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Small market Brewers hoping for big things in 2014

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January 28, 2014

“They said it took 20 years for Brett Favre to replace Bart Starr,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin recently mused. “I hope it doesn't take 20 years to replace Prince Fielder here in Milwaukee at first base.”

But if that is Melvin's biggest concern going into this season, the need to find a first baseman who can actually play first, this just might be the Brewers' most stress-free spring training in a long time.

He recently signed Matt Garza to go into the rotation with Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and two more from the combination of Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada, Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg.

Small-market pitching is typically a dicey proposition, and the Brewers will go only as far as those arms can take them, but there is little debate about the overall quality of their everyday players.

“I say five of our eight players are in the top 10 at their positions in the major leagues,” Melvin said.

That's a bold statement just before catchers and pitchers report to Maryvale, but Melvin, ever the modest Canadian, has never been one for hyperbole or self-promotion.

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, centerfielder Carlos Gomez and rightfielder Ryan Braun are all A-listers in Melvin's book.

The most impressive thing to take from that group is how good the Brewers have become up the middle. Gomez and Segura were all-stars last season. Lucroy has been a revelation. The Brewers' backbone is strong.

If forced to tinker at one position, it might as well be at first.

“The thing I like is we don't have to do it with catching, shortstop and center field,” Melvin said. “Those are three key positions. We have three players we like a lot in Lucroy, Segura and Gomez and three guys who will be here for a long time. If there is a position I have to mix and match at I'm glad it's not those positions.”

The highlight video for the 2013 Brewers might as well have been titled, “Who's on First.” Nine guys and 162 games later, they still hadn't satisfactorily replaced Corey Hart.

“First base is the only position with mix and match and trial and error that we'll have to work at,” Melvin said. “Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay bring some experience. Last year we ran about nine guys out there and none of them really played first. I say we need to find a first baseman who can play first.”

I wasn't crazy to see Norichika Aoki go, but if Smith adds anything to the pitching staff and Khris Davis becomes an offensive force, then perhaps the Brewers can find a leadoff hitter. Segura or Scooter Gennett would seem logical.

The Brewers were confident enough in Davis to move Braun to right. Melvin didn't include left field as one of the positions of strength because Davis has yet to prove he can field the ball before it stops rolling. Neither was second base on the list.

Gennett became a hitting machine after the platoon ended with Rickie Weeks' injury. The Brewers haven't publicly abandoned the idea of a platoon again because they owe the unmovable Weeks a ton of money. Might as well see how that plays out in the spring.

My guess is Reynolds will give them a little bit of pop at first and second base will work itself out. If the Brewers can avoid the catastrophic injury plague that trashed last season, it will again come down to the Garza-enhanced pitching staff that was actually quite good after the all-star break.

And maybe the next Prince Fielder is eating crayons in kindergarten somewhere.

Michael Hunt is a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist.



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