The Milwaukee Brewers had an interesting offseason.
Early on, all the attention was on Prince Fielder. Everyone wanted to see if he was going to stay or if he was going to go.
Then the attention shifted to Ryan Braun, as word came out that he was facing a 50-game suspension for a positive PED test.
Then the attention shifted back to Fielder, who signed a monstrous contract with the Detroit Tigers.
Then it shifted back to Braun, who won his fight against MLB. He will not have to sit out the first 50 games of the 2012 season.
So on balance, this offseason could have been better, and it could have been a lot worse.
Meanwhile, the Brewers are looking pretty good heading into the 2012 regular season. Here's a look at how things are shaping up.
2011 Record: 96-66
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): 1B Travis Ishikawa (FA), SS Alex Gonzalez (FA), RHP Jose Veras (from Pittsburgh), 3B Aramis Ramirez (FA), LHP Juan Perez (FA), SS Cesar Izturis (FA), 3B Brooks Conrad (FA), C Paul Phillips (FA), SS Jeff Bianchi (waivers), OF Norichika Aoki (FA), RHP Vinnie Chulk (FA).
Key Departures: 1B Prince Fielder (FA), 3B Casey McGehee (to Pittsburgh), OF Mark Kotsay (FA), Yuniesky Betancourt (FA), RHP LaTroy Hawkins (FA), RHP Takashi Saito (FA), OF Jerry Hairston, Jr. (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Yovani Gallardo (17-10, 3.52 ERA, 1.22 WHIP)
- Zack Greinke (16-6, 3.83, 1.20)
- Randy Wolf (13-10, 3.69, 1.32)
- Shaun Marcum (13-7, 3.54, 1.16)
- Chris Narveson (11-8, 4.45, 1.39)
C: Jonathan Lucroy (.265/.313/.703)
1B: Mat Gamel (.115/.148/.154)
2B: Rickie Weeks (.269/.350/.468)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (.306/.361/.510)
SS: Alex Gonzalez (.241/.270/.372)
LF: Ryan Braun (.332/.397/.597)
CF: Nyjer Morgan (.304/.357/.421)
RF: Corey Hart (.285/.356/.510)*
*According to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Hart is expected to start the season on the disabled list with a knee injury. Haudricourt also notes that Ron Roenicke will give Norichika Aoki extra action with Hart out.
Closer: John Axford (R) (2-2, 46 SV, 2 BLSV, 1.95 ERA, 1.14 WHIP)
Francisco Rodriguez (R) (6-2, 23 SV, 17 HLD, 6 BLSV, 2.64, 1.30)
Jose Veras (R) (2-4, 1 SV, 27 HLD, 7 BLSV, 3.84, 1.24)
Kameron Loe (R) (4-7, 1 SV, 16 HLD, 7 BLSV, 3.50, 1.13)
Marco Estrada (R) (4-8, 4 HLD, 3 BLSV, 4.08, 1.21)
Brandon Kintzler (R) (1-1, 3.68, 1.16)
Manny Parra (L) (missed 2011; 3-10, 5.02, 1.62 in 2010)
Tim Dillard (R) (1-1, 1 HLD, 4.08, 1.05)
Zach Braddock (L) (0-1, 3 HLD, 1 BLSV, 7.27, 1.56)
Mike McClendon (R) (3-0, 2.63, 1.32)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Milwaukee's starting rotation didn't get enough credit for its work in 2011. The Brewers were universally recognized as a top-notch offensive team, but they wouldn't have won 96 games without their starting pitching.
All told, Brewers starters logged 98 quality starts, 10 fewer than the Philadelphia Phillies and just five fewer than the San Francisco Giants. The starters had a 3.78 ERA and finished second in the National League with a 2.85 K/BB.
The good news for the Brewers is that everyone who made it all possible is back for another turn in 2012.
Yovani Gallardo is listed as the team's No. 1 starter, and it's easy to see why. He really came into his own last season, pitching 200 innings for the first time and dropping his WHIP from 1.37 in 2010 to 1.22. He was in control every time he took the mound.
