The Brewers' performance this season hinges on the success of their fully-renovated pitching.
By ANDREW GRUMAN FS Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE — It's that time of year again. Every team has some kind of hope on Opening Day, as the pundits try to decipher which fan bases are delusional in thinking their team is a contender.
Milwaukee Brewers make another run at the postseason? They'll only go as far as their pitchers take them.
The Brewers finished just five games back of the final Wild Card spot in 2012 despite a bullpen that blew 29 saves and had the highest ERA in baseball. Revamped with the majority of last season's key pieces elsewhere, general manager Doug Melvin is hoping he added the right arms for a turnaround.
Gone are the likes of Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Jose Veras,
Manny Parra and Tim Dillard. Newcomers Tom Gorzelanny,
Burke Badenhop and Michael Gonzalez are all proven arms and should help Milwaukee's bullpen bounce back and provide increased flexibility.
The bullpen won't revert back to the form it showed in 2011 unless the man at the backend does so himself.
John Axford was one of the best closers in baseball when the Brewers won the division and made the NLCS, but he suffered through an up-and-down season in 2012. With not many other closing options on the roster, Axford is the guy and must find more consistency.
Also remodeled is Milwaukee's starting rotation, as Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo is the only holdover from the rotation from this time a year ago. Many scouts came away with the impression during spring training that the Brewers would have a hard time competing with Cincinnati and St. Louis in the division with the starting staff they were planning on running out.
Things changed on March 25 when the long-rumored signing of
Kyle Lohse finally occurred. While Lohse doesn't answer the questions of inexperience at the backend of the rotation, he gives Milwaukee two bonafide veteran arms at the top of the rotation.
Lohse and Gallardo were among the National League leaders in quality starts and will need to be strong again if the Brewers are going to be in contention. Marco Estrada has shown he can get the job done, but will have to do it for more innings in 2012.
Wily Peralta has the stuff to pitch at the big league level, but must prove he can make the jump from Triple A, while Mike Fiers is out to show critics the first four months of his big league career weren't a fluke.
With so many questions at the back of the rotation, adding one of the National League's best pitchers over the last two years will go a long way in helping Milwaukee's attempt to get back to the playoffs.
"I don't want to say it was a necessity, we have a lot of confidence in our young guys," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of the Lohse signing. "Does it make us better? Yes, it makes us better. Kyle is one of the better pitchers in our league and any time you add a pitcher like that to your rotation, you are going to be better.
"I think it also takes a little pressure off the younger guys feeling like they are going to have to carry that number two or number three spot in the rotation. We have two quality starters in Yo and Lohse, and then we have three guys that we feel are very good Major League pitchers."
Lohse looks forward to providing a bit of mentorship to some of the younger pitchers on the roster.
"I've played a little bit of (the mentor role) the past couple of years in St. Louis," Lohse said. "I know it's more publicized that (Chris) Carpenter and (
Adam) Wainwright were who everybody went to, but I was more of the subtile guy everyone went to on the side.
"There's always something you can learn, always something you can pass on that works for you. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't. The important part is having someone that has the experience that knows what they are trying to do. I feel like I have a pretty good of idea of what makes me successful. As I get to know these guys more, I'll pass on some things along the way."
Milwaukee's pitching will be the deciding factor because of the few questions its lineup presents. The Brewers return its lineup intact from the end of last season, one that led the National League in runs scored.
Corey Hart will miss at least six weeks at the beginning of the season, the Brewers will score enough runs to put their pitching staff in position to win games.
With Hart out, Alex Gonzalez will see a good chunk of the playing time at first base. Gonzalez has never played an inning other than at shortstop in his career, but has taken well to his new position.
"I like him offensively," Roenicke said. "I know over the years there're flaws you can pick at guys in his offensive performance, but he gets some big hits. I like a guy when it's on the line, he's going to give you a big at bat.
"I think we are better defensively (with Gonzalez at first base) than any other of the options. Corey maybe being the exception because of the height. As far as picking a ball and fielding a ball, we don't have anybody that can field with him."
If one thing can be taken out of the makeup of an Opening Day roster it's that it doesn't stay the same for long. The same thing can be said for the general consensus of a team's expectations. Nobody knows how 162 games will turn out on April 1. That's the beauty of sports, baseball in particular.
All we truly know is baseball is back, and hope springs eternal.