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What Do the Brewers Do Now?

Ryan Braun‘s performance-enhancing drug saga is ongoing, and nobody seems to know with any certainty how it will end. Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers are part of that large group eagerly awaiting the outcome. The Brewers aren’t going to re-sign Prince Fielder and now stand to potentially lose their best player for almost a third of the season.

But what do they do?

The team is mired in a strange situation. Do they replace him? Can they replace him? What happens if they spend money to replace him and he doesn’t end up getting suspended? Can they spend money? Realistically, payroll is probably close to its limit right now. Even if Mark Attanasio decides to increase spending, the best way to use those funds remains unclear.

On one hand, idly standing by in the face of his suspension could create an ugly situation: the team might be far from contention by the time he returns, and there is no guarantee that either Zack Greinke or Shaun Marcum will sign extensions. On the other hand, signing a talented player — perceived as a starter around the league — could create a logjam when Braun returns, or if he never leaves to begin with. While this isn’t ideal for the Brewers themselves, it opens up an important strategic dialogue.

Say the Brewers were afraid Braun will miss 50 games, and then need another 10-14 to get back into ‘beast mode’. Hypothetically, they could express interest in free agent Carlos Beltran, who provides the best offense at the position of anyone available. He would roam left field while Braun served his suspension and spend the remainder of the season as an all-purpose outfielder. If Braun is never suspended, then the team has five starting outfielders for three spots, and the best offensive alignment would dictate either Beltran or Corey Hart playing center field, which is far from optimal defensively. The team would also end up committing multiple years to Beltran when 2012 is the only year up in the air.

Sure, Beltran’s bat would cut into Bruan’s lost offense — relative to starting Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez in the same outfield — but the Brewers would lose a great deal on defense. There is also the issue that a player in Beltran’s position wouldn’t find Milwaukee a desirable destination. The Brewers aren’t clear contenders this season, so it makes no sense for someone perceived as a valuable starter to enter a situation where he might not play everyday, or may play a different position daily. That, actually, is a major reason why attempting to replace Braun’s offense won’t work: the players capable of accomplishing that goal won’t want to sign with the Brewers and end up in a timeshare.

If they were convinced that cutting into his lost offense was the best route, then it might make more sense to talk to the Astros about Carlos Lee.

He isn’t a great hitter anymore and his defensive deficiencies in the outfield persist, regardless of his UZR last season, but he has one year remaining on his contract and the Astros will pick up most of the tab. Lee could start in left while Braun served his suspension, and probably shift to first base upon his return. Mat Gamel and Taylor Green are young prospects with very good minor league track records, but Lee could add some depth at the position should one or both struggle.

But offense might not be the best route for the Brewers. Braun’s offense cannot be replaced, so why not go the opposite route and try to throw out a top-notch defense in his absence? Start Nyjer in left, Gomez in center and Hart in right. When Gomez inevitably slumps, shift Nyjer to center and play Scott Hairston (they would have to sign him for this to make any sense) in left. Hairston can post a .335 wOBA with average-ish defense in left, or serve as a very useful fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. Morgan-Gomez-Hart doesn’t look like much, but the former two rate very positively on defense, and Hart’s offense certainly makes up for a UZR in the -1 to -4 range.

Losing Braun for 50 games will clearly hamper the Brewers odds of repeating as division champs, but in his absence the offseason solution that makes the most sense is probably the defensive route. Attempting to replace his offense could create more problems while costing much more money. Replacing his defense is a strategy undertaken internally with perhaps just $2-$3 million more spent on a Hairston-esque fourth outfielder. It obviously isn’t the ideal, but this likely represents the best possible lemonade they can make from the lemons they have available.