Milwaukee Brewers face daunting April schedule
The Milwaukee Brewers have been slow to come out of the gate in recent seasons, to the point that general manager Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke had lengthy discussions before spring training about ways to possibly avoid those false starts.
If that trend continues in 2014, the Brewers could be buried even faster than last season, when a 6-22 May knocked them out of the NL Central race before Memorial Day.
Simply put, the Brewers’ April schedule is brutal.
In 28 games scheduled for the opening month (we include March 31 for general accounting purposes), the Brewers play 12 games against division winners from last season—Atlanta (three), Boston (three) and St. Louis (six). Toss in the Pittsburgh Pirates for seven more games and you have four 90-game winners from 2013 on the April schedule.
Even with three games against the lowly Chicago Cubs (66-96 last season), the combined winning percentage from 2013 of the Brewers’ opponents over the first month is .528 (599-535).
“It’s a tough schedule, no question,” said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
Not that it gets much easier in May. After a four-game series in Cincinnati, the Brewers return home for three games each against the Diamondbacks, Yankees and Pirates. Later, there’s a four-game series in Atlanta and three games at home against Baltimore.
Once the Brewers fell off the pace in 2013, they never caught up. It didn’t help that St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati ran off and hid from the Brewers and Cubs, each winning 90 or more games to claim playoff berths.
If those division foes are that good again, it won’t be easy for the Brewers to close ground, even with an improved club. The Cardinals certainly aren’t going away with their wealth of young, hard-throwing pitchers. How much the Pirates and Reds might fall back is debatable.
But nobody said this was going to be easy. And a slow start doesn’t necessarily mean a death knell for your season. In 2011, when the Brewers rolled to a franchise-record 96 victories and their only NL Central crown, they were 16-21 on May 11.
The division wasn’t nearly as strong back then, however. And the Brewers had greatly strengthened their starting pitching with the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. At the all-star break, they made the dynamic move of adding Francisco Rodriguez to a bullpen that didn’t blow a late lead the rest of the season.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the team the Brewers will put on the field Monday afternoon at Miller Park. Ryan Braun is back from a 2013 season marred by injury and drug suspension. Aramis Ramirez, while in the twilight of his career, looks healthy after playing last year on a bum knee. Centerfielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura are coming off all-star seasons, and Jonathan Lucroy has developed into one of the better catchers in the league.
The starting pitching staff looks stronger, assuming the Brewers’ big-ticket off-season acquisition, Matt Garza, pitches to past form and stays healthy. Should things go awry in the rotation, there is more depth to draw from than in recent years.
But there are question marks, beginning with the right side of the infield. Will veterans Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay provide the offensive production at first base that was sorely missing last year (major-league worst .629 OPS)? How will Rickie Weeks and Scooter Gennett coexist at second base?
The Brewers opened left field for the budding power potential of young Khris Davis, who must live up to that confidence from his bosses. A revamped bullpen must show it can protect leads with Jim Henderson in only his second season as a big-league closer.
All of those pieces must fit together to complete a successful puzzle for 2014. And, unlike last season, key players must stay healthy. Roenicke spent too much time a year ago trying to compile something resembling a major-league lineup.
While a fast start would be nice—and anything is possible in baseball—it is unlikely when taking a daunting early schedule into consideration. But, if the Brewers can hang in there until gaining their footing, a return to competitive mode is not beyond their reach.