Looking to make back-to-back playoff appearances for only the second time in their history, the 2012 Brewers got another MVP-caliber season from reigning MVP Ryan Braun, a breakout performance from third-year catcher Jonathan Lucroy, surprise contributions from projected reserves Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez and about half a season of ace numbers from virtual unknown Mike Fiers.
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And yet they finished only third in the NL Central, behind the playoff-bound Reds and Cardinals.
Believe it or not, losing free agent Prince Fielder wasn't their biggest problem. Led by mainstays Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks and newcomer Aramis Ramirez, their lineup was the main reason they came as close as they did. And provided Lucroy, Aoki and Gomez don't slip too much and Hart misses only the first two months following offseason knee surgery, it should again be their primary strength in 2013.
So where did they fall short? John Axford is a good place to start. The hard-throwing closer, who emerged as one of the game's best in 2011, still threw plenty hard last year, but his command was never quite right, leading to inflated walk and home run rates, not to mention nine blown saves. The Brewers never did find an adequate replacement for him, and now with Francisco Rodriguez out of the picture, their only choice for the ninth inning in 2013 is to live and die with Axford again.
An opportunity for Fantasy owners? Well, maybe the brave ones.
As for their starting rotation -- which is, to a degree, at the mercy of Axford -- Zack Greinke is gone, but Yovani Gallardo still gives the Brewers a legitimate front-liner, even if he's a little short of being an ace in Fantasy. After him, though, the picture gets fuzzy. Fiers took a dramatic turn for the worse over his final 10 starts last year, which suggests he may have been performing over his head to begin with. Between him, veteran Chris Narveson, who's coming off shoulder surgery, and rookies Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg, the Brewers have several candidates for their final three rotation spots.
With a strong lineup backing them, all five have genuine sleeper appeal. They'll just be at risk of getting swapped out for each other if they don't capitalize on it right away.
Bounce-back player ... Rickie Weeks, second baseman
The truth is Weeks has already bounced back, but you wouldn't know it by where he's projected to go on Draft Day. Over his final 97 games last year, he hit .269 with 16 homers, 11 steals and an .812 OPS -- which, if projected over a full season, is basically what he did in 2010 and 2011, when he was regarded among the best at his position. It's that .162 batting average over his first 60 games that scares people away. Keep in mind, though, he rushed back from a severely sprained ankle to take part in the playoffs in 2011. Just before spring training last year, he was still saying he hadn't fully recovered. Chances are the injury had some carryover effect in 2012, but once he got past it, he was the same old power-hitting second baseman as always. With a clean bill of health entering 2013, Weeks is once again poised to perform like a top-five second baseman.
Buyer beware ... Carlos Gomez, outfielder
Gomez's long-awaited power finally showed up in his age-26 season last year. Even though he didn't take over as a full-time starter until the second half, he still nearly had a 20-homer, 40-steal campaign. So what could he do with 550-plus at-bats? It's a prognosticator's playground. Of course, therein lies the danger. Though Gomez is surely a better player now than he was at this time a year ago, let's not understate just how bad he was a year ago. Struggling to hit .230 is nobody's idea of a good time. He was still that player in the first half last year, and the swing-at-anything approach that put him in that hole was just as evident in the second half, when he had a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course, protecting yourself from a worst-case scenario is different from completely dismissing a player, but if you're expecting more than a .240-ish batting average, 15 homers and 30 steals from Gomez, you're bound to overpay for him.
Sleeper ... Marco Estrada, starting pitcher
For all the uncertainty surrounding the Brewers' starting rotation entering 2013, Estrada is the one pitcher other than Yovani Gallardo whose spot is all but assured. That's because over his 23 starts last year, he did what Mike Fiers couldn't do: He never let up, compiling a 3.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. So why do Fantasy owners tend to see him in the same light as Fiers? Like Fiers, he wasn't supposed to be that good. He had seemingly topped out as a long reliever or swingman-type at age 28, and his modest fastball presumably precluded him from being a strikeout-per-inning pitcher. But with zero earned runs allowed in five of his final eight starts and eight or more strikeouts in four of them, Estrada was exactly who he shouldn't have been right up to the very end. For the price of a middle-to-late-round pick, here's betting he keeps it going.
Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg and Mark Rogers present the Brewers with three capable options for their starting rotation (with Johnny Hellweg and Taylor Jungmann just a little behind). The three will compete for a rotation spot (or perhaps two) this spring, with Rogers' lack of options giving him the advantage. Peralta impressed as much as Rogers late last season, though, and is generally regarded as the one with more upside. Don't overlook him in NL-only leagues ... First baseman Hunter Morris and second baseman Scooter Gennett are second-rate prospects, but both have the potential to contribute at some point this year. Judging by his power numbers in the minors, Morris could be something akin to Tyler Moore of the Nationals if Hart's injury frees up some at-bats for him, but the Brewers seem more inclined to go with perpetual disappointment Mat Gamel as their full-time first baseman. Gennett profiles as a contact hitter with doubles power. He likely won't factor unless Weeks gets hurt.
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