Brewers' late run showed signs of things to come

Brewers' late run showed signs of things to come

MILWAUKEE -- On the morning of Aug. 20, the Brewers' outlook was bleak. They were 12 games under .500, and 12 1/2 games out of the Wild Card picture. Zack Greinke was traded, Randy Wolf was about to be gone, the bullpen was a mess and Brewers fans were looking ahead to 2013 wondering whether a rebuilding year was ahead.

Five weeks later, everything had changed.

"Absolutely it changes the outlook for next year," Ryan Braun said. "I think for all of us, we're excited about the way that we've played. We're excited about some of the guys that have come up and really performed well for us down the stretch.

2012 season wraps
2013 outlooks

"Certainly, we feel good about our team heading into next year, for sure."

That's what a 24-6 stretch in August and September will do for a team. The Brewers pulled as close as 1 1/2 games of the Cardinals in the chase for the National League's second Wild Card before fading with about 10 days to go.

There was no repeat postseason engagement, but the fact the Brewers pushed their postseason candidacy to the season's final homestand has changed their view of 2013. Changes are certainly in store, most notably to a pitching staff that will have a remade starting rotation and probably a new bullpen, too.

Those changes were clear even before the Brewers got hot. Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Wolf were all free agents-to-be, so the Brewers intended to use late August and September to evaluate new arms like Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg in the rotation, and Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler in the bullpen.

Peralta, Rogers, Henderson and Kintzler all acquitted themselves well, but the Brewers never got to Thornburg because of their unexpected run up the standings.

Manager Ron Roenicke was feeling better about the team's 2013 fortunes.

"I think it gives us a good look at what we need to do next year," he said. "With the personnel that was able to come up and perform under pressure situations. I think you never know what is going to happen with the young guys until you really put it on them, and there were some young guys that stepped up and got us excited about the possibility of them being on our team next year."

Was there a moral victory in the team's late surge?

"I don't know if there is a moral victory, because you play to get in the playoffs," Roenicke said. "But, from where we were a month and a half ago, we're all excited. ... We got ourselves close enough to where guys are fired up."

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: RHPs Livan Hernandez, Shaun Marcum and Francisco Rodriguez; C Yorvit Torrealba.

Eligible for arbitration: RHPs John Axford, Marco Estrada, Kameron Loe, Jose Veras; LHPs Chris Narveson and Manny Parra; 1B Travis Ishikawa; OFs Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan.

Options: SS Alex Gonzalez ($4 million).

Non-tender possibilities: Veras, Morgan.

POSITION BY POSITION

Catcher: Long a position of uncertainty in the Brewers' system, this is now a position of strength. Jonathan Lucroy, three years ago pushed to the Majors, is by now an established presence behind the plate. At the plate, he led the Majors in batting with runners in scoring position before suffering a fluke injury in May. His replacement was Martin Maldonado, who proved capable at the plate in his first extended Major League experience and is a top-flight defender. The Brewers could either bring both players back as a tandem, or consider trading one of them to fill a hole elsewhere. Lucroy signed a club-friendly contract extension last spring that runs through at least 2016, and Maldonado still has five years of club control remaining.

First base: The Brewers' offense functioned just fine in 2012 without Prince Fielder, but for the second straight offseason club officials will have to decide how to handle this position. Corey Hart, drafted as a first baseman way back in 2000, was excellent after moving from right field to first after the Brewers lost Mat Gamel to a season-ending knee injury in May, and Hart is the frontrunner to return. But the Brewers have some flexibility; if they find a quality first baseman via trade or free agency, they could always move Hart back to the outfield. Prospect Hunter Morris is coming fast; he should begin 2013 at Triple-A Nashville.

Second base: Rickie Weeks remains the incumbent, signed through at least 2014. He fell into a deep hole at the start of 2012, a slump probably related to the serious ankle injury he suffered in the middle of 2011, but Weeks fought hard to gradually boost his batting average to an acceptable level by season's end, and reached 20 home runs for the third straight season. Stop us if you've heard this before: If Weeks could manage to stay healthy for a full season, he could be one of baseball's best at this position.

Third base: Aramis Ramirez filled Fielder's big shoes admirably, threatening the franchise record for doubles and providing more than adequate protection for three-hole hitter Ryan Braun. He also surprised Brewers coaches with his superior defense.

Shortstop: The Brewers finished the season very young at this position, with rookies Jean Segura, acquired in the Greinke trade, and Jeff Bianchi, a winter waiver pickup, sharing duties. Segura looks like the shortstop of the future, with a strong arm and brief glimpses of power at the plate, but the question is whether he's ready for the start of 2013. The Brewers could look at bringing back Alex Gonzalez, who was exceptional in the field and in the clubhouse before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Either way, Segura will probably have the job by the end of the year.

Outfield: It looks set, though not the way one would have forecast at the start of the season. Braun, of course, is a fixture in left field, but Carlos Gomez emerged over Nyjer Morgan as the regular center fielder and Norichika Aoki was surprisingly good in right. Barring a move by general manager Doug Melvin, that trio figures to make the majority of starts in 2013. It will be interesting to see how the Brewers handle Morgan, who is arbitration eligible again after a down year, especially considering they have Logan Schafer ready for the Majors. He's cheaper and a terrific defensive player. It also could be the year Caleb Gindl makes it to the Majors.

Starting pitching: In contrast to 2012, when the Brewers returned all five of their starters from the year before, 2013 could bring some changes. Yovani Gallardo is the unquestioned No. 1 after a fourth straight season of more than 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, but there are question marks aplenty after him. Was Mike Fiers' late-season swoon a bad signal about how he would perform over a full year? Are Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers ready? Is Marco Estrada more valuable in the bullpen? Will Chris Narveson return healthy from shoulder surgery? Will the Brewers try to sign a veteran free agent? What about a run for Zack Greinke? Stay tuned.

Relief pitching: The facet of the team that caused the most trouble in 2012 figures to be a chief area of focus for Melvin this winter. At least John Axford regained hold of the closer's role; his midseason struggles threw the entire bullpen into disarray. After Axford, Melvin will have to decide who to return and where to find fresh arms; two strong possibilities are Henderson and Kintzler, who performed well following callups. Others -- Kameron Loe, Parra, Jose Veras -- would come with heavier price tags in arbitration.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.