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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #4: The Milwaukee Brewers

Not too long ago I posted about the "I-94 swap" of J. J. Hardy for Carlos Gomez. At the time I presumed that Gomez would have another year prior to arbitration, but as it turned out, he squeaked into that magical "super two" class by the hair on his chinny-chin-chin. Of the 210 players up for arbitration this winter, only Mike Fontenot and Dustin Nippert have less service time than Gomez. The center-fielder won't get a massive award, but his salary will at least double, to somewhere in the vicinity of a million dollars, which makes him slightly less of a steal. Hardy, of course, will likely make at least five or six times that, so Milwaukee is still getting the "payroll flexibility" they claim to be coveting.

Free Agents:

Mike Cameron (37) CF
Craig Counsell (39) INF
Jason Kendall (36) C
Braden Looper (35) RHSP
Felipe Lopez (30) 2B
Claudio Vargas (32) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Dave Bush (30) RHSP
Todd Coffey (29) RHRP
Jody Gerut (32) OF
Carlos Gomez (24) CF
Corey Hart (28) RF
Seth McClung (29) RHRP
Mike Rivera (33) C
Carlos Villanueva (26) RHSP
Rickie Weeks (27) 2B

ETA 2010?:

Chris Cody (26) LHSP
Tim Dillard (26) RHP
Alcides Escobar (23) SS
Matt Gamel (24) 3B
Jonathan Lucroy (23) C
Chris Narveson (28) LHSP
Angel Salome (23) C

In the last five years, Milwaukee has become quite possibly the finest small-market franchise in the country. So far, they only have one playoff appearance to show for it, in 2008, largely because they face stiff divisional competition from the Cubs (#3 payroll in '09), Cardinals (#13), and Astros (#9), but the Brewers continually draft well, develop well, and make wise, low-risk acquisitions (Jeff Suppan aside). They have exactly one player signed beyond 2010 and his name is Ryan Braun, one of the safest long term investments in all of baseball, who they've wrapped up all the way to 2015.

GM Doug Melvin made a point of resigning legendary closer Trevor Hoffman before he had a chance to test the free agent market. $8 Million is a significant investment for Milwaukee (who had a total payroll of about $80 Million in '09), but Hoffman was excellent at the back-end of games in his first season with the Brewers and provides veteran leadership in the very young clubhouse (which is likely to lose other popular veterans Jason Kendall and Mike Cameron) and a stabilizing presence in the volatile bullpen.

The Brewers lineup is loaded. The Brewers pitching staff is not. Yovani Gallardo proved himself ready to be an Ace after the departure of C. C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but absolutely nobody stepped up to fill out the rest of the rotation. Manny Parra, Dave Bush, and Carlos Villanueva still possess promising arms, but none of them posted an ERA below 6.00 as starters in '09. Not an encouraging sign. Suppan continued his precipitous early 30s decline. In each of his three years since joining the Brewers, his ERA, WHIP, and BB have gone up, while his wins, innings, and strikeouts have gone down. I defy even the most obstinate sabermetrician to find a positive indicator among his peripherals.

While the Brewers remain stocked with talented hitters in the high levels of the minor leagues, they are not replete with quality arms. Jeremy Jeffress is at least a year or two away. Tim Dillard and Chris Cody regressed at AAA, although there is still time for them to develop into fair back-end starters. Chris Capuano is still recovering from his Tommy John and, Chris Narveson, who pitched very well both at AAA and in a big-league cup of coffee in 2009 is nonetheless a 28-year-old rookie with a minor-league record of 52-66.

If the Brewers could find one top-flight starter to pair with Gallardo, they might be able to cobble together at least an average rotation, which would make them very dangerous, considering their loaded offense. John Lackey is not a good fit. He is too risky and too expensive for a club with significant financial constraints, although he might display Sabathia/Cliff Lee type dominance over the short term with a move to the National League. The Brewers might explore a Ben Sheets renaissance, if he were willing to take an incentive-laden one-year deal to re-establish his value after missing all of '09. It could be a good thing for both parties. Sheets gets to pitch in a stadium, division, and league that he is familiar with while he tries to shake off the rust, and he has a lethal Brewers lineup to take a little pressure off.

In a perfect world, the Brewers would make a run on Roy Halladay. They are among the few teams who have enough prospects to tempt the Blue Jays without completely decimating their team for many years to come. Certainly, it is nice to have a wave of fresh talent every season, as Milwaukee has had in each of the last half dozen years, but at some point they are going to have to be willing to mortgage a bit of the future in order to go for a World Series. That is, unfortunately, a fact of life for teams in the middle and lower payroll tiers. Halladay, paired with Gallardo, Braun, and Fielder, would make the Brewers one of the most feared teams in all of baseball, but he would probably cost Milwaukee at least three of their top five prospects.

Few teams have the excess of talent which makes relatively inexpensive and quality hitters like Hardy, Cameron, and Felipe Lopez expendable, but Milwaukee does. Even after a minor house-cleaning, Ken Macha will be challenged to find regular big-league at-bats for Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and Mat Gamel. The Brewers will also have to decide whether they can afford to hand over full-time catching chores to Angel Salome and Jonathan Lucroy, both rookies. They may decided it is necessary to bring back Kendall in a more limited role. Or, they may look for a cheaper option, somebody who has more experience as a back-up, like Jose Molina, Gregg Zaun, or Ramon Castro.

Braun and Fielder have replaced Manny and Papi as the most consistent and dangerous tandem in baseball, but if the Brewers are going to make a run, the rest of the lineup will need step up. Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks both have tons of talent, but were limited by injuries in '09. They need to step up and become the Brewer's versions of Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. Escobar and Gomez will give Milwaukee superior defense up the middle, with the potential to become solid bottom-of-the-lineup producers. Escobar hit over .300 in his 38 game audition in '09, but with no power (.368 SLG). He's still just 23, so there is lots of room for development. The real depth of the Brewers attack may ride on the question of whether Casey McGehee can duplicate his rookie performance. His '09 OPS was significantly higher than any he posted in the minors. If he regresses, then Mat Gamel will need to live up to his hype. His 2008 production was one of the reasons Milwaukee was comfortable parting ways with Matt LaPorta. He took a small step back at AAA, but still showed excellent power and fair plate discipline. If he becomes a legitimate five or six hole slugger, the Brewers lineup may supplant Philadelphia as the best in the NL.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

2B Rickie Weeks (R)
3B Casey McGehee (R)
LF Ryan Braun (R)
1B Prince Fielder (L)
RF Corey Hart (R)
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
C Angel Salome (R)
SP Yovani Gallardo (R)

SP Randy Wolf (L)
SP Manny Parra (L)
SP Dave Bush (R)
SP Jeff Suppan (R)

CL Trevor Hoffman (R)
SU LaTroy Hawkins (R)
SU Todd Coffey (R)
LOOGY Mitch Stetter (L)
MR David Riske (R)
SWING Carlos Villanueva (R)
MOP Claudio Vargas (R)
MOP Chris Narveson (L)

C Gregg Zaun (S)
IF Mat Gamel (L)
IF Craig Counsell (L)
OF Jody Gerut (L)

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