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Are the Brewers the Favorite in the Central?

If the Brewers’ upcoming season were a game of poker, Doug Melvin just pushed all his chips to the center of the table. The acquisition of Zack Greinke shows that the Brewers want to contend in what is likely Prince Fielder‘s last season with the team. After finishing near the bottom of the NL in almost every major pitching category, the Brewers made starting pitching a priority this off-season. With their core offensive players returning, will their off-season acquisitions be enough to push the Brewers to the top of the NL Central standings?

The Brewers might be trying to win now, but as Marc Hulet explained in an earlier post; the Brewers traded away three major league-ready players. Both Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar were penciled in as starters, and Jeremy Jeffress was a likely candidate for the bullpen. Unfortunately, the Brewers don’t have solid replacements for any of those players.

Carlos Gomez is expected to start in center field following Cain’s departure. While Gomez dazzles in the field and on the base paths, his career .293 OBP leaves much to be desired. Despite his struggles at the plate, Gomez’s defense should make him a useful contributor during the upcoming season. In his first press conference with the Brewers, Ron Roenicke emphasized being aggressive on the bases, which should play into Gomez’s strengths.

The scariest aspect of the Yuniesky Betancourt acquisition is that (gulp) Melvin has already penciled him in as a starter. Betancourt carries a rather infamous reputation among the stat-community, and it’s safe to say he isn’t the answer for the Brewers. There is a chance that Craig Counsell returns to the team, but likely as Betancourt’s backup. Offensively, the Brewers will need to succeed despite employing both Betancourt and Gomez as starters.

Their pitching rotation, however, has drastically improved this off-season. The acquisitions of Greinke and Shaun Marcum give the Brewers one of the best rotations in the National League. Though many considered Greinke’s 2010 a let-down, he was still worth 5.2 WAR, better than any pitcher on the Brewers’ roster. Yovani Gallardo might be named the opening-day starter, but Greinke will be the best pitcher on the team next season.

Shaun Marcum carries incredible value as a third starter. Despite missing the entire 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Marcum turned in the best season of his career in 2010. Though most pitchers typically struggle with control following the surgery, Marcum posted one of the best BB/9 rates of any starting pitcher last season. Brewers’ starters posted the worst BB/9 rate in the league last season, so Marcum’s ability to limit walks will be a welcome addition to this rotation.

The Brewers’ biggest threats in the Central are the Reds and the Cardinals. While neither team has been particularly active during the off-season, both are expected to contend in 2011. The Reds are the reigning NL Central champs, and will continue to rely on the development of their young talent next season. A healthy Edinson Volquez will strengthen the rotation, but the Reds remain relatively unchanged heading into 2011.

The Cardinals have made a few moves this off-season, but none of them are considered major acquisitions. Lance Berkman may still have some value left in his bat, but his poor defense could offset those gains. Ryan Theriot and Jake Westbrook are useful players, but neither are game-changing talents. Once again, the Cardinals’ success will depend on Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and the strong 1-2 at the top of the rotation.

Of all the teams in the Central, the Brewers have made the largest strides this off-season. While the Reds and Cardinals focused on marginal improvements, the Brewers completely overhauled their rotation. The Reds and Cardinals should compete for the division, but the Brewers’ off-season acquisitions will be tough to beat.