As we saw with the Angels over the last two seasons and with the Nationals in 2013, it’s not merely enough to construct a center-heavy roster that wins the always-fun preseason World Series. There’s much more to it creating a winning team than that.
What do I mean? Well, for starters, all 43 of ESPN’s baseball experts predicted the Nationals would reach the postseason, 29 of them having the Nats in the World Series. When stars like Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper–the players that were expected to get Washington to the World Series–went down with injury, they couldn’t ever get in a groove or on base for that matter. From top-to-bottom there were simply too many holes in the lineup, rotation, defense, and bullpen.
Now this is by no means a “What went wrong with the 2013 Nationals” piece considering how I probably know as much as you do about that team, but what they exemplified is the difference that having roster depth makes between the good teams, the mediocre teams, and the bad teams. It’s one reason why the Athletics, Cardinals, and Rangers are in contention seemingly every year.
We put a lot–probably too much–focus on the top tier of talent on a team and pay less attention to the middle and bottom thirds. Especially during the doldrums of the winter, one thing I’ve been susceptible to is attempting to figure out which players will make the Opening Day roster. Don’t get me wrong, though, having a strong core of elite players worth four, five, six wins each, is important. There’s a reason the Astros only won 51 games with Jason Castro as their best player. But as we saw with the Brewers last year, who came into the season with a core of Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Rickie Weeks and ended with a core looking far different, the unpredictability of a 162-game season means that, most likely, you need more than that.
The wide consensus among Brewers fans is that the Cardinals are disliked, and I’m probably understating that notion for many. Why are they disliked? Because they’re good, simply put. And why are they good? They send multiple players to the All Star Game each year, Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, and their talent at the top of their roster is as good as anyone’s. But how many times have their role players, prospects, rookies, and so on helped them win games? What may make them so easy to dislike is their consistent ability to have an elite starting rotation numerically, piece together a bullpen that is effective, and hit you to death at any point in the order. Simply put: They’re consistently successful because they compose a deep roster.
Let’s take a bit wider of a look at the Brewers roster as it stands now. One large question mark surrounding the current roster involves the fifth starter spot. Manager Ron Roenicke has gone on the record saying that, at the moment, Tyler Thornburg owns the role, but the Brewers traded away Norichika Aoki for southpaw Will Smith. Whichever player rounds out the rotation to begin the season is important, no doubt, but no team is able to rely on those five starters throughout the season. Filling out the five-man rotation is important because, if you can rely on those guys throughout the season, then odds are they’re all pitching well and staying healthy. But as we saw in 2013, it’s hard to rely on five starters, as 12 different pitchers toed the slab to open the game. Both Thornburg and Smith will start at some point in 2014 and get their fair share of innings. What they do with them may play a large part in the Brewers chances of contending, as well.
Same thing goes with Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer in the outfield to go along with Juan Francisco, Sean Halton, and Jeff Bianchi (among others) in the infield. When the Brewers lost Ramirez and Braun repeatedly last season and Corey Hart never returned, their lineup fluctuated daily and featured multiple players without much experience. The Brewers weren’t deep enough (or good enough at the top, either, but don’t say that, it detracts from the point at hand). On offense, in the rotation, or in the bullpen.
One sign of promise, however, was the team’s success in September last season. Milwaukee went 15-12 with the current starting four plus Thornburg, Jimmy Nelson, and Johnny Hellweg eating up most of the innings with a young bullpen getting the workload over veterans including Michael Gonzalez and Burke Badenhop, neither of whom is returning this season.
At first glance, this Brewers team doesn’t appear to be anything special at the top–though a lineup featuring Gomez, Braun, Ramirez, Lucroy, and Jean Segura is nothing to laugh at–but, all around, it’s a deeper team then the one last year. I’ll probably regret this, but I feel confident about all five starters, regardless of who rounds out the rotation. When John Axford‘s HR/FB rate did what what we were expecting it to do and he imploded as closer, the bullpen never truly had set roles. Now with Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson at the top, there are more options to fill out the rest.
If the Brewers plan to contend in 2014, it will have to be a full-team effort and not having Yuniesky Betancourt or Alex Gonzalez can only help. Right?