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MLB Predictions 2011: What I Expect from the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun

With the news today that Zack Greinke will miss the first couple weeks of the 2011 season due to a broken rib, it has become even more imperative for the Milwaukee Brewers to be a great offensive ballclub.

They have the talent to score a ton of runs, and Ryan Braun will be a key figure for them to do so. Like his teammate Prince Fielder, Braun is coming off a subpar year in 2010. He hit .304 with 25 home runs and 103 RBI last year. Though those are good numbers, they are a significant decline compared to the numbers he posted during the first three years of his career.

Over his first three seasons, Braun hit .308 and averaged 31 home runs and 106 RBI. Most notably, his slugging percentage never dipped below .550. Last year, he slugged just .501—still a good number—but down over 130 points since his rookie campaign in 2007. Along with the decline in power, he has yet to gain a great deal of plate discipline, having never accumulated more than 57 walks in any single year. 

In addition to the low number of walks, he has struck out at least 105 times every season. To his credit, that career-low of 105 strikeouts came last season, so there could be hope for him to become a more patient hitter. Hitting in front of Fielder should continue to give Braun ample opportunities to get good pitches to hit.

He just needs to accept the fact that a walk can be just as valuable as a hit with the power-hitting first baseman behind him.

At the end of last season, Braun was worn down physically, and his weight dropped to around 196 pounds. To combat that, he put on a solid 10-plus pounds of muscle in the offseason and reported to camp this year at 210 pounds. The added weight will help him maintain his strength throughout the season, which should help increase his power numbers back to what he posted earlier in his career.

One of Braun’s best attributes as a hitter is his willingness to hit the ball to all fields. This makes him a dangerous threat to get on base, even if his power numbers never recover to the level of his rookie campaign. As long as he stays healthy, 200 hits per season should never be out of the realm of possibility for him.

Another strong, but undervalued, aspect of Braun’s game is his speed. He has stolen at least 14 bases in each of his first four seasons. Former manager Ken Macha was not a fan of the running game, especially with Fielder hitting behind Braun; however new manager Ron Roenicke has promised to use the running game as more of a weapon in 2011.

Even with Fielder at the plate, Braun should expand his aggressiveness on the base paths. Opposing pitchers may choose to then walk Fielder, but Casey McGehee proved last season with his 104 RBI that he is more than capable of producing with runners on base.

There’s no reason to believe Braun won’t continue the kind of offensive production he has posted the first four seasons of his career. If he can develop the plate discipline Brewer fans hope he can, that should improve his overall numbers, including his power totals. Expect another .300-plus batting average and a return in his power numbers with at least 30 home runs and well over 100 RBI. He has made the All-Star Game three straight seasons, and I don’t see any reason to believe 2011 won’t be a fourth.

Ryan Braun is off to a Hall of Fame start to his career. Unlike Fielder, he is signed long-term and will be in Milwaukee at least through the 2015 season. With Fielder’s departure imminent, 2011 could serve as a springboard year for Braun to become the face of the franchise and cement his legacy as one of the best Milwaukee Brewers ever.


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MLB Power Rankings: Who Is The Most Fundamentally Sound Team In MLB?

When trying to determine the most fundamentally sound team in the league, one could make the rankings based off of any number of fielding or hitting statistics.  How many errors did a team have?  Do they hit-and-run successfully?  How much does a team use sacrifice plays?  What is their stolen base percentage?

The point is this—it’s very hard to determine what is and isn’t a fundamentally sound team.  Sure, teams might not always bunt runners over, but then again, is there always a need for that given the power in the game today?  Match-ups can also play a factor in this. 

For the most part, teams that are fundamentally sound and do all the “small things” important in the game will likely be the better teams in the league. 

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MLB Power Rankings: Rating The Opening Day Starters of All 30 Teams

Opening Day 2011 is less than two months away, and Spring Training will begin in less than three weeks. Last year’s successes are now a thing of the past. Teams now look ahead to focus on a having a successful 2011. 

