Five Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

In recent years, the Milwaukee Brewers have made the journey from perennial doormat to up-and-comers. They narrowly missed the playoffs last year, having to settle for their first season over .500 since “Cheers” was on the air, George H. W. Bush was president, Galileo was under official edict by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church (yes, really), and an unknown man named Brett Favre had just taken the reins as starting quarterback for the Packers.

Despite that, 2006 and 2007 have been very frustrating for Milwaukee fans. The team looked like they were on the verge of something good in 2005, finally making it to 81-81 with their young team gurgling up talent. Injuries set them back in ’06, when 83 wins were enough to win the division.

Last year, after breaking out to a fantastic start, they blew a sizable lead behind bad defense, some occasionally shaky pitching, and a good helping of bad managing. Still, they are a very young squad. So, with a team studded with homegrown future stars, what does 2008 hold for Wisconsin’s very own? Well …

1. Why did the Brewers sign Jason Kendall this offseason?

Last year’s catcher was Johnny Estrada, who wore out his welcome as a jackass, the same charge that plagued him in his one-year stint in Arizona.

This trade left them with a gaping hole at catcher, and Kendall was available. If he’s the cure, then I certainly hope Estrada was as deadly a disease as smallpox. Though Kendall had an unexpected revival with the Cubs, he’s done. He’s in his mid-30s, isn’t a good bet to hit .250, and has four homers in his last 1,457 plate appearances.

More distressing is his glove. As a Cub, Baseball-Reference credited him with tossing out five out of 57 base runners. The key words are “Baseball-Reference credited him with.” He gets credit even if the pitcher picks a guy off of first and the runner breaks for second. That happened three times. In reality he nabbed only two.

That’s the last thing Milwaukee needs, as the team’s defense was terrible. According to Fielding Win Shares, they had the 12th-best defense in the National League. Only 14.8 perfect of their team win shares went to their fielders, better than only Florida. Kendall worsens their weak point.

Milwaukee’s middle infield was mediocre at best. At first, Prince Fielder could only dream of being banal. They also had serious problems at third and center, which I’ll discuss later.

2. How important was the acquisition of Mike Cameron for the Brewers?

Nabbing the three-time gold glove center fielder was inspired. Not only does he improve them in center, but he starts a nifty little chain reaction to improve their overall defense.

Last year, the team converted infielder Bill Hall into a center fielder. Hall manned the wide-open spaces like a man with an acute fear of agoraphobia. He screwed himself up mentally, and he suffered at the plate as well.

Cameron pushes Hall back to the infield. He’ll occupy third, displacing slugger Ryan Braun, who was easily the worst defensive player in baseball last year.

That defensive butcher posted a fielding percentage of .895. I know fielding percentage isn’t the most scientific stat out there, but it was under .900! Not only was that worse than all other third basemen in 2007, it was worse than all other starters at that position in 1907. I didn’t know it was humanly possible to be that bad.

It’s only a few points higher than the career mark of Jerry Denny, who played without a glove. Braun’s glove was so bad it crossed the line from horrible to civilization-threatening.

He’ll occupy left, replacing franchise stalwart Geoff Jenkins, who signed with Philly. Braun is a defensive downgrade in left, but it’s easier to hide his glove there. In all, I’ve read that these maneuvers should improve their defense by four games.

That’s nice, but please note Cameron’s coming doesn’t solve their defensive woes as much as it lessens them. They have major problems at first, left and catcher and uninspired play at the infield middle. Cameron, at age 35, has lost a step. That he’s their best fielder is a compliment to him and an indictment of the rest.

3) How should their pitchers do?

Ben Sheets has turned into the new Mark Prior. Never count on him to be healthy. If he is, that’s just gravy, but if you depend on that, you’re in deep trouble.

Beyond him, they have homegrown stud Yovani Gallardo. He looked fantastic last year, striking out nearly a batter an inning and emerging as a force to be reckoned with at age 21. He is scheduled to begin the year on the DL. You never want to hear that, but it was for minor knee surgery. Well, hopefully it was just minor. If Gallardo avoids a sophomore slump and Sheets is healthy, they’ll have a terrific one-two punch. I wouldn’t count on that, especially the latter. If they both have trouble, it gets dangerous.

