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Plushdamentals 2012 MLB Predictions

With Opening Day now only six days away, it is time for my obligatory 2012 MLB Predictions. Let’s skip the talk and jump straight into predictions, okay?

AL East- Tampa Bay Rays

David Price is my pick to win AL Cy Young, and he will lead the Rays to the AL East title. A healthy Longoria and breakout seasons from Sean Rodriguez and Matt Moore will propel them slightly over the Yankees in the division.

AL Central- Detroit Tigers

The Royals may put up a fight early in the season, but no team in the Central division can keep pace with Cabrera, Fielder, Verlander, and the Tigers.

AL West- Los Angeles Angels

With CJ Wilson, Dan Haren, and Jered Weaver (in no particular order), the Angels have the best top of the rotation in all of baseball. Offensively, Albert Pujols will obviously help, but won’t be good enough to win Most Valuable Player. Jordan Walden is one of the top young arms in all of baseball and will reach 45 saves in 2012. There is too much talent for the Angels to not make the postseason, especially with seasoned manager Mike Scioscia.

AL Wild Cards- Texas Rangers over New York Yankees

Both reach the inaugural one-game Wild Card round safely, resting up their pitchers for the game. In Yankee Stadium, Yu Darvish out duels CC Sabathia.

NL East- Philadelphia Phillies

Even without Ryan Howard’s bat for the first half of the season, the rotation holds the Phillies in first place. With Howard back, the offense picks up as they storm through the up-and-coming Marlins and Nationals in the East. John Mayberry finally emerges as a star for the Phils.



NL Central- Cincinnati Reds

As much as this pains me to say, the Reds will win the NL Central. The top-to-middle of their lineup is lethal and Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos create a formidable 1-2 combo for the Redlegs. Latos’s era will rise in Great American Ballpark, but he eventually adapts to the park and finds success. The bullpen is still in better condition than it was last year, even with the season-ending injury to Ryan Madson.

NL West-San Francisco Giants

In what will be the closest division race in Major League Baseball, the Giants pitchers will once again get the job done. The offense will still be statistically one of the worst in the National League, but Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval’s returns in the middle of the lineup provide enough run support for the pitching. Lincecum finished second in Cy Young voting (only behind Zack Greinke) but Matt Cain wins 16 games and keeps an ERA below 3.00.


NL Wild Cards-Milwaukee Brewers over Arizona Diamondbacks

In a rematch of last year’s thrilling NLDS matchup, the Brewers use home field once again to beat Arizona. Future NL Cy Young Zack Greinke comes through with seven strong innings as Mat Gamel is the hero of the game.

ALDS- Rangers over Tigers

In the words of Dick Vitale, “UPSET SPECIAL, BABY!” Justin Verlander can’t pitch three games for the Tigers, but the Rangers are able to defeat him in Game One and their offense proves too much for the rest of Detroit’s pitching. The top-to-bottom power in the Rangers lineup proves stronger than Detroit’s once Texas gets past Verlander.

Rays over Angels

With two seasoned managers, the Rays win a five-game thrilling series. I have a hunch that Evan Longoria will be this year’s David Freese in October. Tampa is able to match the Angels’ rotation with Price, Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson and relies heavily on a steady bullpen. Defense plays a large role in the series and Tampa makes fewer costly errors.

NLDS- Phillies over Brewers

The Brewers offense finds itself in one of its infamous slumps and can’t get out until it’s too late. Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, and Wolf hold their own on the rubber, but the Phillies do enough offensively to win three close games.

Reds over Giants

They say good pitching beats all, and that is usually the case. But the Reds light it up at Great American Smallpark against San Francisco’s pitching. They win Game Five behind Mat Latos’ effort at home and a large offensive output.

ALCS- Rays over Rangers

The third time isn’t the charm for the Rangers, as they fall to Tampa. Evan Longoria gets the series MVP award as the Rays take this one in six. Tampa Bay does enough to keep the offense of Texas dormant, and the Rangers pitching isn’t deep enough to match up with Hellickson.

NLCS- Phillies over Reds

The Reds were able to defeat Lincecum and Cain in the LDS, but the Phillies a whole new problem. The Phillies blow the series open against Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake as Charlie Manuel sends out Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay against them. Last year’s early exit won’t happen again for the Phightin’s.