The foundation for any good team is good starting pitcher. While some teams like the Phillies are blessed with an abundance of great starting pitching, others like like the Pirates will struggle to field even one Major League-level starting pitcher. 

With the start of the new season, teams will look to get off to a good start and send their best pitcher to the mound on Opening Day. The following will rank all 30 teams based on their Opening Day (projected) starting pitchers.

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Ryan Braun Needs a Breakout Season for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011

Ryan Braun is a very good player. According to the MLB Network, he’s the top left fielder in the game today.

In fact, Braun’s numbers have been so good for the Brewers since joining the team in May 2007 that the argument can easily be made he’s off to a Hall of Fame start to his career.

However, Braun’s numbers have declined steadily since winning the NL Rookie of the Year award that season, and he needs a strong bounce-back in 2011 to re-establish himself as one of game’s best players.

His rookie campaign measures up against the very best in the history of the game. In only 113 games, he hit .324 with 34 home runs and 97 RBI, stole 15 bases and led the league with a slugging percentage of .634.

For his career, Braun has averaged 32 home runs and 105 RBI, but he’s never been able to duplicate that combination of power and average since his rookie season.

Braun’s career batting average of .307 fits very well into the Milwaukee lineup, especially hitting right in front of Prince Fielder. His slugging numbers are another story altogether. He suffered an 80-point drop in 2008 to .553. He remained steady in 2009, slugging .551, but 2010 saw another significant drop of 50 points to drop his slugging down to .501. 

In 2008 Braun finished with 83 extra-base hits, including seven triples. By last year, those numbers dropped to 71 and one, respectively. 

Those numbers indicate that Braun has lost the power in his game, but he is definitely capable of putting up statistics to rival his rookie year. On July 31 last year, he was hitting just .274 with a .460 slugging percentage. Raising those averages to .304 and .501 over the final two months proves he possesses the talent to put up mind-boggling numbers. 

People that follow the team closely know Braun has and never will shy away from the spotlight. He is constantly engaging himself in projects outside the game to raise awareness of his name, including his own clothing line and restaurant and numerous photo shoots. Perhaps a step back from those outside interests and a renewed focus on the game is what Braun needs to change his declining trends.

As much as fans have called out Prince Fielder for having a down year in 2010, they need to do the same thing with Ryan Braun. At one time, the duo of Braun and Fielder was considered by some one of the top pairs of hitting teammates in the game.

Even with the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers don’t have a shot at the playoffs in 2011 without Braun getting back on track as one of the game’s premier power hitters. 


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2011 MLB Preview: Comparing the Milwaukee Brewers to the Cincinnati Reds

For the past several seasons, most people felt the National League Central was the St. Louis Cardinals and “everyone else.” However, since the 2005 season, every team in the division has appeared in the playoffs with the exception of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cincinnati Reds finally broke through in 2010 to win the division after being a dark-horse pick for many years by fans and critics alike. The Reds now become the hunted, quite a big change from being the hunters in previous seasons. 

The Milwaukee Brewers finished a distant third behind the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals in 2010. GM Doug Melvin spent the winter improving one of the worst rotations in baseball by adding Shaun Marcum and 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, Zack Greinke.

Just as important, Melvin didn’t trade Prince Fielder, which keeps the Brewers offense strong heading into 2011. 

The Reds were quiet to begin the off-season but have recently made noise with the signings of World Series MVP, Edgar Renteria and reserve outfielder Fred Lewis.

Were the moves made by Milwaukee enough to compete with the Reds in 2011, or are the Reds still the class of the division? 

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the two teams with Spring Training just over a month away:

Pitching Rotation

Statistically, the Reds far outperformed the Brewers last year but Greinke and Marcum make a huge difference going forward.

The Reds rotation features six almost interchangeable parts. Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Mike Leake provide the Reds with great depth and potential greatness. While I think as a whole they are deeper than Milwaukee’s group of Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, I think the Brewers’ top three surpass any top three the Reds could put together. 

