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Milwaukee Brewers 2014 Preview

By Michael Rushton, Contributing MLB Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Milwaukee Brewers have been trending downward since winning the National League Central three years ago, but the return of a former MVP and the addition of a legitimate starter has the club looking to make some noise in 2014.

The Brewers have made the postseason just twice since joining the National League in 1998 and their Central Division title in 2011 was their first of any kind since winning the AL East crown back in 1982.

What was once a solid 1-2 punch of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun has been reduced to just one since Fielder left as a free agent and Milwaukee went into last season having traded the talented Zack Greinke during the 2012 campaign.

The Brewers knew they would have their work cut out for them last season after finishing just four games over .500 the previous year and things took a turn for the worse when PED sparks finally caught fire with the suspension of Braun.

The former NL MVP was banned for the final 65 games of the season for his involvement with Biogenesis, robbing Milwaukee of its best offensive player.

Not surprisingly, the Brewers ended up coming in fourth place in the NL Central with a record below .500 at 74-88.

There is reason to expect improvement going forward. Braun is back and while he will probably be a villain on the road, the Milwaukee faithful are embracing him despite his previous misleading statements during the Biogenesis investigation.

And Milwaukee added another quality starter to the mix in right-hander Matt Garza, who joins Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo and another righty in Kyle Lohse to give the Brewers a talented top of the rotation.

The Brewers have a lot of ground to make up after the NL Central produced three playoff teams in 2013, including the eventual National League pennant- winning St. Louis Cardinals. Milwaukee finished 23 games out of first place and another 16 behind the third-place Cincinnati Reds, who won one of two wild card spots.

2013 FINISH (74-88) - 4th Place (NL Central)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Matt Garza (RHP), Mark Reynolds (3B/1B), Francisco Rodriguez (RHP). Will Smith (LHP)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Corey Hart (1B/OF), Yuniesky Betancourt (INF), Mike Gonzalez (LHP), Norichika Aoki (OF)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Jean Segura (SS), Scooter Gennett (2B), Ryan Braun (RF), Aramis Ramirez (3B), Jonathan Lucroy (C), Carlos Gomez (CF), Juan Francisco (1B), Khris Davis (LF)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Yovani Gallardo (RHP), Matt Garza (RHP), Kyle Lohse (RHP), Marco Estrada (RHP), Wily Peralta (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Jim Henderson (RHP)

MANAGER: Ron Roenicke

WILL BRAUN'S RETURN BE A DISTRACTION

The Brewers and manager Ron Roenicke, now in his fourth year on the job, insist no, but Braun will certainly take his share of jeers on the road at least.

Braun is usually good for 150-plus games a season and about 35 homers, but a slow start could get in his head and turn the fans against him thanks to his recent violation of the Joint Drug Prevention Program. Given his proclamation of innocence leading up to his suspension, Braun will also be walking a tightrope in the PR department.

But there is no doubt that the Brewers' batting order becomes more fierce with Braun hitting ahead of Aramis Ramirez and company. It also an order that Roenicke will need to tinker with for a bit to find the right mix after leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki was traded in the offseason.

There is a lot of potential in players like Jean Segura, Juan Francisco and Khris Davis, and a healthy and productive Braun takes the pressure off the rest of the order.

Should he struggle, things could get bad in a hurry.

WHAT DOES THE GARZA ADDITION MEAN FOR GALLARDO

Roenicke has already named Gallardo his Opening Day starter, setting him up to become the first hurler in franchise history to make five straight Opening Day starts.

But it could also be his last.

The 28-year-old Gallardo averaged 15 wins and a 3.68 earned run average from 2009-12, but slipped to just a 4.18 ERA in 31 starts last season. He still managed to go 12-10, but struck out 60 fewer batters than the previous campaign.

By no means is Gallardo on the downswing of his career, but this is also the final season of his five-year deal. Milwaukee owns a $13 million option or $600,000 buyout for 2015 and may hesitate to pony up the cash if he struggles again.

The Garza addition is another factor. The Brewers handed out the richest contract in team history to land the consistent righty, with his deal worth a reported $50 million over four years with another $4 million in incentives and a vesting option in 2018 valued at $13 million.

Garza owns a career ERA of 3.84 and went 6-1 with a 3.17 ERA in 11 starts last season with the rival Chicago Cubs before getting traded to the Texas Rangers, who he had some struggles with.

A solid campaign by the 30-year-old could make the pricey Gallardo expendable.

IS THE BREWERS BULLPEN EXPERIENCED ENOUGH?

There was a reason that the Brewers brought back the 32-year-old Francisco Rodriguez.

Rodriguez will add some much-needed experience to a Milwaukee bullpen that has a lot of breaking in to do on its tires.

Closer Jim Henderson may be 30 and is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA and 28 saves, but it was also just his second in the big leagues.

Right-hander Brandon Kintzler, 29, has pitched in just 101 MLB games and lefty Will Smith, acquired from the Kansas City Royals for Aoki, has just 35 games (17 starts) under his belt.

That made the addition of Rodriguez a crucial one for the relief group which was set to have just one truly experienced arm in 31-year-old lefty Tom Gorzelanny leading the pack.

X-FACTOR: JEAN SEGURA

The Brewers are in need of a new leadoff hitter after trading Aoki and Segura appears as if he will get the first crack at setting the table. While Segura hit at a solid .294 clip and was able to steal 44 bases, he'll have to change his approach somewhat as he only drew 25 walks in 623 plate appearances. That was slightly fewer than center fielder Carlos Gomez, who is another candidate to leadoff but is enticing further down the lineup due to his 24 homers a season ago. Milwaukee has plenty of capable bats to drive in runs, but Segura has to be on base for that to happen.

OUTLOOK

There are things to like about the Brewers -- a deep rotation and offensive potential -- but not enough to consider them playoff contenders in a tough division. Many things could go wrong for Milwaukee in a hurry given the overall inexperience of the bullpen, lack of a true leadoff hitter and the fact that its best offensive player is returning from a 65-game suspension with a chip on his shoulder. The reality is that the Brewers are probably still another key piece or two away from being able to make noise in the NL Central.

03/24 15:00:46 ET