World Series- Phillies over Rays in 5

The 2008 World Series rematch ends the same with Philadelphia taking home the Commissioner’s Trophy. Cliff Lee wins the MVP award after throwing a shutout in Game Two. The Rays aren’t able to manufacture runs per their usual standard with the sound defense of the Phillies in the series. The 3-man rotation of the Phillies works perfectly with three horses out on the mound. Tampa’s only win comes against Halladay in Game Four as they avoid a sweep.


What Can the Brewers Expect from Nyjer Morgan in 2012?

An Infectious and Unconditional Love for The Game


-Curt Hogg-

T. Plush. Gotta go. Plushdamentals. Namesake of this very blog. Tony Tombstone. .304 hitter. NLDS hero. Beast mode. Alberta Pujols. Master of the postgame interview. Gentleman. Tony Plush.

We get it–Nyjer Morgan had one hell of a 2011. But, in all honesty, that was 2011 and should be left as 2012. His profound craziness on and off the field won’t be taking Brewers fans by surprise anymore, though they will still be nonetheless entertaining. Morgan put up career numbers across the board in 2011 and experienced a career resurgence in a city that grew to adore him. But is it realistic to expect the same out of Morgan in 2012?

It may be a bit unreasonably sanguine to expect Morgan to reproduce his 2011 numbers, especially considering the many oracular factors that can affect his play.

We’ve seen Morgan draw negative attention to his name for throwing a ball at a heckling fan and charge the mound against Chris Volstad and the Marlins. Both of these instances came in 2010 with Washington, previously his only full season in the Majors until 2011. These were the memorable moments of his season, which finished with forgettable .253/.319/.314 numbers and a league-high 17 times caught stealing. The Brewers took a risk in trading for a talented-yet-troubled outfielder with a past history of nothing but trouble.

But in Milwaukee, Morgan turned his career and reputation around. With clutch hits and “tickling” the ball into the outfield, he became a fan favorite. Insert in the memorable post-game interviews, Tony Plush alter-ego, and Jim Rome correspondent video and you have a national media hit. He finished the season batting .304/.357./.421 with 20 doubles, 6 triples, 4 home runs, 37 RBI, and 61 runs. To cement his legacy with the Brewers, he hit the walk off single in Game 5 of the NLDS against Arizona to propel Milwaukee to the NLCS.

Last time Morgan experience this kind of success, however, was in Washington in 2009. After being traded from Pittsburgh, where he hit .277 in  71 games, Morgan batted .351 and stole 24 bases in 49 games. Nothing similar to his 2009 numbers were emulated in 2010, a season in which  the Walla Walla Community College product played in 16 more games. We’ve already gone through his statistic drop-off, which was in part due to his inability to keep a level head. He was suspended seven games for throwing a ball at a fan. He missed a fly ball against Baltimore and threw his glove on the ground, giving up on the play. While I don’t see anything of this magnitude happening in Milwaukee, where the environment is “Nyjer-friendly”, there are too many unpredictable things that can go against Morgan that can affect his season.

That being said, Morgan is still expected to be a solid contributor to the Brewers in 2012. He, Carlos Gomez, and Nori Aoki will split time in center field. Each will also get more playing time to begin the season, with Corey Hart expected to begin on the DL. His stellar defense is both center field and right field add to his already-solid value.

Brian McCann, meet Nyjer Morgan. Nyjer, meet home plate.

Speaking of value, you can’t place one on Morgan’s clubhouse impact. On a team full of eccentric personalities, Morgan, with regular help from the ubiquitous Tony Plush, was the center of the pack. When introducing himself mid-Spring, he ignored the customary greetings of his name and former baseball pit stops. Instead, he screamed, “What up f******!”. His twitter account (@TheRealTPlush–follow him. If you aren’t, what are you doing with your life?) has over 78,000 followers. Brewers pitcher Chris Narveson has just over 1,000.

So Nyjer Morgan is good in the clubhouse. Got it.

By no means should Morgan have the kind of drop-off he did from 2009 to 2010; he’s in a place and on a club where his emotions won’t get the most of him….very much. He’s a player who derives his production on the field from emotion–of which he has plenty. While 2012 may not have the T. Plush magic of 2011, don’t expect him to drop off significantly. His role may be slightly decreased with the addition of Aoki and the health and hopefully rejuvenated play of Gomez, but his Plushdamentals–running over the catcher, laying out in center, and gettin’ dirty on a triple–will still be there.

He’s an intricate part of an intere……….ya’ know what? I gotta go.

*What Can the Brewers Expect from Nyjer Morgan in 2012 is the “sixth inning” in a series of nine posts on An Infectious and Unconditional Love for The Game. Read each of the first five posts here.

