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Big race Brew-ing in National League Central

Leach: Big race Brew-ing in NL Central

The past two days have brought a flurry of beware-the-Brewers fanfare. With the addition of former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, Milwaukee has suddenly become a trendy pick to contend in, if not actually win, the often chaotic National League Central.

To which the only really appropriate response is: Welcome to the bandwagon.

Because the Brewers were actually a team to take seriously in the Central even before they added Greinke. With the ex-Royals ace on board, they're more than that. They may very well be the favorites in a division in which no other contender has seriously improved itself this winter.

The Brewers featured a potent offense in 2010, one that scored the fourth-most runs in the NL. Their bullpen, a mess early in the year, sorted itself out nicely by season's end and looks like an asset going into 2011. Yovani Gallardo is a front-of-the-rotation starter, and recent acquisition Shaun Marcum will likely look like one, too, now that he's been traded from the American League East to the NL Central.

So if it had merely added another innings-eater, a useful but not spectacular talent like Carl Pavano, Milwaukee would be worth watching. With Greinke on board, look out.

It started with Marcum. And when the backlash builds -- people advising about putting too much stock into one move -- remember that. It's two moves, two big ones. Marcum is 29 and coming off an outstanding year in baseball's toughest division, the AL East. He struck out 165 in 195 1/3 innings and posted a 3.64 ERA while starting nearly a third of his games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox.

Then they added Greinke, a Cy Young Award winner just one year ago. Greinke endured a relatively rough 2010 but still pitched at a very high level, and he admitted to some motivation issues while pitching for a struggling Kansas City team. The Brewers believe that by putting he right-hander in a pennant race, they'll energize him and will see a pitcher more like the '09 Greinke than the '10 edition.

If that's the case, this suddenly becomes one of the three or four best rotations in the NL. Add that to what should again be a top-four offense, and you have a contender. Especially in the Central.

Part of what's going on here, of course, is context. To win their division, the Brewers don't have to beat the heavily favored Phillies. They only need to close the gap to Cincinnati and St. Louis. With neither of those clubs looking a great deal stronger than it did in 2010, that's not hard to envision.

The Reds have essentially stood pat, though having Edinson Volquez for a full season could feel a lot like a significant addition. The Cardinals have done an extensive retooling, but the main gains seem to be in the clubhouse. The Redbirds' offense will likely be improved, but at the cost of some not-insignificant defensive downgrades.

The Brewers, meanwhile, replaced a mishmash of Dave Bush, Manny Parra, Chris Capuano, Doug Davis and a few other luminaries with two of the best starters in baseball. It's a drastic upgrade to just about the only facet of the Milwaukee roster that could have been considered a major question mark.

At first glance the bullpen might seem to fit that description as well. During the early part of 2010, relief woes plagued the Brewers. Things were sorted out in the second half, however, with John Axford and Zach Braddock emerging as key contributors. The Brewers could use another arm in the 'pen, but it's certainly not a weakness.

Besides, even without adding a reliever, the Brewers have likely made their bullpen better this month. By bringing in two starters likely to pitch 190 innings or more, Milwaukee eases the load on its relief corps. Part of what happened to the Brew Crew's bullpen in '10 was that it was stretched too thin. Having four starters pitch deep into games should lead to a much more reasonable workload for the bullpen, which should lead to improved effectiveness.

The Greinke trade did come at a cost to the 2011 team in one way. The defense, rarely a hallmark of recent Brewers teams anyway, was weakened by the loss of Alcides Escobar. Assuming Yuniesky Betancourt is the shortstop, this is not likely to be a very good defensive infield.

There's good news even there, though, because the Milwaukee pitching staff should rack up the strikeouts. Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum all ranked in the top 40 in the Majors last year in strikeouts per nine innings. And again, Marcum and Greinke will both be leaving the DH league for a league in which lineups are a little friendlier for pitchers. Even projected No. 5 starter Chris Narveson struck out more than seven batters per nine innings last year.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Health is always a question, and the Brewers still do have to make up 14 games on the division-champion Reds. But they moved aggressively and decisively, and improved their team drastically. It's at least a three-team race in the NL Central.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["columnist_matthew_leach" ] }
{"content":["columnist_matthew_leach" ] }