This is the final piece in an ongoing series previewing the 6 teams in the National League Central.
1) Just what is Mat Gamel?
About the only thing that is known for sure is that Gamel isn’t Prince Fielder. Beyond that, there are contradictory signals everywhere. He’s hit well virtually everywhere he’s gone in the minors, but has struggled to a career .222/.309/.374 line in almost 200 major league plate appearances. He’s had well documented commitment and attitude issues, but seems to have turned that around in the past off-season. He led the team in home runs this spring, but struggled at times to make contact. If Gamel can find a way to square up the ball a little more consistently, he has the discipline and power to at least carry his weight at first, if not be even a bit better than average. He still has to do it, though, and until he does he’s really the team’s biggest question mark heading into the season. It’s especially important for the Brewers that Gamel is able to achieve some sort of success, as he’s the only left-handed hitter with any power in the team’s everyday lineup, and they’ll need him to help keep right-handed pitchers honest. It’s not overselling to say that how Gamel performs will go a long way towards determining how many runs the team scores, and as a result, where they finish in the standings.
2) Can Zack Greinke live up to his ability to be a true ace?
In 2009, Greinke won the AL Cy Young by posting one of the better pitcher seasons in recent memory in many categories. Since then, his results in terms of run prevention have failed to live up to his outstanding stuff and peripheral statistics. In 2011, he struck out the most batters per 9 innings and finished 6th in strikeout-to-walk ratio among qualified starters. As a result, he had some of the lowest defense-independent pitching numbers among all starters. The problem was, though, that due to frequent home runs on fly balls and a low percentage of runners stranded on base, his ERA was a mediocre 3.83. The problems in 2011 were especially present during his rough first half after returning from early season injury, and his second half was much more successful. If he can avoid the pitfalls that caused the larger-than-expected number of runs to score early last year, he could easily have the kind of season he had in 2009 and help make up for the departure of Fielder.
3) What will we learn about the future of Brewers pitching in 2012?
The Brewers head into the upcoming season with only two of their five starters set to return in 2013. Yovani Gallardo has a long term contract and Chris Narveson will be heading into his first year of arbitration, but both Greinke and Shaun Marcum can declare for free agency and Randy Wolf has a 10 million dollar team option in his contract should the Brewers decide to bring him back. One of the dominant story lines of spring training was whether or not the team could lock Greinke into a long-term extension, something that remains unsettled at this point. If they can’t, the team will have to decide how much they want to spend to try and bring back either Marcum or Wolf. No matter how all of this turns out, there is almost certain to be at least one, if not multiple, rotation slots open starting in 2013. Fortunately, the Brewers have more options to turn to internally than in the past, with top prospect Wily Peralta and control specialist Mike Fiers sitting in AAA awaiting a shot. It’s also possible that Tyler Thornburg could shed his “likely reliever” tag and emerge as a legitimate option for 2013. Further down in the system at advanced A Brevard County are Taylor Jungmann, Jed Bradley, and Jimmy Nelson, any of whom could put themselves in a position for some major league time in 2013 with strong campaigns this year. How all of this shakes out will be an fascinating subplot to a major league team that should be able to compete for a playoff slot in 2012.