Five questions: Milwaukee Brewersby Eric Johnson
March 25, 2011
The fans and front office alike in Milwaukee had grown tired over the last two seasons of watching a potent offense undermined by expensive mediocrities in the rotation. Cue two huge offseason trades to replenish the Brewers' stable of starters, and expectations are again high in Milwaukee.
Will the big three starters stay healthy?
Baseball's eternal question is particularly relevant for the Brewers, who possess in Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum one of the best front lines in baseball but very little depth. In fact, when manager Ron Roenicke was asked who the team's sixth starter would be in case of injury, he had no answer and had to consult the official depth chart.
Cruelly, just a few days later Greinke was revealed to have suffered a fractured rib while playing pick-up basketball in February; while the injury isn't serious, he'll start the season on the DL and miss at least a few starts. In a division projected to be an extremely close three-way race among the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals, those handful of starts could end up being the difference.
Gallardo and Marcum aren't pictures of health themselves. Neither has yet managed a 200-inning season, and both have had an entire season lost to injury within the last three years. Marcum's history is more concerning. He came back from Tommy John surgery last year and his mechanics continue to draw scrutiny. Gallardo has fortunately escaped arm problems in his young career, but did miss most of 2008 after knee surgery and was disabled last year with an oblique strain.
Will John Axford be Derrick Turnbow 2: Electric-fastball-and-no-idea-where-it's-going?
The parallels are frightening: Both came out of nowhere in their age-27 season riding mid-90s fastballs and iconic hair to superstardom at the back of the Brewers' bullpen. Turnbow, of course, completely fell apart halfway though the next season as his control deserted him, his throng of fans and his job following shortly thereafter.
Might Axford go down this same tortured path? It's worth noting that until last year, control problems plagued Axford even more than they did Turnbow; his career minor-league walk rate stands at an even six batters per nine innings, while Turnbow managed "just" 4.6.
Should the axe fall on Ax, the Brewers are reasonably well set up with Zach Braddock and Takashi Saito, though both are large injury risks. Nevertheless, the division is so tight that it could hinge on a single game, so we'll really get to see how Axford can handle the pressure.
Will Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks earn their recent extensions?
In the midst of a career-reviving hot streak last summer, Hart seemed likely to be traded for pitching, but Doug Melvin surprised by signing him to a three-year, $26.5 million extension. Weeks had a similarly rejuvenating 2010 and earned his four-year, $38.5 million deal when Brett Lawrie, the only starting-quality second base prospect the Brewers had in the high minors, was used to acquire Marcum from Toronto.
FanGraphs has Hart's season last year worth over $13 million and values Weeks' performance north of $24 million, so obviously if they turn in equally valuable encores they'll be well worth their new contracts—but, but.
Hart, as a generally terrible defensive outfielder, is useless if he's not hitting, which is unfortunately exactly how he spent 2008 and 2009. He also doesn't walk much and has a weakness for down-and-away sliders, giving him a volatile offensive profile. Weeks, a liability with the glove in his earlier years, has battled the position to a draw and has a broader, more stable offensive platform, but recurrent wrist injuries and a proclivity for getting hit by pitches—he led all of baseball last year—cast his ability to stay on the field in doubt.
Will shortstop and center field be black holes of suck?
It took the inclusion of Alcides Escobar to net Greinke from Kansas City, which meant Milwaukee had to accept Yuniesky Betancourt and his all-around inability to do anything in return simply because someone has to play shortstop. Similarly, with Lorenzo Cain joining Escobar in the City of Fountains, the center field job falls to Carlos Gomez by default despite his falling flat on his face when given the same role in 2010.
At least with center field, the Brewers have some reasonable alternate options should Gomez live down to expectations. Chris Dickerson, acquired from Cincinnati last August in a neat little deal for soon-to-retire Jim Edmonds, could form the big half a of a platoon with his career .273/.363/.420 line against right-handed pitching—except that he's never been able to stay healthy. Milwaukee also has semi-prospects Caleb Gindl, Logan Schafe, and Erik Komatsu in the high minors, though Schafer is considered the only true center fielder of the three. If Gomez is Gomez and Dickerson is broken, it's possible one of those players could fill in and not be a complete disaster. Worst case scenario: no one hits but at least Gomez brings the potential of elite defense, something sure to please Roenicke, a Mike Scioscia disciple.
Shortstop is more dire. Betancourt's defense won't be much of one; Craig Counsell, his backup, is so old that he's a man even by Mike Gundy's standards and won't be able to hold up as an every-day player. Luis Cruz is likely to make the team as a utility man, but he hits like Betancourt without the power and doesn't have the glove to make up for it. Unlike at center field, the Brewers' ravaged minor league system is bereft of even a nominal shortstop prospect, meaning that if Betancourt doesn't pass muster, the Brewers may have to go outside the organization for a replacement. Now, who might they be able to offer in return...?
If the team underachieves through midsummer, will Prince Fielder be traded?
Fielder, a Scott Boras client, has consistently rebuffed extension talks and if, for whatever reason, Milwaukee appears to be out of the pennant race in July, Melvin may be tempted to deal him. With the bitter lesson of the 2008 offseason surely not forgotten, Melvin may be hesitant to let Fielder walk with only compensatory picks to show for it. That year, the Brewers failed to receive a first-round draft choice for either of their departing aces when an injured Ben Sheets didn't sign with anyone and the Yankees inked Mark Teixeira, the only free agent more highly rated than CC Sabathia, thus sending their first-rounder to the Angels instead of the Brewers.
Given those bad memories, it would be understandable for Melvin to try to maximize the return for Fielder while it's under his control. Though the current sense is certainly that the Brewers are going hell-for-leather for the playoffs, two facts may augur for a trade if 2011 isn't looking like their year. One, every other player of importance is signed through 2012, including Greinke and Marcum; two, the Brewers have in Mat Gamel a serviceable bat currently without a position who could be plugged in at first base at any time.
In fact, if you squint, trading Fielder could even improve the Brewers if they got the right package in return, particularly one shoring up the two big weaknesses mentioned above. Oh, that 2009 draft pick the Angels got ahead of the Brewers? They used it to draft Mike Trout, a center fielder and now perhaps the best prospect in baseball.
Eric Johnson writes about the Brewers for Brewerfan.net; follow him on Twitter @battlekow