That’s not discounting the talent of the Reds’ hurlers, but Greinke has won a Cy Young and Marcum put up good numbers in the ultra-competitive AL East, while Gallardo has posted back-to-back 200-plus strikeout seasons.

For 2011, I’d pick the Brewers’ rotation, but I think a year or two out that the Reds will prove to have the better group.

Dusty Baker does have the luxury of calling on Aroldis Chapman in case of injury, something that the Brewers can’t do. Manager Ron Roenicke would likely look toward prospect Mark Rogers should anyone go down for any significant amount of time. 

Slight advantage to the Brewers.


Speaking of the hard-throwing Cuban, Chapman will indeed start the season in the bullpen for Cincy. He’ll serve as the primary set-up man for closer Francisco Cordero.

Cordero finished the year with 40 saves and a 3.84 ERA in 75 games. Bill Bray, Nick Masset and Logan Ondrusek all performed well for the Reds last year and will be vital to the team’s success this year. 

John Axford came out of nowhere for the Brewers last year to save 24 of 27 games after Trevor Hoffman faltered. Takashi Saito was signed recently to serve as the eighth inning man, but he won’t be able to pitch in back-to-back games due to age and previous injuries.

LaTroy Hawkins will also serve as a set-up man if he can rebound from injuries and a poor 2010. Zach Braddock, Kameron Loe and Mike McClendon had nice seasons, but will they be able to repeat their successes this year?

The Brewers are hoping a lot of things go right for its bullpen while the Reds have an established pen that will keep most of the leads when entering the eighth inning.

Large advantage to the Reds.

Defense and Bench

With the trades the Brewers made, they traded away some great prospects and young players that were key to the future of the team. Alcides Escobar started the entire season at shortstop, while Lorenzo Cain had a very good September in center field. Many felt Cain would be the starter going forward for the team. 

Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez will now serve as the starters at short and center. Chris Dickerson will split time with Gomez in center and Craig Counsell will (again) serve as a super-utility player off the bench. At some point, age will catch up with Counsell but hopefully it won’t be this year.

Defensively, only Gomez would be considered an above-average fielder. 

Signing Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis give the Reds a very good, deep bench. Renteria, along with Miguel Cairo, give the Reds great versatility and two veteran bats. Lewis can play any outfield spot. Chris Heisey and top prospect Yonder Alonso will also see time off the bench in 2011. 

The Reds had 39 fewer errors than the Brewers in 2010 and were better than Milwaukee in almost any defensive category used. 

Large advantage to the Reds.


Again, at least statistically, the Reds were better than the Brewers in 2010. They scored 40 more runs and their team batting average was 10 points higher than Milwaukee.

However, all that happened with Prince Fielder having the worst year of his career. Don’t count on him repeating that in 2011.

Joey Votto has a better career batting average than Fielder (also an MVP trophy on his mantle), but I think they are a push offensively. With Fielder in his final year before free agency, most feel he’ll put up MVP-like numbers, which will significantly enhance Milwaukee’s offense.

Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks are very similar players as well. They both hit for power and have above average speed. Weeks finally played an entire season and showed he can play at an All-Star level when healthy. 

Betancourt put up career-high power numbers last year in Kansas City but no one should be counting on that type of production for the Brewers. He and Paul Janish are similar players. Each will hit around .260 with single-digit home run totals. 

Scott Rolen had a nice season offensively for the Reds and is still a Gold Glove-level defender. Casey McGehee turned into a very good hitter for the Brewers, coming through time after time when teams pitched around Fielder. Rolen will turn 36 early in the season. Can he continue to put up good numbers at the plate? If he can, the Reds offense will continue to roll. If he begins to show his age, the offense may sputter.

Even with the gap defensively, I’d still take McGehee for the 2011 season; his bat is that good.

Jonny Gomes had a career year for the Reds, finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. Ryan Braun’s numbers have steadily decreased since he won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007, but he’s still an All-Star level player. He’s averaged 32 home runs and 105 RBI his first four years in the league. With respect to Gomes, he’s not nearly the player Braun is.

