2006 W-L: 75-87
Runs Scored: 730
Runs Allowed: 833
Pythagenport W-L: 70.8-91.2
C Johnny Estrada, INF Craig Counsell, SP Jeff Suppan, SP Claudio Vargas, RP Greg Aquino
C Chad Moeller, 3B Jeff Cirillo, OF Dave Krynzel, SP Doug Davis, SP Tomo Ohka, SP Dana Eveland, P Rick Helling, RP Dan Kolb
FREE AGENTS REMAINING
3B David Bell
C Johnny Estrada
1B Prince Fielder
2B Rickie Weeks
SS J.J. Hardy
3B Corey Koskie / Ryan Braun / Tony Graffanino / Craig Counsell
OF Geoff Jenkins / Kevin Mench
CF Bill Hall
OF Corey Hart
RHP Ben Sheets
LHP Chris Capuano
RHP Jeff Suppan
RHP Dave Bush
RHP Claudio Vargas
HOW WAS THE OFFSEASON?
Milwaukee dealt starter Doug Davis, prospect Dana Eveland and throw-in outfielder Dave Krynzel to the Diamondbacks for catcher Johnny Estrada, starter Claudio Vargas and reliever Greg Aquino. When it happened, I wasn't sold on this deal for the Brewers, and I'm still not sure I like it - Eveland still has time to blossom into a very good starter - but it positions them well this year. I've never been a big Estrada fan, but the Brewers' other main backstop, Damian Miller, is aging and rarely plays more than 115 games a year anyway. And it's hard not to like any move that takes at-bats from Chad Moeller and gives them to someone who can hit even a little bit. Meanwhile, Vargas isn't anyone's idea of a great pitcher, but for now, he's the best fifth starter in the NL Central, and Aquino should be a solid contributor out of the 'pen.
Most of the Brewers' other moves also seemed to say, "Forget tomorrow, let's go for it." They signed Jeff Suppan to a four-year deal that probably won't look too great in a few years, but in the meantime, Suppan is among the best third starters in the division. The Brewers also brought back utility infielder Craig Counsell.
HOW'S THE OFFENSE?
Solid. The Brewers have several players who are primed to take a big step forward, and it'd be surprising if it didn't happen to a couple of them. There's Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder, who look poised to become elite players at their positions. There's the lesser-known Corey Hart, who could very easily put up an .875 OPS, in right field. There's J.J. Hardy, who has struggled some in his first two big-league seasons, but is still loaded with upside. And with Corey Koskie already injured at the start of Spring Training, minor leaguer Ryan Braun should be able to step in and provide at least league-average production (assuming Milwaukee doesn't decide to play Counsell and Tony Graffanino there instead).
Speaking of which - this team has contingency plans all over the place. If a corner outfielder falters, Gabe Gross can step in and be fine. In an infielder flops, there's Braun and Counsell, and maybe the possibility that 35-homer hitter Bill Hall can come back in from the outfield. They have three major-league-quality catchers in Estrada, Miller and Mike Rivera. Some things can go wrong for this team, and they'll keep going.
HOW'S THE PITCHING?
The Brewers allowed 833 runs last year, sixth-most in the major leagues. That won't happen again. Only three of their pitchers managed to throw more than 106 innings last year, and one of those - Davis, now departed - was pretty bad. The Brewers therefore had to depend on Eveland, Zach Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, Jorge de la Rosa, Ben Hendrickson, Geremi Gonzalez, and Rick Helling to start games for them. A few of those pitchers have some upside, and Villanueva and Jackson should be decent insurance policies if any of the Brewers' starters flop this year, but as a group, this bunch of fill-ins was very bad for the Brewers in 2006. Not only that, but ace Ben Sheets only pitched 106 innings. I'm going to go out on a limb here: if Sheets stays healthy this year, he's going to be the best pitcher in the NL Central. Better than Chris Carpenter, better than Roy Oswalt, better than Carlos Zambrano. Sheets' peripherals are just obscene, and he's reaching the age when he should be able to put everything together. If he's healthy, the Brewers should be very tough, and Sheets, Chris Capuano, Suppan and Dave Bush should be the best first through fourth starters in the division.
The Brewers' 2007 bullpen should also be considerably better than last year, when they had to use an outrageous number of terrible pitchers. (Jared Fernandez, anyone?) Having Francisco Cordero for the entire year will help, and so will Aquino, but the Brewers' biggest source of improvement will simply be everyone not being hurt and/or stinking all the time.
Maybe it's ridiculous to think that the 2007 N.L. Central champs will be a team that won 75 games in 2006 and didn't throw around enormous piles of cash in the offseason, but 1) it's a really weak division and 2) this is my preview. If I want to hope that a small-payroll team gets rewarded for being the best-managed team in the division, that's my prerogative.
More to the point, though, the Brewers are giving their fans lots of reasons to be excited. There's upside all over the roster, and even a fair amount of depth. I'm going to gamble that Sheets stays healthy, that three or more of their other starters can keep it together, and that a couple of their young players will break out. I think they'll finish in first place.