Every day in spring training until we finish the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in the Grapefruit and Cactus league. Next up is Milwaukee and Maryvale as the Brewers chase their NL Central dreams.
2010 RECORD: 77-85, 3rd in NL Central
BIGGEST ACQUISITIONS: Long hampered by a shallow rotation, the Brewers used some of their best trading chips to get two of the best pitchers on the trade market — Zack Greinke(notes) from Kansas City and Shaun Marcum(notes) from Toronto.
BIGGEST DEPARTURES: Young shortstop Alcides Escobar(notes) was part of the Royals' asking price for Greinke. He'll be replaced by everyone's favorite VORP wizard, Yuniesky Betancourt(notes), who was also involved in the deal.
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE BREWERS:
1. Is it NL Central title or bust for the Crew this year? Do the freshest cheese curds squeak when you eat them? With first baseman Prince Fielder(notes) due a Prince Fielder-sized contract next offseason, Milwaukee has pushed all its chips into the center for a shot at its first division title since 1982. GM Doug Melvin acquired Greinke with a package of young players and he also traded away top infield prospect Brett Lawrie(notes) to pry Marcum away from the Toronto Blue Jays. If it stays healthy — something that has been a challenge so far this spring — the Brewers finally have a solid rotation to pair with that always potent offense. There's no question they've set their sights on unseating the Cincinnati Reds atop the NL Central.
2. So what you're saying is that the Brewers will fall off a cliff after this season? Well, not exactly. While the Brewers will definitely miss Fielder's MVP-type numbers if/when they choose not to resign him, they'll still have a nice core to build around for future campaigns. Ryan Braun(notes) would have the most club-friendly contract in the bigs were it not for Evan Longoria(notes), Rickie Weeks(notes) and Corey Hart(notes) having just signed contract extensions, and they'll have Zack Greinke through 2012, and Marcum for one more year of arbitration. More importantly, they have the type of fan support at Miller Park that should ensure that the $15.5 million that Fielder will make this year isn't pocketed as savings. There's still a future here.
3. Is Weeks worth that four-year, $38.5 million deal he just signed? If he can keep posting years like the one he did in 2010, for sure. Weeks had a career year last season, hitting .269/.369/.464 with 29 homers, 32 doubles and 83 RBIs. And he's off to a good start at replicating that performance this spring. Through 29 at-bats, he's hitting .448/.529/.655 with four doubles and a triple. He's such a power-hitting presence atop that lineup that new manager Ron Roenicke has kicked around the idea of batting his pitchers eighth to generate more RBI opportunities for Weeks.
4. Will Braun bounce back after experiencing a slight dip in production? The franchise cornerstone in left field posted the lowest home run total of his career with 25 in 2010 and saw his OPS fall from .937 to .866. Combine that with a recent rib injury that sent Brewers fans into a panic (he insists it was nothing) and you can start to see the beginning of some concern. But the bottom line is this: Braun is a perennial All-Star who has averaged 32 homers and 105 RBIs and owns a .918 OPS over his first four major league seasons. Those numbers should more than earn him the benefit of the doubt as we head into a new year.
5. Is John Axford(notes) up to the task? Milwaukee's mustachioed closer made plenty of fans in 2010, saving 24 games with a 2.48 ERA as a rookie while old man Trevor Hoffman(notes) wasn't racking up saves to get to No. 600. Now that Hell's Bells has headed back to the West Coast, the job completely belongs to Axford, a fact that's reflected by the fan vote to determine his new entrance music. He'll have to improve on his spring performance to ensure the winning tune keeps on playing, though: Before Thursday's incident-free outing against the Chicago White Sox, Axford had given up five runs and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings of work. The good news: His fastball hasn't shown any decrease from its usual mid-90s velocity.