Now that the season has ended for the Milwaukee Brewers and Prince Fielder has likely swung a bat for the final time as the team's first baseman, it's time to look to the 2012 and see how the Brewers can get better.
For much of the 2011 season, the team was paced by a very good starting rotation and great bullpen. All five starters and closer John Axford are under contract for next season, so they will be the team's foundation. Besides replacing Fielder's bat, GM Doug Melvin will have to look for late-inning arms to bridge the gap from the starters to Axford and improve the team's defense, something that became a glaring issue the final two games of the NLCS.
Melvin will have some money to spend this winter, but he has stripped the organization of all of its top prospects, making it nearly impossible to acquire talent the same way he did last offseason.
It is highly unlikely the Brewers will be able to duplicate their 2011 success. While most, if not all, of these players should be safe this winter, many of them may find themselves on the trading block next summer if the Brewers plummet back to Earth the way most feel they will. The Brewers may quickly turn from a division winner into a team building for the future.
With that being said, let's look at some of the players that may shortly find their way out of Milwaukee.
Just kidding. There is zero chance of either Braun or Gallardo changing uniforms this winter...or for the next few seasons, for that matter. They are now the cornerstones of the franchise and each will be depended on to become a leader both on and off the field for the Brewers next year.
Despite disappearing the final two games of the NLCS and leaving a sour taste in the mouth of Brewer fans, Braun still may very well be the MVP of the league. His numbers will no doubt take a dive next year without Fielder giving him protection in the lineup, but he should still post numbers that keep him among the game's elite. Braun is under team control through the 2021 season.
Like Braun, Gallardo struggled in his final appearance for the Brewers in the NLCS.
Fans should not let their final look at Gallardo for the year take away from anything he did the prior six months. He posted a career high in wins (17), pitched more than 200 innings for the first time in his career and posted his third consecutive 200-plus-strikeout season. He will enter next year firmly established as the team's best starter. He is under team control through the 2014 season.
Other than Prince Fielder, Nyjer Morgan was the emotional leader of the Brewers. He was also the team's biggest lightning rod, becoming a polarizing figure that Brewer fans loved and fans of other teams came to despise, most notably the St. Louis Cardinals.
If the reports are true, Morgan served as the motivating factor for the St. Louis Cardinals hot September streak and run through the playoffs to the World Series.
Morgan hit .304 for the Brewers, splitting time in center field with Carlos Gomez. He is versatile enough to play all three outfield positions and is entering his first year of arbitration, putting him under team control for the next three years.
Morgan is fun to watch when his team is playing well, but one need only look to his outlandish behavior with the Nationals to see what happens when he is on a losing team. Melvin may be best served by trading Morgan this season given the productive season he had, possibly netting some bullpen help in the process.
After a wonderful rookie campaign in 2009 which saw him finish fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, Casey McGehee has seen his number regress drastically, culminating in an awful 2011.
Things got so bad for McGehee that manager Ron Roenicke removed him from his starting position, inserting Jerry Hairston as the team's third baseman for the playoffs. Not only did he struggle at the plate, he is a butcher in the field. It became quite obvious this year why the Chicago Cubs were so willing to part with him after the 2008 season.
McGehee, like Morgan, is entering his first season of arbitration the winter and should still be a fairly cheap option for any team that might trade for him. The Brewers have prospect Taylor Green that appears to be ready to take on a full-time role next season, or Melvin may decide to re-sign Hairston with the intention of him manning the hot corner next year.
Either way, it appears that McGehee may have played his last game for the Brewers.
More than any player that will return to Milwaukee in 2012, Shaun Marcum may be public enemy No. 1.
After a good 2011 regular season that saw him post great numbers on the road, Marcum completely disappeared in the playoffs, going 0-3 in three starts with a 14.90 ERA in just 9.2 innings.
In Marcum's defense, 2011 was just his second full season back after missing the entire 2009 season. He pitched over 200 innings and was likely completely spent physically. He should be able to rebound in 2012 and again prove a good pitcher for the Brewers.
