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The winds of change have blown through Miller Park with hurricane-like force. From the top of the front office down, the Milwaukee Brewers have entered all-out rebuilding mode. They do so after stumbling through a nightmarish 2015 that began with the early May firing of manager Ron Roenicke and ended with 94 losses — the team’s most since 2004.
Leading the strip-down is wunderkind David Stearns, who replaced Doug Melvin as general manager last September. The youngest current GM in baseball — he was 30 when hired — has experience with successful rebuilds after his previous stint as assistant GM with the Houston Astros. Melvin started the process of shedding veteran players last July, with Stearns moving even more in the offseason. With spring training looming, a total of 12 players with varying levels of major league experience had been traded since last July in exchange for almost exclusively younger, controllable talent.
While taking a step back is often a necessity for small-market teams like Milwaukee, it doesn’t make the present too pleasant for fans. This year’s team is likely to feature a cast of relative unknowns around Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy.
Eleven different pitchers made starts for the Brewers in 2015, and eight of those head to camp this spring. The veteran holdover in that group is Matt Garza, who was so bad a year ago (6–14, 5.63) that he was removed from the rotation in September. Milwaukee needs a big-time rebound from both him and Wily Peralta. Considered the future ace coming into 2015, Peralta instead scuffled his way to a 5–10 record and 4.72 ERA while an oblique injury limited him to just 108.2 innings. His stuff is too good to give up on, but the leash is getting shorter for the affable Dominican.
Taylor Jungmann, who burst onto the scene before fading down the stretch, is going to be relied upon heavily along with Jimmy Nelson, who proved to be the workhorse of the staff by leading in innings (177.1) and starts (30). Peralta, Jungmann and Nelson all need to become more consistent and avoid the long spells of ineffectiveness that hampered them a season ago. A fifth righthander, Chase Anderson, will slide right into the rotation after being acquired from Arizona in a late January trade.
After another strong season from Francisco Rodriguez, the Brewers flipped him for a prospect, leaving them searching for a closer. Two in-house candidates are lefty Will Smith and righty Jeremy Jeffress, both of whom have proven their worth in high-leverage situations. Smith led the Brewers in appearances for the second straight season with 76. Jeffress was right behind him at 72. Smith’s year was strange in that he was much more effective getting righties out than lefties — .193 to .257 — but his slider remains one of the best in baseball. Jeffress, with his power fastball, can get tough outs as well, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see manager Craig Counsell utilize both in the ninth inning depending on the situation.
Two other hard throwers who could develop into late-inning options are Corey Knebel and Michael Blazek. Knebel struck out 58 in 50.1 innings over two separate stints with the Brewers, while Blazek was arguably Milwaukee’s most effective reliever early in 2015 before a broken hand ended his season prematurely. Both are also versatile enough to fill other roles. Tyler Thornburg has had success as a reliever in the past but is coming off a disappointing 2015 after missing most of 2014 with an elbow injury. Youngsters Yhonathan Barrios and Adrian Houser, obtained in trades, are also hard throwers who displayed promise last September while making their major league debuts.
The Brewers cleared the way for Orlando Arcia at shortstop by trading Jean Segura. But with Arcia ticketed to start the season at Class AAA Colorado Springs it’s likely Jonathan Villar and Yadiel Rivera will split time there until he’s ready. Scooter Gennett struggled so badly early last season he was sent back to Class AAA for three weeks to regain his stroke. Ultimately he started 93 games at second base and hit .264 with six homers and 29 RBIs, but he again couldn’t hit left-handed pitching, (114 average). With veteran Aaron Hill coming over in the Segura trade, the Brewers now have a right-handed hitting option to platoon with Gennett at second base. Colin Walsh, another Rule 5 pickup, will also get a look.
While they still are seeking long-term solutions at both first and third base, the Brewers should be OK in the present with the signing of free agent slugger Chris Carter and the addition of Hill. Carter, a prototypical all-or-nothing slugger, signed a one-year deal in early January and will man first base. His power should play well at hitter-friendly Miller Park, as his 90 homers over the last three years rank eighth in the major leagues. Hill, while clearly on the downside of his career, can still play a competent third base on the days he’s not spelling Gennett at second. The Brewers will also look at former Boston prospects Will Middlebrooks and Garin Cecchini at the hot corner, with Villar and Rivera also able to play there.
Braun is coming off his strongest season since 2012, putting up a .285 average, 25 homers, 84 RBIs and 24 stolen bases while also returning to the All-Star Game. After two seasons in right field, he’s expected to return to his former spot in left after the trade of Khris Davis. The Brewers would undoubtedly listen to offers for their franchise player should he turn in another big year. Taking over for Braun in right will be Domingo Santana, who came to Milwaukee from Houston as part of the Carlos Gomez trade. Santana is a strapping 23-year-old who flashed a powerful bat and strong throwing arm in a 38-game audition with the Brewers in 2015. Center field will be an all-out audition in spring training with a host of players vying for what will likely be a two-player platoon. The most notable candidates are Keon Broxton, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Rymer Liriano, Ramon Flores, Eric Young Jr. and Michael Reed. Brett Phillips, another piece in that Gomez trade, will also be in big league camp.
Lucroy was viewed as perhaps the Brewers’ biggest piece of trade bait in the offseason despite coming off a career-worst 2015, but ultimately wasn’t moved. Lucroy broke a toe after a miserable start at the plate early on, then didn’t catch the last three weeks after suffering a concussion. Even still, he’s regarded as a top-tier catcher and a prime candidate to bounce back. Lucroy is also just 29 and under team control for two more years at a reasonable price, leaving Milwaukee in a strong position.
Backup catcher Martin Maldonado figures to be the longest-tenured player returning to what is going to be a fluid area. With the team likely to be auditioning a number of players during the season, what Counsell opens with is likely to be very different from what he finishes with on the bench.
For the first time since buying the team in 2005, owner Mark Attanasio has given the green light to a complete rebuild. It was a tough pill to swallow for the competitive New Yorker, who wrote a letter to the team’s fans in the offseason explaining his thinking. “I’m all about how we’re going to compete (this year),” he said in late January, referring to his usual win-now approach. “We have to put a team on the field we can be proud of and we want to get back to playoff baseball in Milwaukee. So, it’s a little bit of a new experience.” Counsell, the popular hometown boy and former Brewers player, will be a patient, steady leader through what are sure to be tough times.
While the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates continue their stranglehold on the National League Central, Milwaukee is facing the possibility of just its second 100-loss season in franchise history and first since 2002. But Brewers fans are nothing if not patient, and most understand that short-term pain is the best path to potential long-term success.
Prediction: 5th NL Central
SS Jonathan Villar (S)
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
LF Ryan Braun (R)
1B Chris Carter (R)
RF Domingo Santana (R)
3B Aaron Hill (R)
CF Rymer Liriano (R)
2B Scooter Gennett (L)
C Martin Maldonado (R)
INF Yadiel Rivera (R)
INF Colin Walsh (S)
OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis (R)
OF Ramon Flores (L)
RHP Matt Garza
RHP Wily Peralta
RHP Jimmy Nelson
RHP Taylor Jungmann
RHP Chase Anderson
RHP Jeremy Jeffress (Closer)
LHP Will Smith
RHP Corey Knebel
RHP Michael Blazek
RHP Tyler Thornburg
RHP Yhonathan Barrios
RHP Junior Guerra