Brewers need improved rotation

PHOENIX -- While Hank the Dog prepares for his next photo shoot, Ryan Braun learns the ins-and-outs of right field play and Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura try to build on breakout seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers are well aware that their fate in 2014 will rest on a baseball platitude: Everything comes down to pitching in the end.

It's been three spring trainings since the Brewers were flush with optimism behind a rotation that included Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson and Yovani Gallardo. That group combined with Prince Fielder and Braun, the National League MVP, to help Milwaukee win 96 games and fall two victories short of a World Series appearance in 2011.

A lot has changed in a relatively short time in Milwaukee. Fielder and Corey Hart are both in the American League. Rickie Weeks is trying to fend off Scooter Gennett in the competition for the Brewers' starting second base job. Former Milwaukee closer John Axford is posting his Oscar picks on Twitter from the Indians' clubhouse these days, and Nyjer Morgan, aka "Tony Plush," has joined him in Cleveland after a foray to Japan.

The Brewers dipped from 96 wins to 83 to 74 last year, when they finished a distant fourth in the National League Central, and the rotation has undergone an 80 percent turnover since the good times. Only Gallardo remains, and he's coming off the worst season of his career.

St. Louis is stacked, Cincinnati has made the playoffs three times in four years, and the Pirates are trending in the right direction after their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1992.

And the Brewers? One big-league scout, who has seen a lot of Milwaukee this spring and spoke on the condition of anonymity, characterized the rotation as "ordinary" and thinks it's filled with too many mid-rotation, six-inning starters to take the heat off the bullpen. Although full seasons from Braun and Aramis Ramirez will help the Brewers improve upon their total of 640 runs scored a year ago, Milwaukee's offense still doesn't stack up with what the Cardinals and Reds run out every night.

"If this team were an ice cream flavor, it would be vanilla," the scout said.

People in the Milwaukee clubhouse would strenuously disagree. The Brewers placed a big bet on former Twin/Ray/Cub/Ranger Matt Garza in January, signing him to a four-year, $50 million deal, and he's helped foster a sense of optimism that this team has enough pitching to hang with the big boys.

"I think it's the best staff we've had since '11," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy. "I fully believe that."

Garza was knocked around early in Cactus League play, allowing 10 hits in four innings and posting a 13.50 ERA in his first two spring training starts. But his abundant self-confidence and brashness have set an aggressive tone in camp and made an instant impression with his new teammates.

Starter Marco Estrada was pitching before a crowd of about 4,000 in a recent game at Maryvale Baseball Park when one voice rose above all the rest: It was Garza yelling encouragement from the dugout after Estrada threw a couple of borderline pitches that were called balls by the home plate umpire.

"I could hear him, and that kind of pumps you up," Estrada said. "It's good to have that swag. Guys are gonna build off it. I think we needed that in this clubhouse. We don't have too many vocal guys, and he's one of them."

Said Lucroy: "There's a lot of personality. He's loud. He's animated. He's aggressive. He's chirping in the dugout. As a player, that's kind of refreshing."

Ultimately, Garza and rotation-mates Kyle Lohse, Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Estrada will do their talking with their WHIPs rather than their lips, and they'll do it against a backdrop of skepticism.

As Brewers general manager Doug Melvin is quick to point out, the NL Central presents some interesting challenges in assembling a staff. Milwaukee's Miller Park, Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field (when the wind is blowing out) are three of the most hitter-friendly venues in the majors, and they can be unforgiving for pitchers with questionable command and less than put-away stuff.

The Brewers ranked 14 among the 15 NL clubs with 918 innings from their rotation in 2013. Only Colorado received fewer innings from its starters. Milwaukee's starters also allowed the second most homers (175) in the NL, and ranked 14th among 15 teams with 675 strikeouts. They were a pitch-to-contact group last season, and that's not likely to change significantly with the addition of Garza.

One way to help the staff is by improving the defense. Although the Brewers ranked third in the National League behind Arizona and Pittsburgh with 58 defensive runs saved in 2013, that number was skewed by the contribution of Gomez, who posted a whopping plus-44 runs saved in center field.

Melvin expects one of the most noticeable upgrades to be at first base, where the Brewers are likely to open the season with a combination of Mark Reynolds and either Lyle Overbay or Juan Francisco. Last year manager Ron Roenicke used nine players at first base (including Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt), and they combined to make 21 errors. That helped contribute to Milwaukee's National League-high 72 unearned runs allowed.

Still, in the end, the following pitching-related questions will have the biggest impact on the Brewers rekindling the feel-good atmosphere of 2011 or slogging their way through another nondescript summer at Miller Park:

• Was last year just a blip for Gallardo or the beginning of a downward slide? After averaging at least a strikeout an inning in his first four full seasons in the rotation, Gallardo dipped to 7.2 per nine in 2013. According to FanGraphs, his fastball velocity and swing-and-miss rate also have declined noticeably over the past two seasons. Gallardo has been in the Milwaukee organization since 2004, but he just turned 28 and is entering a potentially pivotal phase of his career.

Won-loss records only mean so much, but Gallardo has a career record of 81-53. Homer Bailey, who was selected by Cincinnati in the same 2004 draft and just signed a $105 million extension with the Reds, is a career 49-45.

"You've got to look at the whole body of work," Melvin said of Gallardo. "He doesn't throw 96-97 mph, and people go goo-goo over that. Some people think his trend is going the other way, but he's been durable for us and he's a very solid pitcher."

• Peralta posted the fourth highest fastball velocity in the majors last year at 94.8 mph, but he ran up some big pitch counts and averaged only 6.3 strikeouts per nine. The Brewers think his strikeout numbers will increase once he develops a better feel for his breaking stuff, but he's more a sinker-groundball pitcher than the swing-and-miss type. The question is, will Peralta be the guy who posted a combined 5.58 ERA in April, May and June, or a combined 3.15 ERA in July, August and September?

Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee's top prospect, looks the part of a workhorse at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, but there's some debate over whether he'll wind up in the rotation or the bullpen. Johnny Hellweg, who came over from the Angels in the Greinke trade in 2012, is getting a look in camp. And Tyler Thornburg, who pitched well in Milwaukee after going 0-9 with a 5.79 ERA for Triple-A Nashville last season, is in the mix after the Brewers declined to discuss him in a deal for Mets first baseman Ike Davis over the winter.

• Most important, what will Garza bring to the party? After averaging 202 innings from 2009-11, he's thrown 103 and 155 innings the past two years. Garza was a disappointment in Texas after the Rangers acquired him in a July deadline deal last season, and some suitors were reportedly concerned about his medical reports. That didn't prevent the Brewers from taking the plunge two weeks before camp began.

"He's not the innings eater you would like at the top," said a scout. "His delivery and arm are all right, but he doesn't appear to be a bat-misser right now. When you're paying that kind of money and you're only getting 150-160 innings, somebody else has to throw them, and that somebody else is going to be a lesser guy. He ain't getting younger, so I think what he's been the last couple of years is a pretty good indication of what he's going to be."

No prototypical staff "ace" on the roster? As Melvin contends, Milwaukee is hardly alone in that regard. No 220-inning workhorse? Hey, maybe someone will emerge. Amid the warmth of the Cactus League, it's pretty much illegal to be anything but upbeat. Spring is here, Matt Garza is chirping, and the Brewers have nowhere to go but up.