2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – Milwaukee Brewers
Milwaukee Brewers (2010 record: 77-85)
The Milwaukee Brewers front office entered the off-season with one primary task: improve the pitching staff. The club finished last season with the third-worst ERA in the National League – the primary reason the club finished with a sub-.500 record.
General Manager Mark Attanasio immersed himself in his task as soon as the off-season got underway, and by Christmas he had re-made his starting rotation – trading away some of his building blocks for the future in order to obtain a pair of cornerstones for his pitching staff. Shortly after Thanksgiving, he traded mercurial second base prospect Brett Lawrie (whom the organization had grown disenchanted with) to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for RHP Shaun Marcum. Then, just two weeks later, he gave his club and his fan base a second Christmas present, shipping starting shortstop Alcides Escobar and three more prospects (speedy outfielder Lorenzo Cain, No. 1 prospect Jake Odorizzi and fireballer Jeremy Jeffress) to the KC Royals for former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and SS Yuniesky Betancourt.
While Attanasio may have traded away some of the organization’s future, there is no doubt he dramatically improved its prospects for the immediate future by making the club a contender for the 2011 post-season.
Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy
The Brewers offense ranked fourth in the league in runs scored (750) last year and will almost certainly remain very dangerous in the upcoming season. The lineup features five batters who have the ability to hit 25+ home runs and drive in 100+ runs.
The anchor of the offensive attack is 1B Prince Fielder, the impending free agent who had his worst season in terms of productivity since 2006. He established a career-low in batting average (.261) and came close to equaling his career low in both homers and rbi. It was not the kind of season he wanted to have while trying to convince the Brewers to commit to a long-term contract for his services.
With Fielder potentially departing via free agency at the end of the season, LF Ryan Braun is poised to replace him as the primary cog in the lineup. He hit .304, with 25 HR and 103 RBI last year in what was considered by many to be a disappointing campaign (his home run total has decreased each year since his ROY effort in 2007). His contact rate and hit rate are very solid, but there are a couple of areas of concern for fantasy baseballers with respect to his home run totals – his HR/FB rate dipped to a career low (at 14%, it is just 2/3 of what it was back in 2007) and his ground ball rate (48%) has increased more than 20% since ’07 — Neither of these trends will support a 35-to-40 home run season in 2011.
RF Corey Hart posted career-best home run and RBI totals and had a nice spike in his batting average, paradoxically those numbers in spite of the fact his contact rate regressed to a career-worst (75%). It’s unlikely he’ll duplicate this level of productivity moving forward, as his HR/FB rate (17%) was well above his career rate (11%).
2B Rickie Weeks was healthy and compiled six hundred at-bats (651) for the first time, well above his previous high (475). The extra playing time translated into a career-best total in homers, ribbies and runs – and in the process he set club records for a second baseman in each of these categories.
3B Casey McGehee converted his full-time gig into a 20/100 campaign in spite of a significant spike (+9%) in his ground ball rate… he will need to elevate the ball in 2011 to take full advantage of his power potential.
The rest of the lineup is lacking. Lucroy makes great contact (85% last year) but offers little in the way of power. Gomez has a sub-par approach at the plate (.289 OBP) and thus has been unable to take advantage of his best tool (speed) because he does not get on base with sufficient frequency. Betancourt puts the bat on the ball with the best of them (career contact rate of 90%) but has an abysmal hit rate (career 27%), suggesting he often puts the ball in play just for the sake of getting it in play. He doesn’t draw walks as often as he needs to (4% BB rate).
The pitching staff:
Closer: John Axford
The team had only two dependable starters last season (Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf). The front office knew the club would have to upgrade on the likes of David Bush and Manny Parra if they hope to compete.
Enter Marcum and Greinke. They make the Brewers instant threats in the NL Central. While the rotation likely won’t compete with the Phillies or the Giants as the best in the league, it certainly should be one of the top four or five rotations in the league.
Most pundits knew there would be some regression in Greinke’s performance last year, as his 2009 Cy Young peformance was largely driven by an other-worldly strand rate (81%). The baseball gods made him pay by imposing just a 67% strand rate on him last season. Under normal circumstances you would expect his numbers to trend toward a normalized rate of 73%… but in consideration of the fact he will make the jump to the NL Central – where he will no longer face the DH – it seems likely his strand rate will improve into the low-70′s. The whole pick-up baseketball fiasco will cost him a month of the season – pity. Regardless, he should still be able to win 14 or 15 games and post an ERA in the high 2′s or low 3′s — assuming he doesn’t suffer from Jacoby Ellsbury Syndrome.
Marcum is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. He posted excellent numbers against the tougher lineups in the AL East. While his elbow remains a concern, as was underscored by his mid-season visit to the DL last year, he is also likely to see an improvement in both his win total and ERA in 2011.
Gallardo was the staff ace but now may be no more than the third-best starter on the club. He strikes out hitters with great regularity, but struggles with his control (a 4.1 BB for every nine innings pitched over the last two years). Those extra base runners cause his ERA to elevate to a much higher number than his talent suggests he’s capable of posting. Wolf had a rough start to last year, but he improved as the year went on as he found his command (fewer BBs, more Ks). Narveson’s stats looked brutal, but his peripherals illustrate he has significant potential (his strand rate was just 66% last year) as he compiled an xERA of just 4.07.
The hard-throwing Axford inherited the closer’s role when Trevor Hoffman scuffled last spring. He posted solid numbers in his first year as closer, posting 24 saves in 27 save opportunities and holding opposing hitters to a .204 batting average . He will need to reduce his walk rate (4.1 BB per 9 IP) to maximize his value to the team. Southpaw Zack Braddock and righty Kameron Loe both have excellent raw stuff and, although unproven, should provide good depth to a bullpen that also includes veteran RHPs LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito.
Prediction for 2011: 2nd place (88-74)
There is a lot to like here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Brew Crew finishes the year in first place. There is potential for quite a bit of improvement from several hitters, and the presence of Greinke and Marcum improve the rotation exponentially (assuming good health). Narveson could be a sleeper and is someone to watch during spring training.
Top prospect Mark Rogers
Top Five Prospects:
Rogers was selected by the Brewers in the first round (5th overall) of the 2004 draft. He struggled throughout his early career in Low-A and High-A, earning himself a demotion to Rookie ball in the middle of his third year. A pair of shoulder surgeries cost him both the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Not the typical resume of a top prospect.
But he returned to the baseball diamond with a vengeance when he was healthy. He posted impressive numbers in High-A in 2009 and then excelled in Double-A last year, earning a September call-up (10 games, 2.70 ERA with the Brewers).
He relies on a lively, mid-90s fastball that will touch 97 on occasion. He also has a knee-buckling curve ball and a slider with decent bite. The problem is he lacks command of all of his pitches and struggles to locate his pitches within the strike zone, but that isn’t surprising for a pitcher who has lost as much development time as Rogers. Most pundits believe he is destined for the bullpen if he doesn’t improve his command, so 2011 will be an important year for him.