The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season. They got off to a blistering 20-8 start in April, and were 19 games over .500 on June 28th. At that point, they held a 6 1/2 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, their largest of the season.
Unfortunately, all those days in first place did them little good. They faded down the stretch -- including a brutal 9-17 record in September -- and ultimately lost the division by eight games. Their 159 days in first place was the longest stretch of dominance by a team that didn't win its division since (gulp) the 2009 Tigers.
The comparison ends there, though. The Tigers revamped their roster that offseason, highlighted by the franchise-altering trade that brought in Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson. These Brewers, on the other hand, didn't do much of anything. They didn't sign any major free agents, and their only big acquisition was first baseman Adam Lind, who arrived in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. They traded long-time starter Yovani Gallardo to the Texas Rangers for three young players (including former Tiger Corey Knebel).
Otherwise, this is still the same club that, frankly, was a bit lucky to be in first place for so long last season. They have the talent to compete in 2015, but with the rest of the division loading up around them, it doesn't seem likely. The Brewers don't have the depth of their divisional brethren, which could ultimately be their downfall again in 2015.
It's amazing what kind of a difference one year makes. Last offseason, Ryan Braun was the scourge of baseball after serving a suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy in 2013. He laid low throughout the 2014 season, hitting .298/.348/.515 with 11 home runs in the first half before a thumb injury sapped his power in a lackluster second half. Center fielder Carlos Gomez had another spectacular year last season, improving his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate. His defensive numbers weren't quite as stellar as in 2013, but he was still worth 5.9 WAR, third among NL outfielders. Khris Davis lost nearly 200 points in OPS from 2013 to 2014, but the drop-off isn't as severe as you might expect. For one, his 2013 debut -- which featured a 159 wRC+ in 153 plate appearances -- was unsustainable. In his first full season, Davis hit 22 home runs and had an excellent .214 ISO. His power more than offsets his lackluster on-base percentage to make him an above average hitter and a solid role player. Gerardo Parra is a solid bench option, but his walk rate and power went into the tank last season before he was traded at the deadline.
Adam Lind is a fairly average first baseman. He has been worth 3.4 WAR over the past two seasons because of a well above average bat and well below average defense. If he compiles two wins with the Brewers -- a manageable feat considering he won't get the significant positional hit he took for being a part-time DH in Toronto -- he will be the team's most valuable full-time first baseman since Prince Fielder in 2011. Needless to say, Brewers fans are excited to have him around. Scooter Gennett will be the Brewers' full-time second baseman in 2015 after the departure of Rickie Weeks, but the 24-year-old forced the team's hand with a solid 1.8 WAR season last year. He doesn't walk much (just 22 base on balls in 474 plate appearances last year) but doesn't strike out a lot and hits for a high average. Luis Sardinas, who the Brewers acquired from the Rangers in the Yovani Gallardo deal, could be an interesting platoon candidate.
Shortstop Jean Segura is a polarizing player in the sabermetric world. He's not much of a hitter -- even with a BABIP-fueled first half in 2013 on his résumé, he has a career 85 wRC+ -- but his defense has drawn a wide range of reviews from various defensive metrics. Both Baseball Reference's and Fangraphs' versions of WAR believed Segura was a replacement level player in 2014 after a three-win season the year prior. However, Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) rates Segura among the best shortstops in baseball. This has resulted in him accumulating 9.4 WARP (BPro's version of WAR) over the past two seasons. The real Segura is probably somewhere in the middle, but an uptick in offensive production would be nice to see. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez made the NL All-Star team after hitting .288/.336/.349 in the first half last season. Like Braun, his power declined in the second half due to injuries, but it's tough to say whether the 36-year-old Ramirez will be productive in the final year of his contract.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has quickly blossomed into the Brewers' best player and is in the middle of what has become of the most team-friendly contracts in all of baseball. He was worth 6.0 WAR last season after hitting .301/.373/.465 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI. More impressive than the rate stats were his 53 doubles, which led the National League, and 655 plate appearances, which were tops among MLB catchers. Lucroy is also an excellent pitch framer, leading to article titles like "Bow Down to Johnathan Lucroy" and he nearly earned Dave Cameron's NL MVP vote. The praise might be much -- he was a great-but-not-elite 3.5 WAR player in 2012 and 2013, after all -- and staying healthy isn't the easiest thing for catchers to do. However, Lucroy's all-around game leaves him relatively immune from sharp declines, and he should be an extremely valuable player for the Brewers again in 2015.
Right-hander Kyle Lohse is as steady as pitchers get. Over the past four seasons he has pitched nearly 800 innings with a 3.28 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 3.80 FIP. He has been worth 9.8 WAR during that stretch, with three seasons between 2.0 and 2.2 WAR. He hasn't seen the disabled list since 2010. This dependable production is nice from your second or third starter, but Lohse is arguably the ace of the Brewers' staff. While he has been resistant to decline so far, any stumbling from him could mean trouble if Wily Peralta doesn't take a step forward. The young right-hander threw 198 2/3 innings with a 3.53 ERA and 1.30 WHIP last season, impressive totals from a 25-year-old. He gives up a fair number of home runs for a ground ball pitcher, but a big uptick in strikeout-to-walk ratio last season is an encouraging sign.
