The Milwaukee Brewers would be dangerous if they had starting pitching.
So they used to say.
That refrain no longer pertains to Milwaukee because the Brewers finally have big-time starters in Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf.
Mix that pitching in with the power of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Casey McGehee, Richie Weeks and Corey Hart and suddenly the Brewers are serious National League pennant contenders.
The Brewers are co-favorites with Cincinnati and St. Louis at plus 190 to win the NL Central Division, according to odds at Bookmaker.com. Milwaukee is 18/1 to win its first World Series. The ‘over/under’ regular-season win total for the Brewers is 85 ½.
The Brewers smacked 182 homers last year, led by Fielder’s 32. That ranked fifth-best in baseball. Milwaukee also scored the 11th most runs despite not taking advantage of some of their speed.
Milwaukee’s offense could be even better under new manager Ron Roenicke, who should prove more popular with the players than previous managers Ken Macha and Ned Yost. Roenicke isn’t afraid to let speedsters Weeks and Carlos Gomez run more. Braun and Hart are capable of stealing bases, too.
Fielder and Braun had good, but not great seasons in 2010. Fielder, though, hit 14 more homers and drove in 58 more runs in 2009.
Braun batted .304 with 25 homers and 103 RBIs last year. Those numbers were down, too, from 2009 when Braun hit .320, smacked 32 homers and drove in 114 runs.
The Brewers upgraded their power at shortstop with Yuniesky Betancourt, who hit 16 homers and drove in 78 runs for Kansas City last season. That was two more RBIs than Florida superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez had.
Weeks, McGehee, Hart and Betancourt combined to hit 99 homers last year.
Milwaukee’s infield defense is suspect and projected starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy is untested with his backups weak. Lucroy may even begin the season on the DL after breaking the pinkie on his throwing hand.
The key, as always, is pitching. The Brewers rode CC Sabathia to the playoffs in 2008 making it as a wild card entry. Previous to that, Milwaukee hadn’t made the postseason since 1982. They were 77-85 last year.
Greinke is in Sabathia’s dominant class although he doesn’t have the victories to show for it having toiled for Kansas City during the past seven seasons. He had a down year in 2010 going 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA. However, two seasons ago Greinke won the American League Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record, 2.16 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 242-to-51.
A change of scenery to a much stronger hitting club and switching to the more pitching-friendly National League can’t hurt Greinke. Playing in a small market should relieve some of the pressure, too, on Greinke.
Marcum pitched for baseball’s No. 1 home run-hitting team the Toronto Blue Jays last year, but he also should be helped getting away from the brutal AL East Division.
Marcum came back from an elbow ligament replacement that wiped out his 2009 season to post a 13-8 record with Toronto last year with a 3.64 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.
Gallardo may not be an ace, but he’s a solid No. 2 starter. Wolf and No. 5 starter, Chris Narveson, are both southpaws giving Milwaukee good balance.
Closer John Axford proved to be a revelation midway through the season as all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman clearly had reached the end of the line. Axford won eight games and saved 24 compiling a 2.48 ERA.
Axford pitched far more effectively than many big-name closers. He averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings, blew just two saves and surrendered only one home run in 58 innings.
Veterans Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins will serve as set-up relievers.
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