Gallardo was in control because, not surprisingly, he drastically improved his control. He had a tendency to walk too many guys before last season, yet he dropped his BB/9 all the way down to 2.56. He did that while keeping his K/9 at 8.99 and upping his ground-ball rate to 46.6 percent. It's no wonder he had his finest season yet, even if he did give up a few too many dingers (27, to be exact).
I'm not at all worried about Gallardo regressing in any way. His 3.52 ERA and 3.59 FIP were basically mirror images of one another, and Gallardo's numbers over the last several seasons are those of a pitcher who is clearly getting better every year. He's legit.
So is Zack Greinke, who I absolutely love. I'm going to geek out over him in just a minute, but I just want to note that he was nearly as good in 2011 as he was in 2009. It may not seem like it when you look at mere surface stats, but I'll explain my reasoning in just a bit.
There's not a huge dropoff in effectiveness in this rotation once you get past Gallardo and Greinke. Shaun Marcum wasn't quite as good as his 3.54 ERA and 1.16 WHIP suggest, as he held hitters to a suspiciously low .261 BABIP and upped his BB/9 to 2.56. Nevertheless he did exactly what the Brewers wanted him to do, and that's baffle hitters with sneaky-good stuff over 200 innings of work.
Marcum is not an ace, but he'll do nicely for a No. 3/No. 4 starter. I'd wager he's one of the most boring pitchers in the league, but he's nothing if not effective. He's also consistent, posting a 3.74 FIP in 2010 and a 3.73 FIP in 2011.
Randy Wolf is another guy who's consistent. He's not on the Brewers to be an ace. He's just there to provide innings, and he's done that quite well in his time with the team. Wolf has pitched over 210 innings each of the last two seasons.
At this point in his career, Wolf is the very definition of a crafty lefty. He doesn't strike out a ton of hitters, nor does he get by with a high ground-ball rate. Whatever he's doing, it's working well. He posted a BABIP under. 300 for the third season in a row, and he was able to keep the ball in the yard surprisingly well.
So hats off to Randy Wolf. He's not great, but he's the perfect guy for this rotation.
There are better No. 5 starters out there than Chris Narveson. He puts way too many guys on base, and that invariably results in earned runs piling up and short outings for him. This is true of all No. 5 starters, though, so it's not like Narveson is a weak link who needs to be replaced.
Though, he very well could be replaced. More on that a little later.
As a whole, I like this starting rotation. It was great last year, and I don't see any glaring signs that suggest it will be significantly less great this season.
Scouting the Bullpen
Milwaukee's bullpen was just as good as its starting rotation last season. Brewers relievers combined for a 3.32 ERA, and had a K/BB of 2.88. That was second in the National League behind the Colorado Rockies.
John Axford was pretty good last season (an understatement). He blew a save on Opening Day and another in mid-April, and then he proceeded to save 43 straight games. He was saving, and he was stachin'.
Axford is not a perfect closer, but there's just not much to complain about either. His strikeout rate declined last season, but so did his walk rate. He got a few extra outs by pitching to contact, but this is not to say that his style changed drastically. His M.O. is to come in and start throwing fastballs by hitters, and it has worked pretty well in the last two seasons.
Francisco Rodriguez was far more effective as a setup man than he was as a closer last season. His strikeout rate increased after he came over from the New York Mets, and his opponents' batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all decreased significantly. In the end, he had 17 holds in 31 appearances, which is pretty good.
The rest of this bullpen is solid, but things will be even better if a lefty steps up. Manny Parra is the top candidate, and the Brewers are very much hoping that he'll be as good coming out of the pen this season as he was in 2010. He bombed as a starter that year, but he posted a 2.39 ERA as a reliever. If he can go back to being that guy, this bullpen will be stacked.
Even if Parra doesn't pan out, I don't think this bullpen is going to regress in a major way. The Brewers are set for late-game situations, and they have plenty of arms to handle the middle innings as well. Leads will be safe in this pen's hands.