I have recently joined Reviewing the Brew, a Brewers blog and member of the FanSided network. Posts will be found much more frequently at RtB.

Brewers Spring Training Schedule

Here are each of the Brewers Spring Training games scheduled for March, with the opener on Sunday against San Francisco.

  • vs Giants (SS)
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Giants
    8:35 pm CST |7:35 pm MST
  • vs Athletics
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
    FSN, MLB.TV, MLBN (delay)
  • @ White Sox
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Reds
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Indians
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • SS vs Cubs
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • SS @ Giants (SS)
    2:05 pm CST |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Rockies (SS)
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
    Daylight Savings Time Begins
  • SS @ Athletics
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • SS vs Mariners
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Cubs
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Padres
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • SS @ Royals
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • SS vs Mariners (SS)
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
    at Kino Sports Complex in Tucson
  • @ Angels
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Rangers (SS)
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Rangers
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Dodgers
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ D-backs
    3:10 pm CDT |1:10 pm MST
  • vs Angels (SS)
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs White Sox
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • SS vs Dodgers
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • SS @ Royals
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Indians
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Royals
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs D-backs
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • vs Reds
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
  • @ Dodgers (SS)
    3:05 pm CDT |1:05 pm MST
    FSN, MLB.TV, MLBN (delay)
  • @ Padres (SS)
    2:05 pm CDT |12:05 pm MST

Brewers Season Outlook: Zack Greinke

-Curt Hogg-

Coming off a successful first season with the Brewers, the focal point of Zack Greinke’s off-season workout regiment was to avoid pick up basketball games at all costs.

All (bad) jokes aside, Greinke was, at times, the most dominant pitcher on the Brewers rotation in 2011, but failed to maintain his consistency throughout the season. In wins, Greinke held a 2.55 era with a 10.9 K/9 ratio, but struggled mightily when he was the losing pitcher. The 28-year-old right hander held a 7.96 era and averaged just over five innings pitched per start in games in which he was handed the “L.” Overall, Greinke finished with an impressive 16-6 record, a respectable 3.83 era, and a dazzling total of 201 strikeouts in merely 171.2 innings due to an early-season rib injury. He led the National League in K/9, beating out Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and All Star Game starter Roy Halladay.

Yovani Gallardo is expected to get the Opening Day nod from manager Ron Roenicke, and this should come as no trouble to Greinke. The starter has a past of a social anxiety disorder that delayed his progression into the Majors.

Greinke can be slotted in to be an above-average second starter for the Brewers in 2012. Batters have yet to figure out his delicate mix of a high-velocity fastball with late life, improving change-up, low-70’s sharp curve, and nasty slide piece, and it’s unlikely Greinke will stray away from his four consecutive productive seasons, including the American League Cy Young Award in 2009.

His innings and pitch count will not be monitored as they were for his first three or four starts in 2011. Barring any injuries or other major setbacks, expect Greinke to top 200 innings pitched as he did from 2008-10 while in Kansas City. The late innings will be important for Greinke to keep the bullpen relatively fresh. After going the distance in nine games over the previous two seasons, he had no complete games in 2011. As a staff, Milwaukee only had one complete game for the entire season (Yovani Gallardo vs. Atlanta in April) and was aided by a very deep bullpen. The bullpen, with the losses of Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins, doesn’t have the sixth-and-seventh-inning arms it possessed last season. More starters, Greinke specifically, will have to go deeper into games to prevent Roenicke from using Marco Estrada or Brandon Kintzler in the eighth.

Greinke’s mechanics are easily repeatable and his release point remains the same regardless of the pitch. Unless he simply loses his All Star-quality heater, hoopdy scoopdy, and slider, expect another phenomenal, punch out filled season from Greinke in 2012.

2012 prediction: 18-8, 3.30 era, 33 starts, 207 IP, 225 K, 59 BB, 1.13 WHIP, always wears the proper jersey.

Brewers Season Outlook: Tim Dillard

-Curt Hogg-

Tim Dillard may have been the reason the Brewers reached the National League Championship Series in 2011, and he wasn’t even on the Postseason roster. Sound crazy? Probably is.

Let’s set the stage. June 5. Bottom of the ninth. Tie game. One out. Heart of the Marlins order coming up. Bases loaded. Ron Roenicke summons Tim Dillard out of the bullpen. Dillard’s side-winding delivery baffled All Star Gaby Sanchez, who grounded out to Craig Counsell, who came home for the force out. 2 outs. Dillard then shattered the bat of slugger Mike Stanton on a harmless fly out to Ryan Braun in left. He would come out and complete a scoreless tenth inning as well. Game preserved.

