Position Review & Preview: Aramis Ramirez, Third Base

By Nathan Petrashek

Editor’s Note: This is the latest entry in Cream City Cables’ 2012 Brewers Preview Series.  You can see the rest of the series here.

It was getting late in the 2010 fantasy baseball draft, and I was without a third baseman.  The usual suspects-Rodriguez, Wright, Longoria, Zimmerman-were long gone, and I had even missed out on Youklis and Reynolds.  But my savior awaited, or so I thought: Aramis Ramirez.  Lest you think this post will be about my fantasy baseball team, let’s turn to Milwaukee’s new third baseman.

You see, up until 2010, Ramirez had been a model of consistency.  He always hovered near the .300 mark, rarely struck out, and was pretty much a lock for 20+ home runs.  Thirty would not have been uncharacteristic or unexpected.  He was so cheap, I surmised, because he had been injured in 2009, but this is precisely the type of player I love bidding on: the bounce-back candidate with an excellent track record.  By all accounts, Ramirez was primed to produce again; the market, in its infinite wisdom, just wasn’t up to speed.

Unfortunately for me, the market was right.  In 2010 Ramirez had easily his worst offensive season since 2002, slashing only .241/.294/.452.  His home run count was still there (25), but his strikeouts surged.  After averaging 3.8 WAR the previous 7 seasons, Ramirez was worth .4 wins above replacement in 2010.  Fortunately, by the end of the season my rosters featured home run king Jose Bautista and Brewers 3B Casey McGehee, who was putting up impressive numbers after a spectacular 2009 campaign.

As McGehee flourished and Ramirez slumped in 2010, it’s just a bit ironic that their roles would be completely reversed in 2011.  McGehee had the worst season of his career and was eventually benched for prospect Taylor Green and, in the postseason, veteran Jerry Hairston, Jr.  The guy just couldn’t buy a hit.  Defensively, McGehee was actually pretty decent in 2011, though his frequent fielding and throwing errors and his weak bat erased any value he produced with his glove.  By the end of June, McGehee was slashing only .224/.276/.310.

General Manager Doug Melvin had a choice to make after the season.  Do you treat McGehee’s failed 2011 campaign as an aberration and his productive 2009 and 2010 seasons as predictive?  Or did you always suspect McGehee was playing a bit over his head and see this as your last opportunity to squeeze some value from him?  Personally, I can understand the logic in either approach.  Melvin elected the latter, signing Ramirez, currently age 33, to a 3-year, $36MM contract.  The contract was heavily backloaded (Ramirez will make only $6MM in 2012), and includes a $14MM mutual option for 2015.  After the signing, the writing was pretty much on the wall for McGehee, who was shipped to Pittsburgh in exchange for hard-throwing but erratic reliever Jose Veras.

Defensively, Ramirez isn’t going to win any gold gloves.  And that’s putting it pretty charitably.  He has a career .948 fielding percentage, but has cut down dramatically on the errors of his youth (only 14 in 145 games in 2011).  Ramirez’s range is not good, to put it mildly, though he probably still represents an upgrade over McGehee despite Ramirez’s defensively lacking 2011.  Fangraphs puts Ramirez at a -17 defensive runs saved (DRS) last season, a fancy way of saying that he saved 17 fewer runs than the average 3B last year.  But, you object, these things are best analyzed over a larger time frame!  Well, fine; Ramirez has a career -43 DRS.  If ultimate zone rating is your thing instead, Rammy clocks in at -30.  It’s not pretty.

Thankfully, Ramirez brings more to the plate with his bat.  You can consider his 2010 officially a fluke, prompted mostly by bad luck (.245 BABIP vs lifetime .289) and a ridiculous 58.6% fly ball rate that allowed him to maintain his home run numbers while lagging in batting average.  Still, there are warning signs.  Ramirez swung at a career-high 37% of pitches outside the zone in 2011, and at 33 years old you have to wonder when the inevitable decline will begin to set in.  On the other hand, Ramirez still has excellent bat speed and pitch recognition.  He’ll swing at pitches in the zone about 10% more than average, while still maintaining above-average contact rates.  He’ll usually find a way to get on base and rarely strikes out.  That’s worth something in a lineup featuring Rickie Weeks, Alex Gonzalez, and Corey Hart.  And if his fly ball rate bumps back up to his career norm (45%), plenty of his hits should be leaving Miller Park.

