2016 MLB season preview: Milwaukee Brewers
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 25: the Milwaukee Brewers.
2015 Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fourth place in National League Central (25th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
70–92 (.432), fourth place in NL Central
The Case For
You have to squint. Maybe leftfielder Ryan Braun, at 32 and with five years and $105 million left on his contract, will return to MVP form after a few seasons compromised by a PED suspension and injuries to his thumb and his back. Maybe his dinged-up running mate, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, will be healthy, too. Maybe first baseman Chris Carter, signed as a free agent after being non-tendered by the Astros, will hit 37 home runs again, as he did two years ago.
Maybe toolsy 6’5” outfielder Domingo Santana, another former Astro—there’s a theme for new general manager David Stearns, formerly Jeff Luhnow’s assistant in Houston—will break out at 23. Maybe centerfield prospect Brett Phillips (another key piece in last July’s trade that sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to Houston) will arrive ahead of schedule to save the club from the prospect of regular at-bats for Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Maybe defensively gifted, 21-year-old shortstop Orlando Arcia—sixth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list, after batting .307 in Double A—will also force his way into the majors early.
Maybe Matt Garza will surpass 200 innings for the first time since 2010. Maybe hard-throwing, 26-year-old starters Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta will suddenly develop into a credible one-two punch for a rotation that ranked 28th in ERA last year, at 4.79. Maybe.
The Case Against
Here is a list of players whom the Brewers have traded since the last day of August in 2014, when they were 73–63 and tied atop the NL Central: reliever Jonathan Broxton, outfielder Khris Davis, Gomez, Fiers, first baseman Adam Lind, outfielder Gerardo Parra, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, closer Francisco Rodriguez and shortstop Jean Segura. You can’t blame them, as a 9–17 September left Milwaukee six games out of even a wild-card spot two years ago, before last season’s disaster.
It was time to rebuild, and the Brewers have the right man to do it in the 31-year-old Stearns, a central strategist in Houston’s successful effort. Now, though, the team is right in the middle of the teardown, and its immediate fortunes won’t be helped by the fact that the Brewers, like the equally beleaguered Reds, play in a division with three of the majors’ best clubs—the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates. “That’s crazy in one division, especially when you’re playing them over and over,” says one rival scout. “Poor Reds and Brewers, these three teams!”
X-Factor: Jonathan Lucroy, C
Lucroy wasn’t just the best catcher in baseball in 2014; he was one of the best players in baseball. His 6.2 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs version) ranked him eighth among regulars, sandwiched between the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and the Indians' Michael Brantley, and he finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting. He paired elite hitting (a .301 average, 13 homers, a league-high 53 doubles) with similar receiving skills behind the plate; he was such a good pitch framer that he could turn a finger-painting hurler into Rembrandt. Last year, though, Lucroy missed a month and a half with to a broken toe suffered in mid-April and then a couple more weeks in September due to a concussion. He finished with a .264 average, seven homers and a .717 OPS, a drop of 120 points from 2014.
Catching is a grueling gig, and the 29-year-old Lucroy hasn’t done it in a major league game since last Sept. 8, when he took that fateful foul tip to the mask. But the Brewers need him to return to form and his natural position to have any shot to compete. Realistically, though, they’ll need him to do so in a sustained way in order to reestablish his trade value—which could be extremely high, as he’s due less than $10 million in salary over the next two years and because several contenders (including the Astros, Nationals and Rangers) have clear holes at catcher. A healthy, productive and catching Lucroy is the type of trade chip that could significantly shorten any rebuilding plan. A Lucroy who is limited to playing first base would have much less value, both to the Brewers and to suitors.
Number To Know: 20
That’s how many spots the Brewers have risen on Baseball America’s organization talent rankings list over the past two seasons, going from 29th to ninth. Only the Braves have made a bigger jump, from 26th to third, and they’ve been strip-mined to a degree that Milwaukee hasn't quite. Aside from the aforementioned Arcia and Phillips, the Brewers have four other prospects who have made at least one of the big three top-100 prospects lists: catcher Jacob Nottingham, outfielder Trent Clark and starters Jorge Lopez and Josh Hader. Unless something truly unexpected develops in Milwaukee, 2016 will really be about '17 and beyond.
Most Overrated: Scooter Gennett, 2B
“He’s the only regular left from their competitive days aside from Braun and Lucroy, but he’s a little inconsistent with his offense. Not a real fluid defender at second. Doesn’t do the pivot well. For me, not a solid, everyday player. You’re always going to be looking for something a little better. I know he plays the game hard, but he’s stiff and he struggles against lefthanded pitching.”
Most Underrated: Will Smith, RP
“When he’s going good and not overused, Smith is one of the better lefthanded relievers in the game. I just think he’s a valuable setup guy that has quality stuff: a plus fastball, a hard breaking ball, a breaking slider with sharp bite and depth. He could pitch on anybody’s staff in baseball, even in the Royals’ bullpen. He's one of Milwaukee’s best assets.”