Tipping Pitches: Previewing the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Previewing the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers

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I had to do this eventually, right? I have lived and breathed the Brewers since my early years as a baseball fan. In fact, I'd say I became a Brewers fan before I became a baseball fan.

The challenge of such a preview is remaining objective. As a fan, you have to be optimistic. And it's easy to get defensive when you feel that others in the media are slighting your team. As a result, you can overcompensate by being unrealistically optimistic.

That said, I tend to pride myself on my ability to remain objective. Of course, I haven't always been that way. I still remember being a displaced Brewers fan in Michigan, sending Mitch Albom a 20 page print-out of my predictions for the 1987 season. Of course, the Brewers were going to win the World Series and sweep the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. They were just so talented!

It didn't work out for those Brewers, but I was in seventh grade then. I'm objective now. I'm a stat guy, and you lose your soul as a stat guy. I don't base performance on intangibles, guts or chemistry. I try to see the players for what they are.

So let's do this.

Starting Rotation
Ouch, did I have to start here? Major sore spot last season. The Brewers finished dead last in the Majors in starting pitching ERA in 2009. That's pretty freaking bad, especially considering they play in the National League without the DH.

But let's be objective. Yovani Gallardo, the team's ace, had his first full season in the bigs. He was part brilliant and sometimes erratic, finishing with a very respectable 204 strikeouts and 3.73 ERA. The opposition batted a mere .219 off of him.

Although Gallardo's numbers were strong, he was spectacular in the first half. Prior to the All-Star break, he had a 3.22 ERA and walked 55 batters in 114 2/3 innings pitched (4.3/nine). After the break, Gallardo's ERA ballooned to 4.56. Control was his biggest problem, walking 39 in 71 innings (4.9/nine). Batters also hit 40 points higher off of him in the second half.

Most people are high on Gallardo. Most realize that he is only getting better. Most understand that he was likely tired in the second half. He'll take a step forward this season.

After Gallardo, the rotation was ugly in 2009. Braden Looper won 14 games but with a 5.22 ERA. No pitcher with more than four starts, other than Gallardo, finished with a starting ERA under 5.00. In fact, the four pitchers after Suppan who made more than four starts all had ERA's over 6.00.

Braden Looper is gone. Let's get one thing straight: Jeff Suppan isn't good. If the Brewers decide to start him again, they can expect nothing better than his 2009 performance. Anything under a 5.00 ERA would be a major miracle.

However, unlike last season, the Brewers are not forced to start Suppan. They may in the beginning, but all indications are that it would be as the fifth starter. Unlike last season, they actually have the depth to replace him if necessary.

Dave Bush is a serviceable back of the rotation starter, and looked strong last season before getting hit on the elbow by a Hanley Ramirez line drive. Prior to the 2009 debacle when his ERA swelled to 6.38, you could typically expect something in the mid to low 4's from him.

Manny Parra has been 90% potential and 10% production so far in his career. At 27, this is the year he either becomes a solid starter or starts bouncing from team to team, minor league team to minor league team. He has the stuff to break out, but it's difficult to expect much from him. That said, it's still very easy to put money on an improvement over his 2009 ERA of 6.36.

Chris Narveson made four starts at the end of last season for a 3.38 ERA. He is the dark horse and is unlikely to start the season in the rotation. However, he's a lefty who shows promise and should at least be a decent arm out of the pen.

Still, not a lot to hang your hat on outside of Gallardo.

Wait! Two new veteran arms have been added to the rotation in Randy Wolf and Doug Davis. Wolf enjoyed what was possibly a career year in 2009 with the Dodgers, finishing with a solid 3.23 ERA. After John Lackey, he may have been the best free agent pitcher available. Doug Davis isn't pretty to watch, but he eats innings and can expect to bring you a low to mid 4 ERA.

Wolf and Davis may not be ace material, but they are certainly upgrades over Braden Looper and the slew of fill-ins the Brewers trotted out to the mound last season. For the first time in many years, they have depth, and they expect to go into the season with seven pitchers ready to start, moving the two who don't make the rotation to the bullpen.