Marcum is entering his final year before free agency next winter. He could become the scapegoat for the Brewers and Melvin could send him away this winter, but more likely he could be dealt next summer if the Brewers are struggling to compete.
After the Diamondbacks lit Randy Wolf up in the NLDS, it looked as if he would be the player most fans would blame this winter for the Brewers' failures. As it turned out, Wolf pitched a gem against the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NLCS only to see his teammates fold under the pressure.
Wolf is terribly unspectacular but effective. He's won 26 games for the Brewers since joining them in 2010. Entering the final year of a three-year deal, he could also be dealt this winter but it is more likely that Melvin will take the same wait-and-see approach with Wolf as he will with Marcum and the next player.
Doug Melvin gave up four top-10 prospects for Zack Greinke last winter and Greinke was what he has been for most of his career—average.
He didn't lose a game at Miller Park and benefited, perhaps more than anyone, from a very good offense. In games in which the Brewers scored at least three runs, Greinke went 15-1 in 21 starts with an ERA of just 2.69. In the other seven of his starts when the Brewers could score more than two runs, he was 1-5 with an ERA of 5.45.
After trading so much to get Greinke less than a year ago, it is hard to imagine Melvin turning him around in a trade this winter. Like Marcum and Wolf, 2012 is the last year Greinke is under team control. If Fielder leaves, Melvin will look to do everything possible to lock up Greinke, Marcum or both for a few more seasons. If neither will re-sign, one or both could be traded to try and improve the infield defense or add prospects to the depleted system.
John Axford has gone from learning under the tutelage of Trevor Hoffman to one of the best closers in the league.
While many thought Axford would regress in 2011, he elevated his game and saved 46 games for the Brewers with a 1.95 ERA in 74 appearances.
Unlike the starters, Axford is under team control through the 2016 and may be very attractive to a team looking for a closer. Melving will be hesitant to trade Axford this winter, even if he is offered a good deal.
Closers are practically useless to a losing team, making Axford expendable if the Brewers falter greatly to start the 2012 season.
Rickie Weeks made the All-Star team for the first time in 2011. His bat and speed are quite valuable to the Brewers lineup but he is a sieve defensively at second base.
Weeks played sparingly in September after returning from a six-week DL stint due to an ankle injury suffered in July. For his career, he has just one season of playing more than 130 games. Even though most of his injuries have been freak accidents or bad luck, one cannot discount the fact that Weeks isn't the most reliable player when it comes to being in the lineup every day.
The Brewers could keep in the middle of their lineup going forward and move him to the outfield to mask some of his defensive issues. It worked a few years ago for Ryan Braun; why not Weeks? Since he just signed a long-term deal this past year, it's hard to envision Melvin moving him but an entire overhaul of the roster is possible if it meant significantly improving an awful team defense.
Of all the players on the roster for the Brewers, Corey Hart may be most likely to get traded. It seems like that was the same thought in 2010 until he signed a three-year extension that keeps him under Brewer control through the 2013 season.
Hart hit in every spot of the lineup for the Brewers in 2011 except cleanup. He seems to be gaining steam as a possible replacement for Fielder at first next year (he played first base for the Brewers coming up through their farm system). Given the fact that replacing a right fielder is much easier than a power-hitting first baseman, most think Hart to first makes sense.
With a power-speed combination that few players in baseball possess, Hart could return some good pieces for the Brewers. His name will come up quite a bit this offseason.
Regardless of the moves Melvin makes this winter, it will be almost impossible to replace Fielder's offensive production and emotional leadership.
A variety of options exists to improve the club. If all arbitration-eligible players remain in Milwaukee, Melvin should have roughly $15-20 million to use in free agency. He could acquire a good mix of relievers and solid defenders, while keeping the core of his offensive team intact.
The best fans can hope for is to keep the starting rotation in place, find some good setup men in the bullpen and improve the defense. While that formula won't translate into another 96-win season, it should keep them competitive in the NL Central.