Year of promise, disappointment for Brewers
Club signed Garza, started season hot, but then collapsed down the stretch
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers owner Mark Attanasio suggested he won't feel much nostalgia when 2014 disappears from his calendar. After watching a promising baseball season slip away from his team down the stretch, it was one very trying year.
"Even with all the difficulties we had in 2013, which on paper were worse," Attanasio said, a reference to Ryan Braun's suspension, "last [season] was more difficult for me. It just was quicker.
"We were fully prepared to go to the playoffs. Fully prepared. And I went away [to Hawaii] for a week with my family after we beat the Padres on Aug. 25, 10-1. I came back and I didn't recognize the team. I watched the team play at Wrigley Field and I didn't recognize the team. So, no more last-week-in-August vacations. Who would have thought the offense would fall apart after winning, 10-1?"
But that's precisely what happened, leaving a team that spent most of the season atop the National League Central not only out of first place, but out of the postseason picture entirely.
It's worth noting that 2014 wasn't all bad: Hank, the Ballpark Pup won hearts, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez won National League MVP Award votes, Yovani Gallardo became the franchise's all-time strikeout king and Francisco Rodriguez re-emerged as an All-Star. But many of the key storylines were sour:
5. Surprise signing
The Brewers were the last team to sign a Major League free agent during the 2013-14 offseason, but when they did, they went big. A four-year, $50 million contract for right-hander Matt Garza, officially announced during the team's annual fanfest in late January, represented the richest contract for a free agent in franchise history, added Garza to a suddenly solid pitching rotation that already included Gallardo and Kyle Lohse and pushed the Brewers' payroll into record territory -- above $100 million for only the second time. It was a clear sign that Attanasio viewed his club as a contender.
Garza pitched essentially to form, posting a 3.64 ERA and the highest fWAR (2.5) among Brewers starters, but he also spent about a month on the disabled list with a rib-cage strain.
4. Hot start
Even with Garza, most professional prognosticators viewed the Brewers as a middle-of-the-pack team in the NL Central. Instead, they held or flirted with the best record in baseball for much of the first half of the season, beginning with a 6-0 opening road trip to Boston and Philadelphia and a 20-8 opening month. When the Brewers beat the Rockies on June 28, their lead grew to a season-high 6 1/2 games over the rest of the division.
"I've never played on a team with a good offense like this," Garza said that night. "I played with Tampa, and we were lucky to scratch out a couple. Pitching and defense. Chicago, you know the story there. It's a different type of mindset when you get runs this quick. You can just keep attacking. Keep the pedal to the metal and keep going after these guys. Stay aggressive and don't give in."
They owned the NL's best record as late as July 11, but in the end, that same offense proved the Brewers' undoing.
3. Doubles machine
You can't blame Lucroy for the Brewers' late-season slide. In his age-28 season, his fifth in the Major Leagues, Lucroy emerged as a bona fide star, becoming the second Brewers catcher to start an All-Star Game and the first catcher to lead his league -- much less the Major Leagues -- in doubles. Lucroy hit 53 doubles in all, matching Lyle Overbay's franchise record, including 46 doubles while playing catcher, surpassing Ivan Rodriguez's big league record. Rodriguez hit 45 doubles as a catcher in 1996.
Because the Brewers had faded from the postseason picture by the time he set the record, Lucroy called the moment bittersweet.
"I wish I would have had a bad year and we went all the way to the World Series," he said. "That's the kind of guy I am. That's what I wish could have happened. Obviously, it didn't happen that way."
2. Thumbs down
Braun played 135 games in 2014 and posted career lows across the board, with a .266 batting average, .324 on-base percentage, .453 slugging percentage and .777 OPS. The problem was an inflamed nerve near the base of his right thumb, which for the past two years has forced the 2011 NL MVP and 2012 runner-up to alter his mechanics, sapping his power. Braun, who said he deserved much of the blame for the Brewers' end-of-season collapse, underwent a surgical procedure on Oct. 2 aimed at eliminating the problem. He reported the day before Thanksgiving that the pain was gone.
"I said it last year a few times, I really believe if I was anywhere near healthy, the season ends up differently," Braun said. "Hopefully, this thing continues to feel good like it does right now, and I can get back to being one of the best players in the league."
Much rides on him doing so. Braun will earn $12 million in 2015 before a five-year, $105 million extension kicks in beginning with the 2016 season.
1. Free falling
The Brewers lost 22 of their final 31 games to fall from first place and, according to STATS LLC, became only the fifth team since the divisional era began in 1969 to spend at least 150 days in first place, yet miss the playoffs. The others were the '69 Cubs, 2007 Mets, '08 D-backs and '09 Tigers. Those other four teams finished in second place, but the Brewers -- who spent exactly 150 days atop the NL Central, including every day from April 5-Aug. 31 before dropping from the top spot with a Labor Day loss at Wrigley Field -- finished third behind the postseason-bound Cardinals and Pirates. During the season's final weekend, Attanasio made clear his disappointment, saying, "they're better than this and they didn't show it."
Players shared that sentiment.
"I don't know what happened," Lucroy said. "Just, we had a lot of things go wrong at the same time. Guys started slumping all at the same time, and we couldn't quite get it back rolling again. Those prolonged slumps are what beat us."