- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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We should have known better than to believe the 2007 Brewers were for real. How did this team have 14 more wins than losses on July 1? Best team in the National League? That couldn't last. Ryan Braun was a monster from the minute he was brought up, Prince Fielder has skills, Ben Sheets was healthy, but 47-33? Are you kidding?
The precipitous decline the Brewers suffered, winning only nine games in August and then fighting just to stay above .500 the rest of the way as the Cubs breezed by them, set the stage for the offseason plan, which now appears to be focused at winning this season. Welcome, Eric Gagne, enjoy the one-year deal. Here comes Mike Cameron to patrol center field on his one-year, um, five-month deal. (He has that 25-game suspension thing, ya know.) The Brewers' figure veterans, especially playing for contracts, will be motivated to stay healthy and productive. The team's defense is better, the bullpen is deeper and the young stars like Braun and Yovani Gallardo are in the majors to stay.
The Brewers are in this thing for the long haul, or at least all six months in 2008. Of course, some of the same problems persist this time around, with the notable exception being Braun's horrific defense at third base. He'll now be doing his Pat Burrell impression in left field. But is Gagne, who hasn't pitched well in a second-half since seemingly the Reagan administration, a safe closer? Does the lineup have enough punch outside of Braun and Fielder? You can't think J.J. Hardy will do that again! And Mr. Sheets, what ails you today? Hamstring? Blister? Hemorrhoids? C'mon, we know something is going to cause many missed starts, so don't lie to us.
Meet your 2008 Milwaukee Brewers. As "The Who" once yelled, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Just insert the word "Brewers" for "boss."
Ballpark: Milwaukee's Miller Park is pretty neutral in terms of runs scored factor, ranking Nos. 16, 15 and 16 the past three seasons. Tough to get more neutral than that. The Brewers do bring a lot more power to the table than most teams, though it still doesn't push this ballpark toward favoring hitters or pitchers. Despite an unspectacular pitching staff, the Brewers smacked 70 more home runs than opponents in 2007. Don't credit the pitchers, though. Braun and Fielder are legit power hitters who hit 44 of their combined 84 home runs at home. They'll obviously hit 'em anywhere.
Top Sleeper: Dave Bush. Yeah, yeah, we've been all over this guy for three years now, but the evidence still suggests that Bush has a future in fantasy baseball. A year ago, one had to spend a fairly decent draft pick to get Bush, who was coming off a season in which he had a 1.13 WHIP and showed signs of emerging. OK, so Bush didn't emerge. He went backward, actually. But he's only 28, and the definition of a sleeper, to me, is stealing a player really late in your draft who performs way above expectations. Milwaukee's straight-forward offense doesn't provide anyone like that. One of these years, Bush will figure out how to avoid untimely home runs, improve at pitching from the stretch or whatever his problem has been. Could be 2008.
Intriguing spring battle: Someone has to play center field for the first month while Mike Cameron counts all the money he lost in that potential long-term contract. Cammy will play a very good center field and help fly-ball pitchers like Bush, but he won't do that the first 25 games of the season while he serves a substance-abuse suspension. Bill Hall is the new third baseman and Braun is safely tucked in left field, so expect one of the team's fourth/fifth outfielders to simply get a lot of extra playing time early -- and a leg up for playing time during the annual Cameron DL stint later in the season. Tony Gwynn Jr. and Gabe Gross would appear to be the logical choices, and Gross is the better player. The left-handed hitter has a respectable .850 OPS against right-handed pitching the past two seasons in Milwaukee and a grand total of three base hits against southpaws. He's an obvious platoon option, possibly with regurgitated strongman Gabe Kapler.
Trainer's room: The Brewers have a number of important cogs in the machine who just can't seem to stay healthy. Start with Sheets, their 29-year-old ace. The last time Sheets started more than 24 games in a season was 2004. Though he has been effective while averaging 21 starts the past three years, fantasy owners who rely on him as their ace should prepare to be active on the free-agent wire. The positive thing about Sheets' lack of durability, if there is one, is that his injuries haven't been shoulder/elbow related. But by now, we can't simply call his problems mere flukes.
The other Brewer to watch is leadoff man Rickie Weeks, who has Brandon Phillips-like upside if he could shake his wrist problems. Weeks tantalizes fantasy owners with his potential. He's a low-average batter but has 30/30 capability if you extrapolate his annual 100-game stats over 162 games. The thumb and wrist are supposedly healthy now, so prepare to pay top dollar for Weeks.
Schedule Preview: The Brewers play in a neutral park with what should generally be the same lineup most days, barring injury, so as a fantasy owner, don't expect a different strategy at certain points in the season. The Brewers open and close April with a series at Wrigley Field to play the "team to beat" in their division, then don't visit Wrigley again until mid-September. Expect the Brewers to have something to play for in the final month, and enjoy a 10-game road trip through hitters parks Philly, Chicago and Cincinnati. Well, enjoy it if you have Brewers hitters, not pitchers.
Future closer: The Brewers have three, maybe even four right-handed pitchers on deck in case Eric Gagne falters or can't stay healthy. None of these pitchers are notably young or brimming with potential. David Riske was given a three-year contract after a solid season in Kansas City, and would seem next in line over wild Derrick Turnbow, rubber-armed Salomon Torres and really wild Seth McClung. Then again, maybe Gagne makes the entire point moot by rediscovering his Cy Young form. Or not.
Backups to watch: The outfield will be relatively deep with Gross, Kapler and Tony Gwynn Jr. around, and Gwynn does offer cheap NL-only speed. Starting catcher Jason Kendall really can't offer much to fantasy owners, as he hit .242 in 2007 and has a total of four home runs in as many years, but reserve Eric Munson does have pop and could deliver five home runs to NL-only owners. Finally, Bill Hall is the starter at third, but he's coming off a below-average campaign, especially against right-handed pitching. Ageless Craig Counsell didn't hit, either, but does have speed, versatility and a left-handed bat.
Fantasy studs: The Brewers have two of them in the middle of the lineup, as both Braun and Fielder project as second-round picks, or higher. While Braun destroyed left-handed pitching to the tune of a sick 1.480 OPS, Fielder hit 40 home runs mostly against right-handers, so opposing teams won't be able to mix-and-match pitching so well. Don't feel shy about grabbing them earlier if you think they'll up their value by stealing bases. Braun ran in the minors and then swiped 15 bases in 20 attempts with the Brewers, though he was just 2-for-3 in September. If he steals 15 bases this season, be happy.
Prospects to watch for 2008: With future ace Yovani Gallardo already in the rotation for good, the next young arm the Brewers could promote is lefty Manny Parra, Now fully healthy after rotator cuff surgery in 2005, Parra struck out a batter per inning in 17 starts at two levels of the minors, then helped the Brewers with 26 strong innings. Parra threw a perfect game in his second Triple-A start, and seems ready for the majors now. He's no Sheets; the DL stint in September happened when Parra broke his thumb trying to bunt against the Cubs.
Prospect to watch for the future: While it's uncertain which spot on the diamond Matt LaPorta will eventually play, there's little doubt his bat will be ready for the big leagues soon, possibly late this season. The No. 7 overall draft pick in 2007, LaPorta has big-time power to all fields and has plate discipline, which should lead to high on-base percentages. If a corner outfield spot opens up in 2008, LaPorta could make a Braun-like entrance.
Eric Karabell is a fantasy sports expert for ESPN.com Fantasy.
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