Did any team make a bigger splash over the winter than the Milwaukee Brewers? During a winter when the team was expected to sell on star first baseman Prince Fielder and restock for the future, the Brewers did exactly the opposite, emptying the farm to add Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to a rotation desperately needing a shot in the arm. Even as the team still has some glaring flaws, these additions have the Brewers poised to compete for a return to the postseason.
Although there is a noticeable drop-off in this lineup after the top five, this group should once again combine to produce one of the league’s best offenses. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are the headliners of this group, ranking seventh and eleventh in Marcel-projected wOBA. But two players does not an offense make. The explosions that we saw out of Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart probably cannot be expected at quite the same level this season, but both are solid performers. Along with Casey McGehee, the Brewers boast three above-average hitters surrounding their stars.
Alas, there’s still the rest of the lineup. Jonathan Lucroy clearly could have used more adjustment to Major League pitchers, as his walk rate fell from well over 10% in the minors to a mere 6.1% in his first 297 PAs as a Brewer. Yuniesky Betancourt, despite a moderate amount of power (.121 ISO), has a well-documented inability to reach base. Carlos Gomez has had a similar problem over the course of his career, except without the power stroke. When it comes to the bottom of the Brewers lineup, there will be outs.
Still, all three of these guys play premium positions, and in the cases of Lucroy and Gomez, they should recoup some of the value they give away with the bat through fancy glovework. Such is almost certainly not the case with Betancourt, who has consistently rated among the worst fielders in the entire league by many advanced defensive metrics. He is not alone in his defensive incompetence. Fielder is about as bad as one would expect a man with his body type to be, with a career -6.7 UZR/150. Braun, although better in left field than his first disastrous attempt at third base, still has no value with the glove, and his corner outfield counterpart Corey Hart isn’t much better. Rickie Weeks and Casey McGehee appear to be less disastrous fielders, but still fall in the red according to UZR (as well as the eye test). Team defense was an issue for the Brewers, who ranked 29th in the MLB in DER in 2010. Perhaps the invisible forces of regression and the departure of soft-tossers like Dave Bush and Doug Davis can help this team out, but chances are the Brewers will once again be a poor defensive team.
Last season, Doug Davis was the third starter entering the season. He finished the year with a 5.22 FIP and a 7.51 ERA. That’s not everything you need to know about the 2010 version of Milwaukee’s rotation, but it’s enough to get the overall point across: they were bad. The upgrades presented by the acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are obvious. Not only are both pitchers extremely talented, but they will be replacing some of the least valuable innings tossed by any regular starters in the league. Along with the 38 innings of Davis’s atrocities, the Brewers are also replacing 174 innings of Dave Bush (4.55 ERA, 5.14 FIP) and 84.1 innings of Manny Parra (6.19 ERA, 5.12 FIP, starting numbers only).
Although the group in place now doesn’t approach the greatness of the Philadelphia rotation and probably can’t touch the rotations of San Francisco or Los Angeles either (just looking at the NL), it should still be good. Greinke is obviously the gem, projected for an ERA (and a FIP) in the 3.00-3.50 range. Gallardo is projected for the 3.25-3.75 range, and Marcum in the 3.75-4.00 range, projections which includes his numbers in a difficult park and a difficult division. The 2010 idea of Randy Wolf as a #2 starter was doomed for failure, but his projected numbers (4.00-4.50 ERA/FIP) would be accepted by almost any team in the fourth slot. Chris Narveson is a bit of a question mark in the fifth slot, but he put up solid peripherals in 2010 (4.22 FIP) and could make an unexpected impact in the rotation.
The bullpen has potential to be strong, but is largely unproven. John Axford made a fantastic first impression in 2010, but 58 innings are nowhere near enough to prove that the control problems that plagued him in the minors are gone. Braddock, a hard throwing lefty, is also young but may be the more talented reliever of the pair, with a powerful mid-90s fastball and a hard low-80s slider. Kameron Loe also made an impact out of the bullpen last season, posting a 2.78 ERA and 3.71 FIP in 58 innings. His two-seam fastball has incredibly sharp movement, and should continue to generate groundballs, although he struggles against left-handed batters. The real established talent of this bullpen is Takashi Saito, who has never failed to post an ERA under 3.00 in the Major Leagues and also carries a career 2.98 FIP into action. LaTroy Hawkins is also established, but more as a merely average reliever – useful, but not in higher-leverage situations. Sean Green will compete with the likes of Mike McClendon and Brandon Kintzler for a final middle relief spot. Manny Parra’s fall from grace has landed him squarely in the long relief role – his career as a long-term starter is over, although he may make a few spot starts if necessary.
As he has been since 2007, Prince Fielder will once again be the key to the offense. Although he was good in 2010 – any season with a .400+ OBP and a .470+ SLG will be an elite offensive season – Fielder missed out on many a chance to produce runs, finishing with only 83 RBIs. More striking, despite producing 35 runs above average with the bat (3.5 wins), Fielder only managed a 2.16 WPA and a clutch score of -1.03. A look at Fielder’s splits explains this difference swiftly.
It is unfathomable that Fielder could post a .208 slugging percentage in high-leverage situations again this year. Fielder actually has a positive career clutch score and, sweeping aside all notions of clutch as a skill for a moment, is simply far too good of a hitter to see such terrible luck in the clutch for two seasons in a row. Not only should we expect Fielder to improve on his power numbers from last season – his lowest SLG and ISO since 2006 – but even just the rearrangement of some of Fielder’s poor plate appearances from high-leverage to medium and low-leverage situations should be enough to increase Fielder’s value substantially, perhaps on the order of one or even two wins
The Brewers are clearly good at two things – hitting and pitching – and equally clearly bad at another – defense. Fortunately for Milwaukee, hitting and pitching together comprise a larger portion of the game than defense. The team assembled in Milwaukee is certainly above average and certainly has the talent to compete in the NL Central. Behind great years from their superstars – Braun, Fielder, and Greinke – the Brewers can ride this roster into the playoffs. But these players need to be great enough to overshadow the problems in the field, at the bottom of the order, and the lack of a top-end bullpen. The Cardinals and Reds both pose tough challenges, and this year’s race has the potential to be one for the ages.