The Milwaukee Brewers took an enormous stride as a franchise in 2011, winning its first playoff series in nearly 30 years before ending its postseason run just a couple wins shy of a World Series appearance. Despite falling short, there was a noticeable increase in fan support – something that propelled Milwaukee to baseball’s best home record during the regular season (57-24). Whether or not that trend can carry over into next season has a lot to do with how competitive the club remains.
So, just how competitive will the club be in 2012?
That answer depends on exactly how the franchise replaces its fan-favorite first baseman, Prince Fielder, who has made it assertively obvious that he will be playing elsewhere at the onset of next season.
Outside of Fielder, and a few other role players who will be departing, the offense should look relatively the same as the one that ranked fifth in the National League with 721 runs scored in 2011. Also, the entire starting rotation is slated to remain intact.
One would assume that with such a large contract – Fielder’s – coming off the books this winter, the Brewers would have a large chunk of money to spend via free agency on the few holes they have. However, a deeper look at next season’s contractual obligations – in addition to the true impact of losing Fielder – offers a rather substantially contrasting point of view.
Current 2012 Roster
While shortstop is the only starting spot in the lineup that currently remains empty, the roster actually lacks depth pretty severly; especially for a National League club. As of now, 25-year-old Taylor Green – the organization’s minor league 2011 Player of the Year – is the only infielder projected to be a part of next season’s bench corps.
On top of that, an alarming majority of the team’s bullpen will require replacing. Axford will return to the closer role where he flourished in 2011. However, the bridge of arms that set Axford up for much of his 48 saves will no longer be around to do so next season.
A starting shortstop, some bullpen arms and a few role payers to come off the bench is a lot to replace. That being said, it’s another area that will ultimately represent the biggest difference between this season’s squad and last.
The impact of Prince’s departure
As of now, Mat Gamel stands to take over for Fielder at first base. While going from Fielder to Gamel isn’t a dramatic downgrade defensively, it’s the void left in the lineup that remains a concern. Gamel has played a total of 85 games in the MLB. During those games, he has a .222 batting average to go along with just five home runs and 23 RBI. Even when those numbers are adjusted to reflect a full season, they obviously pale in comparison to Fielder’s.
Ultimately, it goes well beyond simply replacing Fielder’s .299 average, 38 home runs, 120 RBI and 95 runs scored.
As the number-four hitter, Fielder provided integral lineup protection behind Milwaukee’s star slugger, Ryan Braun. Fans who take solace in the fact that, while the offense will no longer have Prince’s production in 2012, they’ll still have Braun’s (33 home runs and 111 RBI in 2011), next season should provide an awakening of the rudest proportions.
For instance, not only did Fielder tally more home runs and RBI than Braun last year, he did so despite drawing 32 intentional walks to Braun’s two. That’s 32 plate appearances, nearly every case during an RBI opportunity, in which Fielder was not permitted to swing. Given the chance, Prince’s numbers could very well read more like: 42 home runs, 135 RBI and 105 runs scored.
Misinformed Brewers fans may take solace in the fact that they still have Braun’s bat in the heart of their lineup. To them, I would ask this: Who do you think opposing teams are going to start intentionally walking without Prince around?
The answer is, of course, Ryan Braun.
Now, taking into account around 30 fewer at-bats as a result of increased intentional walks, Braun’s 2011 numbers would actually be closer to 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Meaning, one could argue, that leaving with Fielder are approximately 45 home runs and 145 RBI of offensive production.
Still feel content with only Braun in the middle of the lineup now?
Payroll projections and spending money
This brings us to the financial side of things. In other words – with so much production to replace, just how much payroll will Milwaukee have at its disposal and how will they use it?
The Milwaukee Brewers 2011 Opening Day payroll was $83,590,833.
After declining Francisco Rodriguez’s outrageous 2012 option, the Brewers currently stand to drop slightly under $30 million in payroll entering the offseason. However, the club’s core talent — Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo and Corey Hart – all will incur salary increases during the upcoming year to the tune of approximately $13 million, collectively. Also, a large group of players headlined by Nyjer Morgan and Shaun Marcum will seek new compensation through arbitration.
Using the aforementioned roster projections, the Brewers are currently sitting at approximately $75 million in contractual obligations. That number includes the projected arbitration assigned salaries for those eligible players. Although it is impossible to say exactly how high management is willing to set the opening-day payroll, it’s worth noting that Milwaukee has never been above $91 million.
With all that considered, it is my estimation that the Brewers will have roughly $11-$13 million to spend on the free-agent market this winter.
Potential/suggested market moves
The Brewers have reportedly reached out to the representatives of Jose Reyes, Rafael Furcal and Aramis Ramirez already. However, Reyes has since signed with the Marlins and it is highly unlikely that the team can afford either Furcal or Ramirez if they intend on filling out an entire 40-man roster.
