There will be disappointing teams every season, but few were more frustrating than the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers. They went just 74-88 and were reeling well before Ryan Braun's season-ending suspension for PED use. At the same time, the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates had three of the five best records in the National League, turning the NL Central into perhaps the best division in the majors. In other words, it will take a whole lot of improvement for the Brewers to get back to the playoffs.
Luckily, Milwaukee could feature one of the best offenses in the NL, and that will make it a very attractive team to fantasy owners. Despite last year's scandal, Ryan Braun remains an elite performer at the plate. Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy are not just starters in mixed leagues. Each is projected to finish the season in the top 10 percent at their respective positions. Add starting pitchers Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada to the mix, and you have a team that can be a real boon to fantasy owners. Only time will tell if that translates to enough on-field success to get the Brewers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Jean Segura, SS
2. Scooter Gennett, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, RF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C
6. Carlos Gomez, CF
7. Juan Francisco, 1B
8. Khris Davis, LF
1. Matt Garza
2. Yovani Gallardo
3. Kyle Lohse
4. Marco Estrada
5. Wily Peralta
Bullpen: Jim Henderson (closer), Francisco Rodriguez, Tom Gorzelanny, Brandon Kintzler, Rob Wooten, Alfredo Figaro, Michael Fiers
How will Ryan Braun perform in the first season of the rest of his life? This will be a season unlike any other for the disgraced former MVP. Braun's legitimacy as a star player is now in question, and he will be reminded of that every single time the Brewers go on the road. The PED worries are already showing up in Braun's industry ranks. A consensus top-five pick each of the last two seasons, Braun is currently the No. 14 overall player at FantasyPros. Even if the strain of being Public Enemy No. 1 gets to him, and even if the PEDs did inflate his stats, you would be foolish to let Braun slip out of the first round.
As discussed with Everth Cabrera in the San Diego Padres preview, we can only speculate how PEDs might help a specific player. We may not be able to take Braun's numbers right at face value, but PEDs don't make a player who is merely good a perennial MVP candidate. Braun remains one of the most dangerous hitters in the league, but the fantasy community seems to be letting last year's drudgery cloud its judgment.
From 2007 through 2012, Braun's average season looked like this: .313/.371/.568, 34 homers, 107 RBI, 102 runs and 21 steals. That's not just first-round talent. That's the profile of a top-three player. Braun played just 61 games last year, and while his power numbers suffered a bit, he still hit .298/.372/.498. Let's pretend Braun's average numbers take a 5-percent hit across the board, which seems a little harsh. That would give him a .297/.352/.540 with 32 homers, 102 RBI, 97 runs and 20 steals. That's still first-round production. What's more, the Brewers could have one of the best offenses in the league. If Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett prove to be reliable table-setters at the top of the order, Braun will have plenty of RBI opportunities. He should also score a ton of runs with Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez following him in the order.
Don't let the PED ugliness scare you away from Braun. He's still one of the best, most reliable players on the board.
Is Khris Davis for real? If there was a winner in Braun's downfall last year, it was Davis. Pressed into action with Braun suspended for most of the second half of the season, Davis hit .279/.353/.596 with 11 homers and 27 RBI in 153 plate appearances. The 26-year-old always showed decent pop in the minors, but never to the degree displayed once the Brewers called him up in 2013. In 281 plate appearances with Triple-A Nashville before his promotion, he hit .255/.349/.473 with 13 homers, and that was in the offensively charged Pacific Coast League. Needless to say, those two sets of statistics suggest a wide range of potential outcomes for Davis this season.
There isn't really anything fishy in Davis' advanced stats from last season. He had a .293 BABIP, 20.4-percent line-drive rate, 42.7-percent ground-ball rate, and 36.9-percent fly-ball rate. Those batted-ball numbers, if anything, support a higher BABIP than Davis enjoyed last year.
