Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The OFFICIAL Brewers 2012 Season Preview

Oh, baby! Can you smell it? The freshly cut green grass. The beer. The brats. Burgers on the grill. Vomit in the parking lot. It's finally baseball season, the greatest sport in the world, and the Milwaukee Brewers are poised to defend their National League Central Division title beginning Friday against the very team that knocked them out of the postseason last year: the St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike last year at this time, the weather is cooperating with the start of the season. Whether it's warm enough for an open roof this weekend at Miller Park is a whole different issue (God forbid we open the roof when the temperature reaches the high 50s). Several off-season story lines have put the Brewers in the national spotlight, and not for the right reasons. From the Prince Fielder exit to the Ryan Braun dilemma, it's good to finally put the past in the past and play some ball. With several experts discounting the Brewers because of these off-season story lines, being put on the backburner is exactly what the Crew would prefer as they look to build on their 2011 record-breaking season of 96 victories. So let's take a look at what's changed since the Brewers' NLCS exit last October.

Who's New?

3B - Aramis Ramirez

I'm still trying to let this move grow on me. A long-time player of the hated rival Chicago Cubs, Ramirez has always been a player I've despised. His on-field demeanor bothers me not to mention the numerous times A-Ram has knocked a game-winner home run out to defeat Milwaukee over the years. But there was a hole to fill at third base after trading away one-hit wonder Casey McGehee and Ramirez (33), coming off a solid contract year (.306/26/93) was one of the top third basemen on the free agent market. I would have liked to see Taylor Green get a full-time shot at the 5, but he's still developing and to put a rookie at each of the corner infield positions would be a risk. Ramirez is proven, and although it's unrealistic to think he can fill the void Prince left, he will be counted on to protect Ryan Braun in the lineup.

1B - Mat Gamel

So Gamel might not exactly be "new," but this will be the first time Mat the Bat gets a chance to start the season with the big league club, and in a full-time roll to boot. Thank's been a long time coming for the 26-year old. In my opinion, and I know I've clamored for this before, Gamel needs to have the comfort of being an everyday player to succeed in the Bigs. Only getting opportunities here and there has forced Gamel to press at the plate and struggle tremendously. Gamel will "replace" Prince at first base and there is some insurance behind him with another newcomer you'll soon meet as well as Corey Hart. Look for a stellar year for Gamel.

SS - Alex Gonzalez

To the surprise of everyone, the Brewers allowed shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to walk this off-season, and in his place walks in Alex Gonzalez (35). Dude has been on an absolute tear in Spring Training, hitting well over .400, so let's just hope he isn't using blowing his you-know-what too early. Gonzalez is a free-swinger just like Yuni B, so that will be sure to frustrate Brewer fans all season, but he is much slicker with the leather at short and combining with Rickie Weeks up the middle has me excited. The Brewers should be considerably better on the left side of the infield, although the age factor means the combination of A-Ram and A-Gon is just a short-term solution.

OF - Norichika Aoki

The Japanese import didn't bring nearly as much attention as Rangers-signee Yu Darvish, but Aoki gives the Brewers an incredibly experienced and deep outfield. Aoki (30) hit a solid .308 in Spring Training and will essentially be a utility outfielder along with Carlos Gomez for the Brewers, although he appears to be someone who can step in and hold his own should he be forced into extended action. He's also in a pretty funny commercial with Mat Gamel, so I already like the guy. Hopefully he proves to be a solid contributor for the Brew Crew.

1B/OF - Travis Ishikawa

Here's another veteran who can step in and play solid defense and make the occasional start for the Brewers (General Manager Doug Melvin must have finally realized defense wins championships last season). Ishikawa (28) isn't quite as old as the other signees, but his versatility and solid spring was enough for him to be the final man to make the 25-man roster. He can come in late in games to relieve Gamel at first for defensive purposes and also play a kind of Mark Kotsay-kind of roll. Ishikawa is a good guy to have around and just like Aoki, he hits from the left side of the plate.

Other new guys that could play a role: RP Jose Veras (acquired in trade for McGehee), SS Cesar Izturis, RP Manny Parra (coming off injury)

Who's Gone?

1B - Prince Fielder

Maybe you've heard of him? The Brewers were unwilling to fork up $214 million to re-sign Prince, and that's just fine with me. A few years ago, I knew it would be inevitable that Fielder would walk, making the break-up easier. Now Prince is with the Detroit Tigers, and rather than be upset with Fielder, we should be happy for the time he gave us and most importantly, we should be glad he decided to go to the American League. If and when you return to play against Milwaukee, you'll be welcomed with open arms, big fella.

