The most intriguing player on the Brewers this season isn't Ryan Braun, the disgraced 30-year-old slugger who served a 65-game suspension last season.
It's Rickie Weeks, the 31-year-old second baseman who has been on a downward spiral the last four years, culminating in a nightmare 2013 season which saw Weeks hit just .209 with 10 home runs, seven steals, 40 runs scored, and a .663 OPS. Weeks eventually lost his job to Scooter Gennett (before being shut down completely in August to have surgery for a torn hamstring), but in past seasons, Weeks was pretty much guaranteed a return to the starting role. As 2014 approaches, it looks like Weeks may be relegated to bench duty.
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Weeks set a career high for strikeout rate (26.3 percent) and ground ball percentage (49.4 percent) in 2013, which accompanied a career-worst .268 BABIP. But these new marks weren't dramatically worse than previous seasons (although it's safe to say they were markedly worse), so Weeks' stats just falling off a cliff like that remain somewhat mysterious. Peripherals and injuries might suggest a slight drop in production; Weeks fully bottomed out and has gone from a third-round pick to an NL-only middle infield gamble in just three seasons. On the same note, it's going to be tough to fully embrace Gennett as long as Weeks remains on the roster. If Weeks is traded, Gennett becomes a late-round mixed league draft pick. But with Weeks -- and his promise of power and speed -- lurking, Gennett becomes a risky middle infield play in deeper Roto formats.
As for the projected starters for the Brewers, they have an overlooked treasure chest of young talent, headlined by two power/steal threats in Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez. Segura's power and average tailed off after the All-Star break (.241 average, one home run), but it was his first full season in the majors, and he still finished with a .294 average and 44 steals. Gomez had career highs in home runs (24), doubles (27), steals (40), and batting average (.284). He was one of a handful of players to hit 20 home runs, 20 doubles, and steal 20 bases. Both Segura and Gomez have legitimate cases to be off draft boards by the third round in most formats.
The Brewers also cornered the market in the "players who hit a good amount of home runs in limited at-bats" category last season. Jonathan Lucroy -- one of Fantasy's top catchers -- could hit 20 home runs this year (he had 18 in 2013), Aramis Ramirez may have a couple more 25-homer seasons left in him (he hit 12 over 304 at-bats last season), Khris Davis hit 11 home runs in 136 at-bats in 2013, after carrying an .898 OPS through five minor league seasons, and Juan Francisco hit 18 home runs over 348 at-bats last year, with 13 coming after he was traded from the Braves in June. Lucroy, Davis, and Ramirez should all have full-time roles this year, with Francisco likely splitting at-bats with Mark Reynolds (who fits in nicely with this group -- 25-30 home run potential if he gets 500-plus at-bats).
The rotation got a major boost with the January addition of Matt Garza. Despite some recent struggles with injury (which could be cause to proceed with caution), Garza has finished with a sub-4.00 ERA every year since 2007. He has a solid 1.28 career WHIP and while his K/9 had jumped around earlier in his career, it seems to have found some footing, with an average of 8.4 over the last three seasons. The 30-year-old has played in a pitcher-friendly park before, so the move to Miller may not have a big effect on his numbers.
Yovani Gallardo finished 2013 with a 4.18 ERA and 7.2 K/9 -- both were career worsts. His average fastball velocity also took a hit last season -- dropping a full mph (from 91.7 to 90.7) from 2012, after it had already dropped significantly from his 2011 level (92.6 mph). Despite his velocity hovering around 90 mph over his final 15 games, Gallardo did put together a nice run at the end of the season, with a 3.09 ERA and 1.24 WHIP after the All-Star break. But both Garza and Gallardo carry some injury risk, despite having put up very good ratios and decent strikeout rates for the last half-decade. Fantasy owners will have to decide on Draft Day if the upside is worth the continued (and future) hiccups.
The rest of the rotation is filled out with the super-reliable Kyle Lohse -- who has a 3.19 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in the three seasons since his 2011 breakout, making at least 30 starts in each of the last three seasons (more on him below) -- and Marco Estrada, whose merits as a (relatively) soft-tossing strikeout artist were summed up wonderfully by Jason Collette in this FanGraphs piece. The fifth spot is shaping up to be a competition between Tyler Thornburg (who had a 2.16 ERA in four September starts) and Wily Peralta (4.37 ERA over 32 starts last season). Johnny Hellweg, Jimmy Nelson, and Mike Fiers are the darkhorses in that race.