The one number we have to examine is his 28.9-percent HR/FB ratio. Granted, he had a small sample of plate appearances, but let's put that number in a bit of context. His namesake, Baltimore's Chris Davis, led the majors with a 29.6-percent HR/FB ratio last season. He was the only person to best the Brewers' Davis in the category. Pedro Alvarez was second among players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title at 26.3 percent, while Miguel Cabrera was third at 25.4 percent. In his tiny sliver of plate appearances, Khris Davis left the yard with the regularity of the game's best power hitters.
Unfortunately, we have plenty of reason to doubt his power is that legitimate. According to ESPN's home run tracker, his average true home run distance was 392.5 feet. Only 13 players with at least 18 homers had a shorter average true distance last year. Not surprisingly, only three of those 13 had 25-plus bombs. Nothing in Davis' minor league track record points to him being one of the majors' most lethal power hitters. If he ends up landing in the low-to-mid-20s in home runs, which I believe he will at best, he'll be outside the top-50 outfielders.
Just how much will Matt Garza enjoy being back in the National League? While Garza had to be thrilled to flee the North Side of Chicago for Texas last year, his fantasy owners probably hated the trade. In 11 starts with the Cubs, Garza was having his best season since joining the team in 2011. He was 6-1 with a 3.17 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 71 innings. After the Cubs shipped him to the Rangers before the trade deadline, though, his season predictably took a turn for the worse. In 13 starts with the Rangers, he had a 4.38 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He allowed more homers and nearly two more hits per nine innings in Arlington.
Garza's brief foray back in the American League ended when he signed with the Brewers in January. Despite his struggles with the Rangers, Garza still finished the season with a 3.82 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.73 xFIP, 1.24 WHIP and 136 strikeouts in 155.1 innings. He also posted a walk rate lower than 7 percent for the first time in his career. He's back in the same division in which he was having plenty of success during the first half last year, and he gets the added bonus of trading the Brewers as an opponent for the lowly Cubs.
At this point, Garza is who he is. He's not going to be the ace many thought he could be at the outset of his career, and he's not going to be a huge strikeout pitcher. However, given his performance in the NL last year and the offense at his back, he can definitely be the No. 3 starter in a strong fantasy rotation.
Marco Estrada, SP -- Estrada has quietly been an extremely effective pitcher each of the last two seasons. He put up a 3.87 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 118 strikeouts in 128 innings last season. He was even better in 2012, racking up a 3.64 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 143 strikeouts in 138.1 innings. Estrada has the ceiling of a No. 3 fantasy starter, yet he's largely being drafted outside the top-60 starting pitchers. That's a big mistake.
Jean Segura, SS -- I'm on record as being a Segura supporter, and I'm not backing off of that. However, the Brewers don't feature a true bust candidate, at least in my opinion, so I wanted to point out some red flags on Segura. After a huge first half, Segura hit .241/.268/.315 in the second half with just one home run. According to Brooks Baseball, he hit .357 with a .429 slugging percentage on changeups. Pitchers switched their approach against him in the second half, and he saw a declining percentage of changeups each month from July through September. In fact, his two best months of the season, May and June, were the two months in which he saw the highest percentage of changeups. He'll still be a deadly speed threat, but understand that the second half wasn't just a fluke.
Scooter Gennett, 2B -- Gennett may not be the .324/.356/.479 hitter he was in 230 plate appearances last year, but he's one of my favorite inexpensive targets at the position. He'll start the year in the 2-hole in what could be a very good offense. He could very well hit 10-plus homers, steal more than 10 bases and score 100 runs.
NL-only guys to know
Wily Peralta, SP -- The 24-year-old (he turns 25 in May) went 11-15 with a 4.37 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.13 xFIP and 129 strikeouts in 183.1 innings last year. He had a 9.1-percent walk rate, but is worth a flier for NL-only owners given his relatively safe spot in the rotation, strong offense in Milwaukee, and a FIP that suggests improvement could be on the way this year.