2014 Team Preview: The Milwaukee Brewers are your proverbial dark horse in the NL Central

USA TODAY Sports

If a team is labeled a "surprise contender" by everyone before the season begins, can they really be a surprise contender?

How you feel about the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers depends largely on how much stock you put into the way they ended the 2013 season. They went 38-56 in the first half, a 65-win pace had they kept slogging along. After the All-Star break -- and, three days later, Ryan Braun's suspension -- they went 36-32. During this stretch, they were pleasantly surprised by a number of rookies, including Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis, Caleb Gindl, and Tyler Thornburg. With Braun returning to join the rookies and MVP contender Carlos Gomez, the Brewers have become a trendy breakout pick in 2014.

Manager: Ron Roenicke (4th year)

2013 record: 74-88, 4th in NL Central

SB Nation blog: Brew Crew Ball

Other Brewers coverage: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Reviewing the Brew

Lineup

Putting too much stock into Scooter Gennett's small albeit impressive sample of 230 plate appearances in 2013 falls somewhere between risky and foolish. However, Ron Roenicke tabbed Gennett as his starting second baseman over veteran Rickie Weeks back in December and has not covered his tracks since. Weeks has been trending downward since 2011, and his age and prolific injury history suggest that this is no fluke. At short, Jean Segura was half man, half amazing in 2013. The amazing side saw him hit .325/.363/.487 with 27 stolen bases and a not-that-unreasonable .349 BABIP in the first half. The mortal half came later when he hit .241/.268/.315 in the second half. He swiped 17 additional bases, but a spike in strikeout rate suggests that pitchers figured him out and he could not adjust. Despite the splits, I'm sure the Brewers would gladly take another .752 OPS from an above average defensive shortstop in 2014.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez missed a healthy chunk of playing time in 2013 with numerous injuries. While he has been otherwise healthy for most of his career -- it was only the second time since 2000 that he has played in fewer than 120 games -- the wear and tear on Ramirez's body may be catching up to him. He can still produce offensively (as last year's 125 OPS+ attests) but the Brewers are leaving no stone unturned in camp to find a suitable backup. At first, the Brewers are hoping that last season's nightmare is behind them. No franchise utilized a worse combination of first basemen in 2013, and a 0.0 WAR player would be an upgrade.

With Ryan Braun returning from his suspension, the Brewers' outfield becomes somewhat crowded in 2014. Braun and center fielder Carlos Gomez both have MVP-candidate potential. Gomez finished ninth in the race in 2013 after hitting a career-best .284/.338/.506 with 24 home runs and 40 steals. He also played otherworldly defense in center, taking home a well-deserved Gold Glove. Braun will make the transition over to right field to make room for Khris Davis, who stormed onto the scene in 2013 by hitting .279/.353/.596 with 11 home runs in 153 plate appearances. Davis never appeared on any top prospect lists, but mashed his way through the minors after a brief career at Cal State Fullerton. The Brewers are quick to name Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer as contenders for the job as well, but Davis is the clear front-runner at this point.

Behind the plate, Jonathan Lucroy has quietly established himself as one of the best catchers in the National League. He has been lauded all across the sabermetric community for his pitch-framing ability, but also hit a solid .280/.340/.455 with 18 home runs in 580 plate appearances. It wasn't quite the .881 OPS he posted in 91 games in 2012, but an abysmal September ruined the sparkling .828 OPS he had on August 31st. Backup catcher Martin Maldonado is approaching "best shape of his life" territory this spring after a brutal .169/.236/.284 effort at the plate in 2013.

Rotation

The Brewers' starting five was wildly uninteresting for most of the offseason, but then they signed Matt Garza to a four year, $50 million contract in late January. Now, their rotation is just mildly uninteresting.

All joking aside, this pitching staff has the potential to be an above average unit. Garza had the best season of his career while pitching in the National League Central in 2011 before homer troubles and an elbow injury derailed an equally promising 2012 campaign. Now he gets the chance to pitch in the same division with the added benefit of facing the Cubs' anemic offense. Speaking of NL Central holdovers, Kyle Lohse dealt with home run problems of his own in 2013. His strikeout rate dipped somewhat from his career-best 2012, but his walk rate stayed low and he gave up fewer line drives. Expect more of the same in 2014.