Utility infielder Josh Wilson would hit the game winning homer in the top of the 11th and John Axford would preserve the lead and

I'm not sure why, but I like Tim Dillard out of the 'pen this year.

secure the win. The Brewers would go on to barely secure home field advantage in the Divisional Series. Without Dillard’s heroics, they probably would not have, which would have sent Game Five of the NLDS to Arizona…and we know how the Brewers performed on the road in the Playoffs.

Skip ahead to 2012.

Dillard is now competing for one of the Brewers final three bullpen slots. His experience and relatively successful 2011 season will undoubtedly help his position and chances at making the Opening Day roster. Dillard should be used as a righty specialist; he could end up as the right-handed version of Brian Shouse or Javier Lopez. This is exactly what Dillard can bring to the table that Brandon Kintzler and Mike McClendon, others competing for  bullpen spots, are not as good at.

And he does a mean Harry Caray impression. Tim Dillard, One of the Most Interesting Men In The World

He was drafted in 2001 as a catcher, but could not come to an agreement with the Brewers. Milwaukee’s front office took another shot at him the next year, and he converted to a pitcher almost immediately. In 2003 with the Helena Brewers of the Rookie League, Dillard went 1-2 with a 3.32 era in 14 games. He made a name for himself in High A ball in 2005, going 12-10 with a 2.48 era in 185.1 era. He has made appearances with the Brewers in 2008, 2009, and 2011, holding a career 4.91 era.

While it’s not reasonable to expect Dillard to became a part of the back end of the bullpen, I expect him to make the Opening Day roster as a right-handed specialist in the sixth and seventh with the ability to eat innings up, if necessary. The Tim Dillard Experience may be headed to a ballpark near you soon.

Brewers Season Outlook: Mat Gamel

-Curt Hogg-

With the loss of Prince Fielder to free agency this season, a large void at first base has been opened for former top prospect Mat Gamel. Throughout his prior tenure with the Brewers, Gamel was stuck behind Fielder at first base and struggled too mightily defensively at third base to be considered an everyday starter at the hot corner. But now, it’s Gamel’s time to shine.

Expect Gamel to hit the lower-middle of the lineup, especially now with Ryan Braun back in the order and hitting third. His left handed power bat will be utilized by Roenicke to “clean up” the remnants of the damage wrecked by Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and Aramis Ramirez, much like the role Hart has played in the previous two seasons in the fifth and sixth slots in the order.

Gamel’s mechanics have been significantly simplified since his first stint of significant playing time in the Big Leagues in 2009. In 141 at bats that season, he hit .242 with 5 homers, 6 doubles, and 20 RBI. His eye at the plate and pitch selection will be key to his success in 2012. It’s difficult to read too much into Gamel’s career stats with Milwaukee; each of his stints at the Major League level have been brief.

The California surfer look-alike has been given the vote of confidence from Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. The job, for now, is his to lose. Hopefully, Gamel can fix his defensive woes that plagued him at third base in the past. It doesn’t require much defensively to be an upgrade from Fielder at first base, after all. Nobody by any means is asking him to become the next Prince Fielder, but a good season would take away a majority of the pressure burdened on him.

Mat Gamel Season Prediction: .259, 22 HR, 72 RBI, .331 OBP, 0.0 dWAR, a whole lotta chew

Ryan Braun Suspension Overturned: How This Affects the Brewers in 2012

-Curt Hogg-

Ryan Braun will be in the lineup, batting third for the Brewers on April 6th. Brewers fans, rejoice.

Not only does the successful appeal on Braun’s positive drug test maintain his image, but it may have saved the Milwaukee Brewers season. With the off-season loss of three-time All Star Prince Fielder, the Brewers could not have afforded losing the reigning National League Most Valuable Player for 50 games to begin 2012. Though the pitching staff–primed with upper-echelon arms in Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum–may have been able to keep the Brewers from locking themselves in the cellar by the end of May, the offense would have been stagnant without Braun and Fielder.

Let’s face it: Ryan Braun’s vindication saved the Milwaukee Brewers season.

All along, Braun denied any allegations, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the positive drug test report was “BS”. Throughout the entire process, including a five-week appeal in court, Braun was nothing short of professional. That same approach was taken Thursday by the Brewers outfielder, who said in a statement, “I’ve always loved and had so much respect for the game of baseball. Everything I’ve done in my career has been with that respect and appreciation in mind.”

