Monday, January 21, 2013

Offseason Review: The Milwaukee Brewers

Going in to the 2012 season the Milwaukee Brewers were expected to viable contenders to repeat as NL Central Champions. There was a lot of concern as to how things would flow without Prince Fielder  holding down first base; but with Braun, Hart, Weeks, an emerging Lucroy and the addition of slugging third baseman Aramis Ramirez, offense wasn't too much of a worry. It was also easy to look at the Crew's bullpen as a major advantage given John Axford's lights out performance in 2011 and a returning Francisco Rodriguez. With the starting rotation the same as it was the year prior, it would basically take a major meltdown for the Brewers to not be serious contenders in their division. That's exactly what happened.

Rickie Weeks, an all-star in 2011, started the season in a slump that carried through almost the entire season. Randy Wolf performed with a degree of mediocrity that saw his release near season's end. The bullpen absolutely erupted, posting an MLB worst 4.66 ERA and 29 blown saves. Axford temporarily lost his closing role to Jim Henderson. K-Rod's heyday looked like a distant memory as well, proving to be absolutely hittable, posting career worst 4.38 ERA. The Crew did have a late season surge of relative competence but it proved too little too late, and they lost their Wild Card hopes to their nemesis Cardinals.

LHP Tom Gorzelanny with his pitching face
It would seem obvious given the Brewers absolutely blundering 2012 that a drastic overhaul would be in order. Things seemed headed that way, as the Brewers made the moves to non-tender or release a huge chunk of their bullpen. Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Tim Dillard,  and Francisco Rodriguez are all relievers who are going to be wearing different uniforms next season. Taking their place will be former Washington Nationals LHP's Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny, and sinkerballer Burke Badenhop who was acquired from the Rays for prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. All of these moves make a lot of sense for the Brewers. Gorzelanny is effectively Manny Parra with way higher pitchability, and the same could be same of Badenhop as a more effective Loe. Mike Gonzalez has closing experience and fits in as a set up man, back up for Axford if he breaks down again, and is generally a decent veteran arm.

The bullpen overhaul is essentially complete, so problem solved, right? Not even close. After 2012 saw the release of Randy Wolf, trading of Zack Greinke and free agency of Shaun Marcum, the Brewers starting rotation was stripped. The only definite starter left is Yovani Gallardo, followed by a slew of young talent competing for various slots. Also indefinite and by no means complete is the Brewers' bench. It could be said that this type of inaction is a reasonable way to cut down on spending that hasn't resulted in a championship, but it could also be said that the Brewers front office is behaving like they completely oblivious to the fact that they have a window of potential right now that isn't getting the support it needs to stay propped open. I abide by the latter notion.

Is the untested Michael Fiers up for the challenge
of a full year in the bigs? 
Ryan Braun is maybe the best all around outfielder in baseball right now. The 2011 MVP has several good years in front of him, but his contributions as an elite five-tool player have a logical deadline. Why Doug Melvin is wasting any of his years putting anything besides the best possible team together and building it around Braun is completely beyond me.  It wouldn't have broken the bank to sign a pitcher like Dan Haren just in case Mark Rogers does what he always does and gets injured. It wouldn't have sank the team to sign Sean Burnett or Koji Uehara in case the bullpen's ailments weren't a fluke last year. Now that Corey Hart is injured Mat Gamel is going to get another chance as a full time first basemen for the Crew, but he missed almost all of last year with a serious knee injury, you'd some depth there may be worth looking in to.

Just because Milwaukee's pen was the biggest problem Milwaukee faced last year doesn't mean that it's the only hole they should fill. I know that there are constraints that come with being a middle market team and that you can't acquire every major talent free agent that comes around, but that's not what it would take to make the Brewers viable contenders in 2013. The Brewers are probably going to be good, but extremely fragile. If one young arm gets injured or under-performs, what are they going to do to replace them? Given Milwaukee's pretty modest depth the only resource they could have tapped in to enhance their armory is the free agent market, and every signing that goes elsewhere makes that pool a little thinner.

GM Doug Melvin's Ron Swanson lookin' ass.
I think it's going to be the lack of depth that pushes the Brewers out of contention in 2013. Milwaukee is a really good team, but a really thin and inexperienced team with a lot that can go wrong. Their is a minute chance that absolutely everyone stays healthy, something I've never seen from any team ever, and they eek their way in to a wild card spot. There is a much much much much greater chance that the Brewers experiment with a rotation built almost entirely on inexperience and a limited bench proves futile, the Crew loses a whole bunch of games in frustrating fashion, and a rebuilding era is reigned in prematurely in Miller Park. I think the Brewers finish with a similar record as they did last year and miss the play offs again.

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