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Offseason report card: Brewers

2/8/2013

2012 in review

Record: 83-79 (85-77 Pythagorean)

776 runs scored (1st in NL)

733 runs allowed (13th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves

Signed free agents Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez. Traded for Burke Badenhop. Re-signed Alex Gonzalez. Lost Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rodriguez and Kameron Loe.

The Brewers may have had the least interesting offseason in baseball, essentially flipping around last year's bullpen for a new one, minus the return of closer John Axford. That wasn't a bad idea considering the Brewers had the worst bullpen ERA in the National League, the most blown saves and the most bullpen losses. But bringing in the oft-injured Gonzalez and mediocre Badenhop and Gorzelanny aren't major upgrades. The front office also didn't address the team's depth issues on offense, a problem now exposed following Corey Hart's knee surgery that could force him to miss two months.

Position Players

The Brewers survived the loss of Prince Fielder just fine, thank you, leading the NL in runs scored thanks to another MVP-caliber season from Ryan Braun, a .300 average and 105 RBIs from Aramis Ramirez, Hart's 30 home runs and strong seasons from Japanese veteran Norichika Aoki and catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

That said, the Brewers' offense is overrated -- they were just 10th in the NL in runs scored on the road. The ball flies at Miller Park, where the Brewers slugged .472 compared to .403 on the road.

Defense has been a problem in recent years for Milwaukee, but according to Defensive Runs Saved, the Brewers were vastly improved in 2012 at plus-14 runs, tying them with the A's for 10th best in the majors. This despite the iron glove of second baseman Rickie Weeks, whose minus-30 DRS ranked as the worst of any player in the majors -- 12 runs worse than anyone else. Weeks' glove has always been a negative, and when combined with Ramirez and rookie shortstop Jean Segura, infield defense could be a big issue in 2013.

Pitching Staff

The Brewers ranked 13th in the NL in ERA and runs allowed, but this isn't a staff without talent: It actually led the NL in strikeouts (Zack Greinke, of course, being responsible for some of those). Rather than go the free-agent route, the Brewers decided to hope some of the young starters build upon positive strides made in 2012. Rookie Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada don't have blazing fastball, but their stuff plays up and both average more than a K per inning. Among pitches with at least 120 innings, Estrada had the third-best SO/BB ratio (behind Cliff Lee and Kris Medlen) and Fiers 21st.

Youngsters Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers, on the other hand, come with big fastballs, and both looked good in late-season duty. Of course, other than No. 1 Yovani Gallardo, none of those four have thrown 150 innings in a major-league season, so the Brewers will likely have to dig into their starting pitching depth at some point.

The bullpen was a disaster in 2012 as the Brewers lost 11 games they were leading heading into the ninth inning, easily the most in the majors. There were only 111 such losses in the entire major leagues, so the Brewers were responsible for 10 percent of those defeats by themselves. Axford, so good when the Brewers won the division in 2011, is back as the team's closer with a chance at ninth-inning redemption. But who sets him up?

Heat Map to Watch

Axford allowed 10 home runs -- eight to right-handed batters, all eight off his fastball. Righties hit .287/.392/.598 off the fastball. If hitters are attacking that pitch with success, it means he's not getting to his slider or curveball to put them away. As you can see from the heat map, he throws his fastball up and away to right-handers. Maybe a little more variation in location will prevent batters from teeing off on it like they did in 2012.

Overall Grade

Everybody seems to be forgetting about the Brewers, but I do believe there is upside here with the young arms and any team with Ryan Braun in the middle of the order is going to score some runs. As many games as the bullpen cost the team last year, even a mediocre pen could mean a few more wins.

Plus, there is the team's strong finish to consider. The Brewers went 36-23 over the final two months, the third-best record in the NL in that span behind the Giants and Nationals. The Brewers rank behind the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central pecking order, but they could be one of this year's surprise teams.