Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Milwaukee Brewers.
2013 record: 74-88
Finish: Fourth place, NL Central
2013 final payroll: $92.7 million (18th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $86 million (18th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 25th
Brewers in six words: Only as good as their pitching
The silence of the Brewers this offseason reflects the cognitive dissonance between the team's belief in itself and the industry's belief in the team. The Brewers see themselves as a victim of injuries and bad fortune who need only health as the great salve for 2014. Executives see the Brewers as a team with a potentially solid, if on-base-challenged offense, a mediocre-at-best rotation and a bullpen that ought to be forced to wear HIGHLY FLAMMABLE patches on its uniform.
The Brewers are the only team in baseball not to have spent a single dollar on a free agent over the last 2½ months. More than half the teams in baseball have committed over $25 million. And while this dovetails with the Brewers' strategy under GM Doug Melvin – he doesn't like doing his upgrades via free agency – it's incongruous with the actions of a team that believes it can win now and doesn't have the luxury of a strong farm system to supplement its major league core.
Milwaukee's action consisted of two trades. One was dumping reliever Burke Badenhop because he was about to get too expensive through arbitration. The other was a sneaky flip of outfielder Norichika Aoki for Will Smith, whose biting slider turned into a nice out pitch last season and could profile as a back-end starter or frontline left-handed reliever. Considering the Brewers' outfield depth, parlaying one year of Aoki into five of Smith made the deal a win-win.
The impending return of Ryan Braun left Milwaukee flush with outfielders, and the mere knowledge that he will resume life in the No. 3 hole and a corner-outfield spot – right this year instead of his customary left – amounts to the Brewers adding an impact player for nothing. Whatever anyone's feelings on Braun, he served his suspension. Now comes the tough part: thriving as he did in the past while assuming the mantle of most infamous active PED user in baseball.
Part of that is sloughing off the questions about his use, which he still has yet to answer and, presumably, never will. Another part is ignoring the taunts of fans, which, as an athlete, he long ago mastered. And the final part is proving he's just as good without PEDs as he was with them, which, even if he falters this season, would call for a jump-to-conclusions mat.
Braun is the Brewers' problem, and he can be an enormous part of their solution, too, which makes his place on the team so fascinating. Milwaukee is wedded to Braun because of his contract. His success would embolden the Brewers to do more; anything less would hamstring them. And for the smallest-market team in baseball, already competing at a disadvantage, their silence this offseason has been as much about waiting to see what they have with Braun than any concerted austerity plan.
If healthy – and everything with the Brewers goes back to those words – their lineup is among the three best in the National League, and it's why of all the teams toward the lower runs of these rankings, Milwaukee has the greatest ability to pummel their way toward a playoff spot.
Loading the top of the lineup with speed-and-power mavens Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez could work, unless their aversion to walks scares manager Ron Roenicke, in which case perhaps Rickie Weeks slinks toward the top. Braun hits third and Aramis Ramirez fourth, with Khris Davis, the underrated Jonathan Lucroy and Juan Francisco filling out a lineup that very easily could have double-digit home runs from each of its everyday players.
So if the lineup can hit, what are the Brewers doing among the bottom fifth of teams in baseball? To call their pitching suspect would be kind. Yes, Milwaukee finished toward the middle of the pack in ERA last season and returns a number of the pitchers who contributed to that. At the same time, the Brewers' peripheral numbers did not match their ERAs, and to assume a spike in runs allowed, particularly considering their feeble strikeout rates, is by no means far-fetched.
Ultimately, the Brewers will be what their starting pitching is. If the smell of free agency reminds Yovani Gallardo he is potentially a $100 million pitcher, and if Kyle Lohse is steady as ever, and if Marco Estrada better resembles his second-half self, and if Wily Peralta evolves from a No. 5 innings eater to a mid-rotation type, and if Smith or Tyler Thornburg or Jimmy Nelson can fill the last spot with reasonable success, it would take massive pressure off an iffy and inexperienced bullpen.
Bargains still exist in free agency – Grant Balfour would look awfully nice in a return visit to Milwaukee – and if the Brewers truly believe they can compete with St. Louis and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for a playoff spot, a one-year deal in the $7 million range might be enough. It's small moves like that, and everything falling right with the rotation, that could make what looks like a tough year in a very tough division far more pleasant and palatable.
When Ryan Braun steps to the plate around 1:20 p.m. CT on March 31, the Miller Park crowd will cheer him. Some remain convinced baseball railroaded him, and others don't care that he used PEDs and lied about it, and whatever lingering resentment or betrayal might have existed among the rest has washed away with more than eight months of not seeing him. More than that, Braun represents the best hope that these Brewers can win. And if time is the salve that helps heal PED wounds, winning practically erases them.
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