Drew Stubbs had a very nice first year as a starter. Although he hit just .255, he stole 30 bases and hit 22 home runs. The Brewers can only dream of getting that type of production from the Gomez/Dickerson duo. Gomez is still young enough (25) to turn his career around but until he learns some plate discipline, he’ll serve as a black hole for the Brewers’ batting order.

Right field is a great battle between the two teams.

Jay Bruce has hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first three seasons. Corey Hart has accomplished that feat three times as well in his career, along with two seasons of 20-plus stolen bases. Hart has also been an All-Star twice, including last season. Each player has signed a long-term deal with their respective teams within the past six months. 

Jonathan Lucroy was thrown into the fire behind the plate for the Brewers last year after Gregg Zaun was lost for the season. He hit only .253 with four home runs. Entering the year as the entrenched starter should serve his confidence well and his numbers should improve this year.

The combination of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan put up very good numbers for the Reds. The duo is effective not only at the plate but handling the pitching staff as well. Behind Yadier Molina of the Cardinals, the Reds probably has the best catching unit in the division.

Small advantage to the Brewers…based mainly on the projected Prince Fielder turnaround.


Whether you like him or not, Dusty Baker is one of the best managers in the game. He has the reputation for ruining young arms, and if he does that this year in Cincinnati, they could be doomed. However, I think he has a strong enough bullpen that he won’t rely so heavily on his starters. He’s never managed a team to back-to-back first place finishes, but this group definitely has the talent to get the job done.

Ron Roenicke is entering his first season as a big league manager. He’s coming to the Brewers from Mike Scioscia’s staff in Los Angeles. He has a big task in front of him to try and turn the Brewers back into playoff contenders. He has stated he’ll have his team be more aggressive at the plate and on the bases, something many people criticized former manager Ken Macha of not doing. 

Large advantage to the Reds.


While the Brewers may have the household names like Braun, Fielder and Greinke, the Reds have the defending MVP (Votto), a great, young pitching staff and most importantly they are the defending division champs. 

The Brewers have done a great job closing the gap on the Reds, but I still see the Reds as the favorites entering the season. The Brewers still need to improve their bench and bullpen (both can be easily done throughout the season) before they can seriously view themselves as a threat to the Reds.



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Rickie Weeks Is Vital To Long-Term Success Of The Milwaukee Brewers

Rickie Weeks is coming off the best season of his career in 2010. He’s also entering his final year before hitting the free agent market after the 2011 season. With the team having traded top prospect and second baseman Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum, it’s now more imperative than ever for them to sign Weeks to a long-term deal.

Prior to 2010, Weeks had never played more than 129 games in a season. Many speculated that if he could stay healthy, he could put up All-Star type numbers and that’s exactly what he did. In 160 games, he hit .269 with a .366 on-base percentage. He scored 112 runs while hitting 29 home runs and knocking in 83. He also led the league in being hit by a pitch, 25 times. 

Although he only stole 11 bases, he has the speed to steal 30 or more a season. Former manager Ken Macha didn’t use the running game as an effective weapon, something new manager Ron Roenicke plans on doing a great deal. With sluggers like Hart, Braun, and Prince Fielder hitting behind him, the running game isn’t a necessity for Weeks, but it’s an added weapon that should prove more effective than not over the course of the season.

Weeks can expect a significant raise for his final arbitration year. He made $2.75 million last year but should see his salary easily top $4.5 million this year. Still young (he won’t turn 29 until September), he still has several more productive seasons ahead of him, barring any more significant time spent on the disabled list.

With the very likely scenario of Fielder leaving after this season, locking up a player like Weeks becomes all the more important. The power he showed in 2010 allows him to be moved into a better run-producing position in the batting order. If Carlos Gomez could ever get on base more consistently, Weeks could be moved down in the order to give better protection to Fielder and McGehee. 

If, like most feel, Gomez never materializes into a top-of-the-order hitter, Weeks can remain in the lead-off spot and continue to be the spark plug for the Brewers’ offense.

