This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 23: the Milwaukee Brewers.
2014 Record and Finish: 82–80 (.506), third place in NL Central (15th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 74–88 (.457), fourth place in NL Central (23rd overall)
The Case For
Last season, the Brewers held first place from early April through the end of August, only to be undone by a 9-17 September. They had a relatively quiet winter, but did substantially upgrade a league-worst first base spot by trading for the Blue Jays' Adam Lind (more on which below). Quite rightly, they can also expect better from Jean Segura—who hit just .246/.289/.326 amid a nightmare season that included the death of his infant son—and from Ryan Braun, who hit a career-worst .266/.324/.453 and battled numerous injuries, including a nerve problem in his right thumb that required offseason cryotherapy.
Amid a solid supporting cast of players such as outfielder Khris Davis, second baseman Scooter Gennett and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee has catcher Jonathan Lucroy and centerfielder Carlos Gomez, two of the league's top up-the-middle players. Both are capable of repeating last year’s All-Star honors, with Lucroy positioned to earn MVP consideration thanks to his strong work at the plate and behind it.
The Case Against
Over the winter, the Brewers traded staff mainstay Yovani Gallardo and swingman Marco Estrada, but they didn't add another starter of note. Thus, the depth of a unit that was just ninth in ERA (3.69) and tied for seventh in WAR (11.4) will be tested, given that Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson—a pair who combined for 22 starts last year—are full-timers, with command-challenged 2011 first-round pick Taylor Jungmann as the top alternative.
Beyond that, Braun is now on the dark side of 30, with back-to-back seasons that were nowhere near MVP caliber due to injuries and his Biogenesis suspension; the injury-prone Ramirez is being counted upon to supply significant offensive firepower; and both Segura and Gennett fell so far from 2013 to '14 that it's just not clear what to expect from the pair.
X-Factor: Mike Fiers
As a 27-year-old rookie, Fiers gave Milwaukee a shot in the arm in 2012, delivering a 3.74 ERA (110 ERA+) with 9.5 strikeouts per nine in 22 starts and one relief appearance after arriving in late May. He couldn't replicate that in 2013; a 7.25 ERA through his first 22 1/3 innings sent him back to the minors, where he wound up missing more than half the season due to a batted ball-induced forearm fracture. He spent more than half of last season at Nashville, but sparkled upon being recalled in August, delivering a 2.09 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine across 10 starts, seven of them quality starts.
Now Fiers is being counted on to deliver upon the promise of those two partial seasons as a full-fledged member of the rotation, one that could certainly stand to miss more bats. On a per plate appearance basis, Fiers and Estrada were the only Brewers starters to exceed the 19.5% strikeout rate of NL starters as a group. A soft-tosser whose fastball tops out in the low 90s, Fiers is prone to getting out of sync with his delivery. If he can keep it together, he'll give the team a solid fourth starter behind Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Matt Garza, but if not, Milwaukee's lack of depth will be exposed.
Number To Know: .207/.287/.356
That's what the Brewers got from Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay and the rest of their first basemen last year, a showing that ranked dead last in the NL in all three slash-stat categories, and one no better than the .206/.259/.370 they received from a cast that included undead retreads Juan Francisco, Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez in 2013. Reynolds and Overbay are gone in favor of Lind, who hit a sizzling .321/.381/.479 in '14, albeit in just 318 PA; lower back tightness and a stress fracture in his right foot cost him eight weeks on the disabled list.
Lind, a 31-year-old lefty, is no great shakes defensively, with -6 Defensive Runs Saved per 1,200 innings in his career, but he's put together two strong seasons in a row after a three-year drought across which he hit just .246/.296/.428. He'll need a platoon partner, whether it's Lucroy or backup catcher Martin Maldonado taking a day off of catching or minor league masher Luis Jimenez (.286/.321/.505 with 21 homers at Salt Lake City) filling in. However it works out, the team should enjoy significant improvement at first base.
Most Overrated: Scooter Gennett
“The consistency and quality of his at-bats just isn't quite there. He’s a streaky hitter who's got just enough power to get himself in trouble because he can hit one out, but he starts overswinging. He can be a little mechanical around second base; he's worked hard to try to improve his defense, but he's not ideal there.”
Most Underrated: Jonathan Lucroy
“He's is one of the best catchers in baseball, offensively and defensively. I know a lot of people know about him, but if he were with the Yankees or Red Sox, he would be valued more highly.”