Friday, October 27, 2006

Looking Ahead: Milw. Brewers

2006 W-L Record: 75-87
2006 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Runs Scored: 730 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 833 (14th in NL)
Free Agents: David Bell, Jeff Cirillo, Tony Graffanino, Dan Kolb, Tomo Ohka

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Prince Fielder
2B -- Rickie Weeks
SS -- J.J. Hardy
3B -- Corey Koskie
LF -- Bill Hall/Corey Hart
CF -- Brady Clark/Anthony Gwynn
RF -- Geoff Jenkins
C -- Damian Miller

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Ben Sheets
Chris Capuano
Dave Bush
Doug Davis

2007 Proj. Closer: Francisco Cordero

The Good News:
Pretty much everything went wrong for the Brewers in 2006. They came in as a team considered to be a dark horse contender for the Wild Card. They finished a few furlongs back, in the uncomfortable company of the Cubs and Pirates. The long-term plan for Milwaukee is still solid, although you can't ignore the ugly setback that was 2006.
The Brewers will be fielding a top-notch infield in 2006, 3/4 homegrown and pretty cheap. Fielder (271/347/483) and Weeks (279/363/404) have already proven themselves in the majors, although both performed a shade worse than was anticipated. Shortstop J.J. Hardy was held back by injuries once again, but should be back on track in time for 2007. He was projected to be a very strong young shortstop, and still is, although the past two years must be taken into account. Third base will be manned by trade acquisition Corey Koskie. Koskie is very expensive, but is also solid (261/343/490 in '06) when not struggling with his own injuries. Damian Miller picked up his option to return as catcher. He's not that good anymore (251/322/390), but he's by far the best option in the organization for 2007.
Most of the questions in the lineup are in the outfield, as you might have deduced from the squadron of players who will be competing for playing time. Almost nothing is set in stone, and while there is a lot of potential, there are also a lot of questions. Things didn't turn out so well in 2006 (especially after the team replaced Carlos Lee with Kevin Mench), but there is good hope for 2007.
The one certainty will be Geoff Jenkins, although it's unclear whether he'll be in left or right field. Jenkins is the last holdover from the bad old days and is still earning the salary of a mediocre player who is nonetheless a franchise staple. Jenkins has had a couple of good years recently, including a surprising 271/357/434 in 2006, but this is the last year of his deal, and at age 32, it's doubtful the Brewers will pick up his option for 2008.
The other corner outfield spot will likely come down to Corey Hart, the organizational Prospect Without a Position, converted infielder Bill Hall, imported Blue Jay Gabe Gross, and imported Ranger Kevin Mench. Hart has had stardom in his cards for some time now, and finally broke through to the majors with an impressive 283/328/468 part-time performance in 2006. He's young yet, and may not get the everyday job to start 2007, but will be around in a bench role until he can right his way into the starting lineup.
The starting role will most likely go to Bill Hall. The trouble with Hall is that while he's an excellent hitter for a middle infielder (career 267/322/479 with, clearly, some big power), he's not so swell when moved to the outfield corners. Moving him there would remove his poor defense from the infield and open up a spot for Hardy at shortstop, but it's doubtful that Hall can hit well enough to hold down the position. He's probably the best option the Brewers have right now, although I'd rather see them stick with Corey Hart. Another alternative would be to put Hall at third and trade Koskie (and his salary).
Neither Gross nor Mench are likely to get in the way of Hall and Hart. Gross was a really nice bonus picked up in the Overbay trade with Toronto, hitting 274/382/476 in part-time work this past season. But it's not likely that he'll upset the organizational insiders. Ditto for Mench, who looked pretty ordinary away from Texas' friendly walls (230/248/317 with the team). With so many options and so few spots on the roster, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Brewers to trade an excess man at some point.
In center field, the question is whether the Brewers will go with the disappointing (and aging) Brady Clark, or give way to young Tony Gwynn, Jr. Gwynn has shown good contact hitting skills and a solid batting eye in the minors, but he doesn't yet have the major league pedigree to confidently predict his success in the bigs; it's still to be seen whether his batting eye will translate to the bigs, since he's not really able to punish the pitchers who do throw strikes. Clark had a career year in 2005 (306/372/426) but a disastrous 2006 (263/348/335). He is still a good center fielder, and normally I'd be tempted to predict that his 2007 performance would be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. But Clark will be 34 in April, and it's just as likely that we're seeing the decline of someone who wasn't that great to begin with. The result of this two-man race will likely be played out in Spring Training.
There is a strong nucleus of talent here supported by more prospects still coming out of the minors. While the Brewers are strong all over and have great depth, they lack superstar strength at any one position. This could change, say, if Fielder hits .300 next year or Rickie Weeks finds his rhythm. But there's no guarantees that the Brewers will be anything more than above-average, especially given the crude reality check that was 2006.
Pitching-wise, there's little to be happy about here, especially if starter Ben Sheets continues to fall prey to injuries. However, if Sheets is healthy, he and Chris Capuano would give Milwaukee the best 1-2 punch in the division. The Brewers have good depth behind this two, with durable arms Dave Bush and Doug Davis, but they'll need to be on the positive side of durable in 2007; Davis especially suffered through a very rough 2006 (4.91 ERA, 102:159 BB:K ratio in 203.1 IP). The good news is that the Brewers had three starters go 200+ innings last year. If Sheets is healthy, they could have four in 2007, which would be great news for the team and especially the bullpen. The bad news is that, as I said before, durability is only an asset if you're good; the team ERA of 4.82 last year was due mainly to an awful bullpen, but the starters played their part as well. Cautious optimism is in order for the pitching staff, but really, everything revolves around the health of ace pitcher Sheets.

