Five questions: Milwaukee Brewers

From 90 wins to 80 in one season. Sure, Milwaukee fans are used to seeing the hometown team lose, but the 2008 Wild Card changed the expectation game. Plenty of things went right for the Brewers last year, but the starting rotation was so, so wrong.

Will the rotation be respectable?

One thing is certain: It will be tough for the rotation to be worse than it was last year. Brewers starters had an ERA of 5.37 last year (last in the National League, 0.40 behind 15th-place Washington), and that’s including a 3.73 ERA from Yovani Gallardo. We could look at some more advanced stats, but they all tell about the same story.

At least there are some new faces. Along with Gallardo, the top of the rotation will include free-agent lefties Randy Wolf and Doug Davis. Between them, CHONE predicts that the Crew will get about 330 innings of sub-4.50 pitching. Compared to replacement level, Wolf was a bit pricey. Compared to the disaster that was 2009 Brewers starting pitching, Wolf is a savior.

Also reassuring is that Dave Bush and Manny Parra have track records suggesting they are capable hurlers. Both rode a wave of poor performance and worse luck to ERAs above 6.00 last year; CHONE projects that both will come in under 5.00 in 2010.

Then there’s Jeff Suppan. In a logical world, the Brewers would cut him loose, suffer the emotional pain of a $12 million sunk cost, and give his innings to someone—anyone—else. In this world, he may well end up with a rotation spot. He will give up a lot of runs.

Even if Suppan sticks in the rotation for most of the season, this is a much-improved rotation. It doesn’t look like a playoff-caliber one, but if Parra (still only 27) puts things together and rebounds to something like his 2008 season, it might be good enough to get the job done.

They can field, they can run, but can they hit?

If you’re looking for reasons to watch the Brewers this year, here are two: Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gomez. Both are among the most gifted defensive players in the game, and they’ll be manning shortstop and center field for Milwaukee.

But both also are young and come with question marks on their offense. Gomez has over 1,000 major league at-bats under his belt, with a sub-.300 on-base percentage to show for it. Brewers coaches are already tinkering with his approach, and he’s a candidate (along with Escobar) to bat ninth, behind the pitcher.

Officially, the Brewers aren’t expecting much from the pair, but if both perform at the lower end of their offensive projections, it’s easy to see an anemic overall offense result. For all that Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder can do, another down year from Corey Hart, a step back from Casey McGehee, and a couple of all-field youngsters could guarantee some awfully easy innings for opposing pitchers.

Fortunately, there is hope. Escobar got on base at a .350 clip in Triple-A last year, and even batted .300 in his stint in the majors. He’s shown solid gap power throughout his minor league career, knocking at least 25 doubles in each of the last two seasons.

Gomez is a bigger question mark, but he might be the one with more potential at the plate. While he has never had a sterling offensive season, he held his own in the minors at a very young age; he just hasn’t seen much in the way of improvement in the last two years.

Will Rickie Weeks stay healthy?

Probably not.

Has Doug Melvin fixed the bullpen yet?

Little-known fact outside of Milwaukee: The bullpen wasn’t that bad last year. The memory of the 2008 Eric Gagne edition is strong, but finally fading.

Melvin has finally started to figure out how to build a bullpen with a decent payroll. Years ago, he was famous for his scrap heap pickups: Dan Kolb (when he was good), Derrick Turnbow (when he was good), Brian Shouse, and many more. Once he had some money to play with, he spent it on the likes of Gagne, Guillermo Mota, and David Riske.

Nobody ever said it was easy to build an effective bullpen. This year’s edition is a relatively salary-efficient blend of proven vets (Trevor Hoffman, LaTroy Hawkins), experienced but affordable middle relievers (Todd Coffey, Claudio Vargas), and some homegrown pieces (Mitch Stetter, Carlos Villanueva).

A better performance from the starting rotation will help, and Hawkins should more than make up for the loss of Mark DiFelice. Hawkins’ presence also would make it easier to weather injury or ineffectiveness from the 42-year-old Hoffman. This isn’t a world-beating bullpen, but it isn’t likely to hold the rest of the team back.

Where will Prince Fielder end up, and when?

Those annoyed by the constant low-level chatter about a long-term deal for Prince Fielder had better brace themselves. It ain’t going away anytime soon.

A quick recap. Prince is now in his second season of arbitration. Last year, he signed a two-year deal that gave the club some cost certainty; this year, he’s making $10.5 million. If Scott Boras and the Brewers settle on a one-year contract next year, we could be looking at something in Ryan Howard territory, pushing $20 million.

It’s conceivable that Milwaukee would do that. Between the low-cost Ryan Braun deal and Suppan’s contract coming off the books, the money will be available. It’s even possible that the Brewers could convince themselves that Fielder is worth a $150 million, seven-year megadeal.

But this seems unlikely. First of all, Boras will want Fielder to test the rose-tinted waters of free agency. That probably rules out a long-term deal next winter. Second, while Fielder has shown some improvement at first base (-23 in 2006-07 to -7 in 2008-09, according to TotalZone), he’s still a designated hitter in the not-too-distant future. The Brewers don’t need one of those.

