The Milwaukee Brewers’ acquisition of Zack Greinke shocked the baseball world this off-season. Although the Brewers gave up two of their projected starters, many pundits thought the move made the Brewers the class of the NL Central. While it was easy to overlook the players the Brewers dealt, they’ve left themselves awfully thin at some key positions. As a result of the trade, both Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez vault into starting roles. Combine that with the fact that Jonathan Lucroy is still adjusting to major league pitching, and you have potential for replacement-level performances at three positions. Even with all the off-season acquisitions, are the Brewers strong enough to overcome their weakest players?
At the conclusion of the 2010 season, the Brewers were one of the best offensive clubs in the National League. Led by breakout performances by Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, and the usual production of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, the Brewers ranked fourth in the NL in runs, fourth in OBP, and third in SLG. Weeks and Hart, however, are expected to experience some regression in 2011. Combine that with the weak expected contributions from Gomez, Betancourt and Lucroy, and the Brewers offense should decline this season.
The offense still appears to be in good shape, however, when you consider the players Gomez, Betancourt and Lucroy are replacing. While he split time with Jim Edmonds and Lorenzo Cain, Gomez actually received the most plate appearances of any center fielder on the Brewers last season. Due to his playing time, it’s easy to say that Gomez is essentially replacing himself this season, even though he lost his job to Cain as the season progressed. As a full-time starter, Gomez will not replicate the offense of Edmonds or Cain, but should provide exceptional defense at a key position. Neither Edmonds nor Cain were slouches defensively, but Gomez has a chance to be one of the strongest defensive center fielders in the league this season. The defensive gain from this switch should make the offensive loss a lot easier to stomach.
Jonathan Lucroy also essentially replaces himself, but it’s harder to predict how he will perform in the full-time role. Pressed into action last season after only 83 plate appearances at AAA, Lucroy predictably struggled with major league pitching. Last season, Lucroy essentially lost a year of development in the minors and will now have to adjust at the major league level. Although George Kottaras would provide more patience and power, Lucroy is the superior defensive player. Lucroy is still young (24), and had decent walk rates in the minors, so perhaps there is still some room for improvement. Still, Lucroy was just as good, if not better, than Kottaras last season and may actually provide an upgrade at the position this season.
Replacing Alcides Escobar with Yuniesky Betancourt will certainly hurt the Brewers in the future, but both players posted an identical WAR last season. They did it in very different ways, however. Escobar relied on slick fielding to carry his poor offensive showing, and Betancourt relied on a power surge to cover up his poor fielding and patience at the plate. Betancourt has long been one of the worst regulars in all of baseball, but he should be able to replicate Escobar’s 2010 offensive performance. Defensively, however, the Brewers could be in big trouble. Even though many scouts felt Escobar didn’t live up to his full potential on defense last season, he was miles better than Betancourt. At such a crucial defensive position, the Brewers are taking a big risk by installing Betancourt full-time. There might not be a big drop-off offensively, but the Brewers just went from one of the most promising defensive shortstops to arguably the worst defensive shortstop in the league.
Outside of Yuniesky, none of the Brewers’ lineup changes will hurt the team as much as people perceive. Gomez should provide stronger defense than the previous center fielders, making up for a poor offensive showing. Lucroy also presents a defensive upgrade, with the potential for some offensive growth. Betancourt should at least match the offensive contribution the Brewers received at shortstop last season, and that’s about it. Still, the Brewers were able to employ a strong offense last season with somewhat similar performances at the positions in question last season. Even though they are taking a risk by employing Gomez, Betancourt and Lucroy full-time; it doesn’t appear the Brewers are going to allow those players to hold them back in 2011.
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