2012 Projection: 142 G, 568 PA, 522 AB, 149 H, 75 R, 35 2B, 1 3B, 27 HR, 104 RBI, 46 BB, 68 K, 1 SB, .285/.343/.511

Milwaukee Brewers 2012 Opening Day Lineup: Now With More Braun

Is Gamel finally ready for an everyday assignment?

by Kevin Kimmes

A few weeks back I wrote an article titled “A Look Into The Crystal Baseball: The Brewers 2012 Opening Day Lineup” in which I tried to predict what the Brewers Opening Day lineup might look like. At the time, I was convinced that Braun would be missing time due to the charges that he was facing. Let’s face it, until last week no one had ever beat the rap when accused of having violated the league’s banned substance policy, so realistically it was a safe assumption to make at the time.

Since then, Braun has been exonerated of the charges meaning that he will now be available in left field for Milwaukee on Opening Day. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. The more that I thought about it, the more I started to wonder about what will wind up happening in the outfield now that there are way more potential starters than there are positions, and the possible implications that this may have on the vacancy left at 1st base with the departure of Prince Fielder.

Playing Right Field, It’s Easy You Know…

I’ve joked with friends over the past year that I will some day find the time to put together a YouTube clip combining Corey Hart’s fielding “lowlights” and the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Right Field“. If you don’t know the song, here’s a snippet of the lyric:

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

Now, to be clear, I am not anti-Corey Hart, in fact, I think his bat will be crucial this year in assisting with making up the run production lost due to Fielder’s departure. However, I am a realist when it comes to Milwaukee’s current overabundance of outfield talent. For starters, all 4 of the starting outfielders from last years NL Central Championship squad are returning (Braun, Morgan, Gomez, and Hart). Add to this that Milwaukee acquired two time Japanese batting champion Norichika Aoki (a left fielder), and it quickly becomes obvious that we have more players than we have positions.

Put Me In Coach, I’m Ready to Play

Will Aoki be the x-factor that determines the opening day lineup?

Now, I am going to make an assumption that Aoki will take to the American version of the game quickly, thus leaving Brewers management with the  hard decision to make of what to do with 5 guys for 3 positions. Braun is the everyday left fielder hands down, and the platoon of Morgan (L) and Gomez (R) will own center. So now we get to right, which has been Corey Hart’s primary position since he was placed there in 2002 while with the Huntsville Stars due to problems defensively at 1st base.

Now, Ron Roenicke could choose to platoon Aoki, as he is a lefty, which would add some versatility to the lineup and allow Milwaukee to play the advantage when it comes to pitching matchups, or you could potentially have both bats in the lineup on a daily basis. How you ask?

Roenicke has made it clear that he wants to use Corey Hart in a flex role this season having him spend time at both 1st base and in right field, due to questions regarding Mat Gamel’s ability to play everyday at 1st. Gamel, while productive in the minors, has struggled to settle in when given major league assignments over the last several seasons. If this appears to again be the situation in spring training, then I feel like the best option may be to move Hart to 1st to begin the season and position Aoki in right where he can ease his way defensively into the game.

With that said, I now present 2 versions of the potential opening day batting order. The first assumes that Gamel struggles and Roenicke goes with Hart at 1st and Aoki in right:

1) Corey Hart – 1st Base
2) Nyjer Morgan – Center Field
3) Ryan Braun – Left Field
4) Aramis Ramirez – 3rd Base
5) Rickie Weeks – 2nd Base
6) Norichika Aoki – Right Field
7) Alex Gonzalez – Shortstop
8) Jonathan Lucroy – Catcher
9) Yovanni Gallardo – Pitcher

In this version of the lineup, Milwaukee has itself a formidable 1-6 which should give opposing pitchers fits when it comes to developing a plan of who to pitch to and who to pitch around. This is very similar to last seasons batting order, which worked well for Milwaukee, but with Ramirez in the cleanup role and Aoki and Gonzalez replacing Betancourt and McGehee at 6 and 7 respectively.