Here’s what’s going to happen. Unless the Brewers are in the hunt come July, Fielder will be unofficially available almost continuously until Opening Day next year. Doug Melvin will never publicly put him on the trading block, and he’ll never back himself into a situation where he “must” trade his star. There won’t be a Halladay-esque public bidding war, either. But he’ll listen.

The Milwaukee front office isn’t stupid. The odds that Fielder is wearing a Cerveceros uniform in 2012 are awfully low. Fielder can net a whole lot more than draft picks, and especially if the 2011 squad is shaping up to be another 80-win mediocrity, there’s no reason to pay Fielder $20 million to be there. He might be part of a playoff run in 2010 or 2011, but it remains to be seen whether it’s the Brewers he’ll be leading into October.

Bonus: Will Ryan Braun be designing T-shirts in October?

This is one question on which all of us—Brewers fans, Brewers haters, and Brewers neutrals—can agree.

Please, please no.

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Comments

  1. John R said...

    Very nice analysis of the beer city’s problems.  It is especially intrigueing to anticipate the future of Mr. Fielder. It should not be too difficult for several teams to justify his presence at a cost of perhaps $20M annually while overlooking his UZR and other negatives he brings with him.  There must be some teams that can bookend him into the lineup and use his fantastic hitting to distract the fans from noticing the team’s other failures.  That’s entertainment, not rocket science. For the bulk of fans who are not into sabermetrics, etc. that translates into ticket sales.  Fielder is a unidimentional player, still, getting the right hitters around him can give him possibly 160 RBI’s in 160 games.  That’s dy-no-mite.  His pluses: OPS+ of 150 in past 3 years; slugging over 1.000 in 2007 and 2009; durable; young and not a bad guy.  That last virtue in important when you get into the $20m class.  Then on to DH for 8 years.

  2. Jim G. said...

    It seems you aren’t digging deep enough about the ‘08 bullpen. While Gagne was bad as the closer, he actually finished the year decent as a middle man. Mota had a tale of two halves – the first half he was terrible, the second, he was the Brewers best reliever. As a Brewers fan who watches all the games closely, I don’t have the disdain for those two guys as some do.
    As far as the present day, I enjoyed your analysis.

  3. Jacob Rothberg said...

    Gawd. Is he wearing three shirts, or does that horrible t-shirt have grey sleeves attached to it?

  4. Jeff Sackmann said...

    Jim G: They weren’t awful compared to the mass of relievers, but relative to their salaries, especially Gagne was atrocious.

    The point is that Melvin was preoccupied that offseason with solving bullpen problems via $$, an approach that almost never works.

  5. Mike said...

    Escobar and Gomez are surely going to be question marks early on but I still think the bottom of the order will be a big improvement over last year because Jason Kendall is now a Royal;  Great catcher but not too much offense there.

    One thing our Brewers have going for them is age… they are young and experienced.  And in the National League Central where there are quite a few aging players for the Cubs and Cards I think it will pay huge dividends as the season grinds down to the final weeks.

    Look for the Brewers to make a trade move before the deadline if they are still in the hunt… perhaps a power righty to replace Sup. if he’s still starting.

    BTW—Weeks looked tremendous early in 2009 and I believe he will be the difference in 2010.  The right side of the field now has great defense in Weeks, Prince, and Hart.

    You mentioned running in your subtitle but only related it to Gomez and Escobar.  Hart, Braun, Weeks and even Fielder will be running this year more so than last as well—Macha alluded to this in earlier comments before the season started.  I have faith that the Crew will prevail this year.

  6. Charlie Marlow said...

    Good article as always, Jeff.

    Mike—

    I agree with some of what you say, but:

    “The right side of the field now has great defense in Weeks, Prince, and Hart.”

    is NOT something I agree with.  All three of those players are below average defenders at their respective positions.  While Prince and Weeks (in very limited duty) improved upon their fielding last year, there isn’t enough data to make a judgment on whether those years will go down as a fluke, or the turning of a corner.

    I also don’t think that Carlos Gomez will provide more offensively than did Jason Kendall.  The young man has done absolutely nothing in 1017 ABs.

  7. Mike said...

    Charlie—

    Can’t disagree with you Charlie.  Weeks did have a very short, but promising, season… and I will stick with my point that he will be the difference maker offensively in 2010. 

    Defensively, you are probably right that there is not enough data to judge my comments appropriately but if you were there to see Rickie bobble grounders in previous years, you might change your mind.  He “looked” like a much improved player early on last year;  He can REALLY pound the ball at the plate.

    In Gomez I don’t know a lot about.  I agree that his stats don’t show any improvement over Kendall. I do think, however, that Carlos will face easier pitchers this year which should help his case. 

    Escobar?  I’ve heard that he’s even a tough out on “routine” grounders.  As a Brewer fan, I like to hear that. 

    Only time will tell and I can’t wait to see what happens.

    Thanks Charlie.

    P.S. on the Fielder/Free Agent speculation: 

    Let’s leave the Prince free agent thing on the back burners for a while.  Please?  3 million Brewers fans (and Prince) have their eyes on the prize; Not how much the Yankees are willing to pay him in a couple of years. I’d appreciate that.

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