Lawrie’s departure, along with the haul sent to Kansas City for Zack Greinke, have depleted the Brewers’ farm system. While Scooter Gennett and Eric Farris are both still young enough where a career in the Majors isn’t out of the question, neither has the tools to be a star that Weeks possesses.

The Brewers have done a great job locking up their young core to long-term deals over the past few seasons. Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, and Corey Hart are all signed through at least the 2013 season. Others like Casey McGehee, Jonathan Lucroy, and John Axford are all under team control until at least the middle of the decade. 

Weeks seems open to the idea of remaining with the Brewers. The two parties have had ongoing conversations about an extension since the Winter Meetings in early December. It’s likely a deal will get done before Opening Day 2011. He’ll be a key piece for the Brewers this season, but also going forward in the post-Prince Fielder era.



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MLB Trade Rumors: Prince Fielder Staying with the Milwaukee Brewers for 2011

One of the most popular topics to debate over the past two seasons for Milwaukee Brewer fans has been if and when first baseman Prince Fielder would be traded.

Fielder is slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season, and no one expects him to sign a long-term contract with the Brewers. 

Many, myself included, felt that Fielder would be traded this winter in order for the Brewers to get some sort of a decent return for the impending free agent.

Surprisingly, Brewers GM Doug Melvin decided against trading the slugger and instead focused on drastically improving the pitching rotation with the acquisitions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. In fact, Greinke took the Brewers off his no-trade list after Melvin assured him that Fielder would remain with the team for the upcoming season.

Despite that assurance from Melvin, there are many fans who are convinced the Brewers should still trade Fielder. Their reasoning: Now that the pitching staff has been upgraded significantly, the Brewers can now trade off Fielder’s bat for a young replacement or even more pitching.

Trading Fielder would seal the Brewers’ fate for 2011. While keeping him doesn’t guarantee October baseball in Milwaukee, trading him guarantees there won’t be. Fielder’s value is about more than just 35-plus home runs he’s almost a lock to hit. He provides protection for Ryan Braun while giving Casey McGehee consistent at-bats with at least one runner on base. 

Despite having a down year in 2010, in which he put up his lowest numbers since his rookie season in 2006, Fielder is just entering the prime years of his career. He won’t turn 27 until May.

For those that are superstitious, 2011 may prove to be a special year for Fielder. In 2007, he batted .288 with 50 home runs and 119 RBI. In 2009, he hit a career-best .299 with 46 home runs and led the league with 141 RBI. In even years, he’s averaged .269 with 31 home runs and 88 RBI.

The Brewers may not be able to match up favorably with teams like the Phillies and Braves over the long, six-month season, but anything can happen in a short five- or seven-game series. Given the fact that it is almost guaranteed he won’t be back in 2012, the Brewers must do everything possible to go for a championship with Fielder in 2011. 

There will be plenty of time for speculation after the season to debate where Fielder will spend the next several seasons of his career. For now, however, Brewer fans should appreciate the fact they have one of the best sluggers in the game and realize this might turn out to be the most special season for the organization since 1982.


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Shaun Marcum Will Turn Into The Milwaukee Brewers Ace in 2011

Entering the 2011 season, the Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff appears to be all about Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo and for good reason. The Brewers gave up four of their organization’s best young talents to bring the 2009 AL Cy Young winner to Milwaukee. Likewise, Gallardo has blossomed into one of the finest (and most underrated) pitchers in the game having posted back to back 200 strikeout seasons.

However, if the Brewers are to make a push to the playoffs in 2011, much of the credit will go to the third of their aces that has received virtually no attention since being acquired from the Blue Jays last monthShaun Marcum. 

Marcum is no stranger to being overshadowed. That can happen quite easily when you’re pitching on the same staff as Roy Halladay for four seasons. That was followed up by missing the entire 2009 season thanks to Tommy John surgery.

2010 proved to be the coming out party for Marcum. He served as the Opening Day starter for the Jays and finished the season with a 13-8 record and a 3.64 ERA in 31 starts.

