Milwaukee Brewers 2011 Season Preview

Leading up to the start of the 2011 Regular Season, Diamond Hoggers will preview each of MLB’s 30 teams . Today’s preview features the Milwaukee Brewers. Stay tuned as Diamond Hoggers previews every team division by division until the start of the regular season.

I was discussing the NL Central with a co-worker today who had a very surface-level view of baseball. He, like me, is a Cincinnati fan. He also thought that the Cardinals acquired Cliff Lee in the offseason. But when I told him my high thoughts of the Milwaukee Brewers 2011 season, he said something to me that sounded awfully familiar…..

“They’ll blow it like they always do. Something always goes wrong for them and it will this year.”

I don’t know about that. Although they were blessed with the Packers title during this past NFL season, I think that the it could be a good year to be a Wisconsin native and a sports fan. And let me go a step further–you take this however you want–I think that the Milwaukee Brewers upcoming season could be the finest of them all.

It’s funny that the public perception is that the Brewers will somehow magically continue to shoot themselves in the foot. At some point, people need to realize that while it’s been common; it’s not just not sound logic to think that just because this team hasn’t had a long run of success that they’re not dangerous.

If the Milwaukee Brewers were ever building for anything, this is that year. They let baseball know what they were capable of in 2008–it was a magical year in which they won 90 games. They were quickly ousted by the Phillies in four games in the playoffs and haven’t been heard from since. They followed up that season with 80 wins in 2009 and 77 last year. They know this is the year. And they’re going to let it all hang out.

What’s different this season?

The Brewers haven’t had a starting rotation that has been considered a strength since the days of a guy named Vuckovich and McClure. But that can no longer be said. In the offseason they acquired Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum, adding them to a rotation that already had their ‘ace’ Yovani Gallardo and a solid lefty in Randy Wolf. Chris Narveson figures to play the Joe Blanton of this rotation, and you can honestly consider these guys to have one of the deepest rotations in the National League aside from the Phillies.

Zach Greinke was unhittable two years ago and probably lost a little determination after so many years as a Royal. Playing on a team that figures to be a contender will probably bring out the best in the 27 year old. Shaun Marcum is a guy who can bring no-hit stuff to the park on any given night. There are nights when he’s going to K your entire lineup at least once. Gallardo is still only 25 and finally might emerge with his best stuff now that there is no pressure on him to be an ace–and he won’t be facing as many #1 starters on the opposition.

The bullpen behind them has been solidified by subtraction of the legend Trevor Hoffman. In their place will be John Axford (24 saves in 27 attempts) who throws smoke and Zach Braddock. Manny Parra, Kameron Loe, Takashi Saito, and Sean Green are pretty solid options out of a pen, and guys who won’t get you beat.

The Thunder

Ryan Braun is as close to unheralded superstar as it gets in this league. It might not appear to be sound logic by us, but you know that a player that special was born to play in some big time playoff games in October. It’s got to come sometime. How about this? Braun makes a push for the NL MVP in 2011 and hits .330 with 40 home runs and 120 RBI. You want us out on a limb on some things? Well there is a prediction for you.

People don’t realize that they’ve also got a lethal weapon now from the lead off spot in Rickie Weeks. He finally delivered on all that promise last year, and it was in the nick of time. He hit only .269, but the 29 home runs and 83 RBI to go along with 11 steals in 15 attempts was nice. The 112 runs and 160 games played was nicer. If he plays in 160 this year, look out. You’re looking at a guy who will help Braun to those MVP numbers.

Yuniesky Betancourt comes over from the Brewers, and while he can’t field a lick, he’s got some serious pop for his position.

Prince Fielder is a huge wild card in all of this. He’s playing for a contract in 2011; and the bigger numbers he puts up the higher dollar amount he can command. Don’t underestimate the value of a guy in his contract year. Ultimately, we expect big numbers but  not the season that Braun will have. He’ll hit better than .261, he’ll hit more than 32 long ones, and he will drive in more than 83. The key for Fielder will be staying healthy and in the lineup all season long and just being patient to get his pitches when Braun is on base in front of him. He’ll earn a nice payday.

You look at everyone listed so far and say that’s a pretty nice lineup. Pencil in yet another 30 HR/100 RBI, .280-type hitter in Casey McGehee. Then tell me what you think of the lineup. Still not enough?

Corey Hart will be 29 years old, still in the prime of his career. Expect numbers from him that are similar to last season. To roll that guy out every day hitting 5-hole or even in the sixth spot in the order is a big time luxury. Carlos Gomez will be in center, and while he won’t be part of the “thunder” in this lineup, he should provide some lightning. Expect Gomez to hit for a better average than the .247 he found his way to last year in limited action and be a lock for 40 stolen bases. Their faith in Gomez is a big reason why they felt safe to trade Lorenzo Cain, who will be a nice player in this game.

Solid Bench

The Brewers will have Craig Counsell, Mark Kotsay, and Chris Dickerson at the front of their bench. These guys are all higher-tier subs who should provide a spark. Expect a non-roster invitee to make the team from the right side, because all of these guys are left-handed.

Can they win the NL Central?

We think they’re the odds on favorites in the NL Central and one of the top three teams in the entire National league. We put them slightly ahead of the Giants and just a peg below the Phillies–but if anyone can stop the Phillies, they’ll have a shot.

In terms of the Central, expect a dog fight with the Reds who have a pretty good rotation and lineup to go at it toe to toe with the Brewers all summer long and into the fall. From the opening bell (they open up in Cincinnati on Opening Day) this will be one of the great battles of the past decade in a division race. In the end, we see the Brewers winning about 94 games in an NL Central that will be a dogfight. And this dogfight has more than just two dogs in it, making it all the more interesting.