This is one of a series of posts in which we grade each team’s wily hot stove maneuvers and tragic offseason blunders.
As we know, “Milwaukee” is Algonquin for “the good land.” And Milwaukee does indeed look like the good land in 2008. Last year they ended up leading the NL Central for all but 29 games, only to falter in August and cede first place to the powerhouse 85-win Cubs. But this year will be different. Why?
First, there’s the hotly anticipated full season of Dreamy-Eyed Ryan Braun. Then there’s the fact that the Brewers finally took my advice (preen, preen) and moved the defensively challenged Braun out of the left side of the infield and into the left side of the outfield. Then there’s the fact that he’s just 24.
Then, there’s Prince Fielder, who, while the baseball world’s attention was focused on the dreamy eyes of the aforementioned Dreamy-Eyed One, hit 50 homers last year. He’s still only 23.
And then there’s Rickie Weeks, who spent most of last year struggling as he recovered from wrist surgery he’d had in August 2006—but who went on a tear the last two months of the season, and who’ll be leading off on Opening Day. He poised for a breakout season at age 25.
Hopes are also high for 21-year old starter Yovani Gallardo, who did quite well in his debut last year. Gallardo has been lights-out at every level, and should be ready to take on a full workload this year, despite his tender age. He’s got a fastball in the mid-90s and a big curveball in the 70s, and in September of last year, he put together a 21-inning scoreless streak with the big league club. He’ll likely be joined in the starting rotation by another young hurler, Carlos Villanueva, giving Milwaukee’s rotation a youthful new look.
Finally, 30-year old Ben Sheets is healthy and ready to have a good year, after a few seasons sprinkled with injuries. He’s in the last year of his contract and would no doubt like to prove himself worthy of big money; if he stays healthy, that shouldn’t be a problem. Over the past three years, he hasn’t pitched more than 156.2 innings per season, but his K/BB rate and his ERA have been decent over that span. Plus, the last time he was in a contract year, he pitched 237 innings with a 2.70 ERA and a ridiculous 237 strikeouts. If he can get even a little close to those numbers again, the Brewers will have a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation.
Yet despite all the good news, there are still some lingering concerns and question marks heading into camp.
The Brewers landed Gabe Kapler this winter, who is making a return to the majors after a year spent managing Boston’s Single-A club, the Greenville (SC) Drive. This upped the team’s already high dreaminess quotient considerably, and, more to the point, gives them the extra outfielder they need. Their preferred starting CF, Gold Glover Mike Cameron, starting the year serving a 25-game suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant after last season, his second failed test. In his absence, centerfield will be staffed by Tony Gwynn Jr and Gabe Gross. Corey Hart platooned in right field last year, but Brewers brass seems to be going into Spring Training thinking of him as an everyday guy. Once Cameron returns, however, the Brewers will have six outfielders. Someone will have to go to the minors, or become trade bait.
But the outfield is just one issue still facing the Brewers. The bigger question is the bullpen. New closer Eric Gagne showed up in the Mitchell Report, and has yet to publicly comment on it; but, more alarmingly from the point of view of those paying him $10 million, he has yet to show he can still be an effective pitcher. With the Rangers last year, Gagne seemed to hold is own; but with the Red Sox, he fell so completely apart that he almost single-handedly cost them the division title. If Gagne
goes back on the roids miraculously improves, Milwaukee’s expensive gamble will look canny. If he stays true to form, however, they’ll have made a very expensive, all-too-predictable mistake.
GM Doug Melvin also traded for reliever Guillermo Mota this offseason, who served a 50-game ban last year for failing a steroid test, and Salomon Torres, as well as signing free agents Randy Choate and David Riske (which has always seemed, to me, like a terrible last name for relief pitcher). None of those guys is going to cause dancing in the streets of Milwaukee. Unfortunately, try though Melvin might, there’s just no way to replace a set-up-man and closer combo of Scott Linebrink and Francisco Cordero—and no way for the Brewers to keep both of them. But despite the criticism of Linebrink’s four-year deal with the White Sox, $4.75 million a year isn’t that much for a set-up man. I admit that four years is a long time to commit to a reliever, and that the fact that Linebrink has a no-trade clause is preposterous, but despite talk of his “decline,” he’s still only 31. Couldn’t the Brewers have scooped him up for a lesser deal before other teams were allowed to negotiate with him? It’s not like they’re a tiny market team; their payroll is just shy of $80 million a year.
Looking ahead, their best prospect is another Fielder/Braun type named Matt LaPorta, another masher with no defense. But with Fielder at first base and Braun now in left field, the Brewers are running out of places to stash these guys. If I were the Brewers, once LaPorta has more professional games under his belt, I might find an AL team looking for a young DH and try to make a trade.
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer
1. 2B Rickie Weeks – 16 HR, .374 OBP
2. SS J.J. Hardy – 26 HR, 30 2B, .277 AVG
3. 1B Prince Fielder – 50 HR, 1.013 OPS
4. LF Ryan Braun – 34 HR, .370 OBP
5. RF Corey Hart – 24 HR, .298 AVG
6. 3B Bill Hall – 14 HR, 35 2B, .254 AVG
7. CF Mike Cameron – 21 HR, .328 OBP
8. C Jason Kendall – .301 OBP, .309 SLG
SP1 Ben Sheets, 3.82 ERA, .253 BAA
SP2 Yovani Gallardo, 3.67 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
SP3 Carlos Villanueva, 3.95 ERA, .236 BAA
SP4 Jeff Suppan, 4.62 ERA
SP5 Dave Bush/Chris Capuano/Claudio Vargas/Manny Parra
CL: Eric Gagne
Acquisitions: Mike Cameron (CF), Eric Gagne (RP), Jason Kendall (C), David Riske (RP), Guillermo Mota (RP), Salomon Torres (RP), Gabe Kapler (OF)
Losses: Francisco Cordero (RP), Geoff Jenkins (LF), Scott Linebrink (RP), Matt Wise (RP), Johnny Estrada, (C).
The Brewers will score runs with their speed and power, and their starting rotation looks solid. They’ll have several guys competing for the starters’ slots in camp, including lefty prospect Manny Parra. Shifting Braun to left field and Bill Hall to third base, and acquiring Cameron, should give the Brewers’ defense a needed boost. There’s been some disagreement about the deal for catcher Jason Kendall, but he moved back towards his career averages in the second half of last season. I see upside there. However, I have to dock the Brewers some points for gambling money they can’t afford to waste on Gagne. I suppose someone was going to sign him, but I can’t believe he commanded 10 million dollars. Were they out-bidding some other team?? Plus, I can’t help but notice that not only have they signed three guys with PED problems, but their farm system is no cleaner: of their top five prospects, one’s been slapped with a 50-game suspension for using PEDs, and another has been caught smoking pot multiple times. And then there’s the way they picked up Manager Ned Yost’s contract option, but forgot to announce it. Despite their decent offseason, it just feels like the Brewers don’t quite have their house in order.
But the bottom line is that the Brewers are a young club that, last year, broke a 15-year streak of sub-.500 seasons, broke a franchise home run record, and broke the Brewers’ attendance record. They’ve got solid pitching and great offensive ability. Their greatest weakness last year was their horrible defense, which they have addressed this winter about as well as could be hoped. This year, if a few of their pitching gambles work out, they could definitely make the playoffs.