Will they have one of the top rotations in baseball? Unlikely. But this rotation is being grossly underestimated. Gallardo, by all accounts, is ready to become an elite pitcher. Wolf and Davis are quality starters. And given the depth, it is unlikely they will be stuck with pitchers with ERA's well north of 5.00 in 2010.

Prognosis: I expect the Brewers rotation to be middle of the pack in the National League, which is a major improvement over 2009.

Projected Rotation:
  1. Yovani Gallardo
  2. Randy Wolf
  3. Doug Davis
  4. Dave Bush
  5. Jeff Suppan (initially), Manny Parra (eventually)
The top three are automatic. I keep coming back to Dave Bush for the fourth spot. He is the most dependable and the most experienced of those who have promise. Jeff Suppan may get an initial shot, but I'd expect him to have a short leash. He'll get very few starts in April as the fifth starter, and will probably be given two or three chances to prove he deserves it. If he fails (likely), Parra or Chris Narveson will move in. For the long haul, I think Parra is ready for the job.

The Brewers bullpen finished with a respectable 3.97 ERA in 2009, which was 16th in all of baseball (tenth in the National League). However, it should be noted that only the Dodgers' and Padres' bullpens threw more innings. For the Brewers, this was because of a lack of production from the starters. With starting pitching expected to improve in 2010, the bullpen is less likely to get overextended.

The changes aren't all that significant here, but the Brewers didn't need to make wholesale changes. Trevor Hoffman, who had 37 saves and a minuscule 1.83 ERA in 2009, will continue to anchor the pen. Work horse Todd Coffey appeared in 78 games, finishing with a 2.90 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 2009.  Lefty specialist Mitch Stetter was simply unhittable against left handed hitters, having a .178 BAA from that side of the plate.

These are three solid relief pitchers. However, it is difficult to expect this level of performance from any of these three again in 2010. Hoffman is 42 and will turn 43 in October. He relies entirely on location and fooling hitters with his changeup since his fastball is an offspeed pitch in the arsenal of most. He may be great again this season. But it would not be surprising if a sharp decline occurs.

The Brewers did add veteran LaTroy Hawkins to the pen, and he will provide stability as well as another option to close games when Hoffman needs the inevitable breather. No one knows what to expect from Carlos Villanueva, who may start the year in the minors since he has an option and the Brewers seem determined to move their extra starters to the bullpen.

Those extra starters not only provide depth to the rotation but depth to the bullpen. Additionally, the Brewers have something waiting that they haven't had in some time: a legit relief prospect in Zach Braddock, who is ready to go whenever he is needed. Braddock sparkled in 2009 and has shown he belongs this spring. He simply needs the opportunity to pitch.

Prognosis: Overall, I see the Brewers' relief pitching remaining about the same. They had some pitchers over perform in 2009, but there is added depth in 2010 that did not previously exist. The bullpen has a high ceiling, but a reasonable expectation is for little change this season.

Projected Bullpen:
  1. Trevor Hoffman (Closer)
  2. LaTroy Hawkins (Set-up)
  3. Todd Coffey
  4. Mitch Stetter (Lefty Specialist)
  5. Claudio Vargas
  6. Chris Narveson
  7. Manny Parra/Jeff Suppan
  1. Carlos Villanueva
  2. Chris Smith
  3. Zach Braddock
  4. Chuck Lofgren
  5. John Axford
This is the most logical scenario, assuming the Brewers stick with Suppan throughout the season and don't eat his salary. Villanueva is the odd man out, though he gets the quick call as soon as injury strikes. Zach Braddock has shown signs that he will dominate at the big league level. Don't be surprised to see him sooner rather than later if a lefty goes down. Mark Rogers may see some big league time if he continues to progress, but in all likelihood it won't be until September call-ups.

Scoring runs was not a problem for the Brewers in 2009. In fact, it was the only reason a team with the worst rotation in baseball was able to finish with a respectable 80 wins. Anchored by one of the best middle of the lineup duos in all of baseball in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers finished third in the National League with 182 home runs and 785 runs scored.

Barring an injury, we know what to expect from Braun and Fielder. Both will hit somewhere around .300 with 35 to 45 home runs and 110 to 125 runs batted in.

