The Brewers are a team that haven't seen the playoffs in many a moon. Even so, with every year they grow in popularity as a pick-to-click for those who are tired of seeing the same few teams in the playoffs annually. (In other words, they're kind of like the new Phillies, except the current Phillies still fit the bill, having still not made a playoff appearance since '93.) In 2006 Milwaukee proved unready for the honor, as a rash of injuries and some curious decisions about which backups to elevate caused them to backslide all the way to 87 losses after a stirring .500 campaign in 2005. It's pretty unlikely for a team as young as the Brewers were last year to lose so many key players to the DL for such long stretches. For that reason alone, they ought to be back to threatening for a winning record this season. The chances of a playoff appearance, though, rest on a player for whom it's surely not safe to assume robust health in 2007.
If Ben Sheets is healthy all year, the Brewers are the best team in the NL Central. This is a division that's not rich in starting pitching depth (hence the Astros' trade of two top pitching prospects and their starting centerfielder to the Rockies for Jason Jennings). However, each team with hopes of imitating the Cardinals' 83-win-division-title feat from last year has an ace in the stable. The Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, the Astros Roy Oswalt, the Cards Chris Carpenter, and even the Reds have Aaron Harang. After those guys, it gets dicey quickly for all of those teams. Milwaukee by contrast has an entire functioning five-man rotation -- assuming that Sheets stays upright. With Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Claudio Vargas slotting in behind the Brewers' seldom-functioning ace, Milwaukee arguably has the best #2 through #5 guys in the NL Central. Assuming Roger Clemens doesn't go back to Houston.
Offensively, the Brewers have had a good problem to have these last few years. Loyalty to their blue-chip prospects has paid mixed dividends, as Prince Fielder has been more or less all they could have expected while J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks haven't yet put it all together. Meanwhile young players with far less hype coming up have emerged to help ease the Brewers out of their Pirate-like veteran mediocrity obsession. Bill Hall isn't just the best everyday player on the team, he also plays seemingly every position on the diamond. This year he'll move from short to center so Hardy can attempt to shake off his lost '06. Corey Hart just kept plugging away in the minors until last year's injury epidemic afforded him the chance to prove he should be an outfield starter in Milwaukee. A big part of the challenge facing GM Doug Melvin for 2007 will be clearing away the veteran detritus that the Brewers' farm system has made obsolete. Geoff Jenkins is making an awful lot of money to be a platoon player, and Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix don't really bring anything at all to the table. There are enough teams with bad outfields out there to find soft landing places for these guys, and a team operating with the Brewers' financial constraints has to "win" almost every trade they make in order to improve.
Would that Milwaukee had as much luck constructing a working bullpen from system guys. Derrick Turnbow, who's not real young (29) and isn't a Brewers product anyway (Philadelphia via Anaheim), turned into a pumpkin violently last year. Consequentially, Melvin had to trade for the game Francisco Cordero, which would have been great except he brought Mench along with him. The Brewers' approach to constructing a bullpen from rehabbing veterans, minor league free agents, and pixie dust works better some years than others. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of the best in the business at wringing useful innings out of curiosities like Rick Helling and Dan Kolb. This year's group will be a little younger with Jose Capellan and Carlos Villanueva in the mix, but neither has a particularly high ceiling. We'll see what Maddux can do with the likes of Brian Shouse, Greg Aquino, Matt Wise, Chris Spurling, and Elmer Dessens. Some more fungible young relief talent would be the obvious target in any deal ushering Jenkins, Mench, and/or Nix out of town.
The Brewers have kind of an unusual model for a playoff-hopeful team, with an extremely young starting lineup and an almost all-veteran bench. Past the surplus of outfielders, none of these veterans are the wrong kinds to have in this situation. Craig Counsell, Tony Graffanino, and Damian Miller will all be very mildly productive and none will complain about playing time. The major question about playing time in the Milwaukee infield this season regards all-universe third base prospect Ryan Braun. The Brewers were counting on Corey Koskie to keep the seat warm while Braun worked out his defensive issues in Nashville, but Koskie's concussion issues will keep him out until May at the earliest. Can Milwaukee afford to go with Counsell and Graffanino until then? Or will Koskie come back from the DL to discover his job's been given to the rookie? That all depends on how the Brewers begin the season, how competitive the NL Central is shaping up to be, and how well Weeks and Hardy swing the bats. At there's no danger of Jeff Cirillo getting at-bats, as he's moved just west to the Twins.
As befitting a team with so many health and roster-construction question marks, the Brewers could finish anywhere from first to fifth this year. On paper they seem better than that 2005 team, but there's absolutely no telling what they will or will not get from the likes of Sheets, Weeks, Hardy, Hart, Cordero, and Braun. The Rockies play them once in July and once in August and could potentially see radically different teams each time. I don't have a lot of confidence about this number, but I'm going to put them down for 83 wins. Last year, that would have been good enough for a tie for first. This year? Well, like everything about the 2007 Brewers, that remains to be seen.
Over/under of 81.5, 50-1 and holding to win it all.