A year ago, nearly to the day, Ryan Braun was appealing a 50-game PED suspension before a three-man arbitration panel. The appeal seemed like a perfunctory step at the time, an almost hopeless legal exercise. Ballplayers don't exactly have a long track record of success in such cases.
But Braun nonetheless beat the rap, due to chain-of-custody issues with his test sample. (Three months later, Major League Baseball fired the arbitrator who'd been the swing-vote on the panel). Braun then delivered another monster season for the Brewers, essentially matching his MVP-level production from 2011. He crossed the plate 108 times, he hit 41 bombs, stole 30 bases, drove in 112 runs, and finished with a .319/.391/.595 slash-line.
Perhaps some of you have issues with the legitimacy of Braun's stats. If so, I get it — I'm not actually much of a PED crusader myself, but I get it. No one's forcing you to buy his jersey, or the Fathead, or the plush doll that looks nothing like him.
Let's just hope your stance on Braun — whatever it is, if you have one at all — won't prevent you from selecting him at or near the top of your draft. He's a five-category asset unlike any other in our game, proven across multiple seasons. Braun will be the No. 1 overall player on my board whenever we get around to publishing preseason ranks. He's not simply useful in all five standard cats, but he's exceptional. The man has never finished outside the overall top-30 in fantasy value in any of his six seasons, and he's ranked top-five in three of the last four. He's pretty much a perfect fantasy weapon. Draft the stats and enjoy.
Milwaukee's roster features a few other notable fantasy commodities as well, though none will be drafted anywhere near Braun. You know the names: Ramirez, Gallardo, Hart, Axford, Wee--
Well, hold up. Let's not breeze past Rickie. He's a problem that requires discussion...
Q: Actually, Rickie Weeks can't become a problem if you just commit to avoiding him. Why shouldn't we simply drag his name to the do-not-draft list, thus making make him another owner's nightmare?
A: OK, that's fair. Weeks is a notoriously fragile dude, and his few healthy seasons have had their blemishes. The guy hit just .230 last year, and he needed a second-half surge to get there. He's a career .251 hitter, which is far from ideal in our game. (In 2012, the average top-20 second baseman hit .275). Still, there's a potential power/speed payoff with Rickie if you can manage around his one awful category. Last year, Weeks reached 20 homers for the third straight season, and he swiped 16 bags in 19 attempts. He gets himself on-base at a decent clip (.350 career OBP), so run-scoring has never been an issue. When all the stats were in last season, Weeks finished as the 13th best player at his position for fantasy purposes — kinda impressive for a guy who was below the Mendoza line in late-July.
Bottom line: In an N.L.-only league, where you'd have a terrible time finding a suitable replacement if/when Weeks hits the DL, I wouldn't mess with him. But in a mixed league with a richer free agent pool, I'd be willing to take a shot. Rickie is going outside the top-180 picks in early mocks at MDC, so there's clear profit potential here, and only modest risk.
Q: What's the scoop on Rickie's double-play partner, Jean Segura?
A: OK, looking back, I may have been a bit too excited when Segura arrived in Milwaukee last season, via the Greinke trade. But at the time I really needed speed across multiple leagues. Segura went 7-for-8 on stolen base attempts for the Brewers in 44 games last season, delivering a tolerable-if-not-great .264/.321/.331 line. Not bad for a 22-year-old. Prior to arriving in Milwaukee, he was having a terrific season at Double-A, hitting .304/.358/.413 with seven homers and 37 steals. He's two years removed from a 50-steal campaign in the Midwest League, so the speed is real. Let's just hope he doesn't spend his year stuck in the eighth spot in the batting order. Segura should be dirt-cheap on draft day, but he's clearly capable of providing 25-35 steals with modest power. That should play at a MI spot.
Q: This bullpen was kind of a disaster last year, yeah? Is John Axford's closer role safe?
A: The Brewers 'pen led all of baseball with 29 blown saves in 2012. So yes, it was bad — and at times, it was funny-bad. Francisco Rodriguez and Kameron Loe are unlikely to appear in the 2013 team picture, which seems like a win for Milwaukee. That pair blew a dozen save chances last season, with a combined ERA of 4.49. Axford wasn't great last year, either, but he managed to convert 15 of his final 16 save opportunities. He also gave us his usual terrific K-rate (12.07 K/9). The big problems for Axford were home runs allowed (10 in 69.1 IP) and an ugly walk rate (5.06 BB/9). Wildness has been a longtime issue with this guy, dating back to his minor league days, so we can't simply dismiss the control issues as a one-year aberration. However, we're talking about a 29-year-old pitcher who was mostly brilliant in 2010 and 2011, and there's no clear threat behind him in this bullpen. Axford's primary setup men figure to be Jim Henderson and Mike Gonzalez.
Q: While we're discussing players who started slow and finished strong, how 'bout you give us some spin on Carlos Gomez?
A: Fantasy owners who disengaged late in the season probably missed the Gomez surge, so let's shine a light on the numbers. Carlos finished with career-highs in stolen bases (37), OPS (.768) and homers (19) last year, at age 26, thanks largely to a second-half binge. He hit 14 bombs and swiped 26 bags after the break. Gomez was little more than an afterthought on draft day, but he ended the year as a top-40 fantasy outfielder, finishing at No. 105 in the overall ranks. The power boost he experienced in 2012 doesn't look like a one-year fluke, either. His fly-ball rate jumped significantly from 2010 to 2011 (35.5 to 43.8), and he managed to keep those gains last year (43.2). Perhaps more importantly, Gomez's homer-to-fly rate has been climbing across multiple seasons, from 3.7 in 2009 to 14.3 in 2012. Assuming he sees another 450-plus plate appearances in the year ahead, you can reasonably expect 15 or so homers and 30 steals.
We should note that Gomez's on-base skills aren't terribly impressive, so he gets a downgrade in leagues that use OBP. He drew just 20 walks last year, and he's never topped 25 in any season.
Q: Do the Brewers have any prospects we should care about (or who might disappoint us as much as LaPorta and Gamel)?
A: Two of the more interesting young players in this system actually figure to make Milwaukee's opening day roster: Segura, who we already discussed, and Wily Peralta, a 23-year-old right-handed starter. (And no, I don't think either will let you down quite like LaPorta and Gamel).
Peralta impressed last September at the big league level, posting excellent ratios in his five starts (2.25 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) while striking out 22 batters in 28.0 innings. His average fastball was better than 95 mph, so velocity clearly isn't a worry. The kid's numbers at Triple-A last season weren't spectacular (4.66 ERA in 28 starts), but much of the damage was done in a rocky May (8.78 ERA). He had a nice second half for Nashville, plus he struck out nearly a batter per inning on the year. He's good — maybe not elite, but good. Wildness has been an issue; he walked 4.79 batters per nine innings in the minors last year. Righty Tyler Thornburg, 24, should find himself in the rotation conversation as well, coming off a quality campaign in the high minors (3.20 ERA, 113 Ks, 37 BB in 112.2 IP). His velocity is a couple ticks below Peralta's, but he mixes three respectable pitches, and control hasn't been a problem. Still, if we're being realistic, you won't draft either Thornburg or Peralta in standard formats.
Dynasty leaguers should file away Victor Roache's name, too. He's a 21-year-old first-round draft pick, a solid power prospect, though he's coming off wrist surgery. Other prospects of note include 24-year-old first baseman Hunter Morris (28 HR, .303 AVG at Double-A), 19-year-old catcher Clint Coulter (another 2012 first-rounder), and a pair of gigantic RHPs, 6-foot-9 Johnny Hellweg (walks are the worry) and 6-foot-6 Taylor Jungmann.