Assuming that Gamel does have a good spring, the only major changes for the second version of the lineup would be at the 6 hole where Gamel (reporting at 1st) would replace Aoki, and in the lead off spot where Hart would be listed in right field.

With the Brewers first Cactus League game coming up this Sunday (March 4th) against the San Francisco Giants, we will soon get our first glimpse of Aoki, and with any luck, begin to clarify just which opening day lineup we will be looking forward to.

My Cardboard Habit: Looking at What’s Brewing in Topps 2012 Series I Baseball

by Kevin Kimmes

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always viewed the launch of the Topps Baseball set as one of the earliest signs of spring. Prior to spring training, or even the groundhog seeing (or not seeing) his shadow, the set marks the first sign of hope that another season is on its way despite it’s release in the middle of winter’s icy cold grip.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve made collecting the entire 660 card set a yearly tradition. This year, I thought I would use the blog to share my love for these cardboard keepsakes and to specifically focus on what Brewers fans can expect to find in the first half (Series I is composed of cards 1-330) of this years set .

We’re Number 1, We’re Number 1!

For the second consecutive year, Brewers slugger and 2011 NL MVP, Ryan Braun finds himself on the first card of the set. While this honor is a great one (former Brewers 1st baseman Prince Fielder had graced this spot in 2010 with a photo of his infamous September 2009 walkoff celebration), this year is “doubly” special for Braun.

Why you ask? Well, this year Topps decided to change up their “chase” variants (short printed versions of some cards with alternate photos and lower print runs) which for the last several years had been reserved for the retired greats of seasons past. This year, the focus is on celebrations and off field hijinks, leading to Braun’s card having 2 separate versions. Shown above, is the standard version of Braun’s card depicting him doing what he does best, knocking the crap out of the ball. His alternate card (pictured to the left), features Braun doing his signature “boxing” home run celebration with Fielder.

For those looking for the short print, your best chance is to check with your local hobby shop or eBay as the estimated average of finding a short printed card (of which there are 22) is only 2 per hobby case.

So, Who Else Made The Cut?

Below is a list of the other players who can be found in the main set donning a Brewers uniform. For convenience sake, I’ve broken this down into 2 groups: those currently with the team and those no longer with the team.

Currently With The Team:

# 29 Active NL Wins Leaders (Wolf)
# 66 Nyjer Morgan
#143 George Kottaras
#146 Carlos Gomez
#181 2011 NL Batting Average Leaders (Braun)
#210 Zack Greinke
#262 Shaun Marcum
#272 2011 NLDS Brewers Game 5 (Morgan)
#294 John Axford

No Longer With The Team:

# 57 Yuniesky Betancourt
# 77 2011 NL Home Run Leaders (Fielder)
#136 Casey McGehee
#224 2011 NL Runs Batted In Leaders (Fielder)
#327 Mark Kotsay

Of all of the cards listed above, the two that I love the most are the Nyjer Morgan cards. First, his standard card (#66) is the same photo of him, Braun, and Fielder that graced the cover of the August 29, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated (shown on the left). Due to the national exposure that this photo got, this has become one of those instant classics and was a real surprise to me when I pulled it out of a pack.

The other card to feature Morgan is the 2011 NLDS Brewers Game 5 card (#272). Here we find Morgan in full “Beast Mode” as he celebrates his walk off single that sent the Crew to the NLCS for the first time in franchise history. I love this photo choice so much simply due to the fact that it just sums up the energy and the enthusiasm of the 2011 campaign so perfectly. It’s Brewers baseball, in the post season, and “T-Plush” is supplying the charge. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Digging for Gold: The Inserts

Topps decided to go with a gold motif for this years inserts. This means everything from gold ring toppers, pins, coins and just plain old gold foil can be found in abundance in these subsets. Let’s look at which Brewers, and Brewers alum can be found here.

