The Winter of Our Discontent…
One Brewer fan’s attempt to talk Brewer Nation off the ledge
Have you ever been in a relationship that, right from the start, has you constantly smiling? It seems to be clicking on all cylinders, yet you know it doesn’t have staying power? No matter what you did – weekend getaways, fancy dinners, experimental roleplay – you just always knew that a dark cloud hung over the entire relationship. Well, if you were a fan of the 2011 incarnation of the Milwaukee Brewers, you’re all too familiar with this type of volatile relationship.
Think about it. You had the exciting can’t-sleep-at-night feeling when it all started (trading for Marcum and Greinke). You had the initial rough patch (the 14-20 start). You had the moment when things couldn’t be going better (the August domination), even though that dark cloud still seemed to be waiting ominously over everything else (Prince’s impending departure). And of course, you had the moment when it all fell apart (the NLCS).
So where does that leave you now?
Well, now you are newly single. Your friends are trying to set you up with someone new, but it doesn’t have that same feeling to it. No offense to Aramis Ramirez – who, by the way, is a huge upgrade from Casey McGehee and I don’t care how much you like McGehee or how nice he is – but Ramirez’s signing in no way compares to how we felt when we traded for Marcum (a battle-tested arm from the AL East) and Greinke (I was literally checking my phone for updates as I sped from Green Bay to Madison upon hearing about this trade). Instead of looking forward to another year of watching possibly the best hitting duo in baseball, we have one of them heading for greener pastures and one looking at a 50-game suspension.
(To keep the relationship parallel going, finding out Braun tested positive for some banned substance would be like finding out your ex cheated on you and then gave you herpes – that one’s pretty clear-cut)
So why even bother with a new relationship when the fallout from the last one still stings?
Because this could be the one.
I know what you’re thinking. I must be nuts to have such optimistic feelings about 2012. Just bear with me for a moment. While the glaring differences between last year’s Brewers and this year’s seem to suggest a precipitous fall, I see things quite differently. Let me tell you why. (Thanks to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the following stats)
1) No more Yuniesky Betancourt. The only hole bigger than the one in Betancourt’s swing was the one that resided where a team’s shortstop should typically be playing. Alex Gonzalez provides similar value at the plate (Gonzalez OBP+ was 76 in 2011, Betancourt’s was 75) while adding defensive value on a team that so desperately needed to improve the defense of the left side of the infield. In fact, Gonzalez’s UZR/150 of -0.3 was his worst since 2005 (and only his second year with a negative UZR/150) while Betancourt’s UZR/150 of -7.4 was his best since 2007. Basically, Gonzalez at his worst is still much better than Betancourt at his best. And Gonzalez’s noticeably superior defensive metrics don’t even tell the whole story – truth is, Gonzalez makes a play on a lot of balls that easily get to the outfield with Yuni out there. Upgrade.
2) Aramis Ramirez. For the last 8 ½ seasons, Ramirez has been a thorn in the Brewers’ side. Since 2003, Ramirez has posted an OPS+ of 105 or greater in every season other than 2010. Ramirez’s 2011 WAR (3.6) absolutely crushed McGehee’s (0.3) as did his wOBA (.373 for Ramirez, .272 for McGehee). Defensively, I was surprised to find that McGehee’s numbers are quite a bit better than Ramirez’s (UZR/150 of 7.3 for McGehee vs. UZR/150 of -10.9 for Ramirez). Still, the naked eye test suggests that Ramirez will add defensive value if only for the fact that he has greater range than McGehee – though he’s certainly lost a step or two with age, it’s not hard to beat the half-step range that McGehee provided. If the Brewers are going to stay in the NL Central race for the first 50 games without Braun, Ramirez is going to be a key factor.
3) The bullpen. I don’t expect John Axford to have the kind of year he had last year – that just doesn’t happen often. But even if he doesn’t rack up save after save as he did in 2011, he has the type of mentality to be able to bounce back from one rough outing. And don’t forget that we still have K-Rod for the eighth inning. Now, like many of you, I was not ecstatic that we offered arbitration to him – that’s a big number to be paying a setup man. But he’s going to be auditioning to be someone’s closer. He knows that. He wants that. So if he needs to audition, let’s have him audition with us. Add to that Kameron Loe in a role that he’s comfortable in (not setup), a hopefully healthy Zach Braddock, and the additions of Seth McClung and Jose Veras, as well as the typical movement that a bullpen sees from year-to-year, and the Brewers bullpen has the potential to be as reliable as last year’s version.
4) Jonathon Lucroy. When was the last time you remember the Brewers having a catcher that you were excited about? A young, up-and-coming catcher that wasn’t some other team’s reject? A catcher who seemed to have the snarl of a pitbull while still knowing how to control a pitching staff of varied temperaments? Seriously, pay attention to Lucroy this year. This one might just be a gut feeling, but I’m calling this his breakout year. He’s going to need to take on a leadership role this year to help fill the void of Prince and Braun, and I think he’ll thrive in that role.
5) Rickie Weeks. In case you forgot, Weeks was having a pretty impressive season last year until he legged out an infield single, spraining his ankle in the process. We always heard about his potential, and he’s been starting to show that potential for the last few years now. Whether he’s batting leadoff (he’s become a valuable table-setter for the team in the last few seasons) or filling in at the 3/4 hole for 50 games, Weeks has the ability at the plate to put runs on the board.
6) The rotation. Yes, I know. I watched the playoffs. I saw Gallardo embracing the moment and everyone else fading from it. But we know the potential is there. Greinke has ace material and has shown it on more than a few occasions. Marcum suffered from a dead arm more than anything else in the playoffs. He’s a good pitcher, and I’m thrilled to have him as our third starter. We know what Gallardo is – a strikeout machine who is starting to figure out that seven innings and six strikeouts is better than five innings and ten strikeouts. Wolf is a veteran who doesn’t let his previous start affect his next one. We actually have a rotation that isn’t a glaring weakness. For the second year in a row.
I’m not saying that we’ll automatically be as good as or better than last year’s 96-win team. Replacing Prince is not going to be easy. Losing Braun for 50 games is not going to be easy. As entertaining as he is, T-Plush is in his second year in Milwaukee. In sports, crazy players typically win you over in the first year and then show off their crazy side in year number two. So that could be interesting. All I’m saying is that things aren’t as bad as many Brewer fans seem to think they are. And I didn’t even mention the biggest reason to have hope for 2012.
7) The NL Central is very winnable. No Albert Pujols. The Cubs are rebuilding. Again. The Astros might field one of the worst teams in history. The Pirates really haven’t done much to change last year’s first-half wonder team. The Cardinals are expecting Lance Berkman to have the same season as he did last year. The Reds pitching rotation got stronger, but still remains an issue.
The NL Central will be a three-team race between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos will improve each of their respective rotations, but they will not fix all of the problems that either team faces this year. St. Louis has to replace the man who has been the face of their franchise for the last decade. Cincinnati needs more consistency from their rotation and bullpen. Trust me; the NL Central is wide open.
I know that the sting of last season might still be there for some of you. You’re afraid to get back in the saddle when there’s a good chance for another relationship that has a disappointing end. But 2012 is a new year. This is a new team. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should give them a chance.
After all, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers might be the one.
Next Up: 2012 NL Central Division Team-by-Team Breakdown