LOOKING BACK: Unlike many of the Brewers’ other positions, the outfield picture actually became clearer as the year went on.
Brewers star left fielder Ryan Braun put together another incredible season, one that will put him in the running for a second straight NL MVP award. It was a triumph of a season for Braun, who set out in April to prove he could put together a repeat MVP-type season in spite of the PED test-induced tumult of the offseason before.
Ryan Braun, in the end, was Ryan Braun, putting together arguably the best season of his career with a .319 batting average, 41 home runs, and 112 RBI. He led the league in home runs, slugging percentage (.595), and OPS (.987).
But the most important surprise in the Brewers outfield wasn’t Braun’s statement season or the potential MVP award he could bring home after the playoffs. It was everyone else.
Milwaukee began the season with a timeshare in center field that included Norichika Aoki, Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan. That group would eventually not include Nyjer Morgan, who — after providing a huge boost last season in center field — never got it going in 2012. Instead, Aoki and Gomez took over and excelled — especially Aoki — so much so that when Mat Gamel was hurt and Corey Hart moved from right field to first base, the Brewers didn’t skip a beat with Aoki moving to right.
In fact, the Brewers may have even taken a step forward. Eventually, with his bat undeniably hot, Aoki took over in the leadoff spot and put a stranglehold on his place in the lineup. He finished the season with a .288 batting average and the Brewers’ rookie record for doubles in a season (37). And when the playoffs became a possibility, Aoki got even better, registering more extra-base hits in September than any player in baseball. Safe to say, his signing — at most, he’ll make just more than $8 million total if the club picks up his option in 2014 — was an enormous bargain.
That kind of production was nearly matched by the Brewers’ now-full-time center fielder Carlos Gomez, who put together a career year of his own. In addition to leading the team in stolen bases with a career-high 37, Gomez also finished with a career high in home runs (19). One more home run would’ve put him in exclusive company with only Anaheim’s Mike Trout as a player with 20 home runs and 35 stolen bases in 2012. Gomez still struck out plenty, but his strikeouts-per-at-bat ratio was down this season from last. With his five-tool capabilities, 2012 was certainly a step in the right direction for Gomez.
And while Morgan may have slipped out of the Brewers’ plans, rookie Logan Schafer made it a point to slide himself into that vacant spot, putting together a very impressive September with the club. It was such a good performance in such a short time that Brewers manager Ron Roenicke admitted that good things just seem to happen when he’s on the field.
No other position group on the Brewers seemed to shine brighter than the outfield in 2012, and with breakout campaigns from Aoki and Gomez, there’s reason to believe that we may have only seen the tip of the iceberg of this group’s potential.
OFFSEASON DECISIONS: The most important and possibly heartbreaking decision in the outfield will be whether to keep Morgan on the roster. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time, but without much contribution this season, there’s little reason to think he’ll be back.
The reason for cutting ties may be as simple as making space for another talented outfielder, such as Schafer, to back up Gomez in center field. Schafer certainly showed enough in 2012 for the organization to assume he could slide into Morgan’s role again in 2013.
One question that seems to have already been answered is whether Hart will return to right field and give Gamel a shot again at first base. But with how well Aoki has done and how impressive Hart was at first, Melvin and Roenicke were pretty clear that they’ll continue with the same approach that worked so well this season.
Lastly, Gomez is arbitration-eligible in 2013, and there’s little doubt he’ll be around next season.
LOOKING AHEAD: With how positive 2012 ended for the outfield, there’s reason to believe 2013 will be similarly positive. Braun will be back for another year in his prime. Gomez and Aoki both continue to get better. And Schafer should provide a solid spark off the bench.
Those four guys should lock up most of the playing time in the outfield, but there’s some chance others could spend time in right field to give Aoki a day off. Melvin talked about the possibility of playing Gamel in the outfield when his starters needed a day off. But from there, with few pro-ready prospects waiting in the wings, the Brewers outfield should have a similar look next season — a look fans should be excited about.
GM DOUG MELVIN SAYS: “What Nori does in the leadoff spot and No. 2 spot is important, to be able to bunt, steal bases, and he ended up driving the ball real well. I thought he was a nice switch when we moved Corey to first base, and they both played good defense. That combination, with Nori getting in there every day, was big. You never know about a guy who hasn’t done it before, but Nori did great, he fits in well and the guys like him. He’s a nice piece there. But things come up and change, and if somebody becomes available and he plays first base, maybe you move Corey back to right and Nori shares time with Carlos Gomez in center and Corey in right. It remains to be seen.”