important thing," Melvin said. "When a player comes back from a situation like this, he's going to be one of the guys. It's up to every individual on how he's going to be [accepted]. Every individual has his own feelings, and I think once you put on the Brewers uniform, there's an acceptance that you're all working in the same clubhouse, on the same team. Guys are all professional enough to understand they're on a team. They'll all move forward and try to win ballgames."