His strikeout-to-walk ratio, WHIP and walks per nine innings were all better than either Greinke or Gallardo. Marcum put up his numbers all while pitching in the toughest division in baseball. This year, he can replace starts against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox with starts against the Astros, Cubs and Pirates. Despite finishing fourth in their division, the Blue Jays won 85 games in 2010, a total that cannot be dismissed, especially against the level of competition they faced.

Despite missing all of 2009, Marcum proved to be a workhorse for Toronto. Only eight times did he pitch fewer than six innings, including his first nine starts of the year and eight of his final nine starts. 

Baseball is a game about matchups. Last season, Marcum was consistently matched up against the opposing team’s ace, but he’ll face many team’s third, fourth or fifth starter this year. In fact, there is a chance he could serve as the team’s fourth starter to break up the back to back throwing of lefties Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. 

His offensive support will be virtually identical as well. The Jays scored only five more runs over the course of the season than the Brewers. Similarly, the defense for both teams was nearly the same as well. Neither was outstanding but he can do enough on his own to keep his team in the game.

It was Marcum’s arrival in Milwaukee that served as one of the main reasons Greinke decided to waive his no-trade clause to be sent to the Brewers. Now he’ll be able to showcase his talents for a team that has a much easier road to the playoffs.

Shaun Marcum doesn’t have the name recognition to excite the fans and drive up ticket sales like Greinke, nor does he have a following in Milwaukee like Gallardo, but he may prove the most valuable of the trio in the team’s effort for postseason play in 2011. 



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Zack Greinke Is the Unquestioned Ace for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011

Now that the initial shock and excitement from the Zack Greinke trade to the Milwaukee Brewers is beginning to wear off, it’s time to analyze and look more closely at Greinke’s roll for the Brewers in 2011. 

The most popular question being asked now is who will be the “ace” of the staff and get the Opening Day start against the Cincinnati Reds. Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum all started for their respective teams in 2010, so new manager Ron Roenicke definitely has several options to choose from.

I’ve seen many fans and media members come out and say that Gallardo should be the Brewers’ ace, and they think Greinke is over-rated. With due respect to Gallardo, he’s a great young pitcher and I’m quite thankful the Brewers have him signed for the next several seasons, but he isn’t on the same level as Greinke and the newest Brewer should be the ace of the staff, no questions asked.

Critics certainly have ammunition to try and question Greinke’s status as an ace. His numbers regressed significantly after winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2009. His ERA jumped from 2.16 to 4.17. He had half as many complete games and no shutouts, and all his other pitching statistics declined sharply in 2010. 

While some of the blame has to fall on Greinke’s shoulders, he admitted he stopped throwing his slider as frequently starting in August to save his arm for the 2010 season, let us not forget that he pitched for the Kansas City Royals. The team hardly had an All-Star roster to support him either at the plate or in the field. The Brewers may not field a team of Gold Glove-caliber fielders, but they are adequate in the field and a very good offensive club.

He has also had bouts in the past with social anxiety disorder and depression. Some interpret this as a sign of weakness and an inability to sustain any long-term success or deal in pressure situations. The dosage of his medication was raised and when he spoke to the Milwaukee media he told them he was as happy now as he’s ever been in the game since being drafted in 2002.

Greinke possesses as many weapons to dominate a game as any pitcher in baseball. His fastball can reach the upper-90s, but he’ll consistently keep it around the mid-90s during a game. The two-seem fastball he throws is a great weapon to induce many ground balls. His slider, which some consider to be the best single pitch in the game, has a share 12-6 break that he throws in the upper-80s. His change up and curveball are both quality pitches that should work very well in the National League.

General Manager Doug Melvin has done an amazing job transforming the Brewers’ rotation from a laughing-stock to a group that can compete with almost any team in the league. The still might lack the depth to compete with the Phillies or Giants, but they now have a pitcher that can match up with any pitcher on any day and win. That can go a long way when October rolls around.

