In acquiring the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin signaled to his team and fanbase that he has extremely high hopes for the 2011 season. The move not only solidified a greatly improved rotation, but assured Prince Fielder will remain in Milwaukee and not be traded.
Are the Brewers now the class of the NL Central or just one of several contenders for the division crown?
Although the Greinke trade received all the headlines and fanfare, the Shaun Marcum trade is the one that will be looked back at as the key to the offseason. Trading former top prospect Brett Lawrie for Marcum is the deal that signaled to Greinke that the Brewers were serious about winning in the upcoming season. He then took the Brewers off his no-trade list, and the rest is history.
The trio of Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Marcum is certainly on par with the Cardnials trio of Carpenter, Wainwright and Garcia or the Reds' top three of Cueto, Volquez and Arroyo. Only the Pirates finished with a team ERA worse than the Brewers' 4.65 last year. The Brewers won't just have a better pitching staff than 2010, but they'll have a significantly better staff than last year.
Marcum's numbers were actually better than Greinke's in 2010. Pitching in the ultra-competitive AL East, the 29-year-old righty went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA and pitched in a career-high 195.1 innings coming off Tommy John surgery.
Which team is the favorite to win the NL Central in 2011?
Having a deeper rotation will also have a positive effect on the bullpen. John Axford had a brilliant rookie campaign for the Brewers by racking up 24 saves and a 2.48 ERA in 50 appearances. With Zach Braddock, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra and LaTroy Hawkins, the bullpen is full of power arms that can overpower an opposing team's lineup.
Hawkins will have to bounce back successfully from surgery, and the rest of the pen will have to try and duplicate their recent success, which isn't always the easiest thing to do as a reliever.
Defense will be an issue for the 2011 Brewers, but that has been a question mark for several years now. Losing shortstop Alcides Escobar and replacing him with Yuniesky Betancourt is a significant downgrade, but having Greinke, Gallardo and Marcum all capable of high strikeout numbers, there should be less chances for the infield to blow. Lorenzo Cain seemed to be a very good defensive player, but Carlos Gomez is all-world as a defensive player. It's Gomez's bat that is the problem, not his glove.
The offense was above average in 2010 and should continue being a strong point for the team. New manager Ron Roenicke is preaching a more aggressive brand of baseball, which indicates he'll want his team stealing more bases and improving in situational hitting like hit-and-run and sacrifice plays.
The situational hitting will be key for the team. Power wasn't and shouldn't be an issue for this team at all. Casey McGehee, Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder all hit at least 23 home runs last season and barring injury, they should be able to replicate that production in 2011 as well. Fielder had a down year in 2010, seeing his RBI total drop from 141 to 83, but he's entering his final year before free agency so one can safely assume his numbers will improve dramatically.
The Brewers finished a distant third behind the Reds and Cardinals in 2010. The Reds have made no significant upgrades to their roster, and with respect to Lance Berkman, he's not nearly the same player now as he was five years ago, so the Cardinals haven't improved greatly either. Adding Ryan Theriot was a nice move, but it doesn't compare with adding a player the level of Marcum or Greinke.
Standing pat is usually not a recipe to improve in baseball. Like the Brewers, the Reds still have youth on their side, so they should be a year better, not a year older. The same can't be said for the Cardinals.
Will the Brewers in their current form win the 2011 NL Central? While that will be debated over the next several months, it appears at the very least the NL Central will now be a three-team race. The Brewers' long-term window may not be as big as it was prior to the Marcum and Greinke trades, but fans and players alike can take solace in the fact that at least management is doing everything possible to make 2011 the most special in team history.
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