Brewer NLDS Preview

After a pair of third place finishes under manager Ken Macha, the Milwaukee Brewers reset heading into 2011 with a new manager and some new arms. Sub-.500 wasn’t going to cut it this time around.

Increased expectations? No problem.

An impressive bunch

The Brew Crew were one of four preseason favorites in a bunched up National League Central. As the 2011 season progressed, rookie manager Ron Roenicke was enjoying his big three on the mound and in his line-up. One of those three, Prince Fielder, was in his contract year—you can see the Brewers revving up for what could be their last shot with the big man at first.

With Ryan Braun having an MVP-type year the Brewers were one of the top offensive teams in the National League. Able to survive losing Rickie Weeks for a stretch, and a dismal season from Casey McGehee, the Brewers have established themselves as a dangerous offense. Corey Hart‘s return to good health is almost lost in the commotion, and gives the club a fourth quality bat that can be deployed just about anywhere in the line-up.

The offseason was marked not just by the hiring of a new manager, but the flushing of the farm system to acquire Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Both enjoyed the move from the American League and certainly did a fine job replacing Manny Parra and Dave Bush.

Let’s say that again. Parra and Bush out. Greinke and Marcum in. And toss out a Chris Capuano on the exhale. The Brewers got rid of two fringe major leaguers and acquired two front-end starters. Oh my.

Jon Axford is still the closer, despite Takashi Saito‘s offseason signing and the deadline acquisition off Francisco Rodriguez raising some questions (particularly the latter). Saito has only had marginal impact on the bullpen (effective but in limited use) K-Rod has only grumbled a little bit about his set-up role, LaTroy Hawkins has been the good Hawkins. Kameron Loe has been effective in the middle innings, giving the Brewers a fairly deep bullpen.

The group has put up a 96 percent save percentage, with Axford blowing just two and the middle guys blowing another 17 (mostly hold opportunities that were fumbled). Loe has had the most troubles, but blown saves/holds are easier to recover from when they’re in the sixth inning.

Triple threat

How good is this offense? Eight players have enough plate appearances to qualify for consideration. Five have an OPS+ over 100, and it’s not even close (167, 158, 135, 122, 112). Two of the sub-par performers are actually not sub-par—cather Joathan Lucroy and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt are not expected to carry the load on offense. Actually, Lucroy (90) and his back-up, George Kottaras (108), provided plenty of punch.

Bringing up the rear, with a dismal OPS+ of 71, is McGehee. Yuni is at 75, so, well, there you go. Roenicke is already hinting at replacing McGehee at third for the postseason. Jerry Hairston, Jr. is a likely choice, along with light-hitting Craig Counsell. The Brewers better hope McGehee finds his swing. What ever the case may be, if there’s a hole in the line-up it’s at the hot corner.

As we know, the Brewers are no longer a one-dimensional team. The 2010 version of their defense ranked near the bottom in DER (29) and Total Zone (28) and in the middle of the pack in UZR (16). With Yuni replacing Alcides Escobar at short and Nyjer Morgan taking most of the center field work away from Carlos Gomez, the 2011 edition of the Brew Crew defense suddenly a different beast.

To say they’ve improved is an understatement. The 2011 Brewers rank eighth in both UZR and Total Zone and have improved to 12th overall in DER. Not outstanding, but enough to give the pitching a boost. The Brewers upgraded staff combined with their improved defense for another impressive turnaround.

The bump in defense is reflected by a big drop in team ERA. This exceeds the FIP/xFIP/tERA/SIERA improvements from 2010 to 2011, but those metrics tell the same story (source). To top it all off, the improvements—about a full run in ERA and a half to two-thirds a run in the others—are roughly the same for both the rotation and the bullpen.

Deep offense, three legitimate front-end starters, an above-average defense and a shutdown bullpen. That should play in October.

Have you ever been experienced?

Roenicke may be a rookie manager, but he spent the last decade working for the Angels, most recently a five-season stint as Mike Scioscia‘s bench coach. He also played in the 1984 World Series, but, as this author is a Cub fan, I’m not allowed to talk about how he got there. The Brewer skipper has a ring from his days coaching third with the Angels and five more postseason trips (including three as the bench coach). It will be his first calling the shots, but it’s hard to call Roenicke completely green when he comes to guiding the ship through October waters.

The 2008 Brewers snagged the NL Wild Card, only to lose in the opening round. Fielder, Weeks, Braun, Hart were all part of that team. Hairston went all the way with the 2009 Yankees. Counsell has two rings from his days in Florida and Arizona and was with the 2008 Brewer team. Pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay will be making his third trip to the postseason and is looking for his first World Series trip. Carlos Gomez has a trip as a Twin under his belt. Depending on what happens at third base, Roenicke may run out a line-up with five positions manned by players who have been there before.

The pitching staff is less experienced, particularly in the rotation. Gallardo made one start and one relief appearance in 2008 and Wolf got a pair for the Dodgers in 2009. Greinke and Marcum have never faced the glare of October, but this is what they signed-up for. K-Rod has been to five prior playoffs, including the 2002 Angels championship with Roenicke on the coaching staff. LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito will be making their fourth trips to the postseason, but the rest of the bunch is untested, including closer Jon Axford. Assuming the starters carry their load, the Brewers will be able to avoid their middle relievers and get the ball to their most effective and experienced bunch. Really, this is nothing unique in terms of middle relief avoidance.

In a nutshell, the Brew Crew has a productive offense that’s core is making their second postseason trip together. The bullpen has a veteran presence but the postseason experience in the rotation is thin. One could easily dismiss the inexperience of the starting pitching in light of the sheer quality of the group.

NLDS outlook

Barring a pitching implosion, the Brewers lone weakness appears to be third base. Every flaw is exposed in the post-season, but it’s hard to view McGehee’s plight as an Achilles heel. Whether it’s Atlanta or Arizona, the Brewers should be favored in the opening round. Given their home/road splits, the Brewers would be well-served if they can wrap up home field advantage heading into the short opening series.

References & Resources
Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference stats were all used in preparing this article.

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