Gallardo may be around in Milwaukee longer than Greinke, and Marcum is a very under-rated pitcher that had success in the most competitive division in baseball, but Zack Greinke is the ace in Milwaukee. Fans can debate it, and Roenicke may not make a public decision for a few months, but there’s no question who will be on the mound for the Brewers come March 31, he’s baseball royalty. 


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Zack Greinke Traded to the Milwaukee Brewers: Are They the NL Central Favorites?

In acquiring the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin signaled to his team and fanbase that he has extremely high hopes for the 2011 season. The move not only solidified a greatly improved rotation, but assured Prince Fielder will remain in Milwaukee and not be traded.

Are the Brewers now the class of the NL Central or just one of several contenders for the division crown?

Although the Greinke trade received all the headlines and fanfare, the Shaun Marcum trade is the one that will be looked back at as the key to the offseason. Trading former top prospect Brett Lawrie for Marcum is the deal that signaled to Greinke that the Brewers were serious about winning in the upcoming season. He then took the Brewers off his no-trade list, and the rest is history.

The trio of Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Marcum is certainly on par with the Cardnials trio of Carpenter, Wainwright and Garcia or the Reds‘ top three of Cueto, Volquez and Arroyo. Only the Pirates finished with a team ERA worse than the Brewers’ 4.65 last year. The Brewers won’t just have a better pitching staff than 2010, but they’ll have a significantly better staff than last year.

Marcum’s numbers were actually better than Greinke’s in 2010. Pitching in the ultra-competitive AL East, the 29-year-old righty went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA and pitched in a career-high 195.1 innings coming off Tommy John surgery.

Having a deeper rotation will also have a positive effect on the bullpen. John Axford had a brilliant rookie campaign for the Brewers by racking up 24 saves and a 2.48 ERA in 50 appearances. With Zach Braddock, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra and LaTroy Hawkins, the bullpen is full of power arms that can overpower an opposing team’s lineup.

Hawkins will have to bounce back successfully from surgery, and the rest of the pen will have to try and duplicate their recent success, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do as a reliever.

Defense will be an issue for the 2011 Brewers, but that has been a question mark for several years now. Losing shortstop Alcides Escobar and replacing him with Yuniesky Betancourt is a significant downgrade, but having Greinke, Gallardo and Marcum all capable of high strikeout numbers, there should be less chances for the infield to blow. Lorenzo Cain seemed to be a very good defensive player, but Carlos Gomez is all-world as a defensive player. It’s Gomez’s bat that is the problem, not his glove.

The offense was above average in 2010 and should continue being a strong point for the team. New manager Ron Roenicke is preaching a more aggressive brand of baseball, which indicates he’ll want his team stealing more bases and improving in situational hitting like hit-and-run and sacrifice plays.

The situational hitting will be key for the team. Power wasn’t and shouldn’t be an issue for this team at all. Casey McGehee, Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder all hit at least 23 home runs last season and barring injury, they should be able to replicate that production in 2011 as well. Fielder had a down year in 2010, seeing his RBI total drop from 141 to 83, but he’s entering his final year before free agency so one can safely assume his numbers will improve dramatically.

The Brewers finished a distant third behind the Reds and Cardinals in 2010. The Reds have made no significant upgrades to their roster, and with respect to Lance Berkman, he’s not nearly the same player now as he was five years ago, so the Cardinals haven’t improved greatly either. Adding Ryan Theriot was a nice move, but it doesn’t compare with adding a player the level of Marcum or Greinke.

Standing pat is usually not a recipe to improve in baseball. Like the Brewers, the Reds still have youth on their side, so they should be a year better, not a year older. The same can’t be said for the Cardinals.

Will the Brewers in their current form win the 2011 NL Central? While that will be debated over the next several months, it appears at the very least the NL Central will now be a three-team race. The Brewers’ long-term window may not be as big as it was prior to the Marcum and Greinke trades, but fans and players alike can take solace in the fact that at least management is doing everything possible to make 2011 the most special in team history.

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