**Note – I have not included former Brewers below if the card they appear on shows them in another team’s uniform (sorry Minnesota Twins Paul Molitor), with the exception of cards featuring players on the Milwaukee Braves.**

Golden Moments

Golden moments is a 50 card set composed of cards celebrating historic moments in MLB history which were accomplished by not only those that have come before, but from today’s stars as well. Here we find two cards of interest: GM-10 which celebrates Prince Fielders “Wake Up, Walk Off” from this past season, as well as GM-15 which celebrates Ryan Braun’s passing of Robin Yount for the longest consecutive game on base streak in franchise history. An autographed version, relic version, an auto/relic variant, as well as a “24k gold infused” version numbered out of 5 pieces are also available for the Braun card.

Additionally, the following players each have relic cards in this subset:

GMR-CH Corey Hart
GMR-CM Casey McGehee
GMR-JA John Axford
GMR-JLU Jonathan Lucroy
GMR-PF Prince Fielder
GMR-PM Paul Molitor
GMR-SM Shaun Marcum
GMR-YG Yovani Gallardo

Golden Greats

This 75 card set celebrates the career highlights of 15 legends of the game (5 cards each). Brewers fans, or more specifically Milwaukee baseball fans, may be interested in checking out cards GG51-55 which feature none other than “Hammerin” Hank Aaron as a Milwaukee Brave. As with the Braun card found in Golden Moments, the Hank Aaron cards found in this set also have autographed (numbered out of 10), relic (numbered out of 10), and auto/relic parallels (numbered out of just 5). Additionally, there is a Gold Coin variation which has a production number based on the player’s jersey number (in this case 44) and contains an actual gold coin with the players likeness on it.

Timeless Talents

These 25 dual-player cards statistically compare a hero of yesteryear to a modern day player. As with the main set, this subset again finds Ryan Braun in the lead-off spot teamed up with none other than “The Ignitor”, Paul Molitor. A dual autographed parallel of this card also exists.

1987 Topps Minis

Topps classic wood grain design from their 1987 set gets the mini treatment in celebration of the sets 25th anniversary. Braun (TM-1) again leads off this 50 card subset and is joined by Brewers ace Zack Greinke (TM-35).

In The Name Relics

You want something no one else has? How about the actual letters off of this past years All-Star warmup jerseys? That is what Topps is offering in this subset where each piece is numbered 1/1. Fielder (shown at left), Weeks, and Braun all appear here meaning that Brewers Nation will need to figure out how to sort out the 17 total pieces available between these three players.

Topps Silk Collection

100 of the base sets cards were  also printed as mini version on gold silk and numbered out of only 50 pieces each. Included in this subset are Ryan Braun (SC-1), Zack Greinke (SC-47), Shaun Marcum (SC-62), and John Axford (SC-81).

Base Set Paralells

Each of the 330 card in the base set features two different parallels: Platinum and Wood. The platinum cards are numbered out of 61 pieces in honor of this being Topps 61st set. These are identical to the base cards with the exception that they sport a platinum colored border. Like the platinum parallels, the wood parallels are also identical to their base cards except that these cards are a tribute to the 1962 set and are all numbered 1/1.

So there you have it, a thorough look at the Brewers cards in this years set so far. I’ll be back with a look at Series II after it is released in June. In the mean time, if you have any questions regarding this set, or card collecting in general feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @kevinkimmes. Happy collecting!

2012 NL Central Division Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

By: Ryan Smith

Andrew McCutchen will keep bringing fans out to the park in 2012, but how long until he roams the outfield somewhere else?

The first half of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2011 season was different from previous seasons for one reason – they actually had some success. Through July 28th, they stood at 54-49. The Pirates were in a spot they weren’t all too familiar with because they were actually contenders. For once, they weren’t selling their best players to other teams jockeying for playoff position. Their games actually mattered.

Exciting times in Pittsburgh.

Then the Pirates went on a 10-game losing streak. They never recovered, finishing with another 90-loss season. A promising season became just another disappointment for the Pittsburgh faithful.

And I don’t see 2012 breaking from tradition.