Jim Henderson is the no-doubt closer for the Brewers, after John Axford was traded to the Cardinals at the deadline. Henderson saved 28 games last season, with a 2.70 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 60 innings pitched. He should end up being a top 15 closer this year, but could slip late enough in drafts to be a decent, low risk bargain.
This Brewers team could go either way -- it's a group of easily-embraceable Fantasy assets, but there's a little moment of pause (Should I worry about his injury? Is his second half slide an indication of who he really is? Can he handle a full season in the majors?) attached to each one. Approach with a bit of caution, but smart/lucky gambles here could pay off with big returns.
Underappreciated ... Kyle Lohse, starting pitcher
From 2001 to 2010, Lohse had a 4.79 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. Since then, Lohse has put up a 3.19 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 95 starts. Based on his past performance, you could have chalked up 2011 (3.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP) as a fluke -- Lohse had one hot season and would eventually return to his high ratio ways. But he actually improved in 2012, with a 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. And he was able to keep this string of solid seasons up even after a move to hitter-friendly Miller Park in 2013, with a 3.35 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. The bottom, it appears, isn't going to fall out for Lohse, as many of us had predicted. If you're looking for answers in the peripherals, good luck. Lohse threw fewer fastballs and more sliders in 2013 than at any time in his career, but those numbers flip-flop through each of the last three years (in other words, there's no connecting of the dots with these numbers in his hot streak). His curveball frequency went up in 2013, but it was significantly lower in his superior 2012. Lohse's xFIP suggests he should have a higher ERA, but that's been the case for the last few years. It might be time to stop trying to understand Lohse and just enjoy his efficiency and solid ratios. You won't get a lot of strikeouts here, but there's plenty of Fantasy value in a pitcher who can keep a low ERA and WHIP over 200 innings each season.
Bust ... Ryan Braun, outfield
This "bust" tag is going beyond the Biogenesis suspension and all the theories springing from it (decreased production from being off PEDs, pressure dealing with fans, etc.). Braun has a few extra factors working against him in 2014 that should help further dampen his production. He'll be moving to a new position (right field), while coming back from a season ravaged by injury (thumb and neck). While the 65-game suspension afforded Braun the luxury of extra rest and healing time, there's going to be some rust involved, and there's always a chance of reaggravation. The bulk of Braun falling off in 2014 will likely be traced back to the PED usage, but don't let it cloud these other elements, which would downgrade even a controversy-free player. We could see a .280 average with 20 home runs and 25 steals from Braun this year, making him more of a sixth-round pick than a second-round one.
Breakout... Khris Davis, outfield
Davis played the bulk of his games in the post-Braun suspension era, when most casual observers tuned out the Brewers. But there was late-season value to be had here, as Davis hit .279 with 11 home runs over 136 at-bats, stealing three bases and adding 10 doubles. The 26-year-old has a career .288 average in the minors, with an .898 OPS over 415 games. He hit 13 or more home runs in each of his last four seasons, despite getting over 450 at-bats just once in that span. In the two seasons with over 400 at-bats, Davis stole 10 or more bases. His average is prone to fluctuation, but it should settle in the .270 range. Davis' real value, though, comes from his power potential. He was on pace for well over 30 home runs last year, with all 11 coming after Braun was suspended and out of the lineup. Davis flexed power in the minors, carried it over to the majors, and is now in a very hitter-friendly park. He could hit that 30-homer mark by the end of the season.
Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee's top prospect, pitched 10 innings for the Brewers in 2013, allowing one run and striking out eight. The 24-year-old has produced a mixed bag of results over four minor league seasons (a 4.38, 2.83, and 3.25 ERA in his last three), but has developed some nice strikeout potential lately and could enter the fray for the fifth spot in the rotation with a strong spring. ... Johnny Hellweg came to the Brewers as part of the Zack Greinke/Jean Segura deal. He's produced a sub-4.00 ERA in his last three minor league campaigns, but accompanied that with a 1.40-plus WHIP in each of those years. Hellweg's strikeout rate has also suffered since being converted to a starter in 2012, dipping from 11.4 K/9 in 2011 to 6.4 in 2013. ... Taylor Jungmann, the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft, had a 4.33 ERA over 26 starts last year at Double-A. He's still probably a full year away and has to improve his numbers to get that promotion. ... David Goforth followed up two seasons of 4.40-plus ERA in the lower levels of the minors with a semi-breakout in 2013, posting a 3.17 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 125 innings in High-A and Double-A. After a season-and-a-half stint as a starter, Goforth -- who can hit the high 90s with his fastball -- finished the season as the closer for the Hunstville Stars, with four saves over his last eight games. The 25-year-old could earn a spot in the bullpen this season.