In mid-August, the Milaukee Brewers seemed to have far more questions than answers. They were wallowing a dozen games below .500, the bullpen was a mess, right-hander Zack Greinke had been jettisoned to the Los Angeles Angels for prospects and folks rightly wondered whether the team was stepping back in a big way.
Then, almost out of the blue, the Brewers started winning. The relief corps stabilized, young starting pitchers up from the majors contributed and the offense took off. By winning 24 of 30 games, the Brewers charged into the thick of the race for the second wild card in the National League before finally running out of gas and being eliminated with four games to go.
Beyond salvaging a winning season that nobody thought was possible seven weeks earlier, the Brewers began to feel much better about 2013. A lot of that had to do with the emergence of rookie pitchers Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta, all of whom thrust themselves into the picture for next season.
Shortstop Jean Segura, one of three prospects acquired from the Angels in the Greinke trade, was put in a sink-or-swim situation by being called up from Double-A and put in the starting lineup. There was some initial sinkage, but the 22-year-old Segura rose to the challenge and gave the Brewers' decision makers reason to believe he could be their shortstop in 2013.
The move of right fielder Corey Hart to first base, necessitated by an early injury to Mat Gamel, allowed Japanese import Norichika Aoki to get regular playing time in right. Aoki accepted that challenge and settled into the leadoff spot in the lineup, becoming a consistent contributor.
Another unexpected asset was revealed when catcher Jonathan Lucroy was lost for six weeks with a broken hand. Martin Maldonado came up from the minors and excelled defensively and unexpectedly made contributions on offense as well. So, the Brewers now have a strong catching tandem that puts that position in very capable hands.
The Brewers also made a stronger commitment to Carlos Gomez, who was elevated from backup center fielder to No. 1 at that position. He came through with his best season in the majors and now projects to return to that role in 2013.
So, the everyday lineup appears stable and all but set, which leaves the Brewers to address their pitching. Closer John Axford re-established himself as a reliable protector of leads after a midseason meltdown, but the rest of the bullpen will be retooled. Veteran setup man Francisco Rodriguez likely will be allowed to depart via free agency but rookie Jim Henderson came up at midseason and showed he could handle that role, so there is some coverage there.
That brings us to the rotation. Yovani Gallardo established himself as the ace after Greinke's departure, winning eight consecutive decisions down the stretch. Veteran Shaun Marcum's checkered health history probably will result in his exodus, but improving Marco Estrada returns and the rookie trio of Fiers, Rogers and Peralta provides some high-ceiling depth. Left-hander Chris Narveson also is expected back from the shoulder surgery that ended his season in April.
The Brewers probably will shop around for another moderately priced starting pitcher with experience to take some pressure off the rookies, but for the first time in years it appears they have developed enough arms to make an impact.