Honestly, I just don’t see much of a difference between last year’s Pirates squad and the 2012 version. They’ve made some minors moves during the off-season, but nothing to write home about. Let’s take a look at what the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates should look like.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Neil Walker, SS Clint Barmes, 3B Pedro Alvarez

Jones and Alvarez could be pushed for playing time by new arrival McGehee.

Analysis –
Jones seems to fit the mold of your typical first baseman, providing some decent numbers at the plate and leaving something to be desired in the field. His .328 wOBA last year was just above the expected league average and Jones isn’t going to tear the cover off of the ball with his 20-homerun potential. He does seem to be gaining a reputation of being pretty durable, playing in over 148 games in each of the last three years. His UZR/150 of -13.2 at first certainly isn’t going to make his pitchers feel comfortable about his presence behind them…Neil Walker is another player who doesn’t add much with his glove, posting a UZR/150 of -2.5. The .273/.334/.408 line he posted last season is pretty respectable at his position. Only in his third full season in the big leagues, Walker still has room to grow, but he’s going to have to do it soon if he wants to be a part of any sort of rebuilding project in Pittsburgh…Acquiring Barmes was one of the few moves that Pittsburgh made during the off-season that should pay dividends relatively quickly. After bouncing around from position to position in Colorado, Barmes finally found a permanent home at shortstop and played like a natural, posting a UZR/150 of 10.8. In 539 chances in 2011, Barmes only committed 12 errors. His OPS+ of 93 brings him in below league average, so he’s not going to strike fear into the opposing pitcher…the former second-overall draft pick Alvarez has left more than a few people disappointed with his production thus far. In 74 games last year, Alvarez produced a brutal line of .191/.272/.289. Those numbers are unacceptable from the hot corner. And it’s not like he provides a lot of defensive value, committing 14 errors in only 214 chances. Still, the Pirates have to give him more opportunities to become the player they thought they were drafting in 2008.

Outfield – LF Alex Presley, CF Andrew McCutchen, RF Jose Tabata

Analysis – Tabata seemed to be the guy for left field going into last season, but Presley’s impressive audition toward the end of last season makes me think he’ll claim this side of the outfield. He isn’t a big power hitter, but he’s a career .291 hitter in the minors, and over at fangraphs.com, Bill James projects a .301/.346/.445 line in 2012 for Presley…McCutchen is one of the few players for Pittsburgh that everyone is familiar with. In 2011, in just his third full season in the majors, McCutchen established himself as one of the premier all-around players in Major League Baseball, posting impressive numbers all across the board, resulting in a 5.7 WAR. Pittsburgh better become more consistent pretty soon or McCutchen could become just another talented Pirates player traded away for a “rebuilding” project in a few years…Tabata may be shifting over to right field, but he’s still valuable to this team. He provides speed at the top of the order, and Pittsburgh could use any help to improve on offense, where they ranked 27th in the majors in runs scored last year.

Rotation – RHP Charlie Morton, RHP James McDonald, LHP Erik Bedard, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kevin Correia

Analysis – Morton went 10-10 with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2011 while posting a 4.08 xFIP, which is slightly better than league average. Still, he’ll be coming off a hip injury and will likely not see the mound until some time in May…In his first full season as a starter in 2011, McDonald had his share of ups-and-downs. He didn’t blow anyone away with his strikeout rate (7.47 K/9) and he walked too many batters (4.11 BB/9). His LOB% of 77.0 was impressive, but it was a bit above the league average, which creates the concern that he might regress to the mean in 2012. His peripherals will need to improve in 2012 is McDonald wants to become a regular in this rotation…A few years ago, Bedard was one of the promising young pitchers in baseball. Last year, Bedard logged 129.1 innings, which was the first time he was able to reach triple-digits in innings since 2007. His addition should help overcome the loss of Paul Maholm, but you can’t but wonder when – not if – he’s going to land on the DL…In 2011, Karstens posted career-highs in innings pitched (162.1), strikeouts (96), and wins (9) while posting an impressive 1.83 BB/9. Karstens will need to duplicate those results to maintain his 3.38 ERA and 1.0 WAR in 2012. It’s just hard to predict another season like his 2011 with a pitcher who just relies so heavily on command…Correia could end up splitting time with Brad Lincoln in this fifth spot. Correia did end up going 12-11 last season, but luck played a large part in that winning record. His 4.85 xFIP leaves something to be desired. He also didn’t strikeout many hitters (4.50 K/9). I just see this fifth spot as a revolving door of spot starters for the Pirates this season.