Instead, the Brewers will be better off pursuing a cheaper option at shortstop. In my opinion, a player like Alex Gonzalez represents a good fit.
Gonzalez, who comes with a respectable bat (.241 AVG, 15 HR, 56 RBI in 149 games during 2011) is also solid defensively and offers some much needed veteran presence. Signing him will probably take a one- or two-year contract worth $2 million/year and would leave roughly $10 million for the team to put toward filling out the bullpen – most notably someone to set up Axford.
That being said, two late-inning relief specialists that wouldn’t cost the Brewers the entirety of their remaining payroll allotment while still providing competent successors to Hawkins and Rodriguez would be George Sherrill and Juan Cruz.
Sherrill, who will be 35 years old at the onset of next season, is coming off a bounce-back season in 2011 with Atlanta. After a disastrous year in 2010, Sherrill appeared in 51 games with the Braves, going 3-1 and posting a 3.00 ERA in 36 innings pitched. It seems likely that his age will permit him only another one-year deal; although, after the great season he had in Atlanta, it could cost around $1.5-$2 million.
Cruz spent 2006-08 establishing himself as one of Arizona’s most reliable relievers. However, after moving to the American League to join the Royals in 2009, Cruz’s numbers ballooned and he missed much of 2010 following shoulder surgery. The Rays took a chance on Cruz last season, signing him to a one-year deal worth less than $1 million and it paid off tremendously. In 56 games, he notched a 5-0 record to go along with a 3.88 ERA. The 33-year-old Cruz may command a multi-year deal, but he appears to have reclaimed his past form and shouldn’t cost more than $2 million annually.
Making the above signings (or similar ones), as well as bringing back Takashi Saito with a one-year contract, would leave the club a somewhat sufficient amount of finances to fill the remainder of the roster.
There isn’t a very plentiful market for starting pitching this winter, which makes it feasible that the Brewers could rid themselves of Randy Wolf and his $9.5 million dollar salary to a desperate large-market team. While this move would give Milwaukee extra money to potentially acquire a player like Furcal, it remains to be seen whether there is a team out there willing to take on such a large salary and still offer the type of return that would allow the Brewers to justify shipping off a valuable middle-of-the-rotation guy.
Instead, expect the organization to dangle Hart’s name over the hot stove this winter. After the Giants sent Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals in return for Melky Cabrera, they are no longer a fit. Yet, there is an American League team that appears perfect for the situation – the Boston Red Sox.
Boston is currently seeking a right-handed bat to replace J.D. Drew in right field. They have been linked to names like Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Beltran. However, trading for Hart, rather than signing someone like Beltran, would give the Sox a more reliable player and a better chance at being able to afford resigning David Ortiz.
The Red Sox have two expendable young players who could be parts of an ideal package for the Brewers.
First, 27-year-old Jed Lowrie finds himself between the shortstop of now (Marco Scutaro) and the shortstop of the near future, Jose Iglesias. Lowrie has the ability to play shortstop, as well as both second and third base, at a high level. While he has yet to play a full season in the majors, his numbers project him as having a .280 average and a 15-18 home run potential.
The second piece in this scenario would be Josh Reddick. Reddick, who will be 25 at the start of 2012, is just a small drop in a deep pool of outfielder prospects residing in the Red Sox organization. By the time he reaches his full potential, there will be a number of more talented options at Boston’s disposal. However, that’s not to say Reddick isn’t valuable. In 87 games last season, he hit .280 with 18 doubles and seven home runs.
The combination of Lowrie and Reddick would give the Brewers two young, versatile players, an answer to their hole at shortstop, as well as nearly an additional $9 million to spend on free agents – all without losing much offense with the subtraction of Hart.
All things considered, Brewers GM Doug Melvin has one of the most undesirable jobs in all of baseball if he hopes to continue building on the success his franchise and its fans enjoyed in 2011. Milwaukee doesn’t have much money at its disposal and has numerous significant positions to fill. This offseason will test just exactly how effective and creative Melvin can be.
Rather than relying on the type of talent currently offered via free agency, it would be wise for Melvin to exhaust any and all possibilities of the trade market. Ideally, in a way that adds depth and increases financial resources as suggested above in regard to Hart. Unfortunately for Brewers fans, Melvin doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to trade moves.
Milwaukee entered last season with an all-in attitude. After taking a closer look at just how different the roster projects to be heading into 2012, it is clear as to where that mentality came from. With a depleted farm system resulting from questionable trade moves over the course of the last few years and very little money available for acquiring outside talent, the Brewers will have to play the hand that they’ve dealt themselves, unfortunately.