After these two, however, little is certain. Casey McGehee emerged as a surprising source of offense in 2009, leading all rookies with 16 home runs. Given he accomplished this in a partial season and hit .301, can he maintain this level of performance over an entire season? It's unlikely, but the Brewers would gladly accept a .275 average and 20 home runs from their third baseman.

While the Brewers of the past scored via the home run, the 2010 iteration will score in multiple ways, assuming they get on base. Gone are Mike Cameron and JJ Hardy. In are youngsters Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gomez. While both have blinding speed and will steal bases this season, only Escobar has proven (albeit in limited time) that he can hit Major League pitching. Gomez, with a lifetime OBP of .292 in 348 games, has plenty of room to grow. Will he?

It's unknown what Hardy will do this season in Minnesota, but it is likely that Escobar will at least match his play at the plate in 2009. Once a powerful shortstop, Hardy was a major disappointment in 2009, hitting .229 with 11 home runs and spending the final month of the season in the minors.

Also gone is Jason Kendall, possibly the weakest hitting regular in all of baseball. It is highly likely that anything provided by veteran Gregg Zaun and his yet-to-be-determined back-up will be an improvement over Kendall's putrid offensive performance.

Rickie Weeks was on his way to a break-out season in 2009 before undergoing the second wrist surgery of his career. Weeks was the driving force behind a strong Brewers start, hitting nine home runs in 37 games and boasting the second highest OPS among second basemen behind Chase Utley to that point. All indications are that Weeks is completely healthy, but fans are cautiously optimistic. Even if he does not perform at the level he set in his short stint last season, a healthy Rickie Weeks will provide the Brewers a major boost. And all signs from spring training are that a healthy Rickie Weeks will be a productive Rickie Weeks.

A major sore spot in the lineup last season and heading into 2010 is right fielder Corey Hart. An All-Star in 2007, Hart is now a below average performer, both offensively and defensively. Prior to suffering a season ending appendectomy, Hart hit a mere .260 with a .335 OBP and 12 home runs in 115 games. Hart has become susceptible to the slider low and away, and does not appear to have improved in that area this spring. While he is adding a new pair of prescription goggles to his ensemble, most Brewer fans are pessimistic about any chance of re-emergence in 2010.

The bench may be a major strength for the Brewers this season. Craig Counsell had a career year in 2009, and proved very valuable as a replacement for Rickie Weeks. Now that Weeks is healthy, Counsell can once again come off the bench. Acquired for Tony Gwynn, Jr. early in 2009, Jody Gerut seemed like a lost cause prior to the All-Star break. However, most fans failed to notice he was quite productive during the second half. He could spell or even challenge Hart for his position in right field.

A potentially valuable addition to the outfield is Jim Edmonds. Though he has been out of baseball for a year, he does not appear to have lost his strike zone awareness or bat speed. He is still a solid outfielder and will provide a good left handed bat off of the bench in addition to competition for time in right field and center, depending on how Hart and Gomez do.

Prognosis: Braun and Fielder make this team go. While there are more question marks in 2010, there is depth to cover for struggling or injured players. Speed will add a dimension, but the question will be whether those fleetest of foot (Gomez and Escobar) will get on base to use it. Ultimately, the key ingredient to this offense may be Rickie Weeks. If he is healthy, the Brewers will score runs at a high level.

Overall, a realistic expectation is for a minor drop-off. Less power, more speed, more mistakes from young players, and questions about health. Corey Hart needs to step up or risk losing his job.

Projected Lineup:
  1. Rickie Weeks (2B)
  2. Alcides Escobar (SS)
  3. Ryan Braun (LF)
  4. Prince Fielder (1B)
  5. Casey McGehee (3B)
  6. Corey Hart (RF)
  7. Gregg Zaun (C)
  8. Carlos Gomez (CF)
  9. Pitcher
  1. Craig Counsell (2B, 3B, SS)
  2. Joe Inglett (Utility)
  3. Jim Edmonds (CF, RF)
  4. Jody Gerut (CF, RF)
  5. George Kattaras (C)
  1. Mat Gamel (3B)
  2. Jonathan LuCroy (C)
  3. Eric Farris (2B)
  4. Adam Heether (3B)
  5. Lorenzo Cain (CF)
I wonder if Gamel would have made the roster even if he hadn't gotten hurt. The Brewers have a very solid veteran bench, and Gamel needs to get his at bats in the minors. In the event an injury strikes or McGehee is unable to follow up a solid rookie season, Gamel will get the first call. If Corey Hart and/or Carlos Gomez struggle, Lorenzo Cain is climbing the ranks quickly and should be ready to make the jump. Possibly the organization's best prospect, second baseman Brett Lawrie is still a year or two away.