Catchers – Rod Barajas

Analysis – This spot had been reserved for Ryan Doumit for the last few years, but now he calls Minnesota his home. The Pirates went out and signed the veteran Barajas to fill the void in 2012. Last season, while with the Dodgers, Barajas posted a .230/.287/.430 line. So basically, he stills has some power left in the bat but he doesn’t make contact often enough to put that power on display. His 1.3 WAR in 2011 pretty much says that he’s not going to win a lot of games for Pittsburgh, but he also shouldn’t be the cause of too many headaches for Bucs fans either.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Joel Hanrahan will be taking the ball in the ninth inning again for Pittsburgh this season. Last year, Hanrahan struck out eight batters per nine innings while only giving up one homerun all season. Even though closers can fluctuate quite a bit, the Pirates should feel pretty comfortable with this guy on the back end…Evan Meek provides another live arm that Pittsburgh can depend on…Jason Grilli strikes batters out (10.19 K/9), but he walks them enough too (4.13 BB/9)…Chris Resop has similar issues, with a 10.21 K/9 rate and a 4.09 BB/9 rate…Nate McClouth could see some time jumping around in the outfield, but he’s not the player he once was…Casey McGehee will also see a decent amount of time, splitting his services between first and third. I’d also go out on a limb and say that when he gets playing time during any of Pittsburgh’s trips to Milwaukee, he’ll receive a warm welcome from the Miller Park faithful.

Help is on its way in the form of Gerrit Cole, but not in 2012.

Overall Analysis – I don’t see the Pirates getting their fans’ hopes up this season. Too much went right over the course of the first half of 2011. Pittsburgh is lucky enough to have one bona fide superstar in McCutchen, but there just isn’t much else on this team that makes me think they will be able to come close to contention this season.

The Pirates farm system, ranked as the 13th-best system in baseball by Baseball America, has quite a bit of top-tier talent in pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as well as outfielder Josh Bell. The only problem is that those guys are all a few years away. Pirates GM Neal Huntington is going to need to find a way for his team to tread water until those guys are ready, or by the time they make the show, McCutchen will be displaying his talents for a different organization.

Prediction: 69-93, 5th Place in the NL Central

Next Up: 2012 Chicago Cubs Preview

A Look Into The Crystal Baseball: The Brewers 2012 Opening Day Lineup

By Kevin Kimmes

The offseason always brings its fair share of speculation. Sometimes this is caused by offseason moves that  create an air of hope, potentially transforming an also ran into a contender. Then there’s the agony when a top producer packs up their locker with no hope of returning dealing a crushing blow to their former team and the fans that had cheered them on for years. And of course, there is even the ever optimistic mantra of the Cubs fan who says “Maybe next year”.

This offseason, Milwaukee’s fans have had to deal with both of the first two scenarios as the additions of Alex Gonzalez and Aramis Ramirez to the infield should reap immediate benefits, while the loss of Prince Fielder’s bat in the lineup creates some issues in the run production department.

Today, I will look at each position and speculate on who will be there on opening day and consider what Bill James is predicting they will do from an offensive stand point. Additionally, I will try to project an opening day batting order for the season opener against the Cardinals on April 6th at Miller Park.

