It’s been a little while since we last heard from the Brewers’ front office, and this period of relative calm provides an excellent opportunity to review what the Brewers have done so far.
Prospects. The team’s 40-man roster now stands at 38 with the recent additions of OF Caleb Gindl, 1B Brock Kjeldgaard, RHP Santo Manzanillo, and 3B Zelous Wheeler. Of the four, Gindl might have the best shot to break with the major league team in 2012 after slashing .307/.390/.472 at Nashville last year. Wheeler was the only other addition to spend time in Nashville, hitting .275/.383/.431 in limited time there. Other rostered prospects to keep an eye on include RHPs Michael Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Amaury Rivas, INF Eric Farris, and OF Logan Schafer.
Free Agents. There were a few notable additions to the Brewers this year in free agency, too. The team signed 3B Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs to a heavily backloaded 3-year, $36MM deal. Ramirez boasts a career 33.8 WAR and was good for 3.6 WAR last year after a down 2010 season. Fielding metrics show that Ramirez is likely to be a liability at third, but the effect of Ramirez’s weak defense should be limited by the Brewers’ other big free agent acquisition, Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s hitting numbers aren’t much to look at; for his career, he’s slashed just .247/.291/.399. But his defense has earned him rave reviews, including from Braves (and former Brewers) announcer Jim Powell. Gonzalez will make about $4.25MM on a one-year deal, a big raise from his 2011 salary of $2.5MM. Both Ramirez and Gonzalez are in their mid-30′s, which raises questions about durability.
Trades and Departures. To make room for Ramirez, something had to give with Casey McGehee, who slumped badly throughout 2011. In early December, the Brewers made it official; McGehee was traded to the Pirates for Jose Veras, a 31-year old journeyman fireballer coming off back-to-back sub-4.00 ERA seasons. With relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito leaving in free agency, the Brewers got a badly needed middle relief arm and unloaded McGehee’s potentially $3MM-plus salary. Speaking of salary relief, former Brewer Prince Fielder remains unsigned and is reportedly seeking a 10-year deal, or a deal with an average annual value that exceeds Albert Pujols’ $25.4MM.
Braun Controversy. I’ve hesitated to approach this topic until facts, not speculation, rule the day, but the matter bears attention here. Several weeks ago, ESPN reported that Ryan Braun had tested positive for performance enhancers in October. Those reports were later contradicted by releases that indicated Braun’s October samples had highly elevated levels of synthetic testosterone. Either way, what we “know” right now is that Braun has tested positive for a banned substance; for a first offense, that generally nets a 50-game suspension. However, there is an appeal process and Braun is exercising that right, the result of which may not be known until January.
International Signing. The Brewers potentially added a bit of international flavor to their roster by winning the right to negotiate with Japanese OF Norichika Aoki. Aoki is a three-time Central League batting champion who has never hit below .300 in a full season, oftentimes features a .400+ OBP. His arm has been criticized by other writers, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he’s not serviceable in center, with a move to left likely if Braun gets suspended. This is not a done deal, however; the Brewers do not have a legitimate Japanese scouting staff, and they will work Aoki out in the States before determining whether to offer him a contract. Signing Aoki would make either Carlos Gomez or Nyjer Morgan expendable. If he is not signed, the Japanese team that posted him must return the Brewers’ winning $2.5MM bid for exclusive negotiating rights.
Late last night, Brewers set-up man Francisco Rodriguez accepted the Brewers’ offer of salary arbitration. He is projected to earn somewhere between $11-13MM this year, putting the Brewers in a significant financial bind. Doug Melvin was a little fuzzy on the math when discussing the impact on team payroll, but later stated that he talked to owner Mark Attanasio and that the team is still in the hunt for free agents. It is not yet clear whether that includes 3B Aramis Ramirez, in whom the Brewers showed heavy interest before learning of K-Rod’s decision.
One glaring hole in the Brewers infield has been filled, though. The Brewers have apparently agreed to a one-year contract with former Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez. A career .247 hitter, Gonzalez has the same low-impact bat as the much-maligned Yuniesky Betancourt, but his fielding is significantly better. While Fangraphs indicates that Gonzalez’s defense slipped a bit last year, his history suggests he is a solid fielder who makes few errors.