COMMENTARY | A new year is upon us, and that means baseball is right around the corner.
OK, maybe not, but at least it's time to start thinking about Major League Baseball and the Milwaukee Brewers, even with the NFL playoffs just getting underway. After all, pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12, so it's important to know what kind of impact we can expect players - both new and old - to have in 2013.
In the case of the Brewers, most of the shuffling around took place in the bullpen, and rightfully so. Milwaukee's relievers combined to have the worst ERA in all of baseball at 4.66, and also went on to blow an egregious 29 saves, which also topped the Majors.
Let's see where the bullpen factors into the 5 biggest storylines heading into the 2013 season.
1. Inexperienced starting rotation
A lot of Milwaukee's recent success has been predicated on having a veteran presence in the starting rotation. This season, the starting five isn't necessarily fresh out of the womb, but experience is certainly lacking once you get past the club's ace, Yovani Gallardo (sixth season), and Marco Estrada (fifth season).
Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers, two pitchers with less than a full season of MLB service, are both expected to make the rotation. Two others with less than a year of experience - Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg - could also battle for a spot.
All four players saw flashes of brilliance last season, but whether or not they can put it all together for an entire big league season remains to be seen and will be a developing story throughout the year.
2. Corey Hart's contract
Some notable players set to enter free agency at the end of the 2013 season include Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez, but neither is more important to the success of the Milwaukee Brewers than Corey Hart.
In 2012, Hart took one for the team and eventually shifted from the outfield to first base full-time after Mat Gamel went down with a torn ACL. The move turned out to be beneficial, as Hart impressed with the glove and a spot opened up in right field for Aoki.
Hart has been a steady contributor for Milwaukee over the years. He posted a .270 AVG with 30 HR and 83 RBI last year, the second-most productive season of his career. Entering his eighth full season, Hart will make $10 million in 2013, but if the Brewers elect not to extend his contract - or trade him - general manager Doug Melvin will risk letting one of his biggest offensive threats depart.
3. Bullpen acquisitions
There was no question heading into the offseason that the Brewers No. 1 priority was to bolster their bullpen. Melvin went right to work and brought in Michael Olmsted, Arcenio Leon, Burke Badenhop, Tom Gorzellany, and Mike Gonzalez.
It's doubtful all five will make the opening day roster, but Badenhop and Gorzellany give the Brewers some nice early-to-middle relief options while Gonzalez was a surprise signing considering how dry the market is for left-handed relievers.
The absence of a legitimate lefty option out of the 'pen was a hindrance to Milwaukee last season. It will be interesting to see how these new acquisitions gel with a bullpen that arguably cost the Brewers a postseason berth.
Aramis Ramirez may have very well been the top free agent signing of 2012 when it comes to bang for your buck.
The 34-year-old third baseman nearly matched the production of the departed Prince Fielder in the cleanup spot behind Ryan Braun with a .300 AVG, 27 HR and 105 RBI. The aging Ramirez has two years remaining on his deal, and the success of Milwaukee's potent offense will rely heavily on whether or not Ramirez can age like a fine wine.
Meanwhile, it took Rickie Weeks until July 26 to surpass the Mendoza Line for good, and the Brewers' second baseman finished with a .230 AVG, 21 HR and 63 RBI after going on a tear to close out the season. Weeks was coming off of a severe ankle injury suffered in 2011, but Milwaukee needs more production from a player owed $32.5 million over the next three years.
5. Closing the door
29 blown saves - just let that sink in for a moment.
Nine of those blown saves were allowed by Milwaukee closer John Axford, the same Axford who was marvelous throughout the Brewers' special run in 2011. Of the 15 career home runs he's surrendered, ten of them came in 2012, and the Ax Man was pulled from the closer's role for a brief stint before being reinserted.
Closing out a baseball game is one of the most difficult jobs in sports, and there's a reason for that. So much is on the line, and it takes a certain mindset to enter a pressure-packed situation for one inning and shut the door. Axford has shown he has that ability in the past, and he will get the first shot as the closer in 2013.
The Brewers' offense remains unchanged heading into 2013, and in no way is that depressing. What Milwaukee needs is for its offense to remain one of the best in baseball, its bullpen to improve drastically, and its green starting rotation to pitch like grizzled vets.
That may be asking a lot, but even if there is a slight dip in production on offense, the biggest area of concern will be the bullpen protecting leads, and if the Brewers can limit the blown saves, there's no reason why we shouldn't see Milwaukee playing in October.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_