I'll spare you the UZR stats, but the Brewers were not a good defensive team in 2009. The only area they could have been considered above average was in center field and shortstop, but both Cameron and Hardy are now gone.

That said, it is entirely possible that the Brewers replaced both players with youngsters who are defensively superior. Both have the potential to be elite with the glove and cover an amazing amount of ground at their positions. The question, of course, is whether both players are able to hit in order to maintain a firm hold on their starting spots. It's likely that Escobar will, particularly since he has little competition. Gomez, however, may not be able to display his defensive tools on a daily basis.

While Fielder and Braun are elite offensive players, they are below average in the field. That said, Fielder did make strides last season (from terrible to acceptable) and Braun was still learning the outfield a year ago after a switch from third base. Braun is a terrific athlete and has the potential to be an above average defender. Realistically, he may become average in 2010.

Casey McGehee arrived in camp a year ago with the reputation as a solid glove man, but he failed to deliver in the field. He brought back memories of Braun in 2007, but unfortunately for McGehee those memories were in the field. He was one of the worst defenders at his position a year ago, though in his defense McGehee did suffer with bum knees throughout the season. It is possible that a healthy Casey McGehee will be improved in the field.

Rickie Weeks was making strides in the field before getting injured last season, but he is an average defender at best. Gregg Zaun provides no improvement over Kendall behind the plate, and Corey Hart is Corey Hart. The Brewers get better defensively if they swap out Hart for Gerut or Edmonds.

Prognosis: If defense wins championships, the Brewers are in trouble. While the potential is there to be a better defensive team in 2010, quite a bit needs to go right. Rickie Weeks needs to remain healthy and continue to improve with the glove. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder can't level off. Casey McGehee has to prove that last season's defensive deficiencies were injury related. And both Escobar and Gomez need to establish themselves offensively to utilize their defensive skills.

Overall, I see no improvement here with a greater possibility for a drop-off than for improvement. They can improve as a defensive unit, but there are too many factors to make it a good bet.

Final Assessment
I'm not real sure why, but the media seems to be down on the Brewers this season. While there is potential for very minor regression on offense, in the bullpen and on defense, the only obvious change is in the rotation, where there will be noticeable improvement. They won 80 games a year ago with the worst starting pitching in baseball. Everything went wrong with that rotation. Based on the development of Gallardo and acquisitions of Wolf and Davis, the odds are greatly stacked in favor of a major improvement. And given the rotation's new depth, the back of the rotation is unlikely to again have pitchers with ERA's over 6.00.

While I don't see the bullpen improving, the new strength of the rotation will help keep the bullpen fresh. There is some potential for drop-off, but the Brewers are set up for a solid, if unspectacular and average, pitching staff.

The offense and defense have some question marks, but the changes since last season are minimal. Braun and Fielder still man the middle. Complementary players help, but the two big guys ultimately make this team go.

I don't see the Brewers faring worse in 2010 than they did in 2009, and this is a fully objective assessment. They have weaknesses, but they are stronger and deeper as a team than they were last season. They will no longer need to win games 8-7. They now have good enough pitching that their offense will win more close games.

I can't predict what the Cubs and Cardinals will do. The Cardinals are the media darlings. People see Pujols and Holliday as an unstoppable force, even though Holliday appeared suspect in Oakland prior to his trade to St. Louis. He will not duplicate his performance. And while he's bound to be dominant if healthy, health is always the question with Chris Carpenter.

The Cubs are bound to rip their fans' hearts out once again. They've done little to improve their roster. It's fun to watch them implode. They do have good enough pitching, however, that will keep them competitive.

Will these teams finish ahead of the Brewers? I don't know. But there will be competitive baseball in Milwaukee this season, and I expect an improvement over 2009. Though predictions are vastly overrated and largely meaningless, I project 85 wins for the Brewers. Hopefully that will be enough for a Wild Card berth.


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