Predictions schmedictions! The potential is there for the Brewers to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
One key piece in the Brewers' improved confidence is the addition of right-hander Matt Garza.
By Andrew Gruman
MILWAUKEE -- It doesn't take much digging to find out where the experts are predicting the Milwaukee Brewers will finish in 2014. You'd be hard pressed to find a prognosticator or a publication picking them as anything other than the fourth-place team in the National League Central.
And while most teams head into Opening Day feeling like they can contend that season, the Brewers feel they have the team to sneak up on some people.
"I really do like our team," manager Ron Roenicke said. "I'm not talking about if half the guys have good years, but if everybody has the years that they are capable of -- not super years, but what they are capable of having -- we feel like we are well rounded enough where we should have a good year."
In order to make the postseason, the Brewers must first move up in their own division. St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all were in the playoffs in 2013 and don't appear to have slipped much in the offseason.
That's why Milwaukee has been a popular pick to finish fourth in the division for the second consecutive season, as the National League Central is one of the toughest divisions in baseball.
"I think we are under the radar, and that's a good spot to be," Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett said. "We get to prove some things this year. I think we have an extremely talented team. It's good when you have good pitching mixed in with a good bullpen and a good lineup. It's nice flying under the radar. We're going to surprise some people."
The move that raised Milwaukee's level of confidence was the signing of right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million contract in January. Adding another veteran to join Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo at the top of the rotation has the Brewers feeling good about the depth of their starting pitching.
Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta are the fourth and fifth starters, while the starting staff at Triple-A Nashville is filled with arms that have big-league experience.
"We are really deep, one through five," Lohse said. "Even if you need a sixth or seventh guy, we have depth. Signing Garza really helped us out. He's not afraid to go out there and lay it on the line. It makes us that much better.
"We know it all starts with the starting pitching and how we do. We have to have that strong base, and I feel like we've got it."
A bullpen is as unpredictable as anything in baseball. The Brewers are counting on Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler to pitch like they did a year ago and are hoping Francisco Rodriguez has another strong season in him. There are options in the minor leagues if the middle relief doesn't work out, but the backend of the bullpen has to get the job done.
Offensively, the Brewers should improve simply by adding two key pieces back that were missing for most of last year. Ryan Braun returns from a 65-game suspension, while Aramis Ramirez is healthy after being hampered by a knee injury in 2013.
Keeping Ramirez in the lineup will be one key to the lineup producing enough runs to contend, but getting Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Gennett to duplicate last year's numbers is equally important.
Khris Davis could add pop to the bottom of the lineup, but he is unproven over a full season. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay will need to improve Milwaukee's production out of first base, as well. While the potential is there to have a solid offense, the Brewers have a few question marks as the season begins.
"Everybody knows how good we can possibly be," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "We're going to surprise some people, I think. Hopefully we can compete to the best of our ability. If we do that, I really think we are going to be good."
With Norichika Aoki traded to Kansas City, Roenicke was tasked with finding a new leadoff hitter this spring. He settled on Gomez, a non-traditional choice. The skipper doesn't have a true leadoff guy on the roster, as the Brewers don't have guys that are patient at the plate. It's an aggressive lineup that has had success swinging early in counts.
"That's the makeup of our lineup," Roenicke said. "It's not a bunch of guys that go up there and take pitches. We do damage. That's what we're going to do."
It goes without saying, but avoiding the injury bug that has plagued the team over the past few seasons is vital. The Brewers enter the season with just left-handed reliever Tom Gorzelanny on the disabled list, as they escaped spring training fairly healthy.
The Brewers play 12 games against 2013 division winners in the first month of the season and 19 of 28 games in April are against playoff teams from a year ago. Getting off to a better start has been a focus of a team that's started slowly in recent years, but getting through April at .500 would likely be considered a good thing.
A 6-22 May all but eliminated Milwaukee before summer hit the city in 2013.
"Getting off to a good start is important, but we don't feel like you have to do it that way," Roenicke said. "You can't get too far down. May killed us last year. We can't have a month like that early.
"We're playing some good teams. If we can hang in there and play some good baseball and come out of that month and then get hot like we usually do somewhere in there, I think we'll be in a good position."
Part of Milwaukee's optimism in a tough division comes from knowing three teams from the National League Central can make the postseason with the second Wild Card. The extra playoff team has allowed teams to hang around the race much longer than before, and the Brewers would still have something to play for if a team like the Cardinals runs away with the division.
"It still keeps you in there," Roenicke said. "It keeps you feeling like you just need a hot streak somewhere in there. Play .500 ball with a couple of hot streaks and you have a good chance to get into the playoffs."
The pieces are there for the Brewers to have a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but Milwaukee is going to need things to its way after a year in which everything seemed to go the other way.
"I think this year can be really special for the Milwaukee Brewers and for the state of Wisconsin," Gomez said.