The wild card to this staff is Yovani Gallardo. Still only 27 -- doesn't it seem like he has been around forever? -- Gallardo is just a year removed from a 200 inning/200 strikeout season. His ground ball rate has improved in each of the past four years, but a sharp decline in strikeout rate and 23.2% line drive rate resulted in the highest ERA of his career. However, he posted a 3.66 ERA from June 1st onward and a 3.09 ERA in the second half. It's possible that a groin strain Gallardo suffered prior to the World Baseball Classic in March played a role in his slow start.

Milwaukee has the talent to make a surprise playoff run if things go right, and this division isn't as top heavy as advertised.

Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada look to be the front-runners to fill out the back end of the rotation, but could face pressure from the aforementioned Tyler Thornburg and former Royals lefty Will Smith. Estrada did not quite match 2012's surprising ERA, but lowered his WHIP and still managed a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Peralta's rookie season was mostly about eating innings, and he will have trouble doing anything more if he doesn't strike out more batters with that big fastball of his. Thornburg put up a shiny 2.03 ERA in 66 2/3 innings, but an xFIP of 4.43 and 80.7% strand rate suggest that it is a good thing he is currently on the outside looking in. Smith struck out 43 batters in 33 1/3 innings last season, most of which came in relief. Jeff Sullivan is a fan. Johnny Hellweg also deserves a mention because he started seven games last year and is 6-foot-9. Analysis: that's tall.

If we had BYB interns, I would charge them with the task of figuring out a way to swap the Tigers' bullpen for the Brewers' cast of relievers. They are not the Atlanta Braves by any means, but some people might notice if Craig Kimbrel turned up missing. Meanwhile, Francisco Rodriguez, Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, and Tom Gorzelanny could comprise one of the more underrated back-ends in the National League. Rodriguez was excellent for the Brewers in the first half of 2013, netting them prospect Nick Delmonico in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles. He bombed in Baltimore, but what pitcher hasn't in the past 15 years? Henderson will also be in the running for the closer role after tallying 28 saves in 2013. Former Tiger Alfredo Figaro could be in the mix for one of the final bullpen slots.

Who's on first?

Corey Hart did his best to make Brewers fans forget about Prince Fielder in 2012, hitting .270/.334/.507 with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. He had microfracture surgery on his left knee in January of 2013 and ended up missing the entire season, leading the Brewers to play a band of misfits at first all year long. Of the five players to spend time at first in 2013, only Sean Halton and Juan Francisco look to be in the mix for playing time in 2014. Joining them will be Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, both of whom signed minor league deals this offseason. No matter who wins the job, there is a good chance that he will be a big improvement upon last season's mess. Brewers first basemen posted the lowest batting average, on-base percentage, wOBA, and wRC+ of all 30 major league teams in 2013.

Player to watch: Ryan Braun

Come on, you know you want to. Braun's 2014 season will likely be a media circus, though I am sure they will take kindly to him when the Brewers visit Boston for their second series of the season. They have a history of being kind to PED users.

For all the entertainment his off-field drama is sure to provide, Braun's on-field exploits are also worth your attention. His .498 slugging percentage in 2013 -- the worst mark of his career -- would have ranked ninth in the National League last season had he tallied enough plate appearances. Juiced or not, Braun is a rare talent who has the capacity to turn the Brewers from an also-ran into a contender.

Outlook

The gap between third and fourth place in the 2013 NL Central race was 14 games. While the Cincinnati Reds might have been that many games better than the Brewers last year, the gap has closed. Milwaukee has the talent to make a surprise playoff run if things go right, and this division isn't as top heavy as advertised. If the veterans can stay healthy and Braun can keep himself focused on baseball, the offense should be good enough to carry them to a .500 record. Whatever happens beyond that is up to the pitching staff. Expect the Brewers to hold their own in 2014.

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