Since Houston is about to open a three-game set with Milwaukee, all-around Brewers super-blogger Kyle Lobner and I traded emails with questions about each of the teams.
Kyle runs the SB Nation Brewers site, Brew Crew Ball and he was kind enough to give us a rundown of the Brew Crew and even talk about what it's like to be a fan of a team switching leagues.
TCB: Starting things off, the Brewers rotation got a lot of attention last season, but heading into this year, we haven't heard much about it being one of the best in the National League. What are your expectations of the Greinke, Marcum, Gallardo trio?
Kyle Lobner: Expectations for Gallardo and Greinke are certainly high, as the two of them were trendy picks this spring to compete for the NL Cy Young. Gallardo has seemingly been on the edge of a transition from good pitcher to dominant ace for a while now, and Greinke seemingly has something to prove after a somewhat disappointing debut season with the Brewers in 2011. Both need to have big seasons for the Brewers to be serious contenders this season, and there's reason to believe both of them are up to the challenge.
Shaun Marcum, meanwhile, is one of this team's biggest X factors. He was one of their best starting pitchers during the season last year but faded badly in September and melted down under the spotlight in October, destroying much of the goodwill he generated with his earlier success. Then he followed that up by missing most of the spring with shoulder issues. I'm not sure anyone is entirely sure what to expect from him this season, but so far he's been very good.
TCB: I didn't want to lead off with it, but I've gotta ask about Ryan Braun. What was your reaction over the course of the controversy this winter? Has it changed since the season has started?
KL: As I look at what's become of the Ryan Braun situation, all I really can say is that this situation is incredibly unfortunate. Regardless of what you think Braun did or did not do, his testing and appeal process were supposed to be confidential and because they weren't we're left in something of a gray area. We'll never know exactly what happened, which gives people who want a reason to condemn him enough ammunition to do so. But the fact that an arbitrator was convinced he should not be suspended also leaves the possibility that he was actually guilty of nothing.
Regardless of what he did or didn't do, Braun's reputation has been damaged irreparably here. And because we don't know exactly what happened, the question of whether he's guilty or not is likely going to follow him for the rest of his career. Personally I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt: He's passed countless drug tests over the years in college, the minors and now the majors, and the one exception has some unusual circumstances tied to it.
TCB: How are you coping with the end of the Yuniesky Betancourt era? Has Alex Gonzalez been an upgrade at that spot?
KL: It's entirely possible that Brewer fans are better equipped to appreciate Alex Gonzalez than any other fan base in baseball. After a year of watching Betancourt fail to reach routine ground balls, watching Gonzalez play defense has been a real treat. He went 0-for-4 Sunday to drop to .234/.280/.489 this season, but even if his OBP remains at that level all season he'll still be a significant upgrade at the position.
TCB: When asked to do some preseason prognostications, I picked the Brewers to make the World Series. How confident are you feeling after their start to the season? Do you think they can knock off these Cardinals and take the division title?
KL: I'm admittedly biased, but I really think this team has the potential to be every bit as good as last year's 96 game winner and NL Central champions. Losing Prince Fielder obviously hurts but Mat Gamel has the potential to be at least decent in his place, and improvements at shortstop and third base mean this team may actually have improved in the aggregate.
Meanwhile, as you mentioned above the top three of this rotation is still very good, even without Chris Narveson (who is likely done for the year with a rotator cuff tear), and the bullpen projects to be above average again. I think 88-90 wins will be more than enough to take first in the division, and this team is easily capable of that.
TCB: Finally, were you a fan of the Brewers when they switched leagues back in the '90s? Can you talk a bit about being a fan of the only other franchise to switch leagues? Do you think it took them a while to catch up to the different styles of play or was it an easy transition?
KL: I think moving to the National League might have been one of the best things the Brewers have ever done. I didn't follow the team as closely then as I do now, but I don't recall seeing any major opposition to moving to the National League. I think a large portion of fans immediately embraced the strategic shift of having the pitcher hit instead of the DH, and while the Crew lost relatively good division rivalries with the Twins and White Sox, they've replaced them and then some with their new matchups against the Cubs and Cardinals.
All told, I would have been strongly disappointed if the Brewers had been forced to make the move back to the AL. Things just seem better over here.
Big thanks to Kyle for being so gracious with his time and answers. Go check out Brew Crew Ball for more insight on the enemy.