We will not call this “Decisions brewing”

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.

Yovani Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. Yadda yadda yadda. Axford.

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?

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    Is there some reason why people don’t like Mat Gamel as a first baseman? His minor league numbers look pretty good to me. A .280/.340/.460 line looks like a reasonable expectation.

  2. David said...

    The reason people haven’t fallen for Gamel (and I’m not saying this is right, but it’s reality) is that he’s laid some real stinkers when given big-league opportunities.  Personally, I would like to see Hairston resigned to play short.  He’s an upgrade over Yuni there, and he’d definitely be a cheap option.  Green played well at 3rd, and I’d like to see that continue.  Then, I would recommend signing Aramis Ramirez to play first.  Unless he’s one of those obnoxious players who’s unwilling to switch positions, I think this could work out well for the Crew, and I imagine him being a cheaper option than Pena, and more reliable than Lee, who has really started to decline fast.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    But has he actually been bad at the MLB level? In 2009 which was his only extended trial, he held his own at the dish in 148 PA. Granted, he struck out a billion percent of the time and benefited from a high BABIP, but his three other auditions consisted of 27, 17, and 2 PA. Typically, guys who strike out ~15% of the time in AAA aren’t the type who arrive in the majors and can’t hit a pitch so I wouldn’t worry too much about that 37% K rate in ‘09.

    Free Mat Gamel!

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Good info Harry.

    I can sympathize with Gamel though. I’ve had coaches who had unrealistic expectations about the rehab process. There are many people in the sport – more and more the lower you go – who think injury is a sign of weak character.

    That said, it’s inexcusable for a guy with big league aspirations to show up that much overweight because of toe problems. He should have hired himself a nutritionist to keep him healthy over that offseason. Hell, the Brewers and/or his agent probably would have willingly kicked in the cash or at least given him an advance if he couldn’t afford to do that.

  5. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Wisconsin has no truly good breweries in it, except maybe Central Waters, so I have no problem avoiding the beer metaphor. Beer capital of the world my butt!

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    Summit’s not too far into Minnesota. They’ve got the best product line I’ve experienced thus far. Although I’ve only explored maybe 3 or 4 breweries offerings.

  7. Andy B said...

    What about New Glarus, definitely a very good brewery? With the rumors of Macier Izturis being targeted by the Tigers, maybe he is available a nd the Brewers could get in on that.

  8. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Well I am our resident fantasy beer expert too wink

    New Glarus is a very average brewery in my mind. Few truly good beers, no “big styles” (e.g., barrel aged beers, russian imperial stouts, imperial IPA (its retired), etc), and most of the best brewed stuff is merely brewed to style rather than innovative.

  9. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Also,

    Escobar was a +2.2 WAR guy last year per FG (let’s not get into the “stop ranking players by WAR” argument for a moment). That’s not only higher than any single season of Yunieski Bentancourt’s career, but It’s actually a higher value than Bentancourt’s COMBINED five-year 2007-2011 production.

    Bentancourt is one of baseball’s worst gloves and bats. How he gets tendered a contract ANYWHERE is a mystery.

  10. Harry Pavlidis said...

    I guess it depends on your choice of WAR. Escobar ‘10 vs Yuni ‘11
    bWAR -0.6 -> 0.7
    fWAR 0.9 -> 0.5

  11. Brad Johnson said...

    I didn’t say he should be paid millions of dollars. Just that it’s not unreasonable to pay him something to play baseball.

  12. berselius said...

    New Glarus might not have the “big styles” that other large breweries might have, but speaking as someone who lived in WI for 10 years and has lived in three different states since, I sure miss having Spotted Cow on tap at every single bar I went to.

  13. Brad Johnson said...

    That’s what I miss about the Midwest, $2.50 pints of real beer. None of this piss water yellow crap. How did American beer become about tasteless, impotent piss?

    I’m way off topic here, so…the Brewers?

  14. Flharfh said...

    Considering the Brewers got pretty much nothing out of SS and 3B last year, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult for them to replace Prince’s offensive production if they can scrape together 2 WAR each from whatever combo of players man 3B, SS, and 1B.

    The bullpen is a bigger concern to me. Hawkins and K-Rod are the big losses; Saito was good but only pitched 30 innings. Hopefully Zach Braddock can come back from w/e was wrong with him last year, and at least Mike McClendon should get a full time shot next year.

    Finally, Yuni. You don’t really understand why it is so frustrating to watch him until he plays for your team. He looks fat and lazy in the field, giving up on ground balls, never diving, making stupid errors, completely lacking the patience to take a walk. If he could learn to play 2B and 3B (to hide his lack of range at SS)he would make a decent utility bench player, but I don’t see that happening. Players like Yuni don’t learn new positions.

  15. Rob said...

    Lakefront Brewery has to get some love.  Almost finished with their Pumpkin beer and East Side Dark is truly a blessing.

    No to Ramirez please-he’s eventually gonna stop hitting and then you have a no hitting no glove 3B.  I love the idea of platooning Gamel, Green, and McGehee.

    I’m really excited to watch the Brewers next year.  I think they will be right there again.  I really want to go watch some more playoff games!

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