Braun saga dominated Brewers' disappointing year
Many substantial injuries led to Milwaukee's fourth-place finish in the Central
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin entered 2013 with a realistic outlook for his team.
"We're a smaller market club and I don't want to cry about it, but our offseason goals were to improve our bullpen and go with some younger pitching, hoping they would develop," Melvin said. "We recognized that most things had to go right for us, and we couldn't afford injuries to key positions. That's what we thought going into it."
Instead, if something could go wrong for the Brewers, it did. They lost their first-, second- and third-string first basemen (Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green ) to what would prove to be season-ending injuries before breaking Spring Training camp. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez played all season on a bum knee. Ryan Braun was hurt, playing with a painful thumb injury that sapped his power, before he was suspended for violations of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Agreement.
While those injuries mounted, a suspect starting rotation collapsed during an historically bad month of May, when the Brewers went 6-22 and dropped out of contention. They won on the final day of the month to merely match their worst month, winning percentage-wise, in the franchise's 45-year history. The 1969 Seattle Pilots were 6-22 (.214) in August in their only season before a move to Milwaukee the following spring.
"I still know that we're going to turn this thing around," manager Ron Roenicke said that week. "I don't know how good we'll be, but I know we're a lot better club than we've shown. I'm waiting to get to that part where all parts are working well. I know it's in there."
They were about a .500 club the rest of the way.
Record: 74-88, fourth in the National League Central
Defining moment: The Brewers were taking batting practice prior to a Monday night game against the Padres in late July when Braun's star fell. The 29-year-old only vaguely admitted "mistakes" in accepting a suspension that would cover the team's final 65 games, ending a 19-month charade during which Braun had steadfastly declared his innocence. The reaction from around the sports world was swift and brutal, including from Phoenix, where the D-backs aired frustration about Braun's role in the 2011 NL Division Series; from Toronto, where visiting Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp said Braun should surrender his 2011 NL MVP Award; and from Green Bay, where Packers quarterback and former Braun business associate Aaron Rodgers spoke for many around the state when he said, "It doesn't feel great being lied to like that."
Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio struck a more forgiving tone, expressing sadness and saying Braun faced a long road to redemption. Braun never appeared publicly after leaving Miller Park the afternoon his suspension was announced, instead releasing a lengthy written statement through the team on Aug. 22, in which he acknowledged taking a banned substance to aid his recovery from an injury in late 2011, expressed regret for misleading teammates and fans over the ensuing two years, and apologized for "any damage done to the game."
"I think a combination of feeling self-righteous and having a lot of unjustified anger led me to react the way I did," Braun said. "I felt wronged and attacked, but looking back now, I was the one who was wrong."
What went right: Braun's loss was other outfielders' gain, as the likes of Khris Davis and Caleb Gindl made strong cases for next season.
Shortstop Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez jockeyed for the NL's top batting average early in the season before representing the Brewers at the All-Star Game in New York. Gomez was sensational in center field, making game-saving catch after game-saving catch, and bidding to be the Brewers' first Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner since 1982.
Melvin was successful in his offseason bid to improve the bullpen, even though John Axford lasted but a week in the closer's role. By the time Francisco Rodriguez was traded to the Orioles for a much-needed corner infield prospect, and Axford was sent to St. Louis, Brandon Kintzler had emerged as a solid eighth-inning man and Jim Henderson as a reliable closer.
While Segura had a breakout year in the Majors, Johnny Hellweg won Pitcher of the Year honors in the Pacific Coast League, making last summer's Zack Greinke trade look even better.
What went wrong: Every team has injuries, but the Brewers' middle of the order was decimated in 2013. It began in January, when the Brewers made the surprise announcement that Hart would need right knee surgery. He had surgery on the left knee in July and never played an inning this season. Ramirez sprained his left knee in Spring Training and played hurt when he was not on the disabled list. Braun's power was sapped by a painful right thumb injury before the suspension ended his season. Later on, second baseman Rickie Weeks suffered a season-ending hamstring injury.
The starting pitching was terrible early in the season, ranking 19th in the Majors with a 4.26 ERA in April and dead last with a 6.72 ERA in May. Yovani Gallardo dealt with diminished velocity and an April 16 arrest for drunk driving, though he finished strong, going 4-1 in August and September. Kyle Lohse had a sore elbow in May. Wily Peralta had an ERA above 6.00 into the second half of June.
The Brewers received a prospect for K-Rod, but were otherwise denied the opportunity to consider trades ahead of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Hart, a free agent-to-be, was out. Weeks was off to a horrid start for the second straight season and had no value. Axford lost the closer duties. Gallardo suffered a hamstring strain in the waning days of July.
Biggest surprise: The Brewers thought Segura would hit, but not as much as he hit early in the season. On July 6, the day he was named to the NL All-Star team via the player ballot, he was the only player in the Majors with at least 10 home runs and 25 stolen bases, and was the NL leader with 109 hits. He also ranked second with 26 stolen bases, was tied for second with eight triples and tied for fourth with 31 multihit games, and ranked fifth in the league with a .322 batting average.
"Whether it was something in winter ball that he got confident in, I don't know, but he led winter ball in hitting and he brought it right into Spring Training," Roenicke said.
In 2014, Segura's task will be maintaining his stats through a full season.
Hitter of the year: A toss-up between Gomez, who rewarded the Brewers for their three-year, $24 million investment in Spring Training, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who stepped up as the team's most consistent run-producer after the Brewers lost Braun. Gomez gets the nod for his all-around production, including a WAR that trailed only the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, the frontrunner for league MVP honors.
Pitcher of the year: Lohse was the last player to join the 2013 Brewers roster but had the biggest impact on and off the field. He became a mentor for Peralta, who showed improvement as the season wore on in terms of controlling his emotions, and Tyler Thornburg, who put together a series of successful starts in the second half after an 0-9 first half in Triple-A. Aside from May, when Lohse dealt with elbow issues probably related to his lack of Spring Training, he was the Brewers' most reliable starting pitcher by a wide margin. He went 11-10 with a 3.35 ERA in 32 starts -- his third straight year of at least 30 starts.
Rookie of the year: Henderson was not your typical rookie, a 30-year-old whose arrival midway through 2012 helped turn around the Brewers' bullpen woes. In 2013, he assumed closer duties one week into the season and pitched well enough to make Brewers officials comfortable in trading away Rodriguez and Axford. Henderson will be 31 next season and will enter the year as the full-time closer.