Jeff Suppan embodies what was wrong with the other starters. While a dependable innings eater, he has one flaw: he’s dependent on his defense. Last year, he struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings, far below the league-wide rate of 6.7 per nine innings. That’s a problem, on the Brewers. Though the defense has improved, it’s still below par.

Dave Bush is closer to the league rate, but still under 6.5/9IP. Carlos Villanueva strikes out many in relief, but as a starter he’s more like Dave Bush. The bad defense hurts their starters, forcing them out of the game earlier.

Things cascade further. Earlier starter exits makes Milwaukee more reliant on the bullpen, and (cue ominous music) how manager Ned Yost handles the relievers.

This offseason, another article here at THT documented how Yost’s mishandling of the bullpen cost the Brewers. Simply put, he blew them out. A few examples:

- Derrick Turnbow appeared in 21 of the first 45 games, pitching reasonably effectively. In the last 10 weeks of the season, he had an ERA over 7.00 in 39 appearances.

- Matt Wise, who appeared in 11 of the team’s first 22 games, had a similar meltdown late in the year, as batters teed off on him with an OPS of 1168 in his last 16 games.

Every single notable reliever had a worse ERA in the second half. By year’s end, the scorched bullpen had been assigned 40.5 percent of the team’s losses (32/79). That’s the sixth-highest percentage in MLB history.

Let’s summarize: the team has a bad defense, starters overly reliant on them, and a manager who doesn’t know how to handle the bullpen. That’s a potentially toxic combination. Defense matters more to Milwaukee than it does for most.

Oh, the team has several new relievers, most notably Eric Gagne. Frankly, I think how Yost handles them will be more important than the relievers themselves. As for Gagne, I honestly have no idea what he’ll do next year. The better he is, the less strain on the others. But then again, the bullpen had serious problems with a well-established closer.

To improve their weaknesses, I think they should flip Matt LaPorta, their best prospect, for some defensive or pitching help. This defensively challenged hitter has no place on Milwaukee’s roster, as Braun and Fielder block the only positions he can play.

They should use him to shore up their weak points. If he can’t get enough on his own, package him with either Jeff Suppan or J. J. Hardy for some greater pitching of up-the-middle defense. They need that more than LaPorta.

4) How good should their offense be next year?

Last year they were fifth in the NL in runs. They bring back six starters, the oldest of whom is 28. They should be poised to be even better this year, right?

That’s the conventional wisdom. But let’s take a step back for a second. Hitters get a bit better every year until their late 20s, then plateau and decline in their 30s. Yet virtually no player’s personal path perfectly follows these trends. There are unexpected leaps and jumps, or dips and bumps in the road. Looking at Milwaukee, I think they have an unusually large number of bumps next year, especially among their most important hitters.

Let’s start with 23-year-old Prince Fielder. Last year he made history by becoming the youngest man to hit 50 homers in a season. The previous record holder was Willie Mays, whose power went down by 15 the following year.

Next youngest is Ralph Kiner, whose homer total went down by 18. Jimmie Foxx lost 10 homers the next year. After him comes Mickey Mantle, who dropped 18 homers the following season.

Simply put, a person who leads the league or sets a home run record has nowhere to go but down. That’s not a knock on him as he’s a great homer hitter. Then again, so were Mays, Foxx, Mantle, and Kiner and look what happened to them the next year. Fielder’s value lay heavily in his power. That’s true of all 50+ homer men, but especially true of a slow-footed, crappy glove. He should hit a dip in the road in ’08.

Ryan Braun is a stranger case. He hit a homer nearly every third game. The pace is so high I doubt he’ll maintain it. But, he only played 112 games, so he could make up for in quantity what he loses in quality.