Scouting the Hitting
The Brewers had little trouble scoring runs last season. They scored 721 of them, good for fifth in the National League. They hit for power as well as anybody, finishing first in the NL with 185 homers and tying for first with a collective .425 slugging percentage.
However, that lineup had Prince Fielder in it, and he's in Motown now.
The guy who will miss Fielder the most is Ryan Braun. He's a great, great hitter in his own right (and a not guilty hitter), but we're going to find out just how great he is without Fielder in the cleanup spot to back him up. Braun had his finest season yet hitting in front of Fielder, so it's fair to expect some regression now that Fielder is gone.
Not too much regression, though. Since entering the league in 2007, Braun has been one of the very best hitters in baseball. The numbers definitely support the idea, but I'll have more on those in just a minute.
With Fielder out of the picture, my guess is that Aramis Ramirez will slide into the cleanup spot. He's obviously not Fielder, but I would advise against underestimating Ramirez. He had a very good bounce-back season in 2011, batting over .300 with an OPS of .871. Keep in mind that this was in a Chicago Cubs lineup with very little protection. He was a bright spot all season long, particularly after the All-Star break. He hit .318 with an OPS over .900 after the break.
According to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Ron Roenicke is going to use Rickie Weeks in the leadoff spot and Corey Hart in the No. 5 spot once he comes back. Weeks has a career line of .261/.358/.448 batting leadoff, and Hart has a career line of .273/.318/.490 batting fifth. Neither of those lines jumps out at you as being particularly brilliant, but I like Hart's power in the No. 5 spot and I like Weeks' speed and extra-base prowess at the top of the lineup. Things could be worse.
Nyjer Morgan was Milwaukee's X-factor last season, and I like him in the No. 2 spot. He's an aggressive hitter who strikes out a little too often, but good things happen when he puts the bat on the ball. He's perfect for the two hole.
This year, Milwaukee's X-factor will have to be Mat Gamel, who is taking over at first for Fielder. More on him in just a minute.
Fielder's presence is going to be missed. Braun and Ramirez will help replace some of Fielder's production, but, well, let's just say the Brewers are going to need studly pitching more than they needed it last year.
Lest you think I'm suggesting the Brewers are going to decline in a major way as an offensive club, they're not. They'll drift slightly more towards the middle of the pack, but it's not like they'll be rubbing elbows with the Houston Astros by the end of the season.
I haven't finalized my list yet, but I know for a certainty that Zack Greinke is going to be among my favorites to win the National League Cy Young award this season.
On a surface level, Greinke had a good season in his first campaign with the Brewers, winning 16 games with a 3.83 ERA. Not great, but good.
By all rights, Greinke should have been great. He led all qualified starting pitchers with a K/9 of 10.54, and his FIP of 2.98 as nearly a full run lower than his ERA. Greinke seems to have been victimized by a bit of bad luck, as his .318 BABIP was one of the higher marks in the league in 2011. A lot of the ground balls he produced found their way through the infield. He also struggled with the long ball, which was bound to happen given the elevated home run rate at Miller Park.
As a whole, though, Greinke's 2011 season was comparable to his Cy Young season in 2009. He posted a K/BB well over 4.00 just as he did in '09, except in 2011 he did himself a favor by inducing significantly more ground balls. The only real difference between 2009 and 2011 for Greinke is that he walked a few extra guys and gave up a few more hard hit balls. The fly balls he gave up in 2009 didn't hurt him. They did in 2011.
However, most of the bad stuff happened in the first half of the season, when Greinke was struggling to find his form after getting a late start to his season. After all the All-Star break, Greinke was brilliant. He won nine games and struck out 102 hitters in 97.1 innings of work. He also held hitters to a .234 average and had a 2.59 ERA. He was far and away one of the best pitchers in the NL in the second half of the season.
