By RICK SOLEM
Last season, the bandwagon for the Milwaukee Brewers was a revolving door.
A revolving door on a bandwagon? Whatever ... you get the point.
Like most fans, before the MLB season begins, hope springs eternal, including this year’s Brewers fans.
Last year, Milwaukee started 2-8 and everyone hopped off the bandwagon. Nine wins in a row later and they were all climbing back on. The Brewers were 14-11 after April – World Series bound for sure - and then May showers wiped the wagon clean as they went 6-22.
Even though baseball is a 162-game season, a 6-22 May pretty much ends any chances of the playoffs and ends any of that “hope springs” optimism that keeps anyone but diehards interested.
But as the season begins at 1:10 p.m. at Miller Park today for a three-game series with Atlanta, the optimism is there.
GLASS HALF FULL
Ryan Braun is back and, if spring numbers are any indication, he is back. Braun hit .417 with three home runs and five doubles this spring.
Led by Braun and Carlos Gomez, this offense will be dangerous. Aside from being suspended 65 games last season, Braun has hit at least 25 home runs and stole at least 14 bases (30 and 33 in 2012 and 2011, respectively) every year with the team.
Meanwhile, Gomez may be the centerpiece of the offense. Only three players in baseball have at least 40 homers and 50 steals the last two seasons - Mike Trout, Alex Rios and Gomez. The 28-year-old speedster (with power) hit .284 with 24 homers and 40 stolen bases last season.
The offense doesn’t stop there. Jean Segura (.294, 12 HRs, 44 SBs) – who did struggle after the midway point, but we’re glass half full in this section – could be one of the best shortstops in the league. Khris Davis was called up at the end of last year and hit .279 with 11 homers in just 136 at-bats.
Also called up was Scooter Gennett, who hit .324 in 213 at-bats in place of Rickie Weeks. And, even if he isn’t quite ready, Weeks is still there and hit .282 in spring.
Then there’s Jonathon Lucroy (.280, 18 HR, 82 RBI), a staple of consistency at, and behind, the plate, while Aramis Ramirez is in a CONTRACT YEAR.
First base is the only question mark, and Mark Reynolds could reemerge as a home run threat now that he’s back in the National League. With Arizona, the 30-year-old hit a career-high 44 dingers (2009). Before and after that season, he had 28 and 32 home runs.
On the mound, a lot of teams would be lucky to have three arms at the top of the rotation like Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse. Gallardo had a 3.09 ERA in the second half of the season. Garza has always been dominant when healthy, and Lohse is simply consistent.
Behind those three, Marco Estrada is about to put it all together in his third season as a full-time starter. The 30-year-old has 261 strikeouts in 266.1 innings the last two seasons. On the back end of the rotation is Wily Peralta. The 24-year-old had his ups and downs in his first full season, but in September, he had a 3.42 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 23.2 innings, as the team went 3-1 in his four starts. He was also dominant in July with a 2.13 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 38 innings, as the team went 4-2.
As for closing out games, the trio of Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson are back. Henderson proved last year he could handle the load with 28 saves and a 2.70 ERA. Rodriguez had 10 saves and a 1.09 ERA before being dealt to Baltimore and Kintzler may be the best of them all.
GLASS HALF EMPTY
For the pessimists out there, the Brewers are doomed. Braun isn’t on PEDs anymore and his numbers will plummet as the fans' boos get louder and louder. Gomez will revert to his free-swinging and whiffing ways. He did strike out a career high 146 times last year and there’s no indication he’ll hit .284 again. He’s a career .255 hitter. In 2012 he hit .260 and in 2011 he hit .225. And Segura started on fire last year, but hit .241 in the second half of the season with one home run. Pitchers figured him out.
In full-time work, Davis and Gennett – like Segura - will get figured out and their numbers will fall well below respectable – as most young players heading into their first full seasons do. And if Gennett isn’t the answer, Weeks sure isn’t. He hit .209 last year and .230 the year before. He’s 31. He’s done.
Ramirez may be in a contract year, but he’s 35 and simply can’t stay healthy. He had just 12 home runs in 304 at-bats. On the other corner, Reynolds is not the answer. He couldn’t beat out Lyle Overbay last year for the Yankees and now he suddenly has – as Overbay, 37, is his backup? The offense is doomed at every position except catcher. Then again, wife-luggage gate could take Lucroy out again.
On the mound, Gallardo is the staff ace - a guy whose fastball gets a mile slower each year (92.6 in 2011 – 90.6 in 2013). A guy who depends on his fastball for strikeouts. A guy who had just 144 strikeouts in 180.2 innings last year (4.18 ERA). He’s the ace.
Garza follows him after getting rocked in Texas the last half of 2013 (4.38 ERA). Miller Park won’t be any kinder to the pitcher prone to giving up home runs. Lohse brings a change of pace to Gallardo/Garza, the ‘strikeout’ pitchers. A change, as in, he doesn’t strike out batters, and his mystifying ERA the last three seasons (3.19) will revert back to what is more along with the 35-year-old’s career average of 4.35.
The bullpen consists of a retread who nobody else wanted (Rodriguez), a closer who was given the job out of desperation (Henderson) and a journeyman closer in waiting, who turns 30 on Aug. 1 (Kintzler). Rodriguez is back with Milwaukee after nobody else in baseball wanted him. Sadly, he could be the closer, as Henderson simply doesn’t have the skills. Remember, he was given the job after John Axford’s moustache imploded.
Obviously, a mixture of these scenarios will play out – along with others one cannot predict - as the season goes, but the odds seem to lean more toward the Brewers, again, disappointing. The offense, surprisingly, more than the pitching.
As solid as Braun, Gomez and even Lucroy have been throughout their careers, they have their questions. Beyond them, the rest of the offense is and even bigger question mark. Segura will steal bases, but his average won’t be around .300 as it was last year (.294).
The Reynods/Overbay combo at first base exudes zero confidence. Ramirez will likely be traded. Weeks hasn’t hit in three years and Gennett hit .230 this spring. Oh, and Davis – the prodigy in left field - also hit .230 in spring.
The pitching should be more consistent, though it’s hard to say that about Gallardo and Garza. Gallardo did figure it out down the stretch last year. Garza has been deemed injury prone, but he really had just one fluke year. After those two, Lohse is due to regress, while Estrada could make or break the season. Peralta is just an arm until Tyler Thornburg is ready, and he’s not ready. The 25-year-old will be a long-reliever to start the year.
But hope springs eternal. At least Bob Uecker is still calling games … wait, what?