Matt Garza appears to be more comfortable now than he was last season, and the Brewers can only hope that this means a better start to the season in 2015. Garza allowed a 4.84 ERA in April and May last year, but settled down and limited opponents to a 2.90 ERA and 2.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio the rest of the way. The only blemish on his schedule down the stretch last year was a rough start after coming off the disabled list for an oblique injury. Jimmy Nelson is one of the more recent call-ups from the Brewers' minor league system, and his first taste of an MLB rotation didn't go so well in 2014. He allowed a 4.93 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 69 1/3 innings. To his credit, he did strike out three times as many batters as he walked, and he held opponents to a 1.46 ERA in 111 innings in the notoriously unforgiving Pacific Coast League last year.
Mike Fiers has a handle on the fifth starter's role at the moment, but he is currently dealing with some shoulder soreness. It seems to be minor, but a setback could push someone like Taylor Jungmann, Tyler Thornburg, or Michael Blazek into the starting five. While Fiers isn't an ideal option -- he can be homer prone and his raw stuff isn't good enough to get away with mistakes -- he can be very effective when he spots his fastball. He isn't afraid to challenge hitters in the strike zone, which results in low walk rates and a higher strikeout total than you would think. Jungmann bounced back from an awful 2013 season with a solid run through Double and Triple A in 2014. He allowed a 3.98 ERA and struck out nearly a batter per inning in three months in the PCL, but continued to struggle with his command. Thornburg pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the Brewers last year, and, as the more experienced option, looks to be the first guy in line to make a start if Fiers (or anyone else) is hurt.
It's no wonder the Brewers brought reliever Francisco Rodriguez back for another tour of duty in 2015. Last year, he converted his first 15 saves without allowing a run, and his ERA didn't dart above 2.50 until July 13th. He allowed a ton of home runs -- nearly two per nine innings -- but converted 44 of 49 save opportunities and struck out four batters for every walk. Brewers fans aren't too happy about bringing him back, but he will be paid just $3 million more in two years than Joe Nathan is making in 2015. Jonathan Broxton will be the team's likely setup man after the Rodriguez signing. His 2014 numbers look better than they actually were, as his strikeout and walk rates are trending in the wrong direction and his .234 BABIP is unsustainably low. Jeremy Jeffress was another 2014 midseason acquisition that will be around in 2015, and newcomers Neal Cotts and Corey Knebel should see plenty of playing time as well. Thornburg will slot into the bullpen if all of the starters are healthy, and Jim Henderson is still working his way back from shoulder surgery.
Down on the farm
Unlike other small market teams, the Brewers have essentially given the finger to the "build through the farm system" model. J.P. Breen's excellent essay in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus annual highlights how the Brewers have leveraged their prospects in blockbuster trades, only to fill holes later on through other means instead of waiting for those prospects to develop. It's an interesting concept, and comparable to how the Tigers have built their club over the years.
That said, this isn't a very good farm system at the moment. They sits among the bottom five teams in baseball on every organizational rankings list I've come across thanks to the aforementioned trades and years of lackluster draft classes. They recently graduated a slew of fringe prospects to the major league level -- Davis, Gennett, Peralta, and Nelson are the main ones -- but are getting plenty of value out of them. Most of their top talent, including shortstop Orlando Arcia and outfielder Tyrone Taylor, is still in the low minors.
Player to watch: Wily Peralta
Looking at Peralta's numbers, you wouldn't guess that his fastball averages 95 miles per hour. He only struck out 18.4 percent of the hitters he faced in 2014, and his career 4.09 FIP reflects a relatively modest 2.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His slider and changeup generate a fair number of whiffs, but they aren't the wipeout offerings of a Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander. Instead, Peralta uses his fastball and slider to generate lots of ground balls. Peralta can be dominant when he doesn't get in trouble against left-handed hitters, but that's exactly what he did for a rough stretch in 2014.
He got off to a great start with a 2.12 ERA in his first 10 starts. The wheels came off for an eight-start run in early-summer, and he was tattooed for a 6.38 ERA before closing out the season with a 3.00 ERA in his last 14 starts, as he held the opposition to 29 earned runs – 13 of which came in two ugly starts at the end of August. His OPS against lefties in the three parts were .681, 1.063, and .759.
Peralta is the most important pitcher on the Brewers' staff. If he can build on his solid 2014 season and become a true front-of-the-rotation starter, they could contend in 2015.
The Brewers are one of those "if everything goes right..." teams. They were last season too, and we almost got to see that 'what if' scenario. They have a pair of All-Star talents in Gomez and Braun, a solid supporting cast of position players, and an underrated pitching staff. They made an underrated move in acquiring Lind, which shores up their biggest deficiency from 2014. However, there are a lot of obstacles in their way. The rest of the division is loading up, and their roster is too thin to deal with the injuries they suffered last summer. Most of their young talent already looks to be performing at its ceiling -- it's tough to see Gennett or Davis getting much better, and Segura will never be an offensive force -- and there isn't much help to be found in the minors. They may contend for a bit, especially if they get off to another hot start, but will probably be lagging behind when summer comes around.