Let’s see … Last year, Braun had an OPS+ of 153, he had 33.0 Batting Runs. For comparison of how much value he might have with reduced quality, Curtis Granderson played everyday with an OPS+ of 136, but only 28.4 BR. Adam Dunn also had a 136 OPS+ and 29.7 BR. Odds are, Braun will be around where he was last year—maybe a little higher or lower.

Last year, Fielder and Braun combined for 80.6 Batting Runs. The remaining Brewer starters combined for -1.6 BR. Now, that includes the departed Johnny Estrada and Geoff Jenkins, who were -16.5 BR. Then again, the men replacing them (Cameron and Kendall) combined for -21.4 BR. Blame Kendall for that.

How about the team’s third-best hitter last year, 25-year-old Corey Hart? Last year he made a big stride forward. An average hitter in ’06, he blossomed, hitting 24 homers with a nearly .300 batting average. Strangely, the size of his jump makes me think that big a rise should be primed for a valley up ahead.

Rather than just take my word for it, let’s find some data. At age 25, he had an OPS+ of 126. In the live ball era, he’s the fifth player to do that with at least 502 plate appearances. Here’s the OPS+ for all five from ages 23-26:

Hitter          Age 23  Age 24  Age 25  Age 26
Eric Chavez        128     127     126     134
Jose Vidro          61     108     126     119
Rich Gedman        102      98     126      91
Brooks Robinson    108      98     126      99
Cory Hart           65     101     126      ??

The only one who improved was the only one who didn’t have a big rise at age 25.

Makes sense. If a player makes that big a leap in one year, it likely means that he was either a little over his head in his big year or a little below the year before. That doesn’t mean it’s a fluke, as he can still grow into his talent—Brooks Robinson sure did. But in the immediately following season, he should dip.

So, should anyone here get better? Definitely. J.J. Hardy should make steady improvement, but the guys to watch are Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks.

Hall cratered last year as the inability to field center ruined him. He went from hitting 35 homers in ’06 to 14 last year while his average dropped. Back where he feels safe, he’s a great bet to shoot up.

Weeks looked like a lost sheep for most of the season. A .280 hitter in ’06, the 24-year-old found himself barely over the Mendoza Line in mid-August. Then something clicked. He went two-for-four on August 18, and scored three hits on the 20th. He never looked back, hitting .292/.449/.591 the rest of the way with 11 homers and 13 stolen bases. And Brewer fans I’ve contacted said he looked like a completely different player. He won’t make the 40/40 club, but he’ll be much better.

While these two should be substantially improved, given the dips and treading of others, I see Milwaukee’s team-wide offense staying in place. They can be the game’s best offense by 2009 or 2010, but for now I see them taking a year to develop and gather their horses.

5) So, can they win it?

Hell, yeah. I’ve been rather pessimistic throughout this, but even still let’s look at what I’ve said. Their offense, which was great last year, should be as good. Their defense has improved. Their rotation should have a lot more Gallardo. And they’re in the weakest division in the game’s lesser league.

Really, though I stand by my reasons for caution; I do think they are far more likely to exceed my expectations than fall short of them.

Unfortunately, they remind me a lot of the 2000-4 White Sox. That squad was supposed to be the Next Big Thing in the AL Central. Instead, after one big year, they fizzled.

They, like the Brewers, had a lineup loaded with homegrown young boppers (Paul Konerko, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez, Ray Durham, and an elder statesman Frank Thomas). They had a good starting pitcher who—like Ben Sheets—couldn’t stay healthy (Mike Sirotka).

After 2000, they never put it together. In ’01, and ’02, and ’03, I heard White Sox fans I know say that this would be the year. They were a surprise in 2005. Paul Konerko was the only starter from 2000 to swing the bat in the ’05 Fall Classic.

The Brewers looked like they were ready for their 81-81 mark in 2005. Despite the utter collapse of the division, they haven’t seized the moment. Though they’re still very young, too many years of frustrated expectations can have a dulling effect on a squad. They can’t sit back and wait forever. The other teams won’t lie dormant forever.

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