That's the Zack Greinke we should expect to see in 2012. He'll start the season on time, and he'll get rolling right away. He's on a course to have a great season.
Never mind the offseason drama. Ryan Braun is, and always has been, an outstanding hitter.
Braun was at his very best in 2011, batting a career-high .332 and posting a .994 OPS, a career-best for a full season of work. He really only had one bad month all season, hitting .260 in May. Aside from that, he was a force with the bat all season long.
Braun had been building towards a season like the one he had in 2011. From 2007 to 2010, he hit .307 with a .554 slugging percentage and an OPS of .918. Each of those numbers put him among the best of the best in the National League over those four seasons.
Like I mentioned above, we probably will see some regression from Braun now that he doesn't have Fielder in the lineup to protect. But anybody expecting Braun to plummet back to earth, whether as a result of Prince's absence of this offseason's drama, should think again.
Braun has done more than enough to prove he's one of the elite hitters in baseball. He'll prove the point all over again in 2012.
With Fielder in Detroit, Mat Gamel is getting a shot to prove he can be Milwaukee's everyday first baseman.
So who is this guy?
Well, Gamel's numbers in the majors don't make him out to be much. In 171 big-league at-bats, Gamel has a line of .222/.309/.374. He performed decently in extended action back in 2009, but generally speaking we're talking about a guy who has yet to make his mark in the majors.
Gamel has, however, made his mark in the minors. He's hit 105 home runs in seven minor league seasons, posting a career OPS of .873.
Gamel killed it at Triple-A in 2011, batting .310/.372/.540 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI. That was his best season ever in the minors, so if nothing else we know that Gamel has no business spending another year below the major league level.
But Gamel has to prove to the Brewers that he belongs. They're obviously not expecting him to replace Fielder's production, but some production would be nice.
If Gamel provides production, Milwaukee's lineup will be that much deeper and there likely won't be a huge difference between his and Ramirez's combined numbers and Fielder's numbers in Detroit. If Gamel doesn't produce, it suffices to say Fielder will be sorely missed.
Prospect to Watch
We're probably going to see Wily Peralta at some point this season. And when we do, my guess is that Peralta will be here to stay.
Peralta checks in at No. 39 on Keith Law's list of the Top 100 prospects in baseball (just ahead of my personal favorite, Rymer Liriano). He's a pure fastball-slider guy at this point, with great velocity and impressive natural movement.
Peralta got a chance to strut his stuff at Triple-A last season, and he didn't disappoint. In five starts with Triple-A Nashville, Peralta posted an 11.6 K/9 and a 2.03 ERA. He was dominant.
If Chris Narveson struggles out of the No. 5 spot in the rotation, the Brewers are going to have to give calling Peralta up some serious thought.
What the Brewers Will Do Well
Pitching will be this team's biggest strength, and the Brewers are going to need as much of it as they can get.
Though Narveson is shaky in the No. 5 spot, the first four spots of Milwaukee's starting rotation are as solid as can be. Gallardo and Greinke are both above-average starters, and Greinke has the goods to be one of the top five starters in the NL this season. Behind Gallardo and Greinke are two innings eaters that other teams would love to have.
You also have to like Milwaukee's bullpen. The Brewers will have the late innings on lockdown with Axford and K-Rod doing work, and they have some quality arms to take care of the middle innings.
What the Brewers Won’t Do Well
The Brewers are not going to be an anemic offensive club, but they're not going to be as prolific as they were with Fielder in the lineup. They'll trend backwards as a club.
Since the Brewers are going to pitch the ball well and field the ball well (losing Fielder is addition by subtraction, defensively speaking), their slight regression with the bats won't kill them.
The Brewers are a good team. Not quite as good as they were last season, but pretty good.
I think the Brewers will ultimately finish second. Their pitching is great and their offense is solid enough to withstand the loss of Fielder, but his loss will cost the Brewers a few wins in the long run.
In the end, those wins will be the difference between a division crown and a near miss.
Projected Record: 91-71, second in NL Central, wild card berth.
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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