Diagnosis: Missing time
When people claim to have been abducted by UFOs, they often report long stretches of time they can't account for, time when they were presumably being experimented on and meeting alien heads of state. This is not that. We know exactly where the Brewers' best players were for much of 2013 -- on the DL or sitting at home, suspended. Most of the key players in Milwaukee missed significant time, and the team was forced to scramble to fill in the gaps using players who weren't even remotely qualified.
Milwaukee has some of the best front-line talent in the game. Carlos Gomez may have been the most valuable player in the National League, Jonathan Lucroy is an exceptional defensive catcher who also is an above-average hitter, Jean Segura is one of the brightest young stars in the game, and Ryan Braun is Ryan Braun. Their canny acquisition of Kyle Lohse helped glue together a pitching staff that otherwise would have rivaled the Twins and Astros for ineffectiveness, and Marco Estrada continued to be an impressive scrap-heap pickup.
Braun, however, hit the DL with a hand injury in June, and then sat out the rest of the season because of his role in the Biogenesis scandal. Corey Hart missed the whole season. A left knee problem sent Aramis Ramirez to the DL twice, for more than 60 total days. Hamstring surgery ended Rickie Weeks' season in early August. Estrada also missed almost 10-12 starts with a hamstring injury. That's how you wind up with Yuniesky Betancourt starting 92 games (including 46 at first base!) and hitting .212/.240/.355 across more than 400 plate appearances.
Key Stat: .206/.259/.370
That's what Brewers' first basemen hit in 2013 in place of Corey Hart. It isn't that hard, generally, to find somebody to stand in the vicinity of first base who is capable of hitting a baseball. In the National League, first basemen posted a.770 OPS as a whole. In all of baseball, 62 players got into at least 20 games at first base, and 57 of them had a higher OPS than the sum total of the guys the Brewers trotted out there. In fact, one could seemingly trip and fall down and land on a first baseman who could hit his way out of a paper bag pretty darn easily. That the Brewers couldn't speaks to how fundamentally unprepared they were when their front-line talent went down, and how weak the upper minors were in their farm system. That 24-year-old Triple-A first baseman Hunter Morris never got a call to the majors despite the absolute trainwreck at the position spoke volumes about the team's confidence in its own prospects.
Breakout: Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, and Marco Estrada
Lucroy finally got a full season in in 2013 for us to fully appreciate how amazing he is, not just as a hitter, but as one of the best pitch framers in baseball. Baseball Prospectus devoted an entire section of their pitch framing article to Lucroy saying "Trying to catch Lucroy's glove closing is like trying to watch a hummingbird's wings beat once." Lucroy is only 27 and the Brewers have him under contract for the next four years for an incredibly reasonable price, meaning he should be one of the most important pieces of the Brewers' eventual turnaround.
Like Lucroy, Segura combines an above-average offensive package with an above-average, up the middle defensive game, and is one of the best shortstops in baseball because of it. While his walk rate is pretty atrocious, Segura makes a lot of contact and uses his speed to create infield hits better than anyone in baseball. His 49 infield hits far and away led the league, his only competition being his teammate Norichika Aoki. The next closest National Leaguer was Starling Marte, with 31. Now, some of that was luck-driven, and Segura shouldn't count on another 50 extra hits in 2014. The only additional qualifier here is that Segura fell of hard after May, his production declining month by month (he hit .261/.292/.354 over his last 94 games), but with another year of experience under his belt, Segura figures to improve the rest of his offensive game as well and could be one of the best players in the National League for the next decade.
Gomez built on his impressive 2012 by delivering another exceptional season wherein he upped his power game and provided Gold-Glove defense in center field. His change in approach, which has seen him go from a Segura-type ground-ball generating speedster to a player with above average power, has made him an incredibly valuable commodity in spite of striking out in almost a quarter of his at bats. His performance was inflated by a .344 BABIP that he won't repeat, so he may not be an MVP candidate again next year, but as long as his legs hold out, Gomez will remain one of the best centerfielders in baseball.