In a division with no evident front-runner, the Brewers now have as good a chance to make the Playoffs as any team in the NL Central. The   defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals lost the face of the franchise and arguably top player in the game, Albert Pujols. Cincinnati, though much-improved with the addition of starter Mat Latos, has much to prove with a plethora of question marks surrounding the back end of the rotation and bullpen.

The Brewers back end of the bullpen, comprised of 46-save-man John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, is easily the best in the division. The starting rotation is proven and can compete with the likes of the Chris Carpenter-led St. Louis arms.

What may be overlooked in all this may be the fact that the Brewers retained a Gold Glove in left field with what may have been the worst defensive infield in the National League with the likes of Rickie Weeks and Mat Gamel. The outfield is now one of the best, boasting UZR-gem Carlos Gomez (27.5 UZR in 2011), the speedy Nyjer Morgan and his alter ego, Tony Plush, and the underrated Corey Hart in right field.

The effect will be most obvious under the ‘R’ column in the scoreboard. The Brewers gain a .330 hitter who can bop 30 homers and drive in over 100 in addition to stealing 30 bases. As much love as there may be for Carlos Gomez and Japanese import Nori Aoki, it’s borderline-impossible that the two could match that production. I mean, there is a reason the man was the National League MVP.

The debate over the Most Valuable Player award typically is along the lines of “Well, is he really the most  valuable to his team? Or is he just the top performer?” As if that line isn’t spoken enough, it would as overused as the driver’s seat in a 1994 Buick by the time his 50 game suspension would have been over. I’ll just do us all a favor and call it out right now, on the spot.

Ryan Braun will prove to be most valuable to his team in 2012.

Ryan Braun’s Released Statement on Overturned Drug Test

Ryan Braun has become the first player to overturn a positive drug test. Thursday, he was informed that a third-party arbitrator had ruled that he is, indeed, innocent and will not be suspended 50 games. To my knowledge, it is because something went wrong with the test, which sound a lot like the news I broke last week.

Braun released the below statement following the news of the successful appeal.

That, my friends, is the face of a vindicated man.

“I am very pleased and relieved by today’s decision.

“It is the first step in restoring my good name and reputation. We were able to get through this because I am innocent and the truth is on our side.

“We provided complete cooperation throughout, despite the highly unusual circumstances.

“I have been an open book, willing to share details from every aspect of my life as part of this investigation, because I have nothing to hide. I have passed over 25 drug tests in my career, including at least three in the past year.

“I would like to thank my family and friends, my teammates, the Brewers organization led by Mark Attanasio, Doug Melvin, Gord Ash and Ron Roenicke, and other players around the league who have expressed their support and our great fans in Milwaukee and around the country who stuck by me and did not rush to judgment.

“I’d also like to offer special thanks to Michael Weiner and the Players Association for believing in me since day one and to my attorneys.

“I’d like to thank my agent Nez Balelo and Terry Prince of CAA Sports and Matthew Hiltzik of Hiltzik Strategies for all of their help and counsel through the process.

“This is not just about one person, but about all current and future players, and thankfully, today the process worked.

“Despite the challenges of this adversarial process, I do appreciate the professionalism demonstrated by the Panel Chair and the Office of the Commissioner.

“As I said before, I’ve always loved and had so much respect for the game of baseball.

“Everything I’ve done in my career has been with that respect and appreciation in mind.

“I look forward to finally being able to speak to the fans and the media on Friday and then returning the focus to baseball and working with my Brewers teammates on defending our National League Central title.”

Ryan Braun Wins Appeal of Positive Drug Test, Avoids Suspension

Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun has been informed along with the Associated Press that he has won his appeal to overturn a positive drug test, and will avoid a 50 game suspension. Braun is the first player in Major League history to have a positive drug test overturned. The decision comes after five weeks of deliberation in the court hearing.

Major League Baseball is reportedly upset with the decision of neutral arbitrator Shyam Das. They released the following in a statement:

“As a part of our drug testing program, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed to a neutral third party review for instances that are under dispute. While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.”

Braun is the first player in MLB history to successfully overturn a positive drug test.

Braun appealed the positive test that took place in early October, at the outset of the playoffs. His hearing before a three-man arbitration panel was held in New York on Jan. 19-20, when noted attorney David Cornwell presented his case against the test result and suspension. Braun won the appeal 2-1, with the MLBPA and the arbitrator in his favor with, obviously, the MLB against it.