The Bad News:
If the good news is the offense, then the bad news is the pitching. I've already spoken about the starting rotation, but let me say again what a difficult scenario it would be if Sheets is only good for 100 innings, as he was in 2006. The loss of Tomo Ohka hurts, but not as much as you'd think; the Brewers already have several guys who can suck up innings, and they've got enough loose arms in their system to cobble together a #5 starter. But if Sheets falls apart, the onus is on Dave Bush and Doug Davis to produce. Bush has proven to be solid and pretty reliable in his work with Toronto and Milwaukee, but it's hard to tell in advance which side of the 4.50 ERA he'll be on. Ditto for Doug Davis, whose main problem is his penchant for wildness; he's been second in the NL in walks for two years running. The Brewers will need both Davis and Bush to keep their ERAs closer to 4.00 than 5.00 and to pump out quality starts like both men are capable of.
The bullpen was a horrific mess in 2006. On one hand, there's really nowhere to go but upfrmo here; the Brewers have too many good arms in the 'pen not to be able to make something out of it. On the other hand, they had pretty much the same talent base last year and couldn't find anyone able to stay healthy and productive. The acquisition of Francisco Cordero is a big help. Cordero will likely end up as the most valuable man taken in the Carlos Lee trade, and since they got him in mid-slump, they should be sitting pretty. Cordero's recent troubles are enough to raise eyebrows, but he's a lock to stick in those close games and notch some strikeouts; he's also one of the toughest pitchers in the game to homer against. And anything is better than what the Brew Crew got from Derrick Turnbow last year (6.87 ERA in 56.1 IP).
With Cordero acked up by Turnbow (who shouldn't be nearly as bad), Jose Capellan, Brian Shouse, Matt Wise, and a fleet of other possible options, the Brewers should be able to find somebody who can handle the middle innings. But once again, 2006 hangs over us; I was confident in the Brewers' bullpen last year and look what happened.

As much as I may compliment the offense, it's hard to ignore a team that finished 14th in the NL in scoring. Even if things do go right for the team, they'd probably just be elevated to above-average status; still not enough to carry what should be a work-in-progress pitching staff. The Brewers can't really afford free agents, and with their options, they shouldn't go for any; however, the relatively low ceiling this offense suffers from could be what keeps this team from contending in what is still a winnabe division.

Offseason Game Plan:
Aside from the Lee deal, which is looking like a bust, Doug Melvin has proven to be efficient and intelligent in making trades and improving his team on a budget. This is still a team that's kept its long-term strategy intact and could very well have the best 5-year outlook of any NL Central team. But someday the Brewers will have to get all of their good prospects in the lineup and producing at the same time -- as one baseball man once put it, their "phenoms ain't phenominating."
The most pressing problem, though, is the pitching staff, as I said. But even here, Melvin's hands are tied; there's not much the General Manager can do in this situation. All of the pieces are there, and it's not worthwhile to try changing them out unless you really think you can make an improvement. But the Brewers' problem isn't so much with the personnel -- it's with getting the personnel to produce. I've heard nothing but positive things about manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Mike Maddux, and I tend to agree; but they're going to have to start turning all of this potential into more than 75 wins one of these days. The Brewers may seem like the team that's about to break out, but we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves; as good as their future may look, they're not there yet.

It's up to those within the organization to turn all of this potential into a winning season. The good news is that in Melvin, Yost, and Maddux, I think they've got the right men for the job, and I'll keep saying so until they finally prove me wrong.

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