What a tremendous find Marco Estrada was for the Brewers. Finally getting a shot at the starting rotation in 2012, he has surpassed Yovani Gallardo to become the most dominant starter in Milwaukee. With a tremendous strikeout rate and impressive control that more than cover for his vulnerability to the long ball, If Estrada can stay healthy he could be primed for a huge season.
Breakdown: Yovani Gallardo and Rickie Weeks
A marked decrease in velocity may signal the end of Gallardo as an above average starter, who (according to Fangraphs) has declined in value every year since 2010. His fastball averaged just 90-91 MPH in 2013 and his strikeout percentage dropped by more than five percent to the lowest level of his career. Gallardo will be 28 by the time spring training gets going, and there's a good chance his velocity is gone for good. Whether he remains a productive starter going forward will depend on his ability to use his secondary offerings with more effectiveness or to generate ground balls, something at which he's become increasingly adept over the last four years.
Weeks finally had the injury bug beat, playing in all but 50 games from 2010-2012, though with increasingly poor results at the plate. Then this year? Freefall. Weeks missed most of the second half with hamstring problems and barely hit above .200 when he was in the lineup. Provided he doesn't get more than 600 plate appearances in 2014, Weeks has only one year left on his contract extension, which will pay him $11 million. The Brewers are rightly interested in giving Scooter Gennett a full-season shot at the keystone, so a trade wherein the Brewers eat a lot of Weeks' guaranteed money is pretty likely at this point. Don't bet on him rebounding.
Punting isn't necessarily a surrender, but it's an acknowledgement that the odds of reaching the marker you need to get to just isn't realistic. The Cardinals just won the National League pennant and are coming back as strong -- or stronger -- than they were in 2013. The Pirates have young, dynamic talent and haven't suffered any major free agent losses. The Reds are slightly weaker but still have a terrific rotation and bullpen. Meanwhile, the Brewers have tried to slap a couple of veteran free agent band aids onto their roster in each of the last couple seasons, trying to limp back into the postseason. That model, however, is not sustainable, and given the lack of impact players in the upper levels of the farm system there is no realistic way this club pushes past the big three at the top of the division.
Milwaukee has Segura, Lucroy, Gomez, and Braun under control through 2016, meaning they have an incredibly strong foundation of talent to build around. The trouble is that the supporting pieces just aren't there yet. Khris Davis, Caleb Gindl, and Scooter Gennett, all of whom surprised with promising 2013 performances, and all of whom deserve their extended shots in 2014, don't have the scouting reports that match their gaudy numbers, and could see some serious correction as the league wises up to them. The starting rotation of Lohse, Gallardo, Estrada, and Wily Peralta, which will presumably bolstered by Tyler Thornburg and/or Jimmy Nelson, doesn't have the front-line talent to match up with the rest of the division unless a couple of them take significant steps forward. Aramis Ramirez is a constant injury risk and could be gone after this year.
With Norichika Aoki already traded to Kansas City, this might just be the right time to retool for another run in 2016, when the Brewers' impact prospects in the low minors should be ready to contribute. Third base is a position of concern for the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Indians, and Dodgers already, and Ramirez could be one of the most valuable commodities available right now. Weeks doesn't have a spot to play. Jim Henderson is a dominant closer, but he's already 31 and teams might jump on the chance to pick up an elite closer making the league minimum, especially when guys like Boone Logan are commanding more than $5 million per season, and Jim Johnson is getting $10 million. Even Ryan Braun, if he proves healthy and productive, has an entirely reasonable contract for the next seven years that might be movable in the right circumstances. By bringing in as much talent as possible, the Brewers won't be giving up on 2014 so much as strengthening themselves for 2016 and beyond, building the kind of depth they'll need to avoid having to plug holes with the likes of Yuniesky Betancourt ever again.