An official with knowledge of the situation said the test was overturned primarily on evidence that something went wrong with the test. Sounds EXACTLY like what Plushdamentals reported last week. A source exclusively told me that the test was mishandled and sent in later than it should have been. Read that article here. 

Braun is expected to report to Brewers Spring Training facilities in Maryvale, Arizona on Friday. The announcement comes right at a time when Braun and the Brewers would be faced with their toughest media situation in team history. Now that the cloud of doubt and suspicion are gone and Braun’s image has been restored, the team can resume baseball activities without anxiety.

ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported in December that Braun tested positive for a performance enhancing drug at the outset of the Playoffs, which was reportedly synthetic testosterone. From the beginning, Braun denied any allegations, telling the Journal Sentinel that the report was “BS”. The test reportedly contained “insanely high” levels of testosterone, far above any test ever before.

Not only does Braun retain his reputation of one of the game’s elite, but the Brewers avoid a huge blow by avoiding a 50 game suspension to the reigning National League MVP. After losing Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers, suffering without Braun could have been excrutiating.

More to come.

Brewers Season Outlook: Corey Hart

-Curt Hogg-

While there is a flurry of questions surrounding Corey Hart entering the 2012 season, one thing is for sure: with the loss of Prince Fielder, Hart’s production in the lineup is crucial.

Hart gives a curtain call after hitting his third homer in a game vs. Washington in May 2011

Hart is coming off of his first back-to-back productive seasons. Production from the 6’6″ right fielder had been sporadic throughout his career, to say the least. In 2011, however, he simplified his swing, removing any unnecessary movements that tended to get him off balance. Hart batted leadoff for Ron Roenicke’s squad in 63 games last season, including 11 Playoff games in addition 62 consecutive games to finish the season. Despite not fitting the prototypical mold of a leadoff batter, Hart flourished in the role. He batted .301 with 15 home runs and 36 RBI, providing a jolt of pop at the top of the lineup.

Hart enters the season as the leading candidate to bat leadoff for the Brewers, but recent comments by Rickie Weeks may play a role in how that turns out.

Dario Melendez tweeted that Weeks said, “I’ll like to bat anywhere else but 5. I just feel stagnant when I’m there like ‘drove in run, what’s next?”

Though the decision still remains ambiguous, the looming suspension of Ryan Braun would open up the 3-hole for the first 50 games until its rightful owner called its name. Neither Hart nor Weeks has ever batted third significantly in their careers (Corey only has 20 starts in the third slot). It wouldn’t surprise me to see Weeks hit first and Hart move down to third with Nyjer Morgan smushed in between. I wouldn’t read too much into his comments, however.

The loss of Fielder opens up more than vacant spots in the batting order; the opening at first base has been a point of emphasis and speculation throughout the off-season, now seeping into Spring Training. Mat Gamel, the former top prospect known for hitting cannon shots but being  an ancient mariner at third base, is finally getting his chance at consistent playing time in the Majors. Roenicke considers Gamel to be the front-runner now at first, but the option of Hart’s lanky frame switching from right to first hovers over Gamel. Most likely, the Brewers will carry four additional outfielders (Morgan, Carlos Gomez, Nori Aoki, Ryan Braun) throughout the season, leaving the door open for Hart at first if need be. Odds are that Corey will stay in right and Gamel and, possibly, Taylor Greenwill man first base.

Hart’s production at the plate in 2012 will need to be consistent with that of the past two seasons. Continual work with former batting coach and current Cubs manager Dale Sveum got Hart back to an All Star level of play. Hart raked the ball all over the pasture in 2010 and 2011, hitting a combined 124 extra base hits. Last season, in only130 games, he finished with 26 home runs and a modest 63 RBI given the fact half his season was spent in the RBI-deprived leadoff spot. One spot of emphasis will be improving upon last season’s mark of .236 with two outs and RISP. The Brewers lost one of the best two-out hitters in Fielder (.299, 25 RBI with 2 outs & RISP in 2011) and two out production from hitters such as Hart is a key to repeating as National League Central champs.

Expect nothing short of an All Star-type season from Hart in 2012. I predict he, not Aramis Ramirez or Weeks, will be the bat that carries the offense throughout the season.

2012 prediction: .281, 28 HR, 81 RBI, 7 SB, .345 OBP, still does that funky one-hand-in-the-air-and-hip-twist celebration after a base hit.