OF - Ryan Braun for 50 games

3B - Casey McGehee

As mentioned before, McGehee is a goner and now a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Perhaps it was too soon to give up on McGehee, who is a stand-up guy and someone impossible not to root for, but the disparity between 2010 and 2011 was alarming. It got to the point where McGehee had to be completely replaced at third base by Jerry Hairston Jr. last season and while I thought he would return to the Brewers this season in some capacity, the front office had other ideas and the Casey McGehee-era in Milwaukee is over.

SS - Yuniesky Betancourt

The nicknames are endless with this guy, and not many of them are good, but the Yuni-bomber was not retained by the Brewers after the 2011 season even though he did show signs of brilliance during the postseason. Betancourt was a streaky hitter and a streaky fielder, and that simply doesn't cut it here in Milwaukee. The shortstop position has turned into a rent-a-player situation now with the 35-year old Gonzalez coming in and Betancourt was simply there last season to bridge the gap.

IF - Craig Counsell

Craig knew it was time to hang up the cleats after last season, and about all that will be missed from Counsell is his clubhouse presence. The Wisconsin native has now assumed a role in the Brewers organization (don't worry...not as a player). Counsell was always a fan favorite and his two World Series rings and goofy batting stance are the two things fans will take away from a pretty stellar career as a professional baseball player.

Other losses: OF Mark Kotsay, IF/OF Jerry Hairston, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Takashi Saito, Hitting coach Dale Sveum

As you can see by the "Other losses" category, the Brewers lost some key role players as well as some key bullpen arms. However, they were able to bring in some new role players in Ishikawa, Izturis, and Aoki along with some veterans in A-Ram and A-Gon, not to mention the return of Fransisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford. Is this team as good as the 2011 team, one of the best Brewer teams we've ever seen? That answer is no. But they can come close if they play to their potential. There are several story lines to keep an eye on this season with the Crew. How will Braun respond to the adversity? Can Gamel live up to his potential and put up the numbers he has continually put up in AAA? Can Yovani Gallardo be a true ace and have a career season? Will the starting five help to carry the Brewers' not-so-juggernaut offense? How long will K-Rod last before he complains about being a setup man? Will Zack Greinke get a deal done before the end of the season? I'm sure there are more out there, such as how A-Ram and A-Gon will fit in and such, but there are many questions that need to be answered over the course of 162 games in order for the Brewers to make a return trip to the postseason. As I did last season, I'll make 12 more bold predictions for the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers. For the record, I went four of 12 last season. Ouch.

1. Shaun Marcum is going to suck a fat one due to injuries and poor location.
2. Zack Greinke will struggle until his contract issues are resolved.
3. Mat Gamel, finally settling into a role, will have a .280/23/80 season.
4. Yovani Gallardo will lead the team in wins with 17.
5. Ryan Braun will have his typical .300/30/100 season and shut everyone up.
6. When the Brewers enter the eighth inning with a lead, the game will be over.
7. Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez will shine in their respective roles.
8. Marco Estrada will start more games than he did last season.
9. Aramis Ramirez will disappoint as the new clean-up hitter - Gamel may replace him.
10. The Brewers will be in the top half of Major League Baseball in defense.
11. An injury will force Doug Melvin to look elsewhere (minors/free agency) for help.
12. Milwaukee Brewers 2012 record: 91-71, 1st place in NL Central

Oops. I did it again. Same exact prediction as a year before. And why mess with the formula for success? I underestimated the Brewers last season and was five games under with my guess, so technically I'm just compensating for the loss of Prince Fielder. Five games sounds about right...right? Alright, so there is my annual Milwaukee Brewers season preview, a preview I did instead of the pile of homework I have waiting for me at the library right now. I guess that's what all-nighters are! As far as the Brewers' postseason chances, I'm not sure. As always, the Phillies will be tough, the Reds, Marlins and Nationals are resurgent, the Cardinals are in an eerily similar position as the Brewers, and the Diamondbacks could very well be the best team in the NL. A division championship is by no means going to be easy, but I believe people are putting too much into what the Reds did this off-season, overrating the Cubs (per usual), and the Cardinals are always going to be tough. It should be a fantastic year of baseball, and I'm as excited as anyone to make my way out to Miller Park, get my tailgate on, and watch me some Brewers baseball.

Summer is right around the corner.