One of a series on dilemmas facing each major league teams this winter.
As we turn the page into the final month of 2011, the hot stove is heating up. The offseason’s catalyst was new collective bargaining agreement, including new restrictions on draft bonuses and reduced costs for signing certain types of free agents.
The Brewers will look to defend their division title in 2012, and new CBA or not, this was destined to be a big offseason in Milwaukee. And not just because the general managers gathered for meetings there in November.
Starting pitching isn’t going to be the a winter topic—the entire rotation is back for 2012. The starting outfield of Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan and Ryan Braun will take up their same positions. Closer Jon Axford will anchor the bullpen, though the rest of the group is squishy. The other end of the battery should be unchanged, with Jonathan Lucroy being backed up by George Kottaras. There could be a new infield built around Rickie Weeks.
Losing Prince’s power generation skills
Braun is already the franchise player, with a long-term contract and his MVP trophy tucked away. The first and most obvious question for Milwaukee is what to do with the other (erstwhile?) face of their franchise, slugging first baseman Prince Fielder. The second generation basher is on the market and looking for a long-term deal involving big dollars. With the Red Sox and Yankees already invested heavily at the position, it’s the heavy guy and Albert Pujols looking for similar deals at the same time.
While that sounds like an opening, the Brewers are hoping to extend both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, so they won’t exactly be flush with cash if they make those deals. Prince’s departure seemed a foregone conclusion by the time the 2011 playoffs were under way, so even a tight market for big contract first basemen is probably not enough to make a difference.
If Prince is gone, is it Mat Gamel‘s time? Casey McGehee fell out of favor (the hallucination-generating 100 RBI season has worn off) and Jerry Hairston Jr. is not an everyday player at a power position. At the moment, he’s still a free agent and doesn’t look like he’ll be a holdover. Right now, it’s Taylor Green, McGehee and Gamel for the corners. And… Yuni at short? He’s a free agent, but the Brewers already upgraded shortstop before 2011… yes, Yuniesky Betancourt was actually a step up, which is really an indictment of Alcides Escobar. The Brewers did talk to Jimmy Rollins and even offered a deal to Clint Barmes, who ended up signing with Pittsburgh instead.
Going with guys in the system doesn’t seem to be the way to go, at least not for a balanced approach. Taylor Green and Gamel at the infield corners feels more like “Four-A” than 4 WAR. Keeping McGehee around and picking up another right-handed bat who can play first and/or third would give the Brewers a platoon situation that would be envied by … very few, actually.
There’s at least the possibility that the Brewers can limp through 2012 without any new investment in a corner infielder. You can’t say the same thing about their shortstop situation, even though Yuni is open to returning. With nothing in the farm system (which was depleted—Brett Lawrie, et al.—to beef up the rotation), it’s off to the free agent market for Doug Melvin and staff.
There’s no doubt Melvin is active in the shortstop market. The Brewers have met with the agents for Rollins, Barmes and even Jose Reyes. While Barmes drew an offer, Rollins and Reyes are not likely targets. The colder it gets, the more likely a Yuni reunion is in order.
The Brewers do have free agent options at the corners. Aramis Ramirez is the biggest name on the third base side. He’d provide plenty of offense, but he’s looking for three years and is going to get it. Given the market, even with his declining skills and possible trip across the diamond, demand is not lacking. Talking about (former) Cubs, Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena were both offered arbitration. Both are Type B, so it won’t cost the Brewers a pick to pry them away from Pittsburgh or Chicago, respectively. Both have until Dec. 7 to accept or decline the offers, so it’s possible there won’t be any opportunity to bid on their services at all.
Ramirez was also offered arbitration, but the odds of him accepting are too small to contemplate. Pena and Lee (more so the former) are likely to decline. If either Lee or Pena hit the market, the Brewers will have a chance to gamble on a veteran at first.
The Brewers can stay in-house or go for cheap stop-gap measures (Lyle Overbay, Kevin Kouzmanoff) that don’t seem much more attractive than the hand they currently hold. One benefit of staying in-house is keeping cash on hand for the 2012-2013 hot stove. Bringing back Hairston and Yuni for a season would also seem reasonable, but it seems like two-year deals are the norm in the current market.
So, welcome to December. The Brewers don’t know what their infield will look like, the status quo is kinda scary and there are no obvious candidates.
Where’s that confounded bridge?
The Milwaukee bullpen was overhauled before and during 2011, but now it’s a big gap from Kameron Loe to Jon Axford. Given the need to spend money at three infield spots, the Brewers front office will need to be creative once again, but frugal, in building the bridge to Axford. This is an annual
ordeal task for most clubs, usually an interesting and surprising market to follow.
The 2011 yadda squad’s main members were Takashi Saito (could be back), Francisco Rodriguez (gone), LaTroy Hawkins (probably gone), Marco Estrada (still under contract), and even Sergio Mitre (gone) and Tim Dillard (still under contract and under-handed). Of course, there was the middle inning work of the aforementioned Mr. Loe.
The Brewers are talking to Saito, but otherwise it’s the motley crew and any farmhands who emerge. Michael Fiers could be big league ready. He’s been worked as a starter and closer coming up, and he’s starting this winter for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, so it’s even possible he bumps Narveson to the bullpen. Baseball America named righty Wily Peralta the organization’s top prospect this year, but he’s probably a half season away, if not more. He’s more likely to bump Narveson than Fiers is, albeit further down the line.
If Saito re-signs and Fiers contributes in some form, the Brewers pitching staff should round out “good enough” to compete. Outfield, catching, all set. But that infield. How will that play? Will it be Rickie and the Weaks?