**All stats provided courtesy of Fangraphs**

The Battery

The Starting Pitchers:

This season sees the return of all 5 starters from Milwaukee’s 2011 NL  Central Champion squad (Gallardo, Marcum, Greinke, Wolf, and Narveson). Below are projections for each of the starters for 2012  :

Player W L SV G GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP
Gallardo, Yovani 14 9 0 30 30 203 9.53 3.06 0.89 0.312 3.46 3.31
Greinke, Zack 13 9 0 31 31 202 8.33 2.27 0.8 0.319 3.52 3.23
Marcum, Shaun 13 10 0 32 32 207 7.3 2.35 1.17 0.284 3.52 4.01
Narveson, Chris 7 8 0 26 22 133 7.31 3.45 1.08 0.303 4.13 4.24
Wolf, Randy 12 12 0 32 32 217 6.43 3.03 1.08 0.289 3.94 4.36

Based on these projections, Gallardo should be the opening day starter. His projected 9.53 strikeouts per 9 innings coupled with an ERA of 3.46 give him a slight advantage over Greinke (8.33/9, 3.52) and Marcum (7.3/9, 3.52). Additionally, both stats are improvements over Gallardo’s 2011 number (8.99/9, 3.52) meaning that the best may be still to come from Milwaukee’s ace.

At Catcher:

Also returning from the 2011 squad is catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Based on the numbers (136 projected games, the same as last year) it appears that speculation is leaning on Lucroy being the everyday catcher with the exception of days when Randy Wolf is pitching. Last season, Wolf used backup catcher George Kottaras as his personal battery mate, giving Lucroy a break every few days.

In regards to offensive output, the projection leans on Lucroy having a very similar season to last year (.264/.328/.393 compared to last seasons .265/.313/.391).  Additionally, he is projected for 12 homeruns, 53 runs, and 64 RBIs which is a slight improvement over last seasons 12 homeruns, 45 runs, and 59 RBIs.

The Infield

At 1st Base:

As much as I’d like to tell you that by some divine miracle an 11th hour deal was made to keep Prince Fielder in Milwaukee, we all know by this point that this will not be the case. Instead, the Brewers will be looking to 3rd base convert Mat Gamel to fill the hole at 1st. As Adam McCalvy reported last week, Gamel is working hard this offseason to be ready for spring training and to assume a spot in the starting lineup on opening day, something that Gamel has missed out on the past three years due to Spring Training injuries.

While it would be unrealistic to expect Gamel (who has a .222 batting average in 194 plate appearances over 4 seasons) to bring in the same kind of power hitting production that Fielder had, he should improve his career stats in an everyday role.  While Bill James only has him projected for 118 games (potentially factoring in his history of injuries),  Gamel should  hit around .282/.342/.476 with 19 home runs this season.

At 2nd Base:

As a returning All-Star, Rickie Weeks will be looking to build on his injury shortened 2011 campaign by again manning the bag at 2nd. Weeks, who hit for 20 home runs last season will again be called on to hit the long ball in order to help ease the offensive depletion caused by Fielders departure.

According to James,  Weeks should have another All-Star worthy performance this year as he is projected for .262/.355/.453 with 22 homeruns, 62 RBIs, and 12 stolen bases in 136 games.

At 3rd Base:

Welcome to Milwaukee Aramis Ramirez! After an extremely disappointing 2011 by regular 3rd baseman Casey McGehee, the prospect of what Ramirez brings to the table, both as both a defender and as a batter, are exciting to say the least. In 149 games last season for the Chicago Cubs, Ramirez hit .306/.361/.510 while crushing 26 hits for homeruns, numbers that the Brewers hope he repeats for them in 2012.

Ramirez represents the best chance that the Brewers have for closing the run production gap created by Fielder’s departure as he is projected to hit for .285/.350/.500 with 26 homeruns and 94 RBIs in 140 games.

At Shortstop:

As I have reported previously, the addition of Alex Gonzalez at short, while providing an upgrade defensively, leaves the Brewers in roughly the same spot offensively at short.

Gonzalez is projected to hit .237/.278/.381 with 14 homeruns and 60 RBIs in 145 games.

The Outfield:

With the official signing of Norichika Aoki, the Brewers seem to have taken the first step into the realm of possibility that they may be without reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the season. The signing makes for some interesting scenarios in the outfield as Milwaukee will be able to choose amongst several righty and lefty hitters to fill out these three spots.

Left Field:

Assuming that Braun is suspended (historically the odds are not in his favor), I would not be surprised to see Aoki in his spot in left field come opening day. In Japan, Aoki is a career .329 hitter with 84 home runs, 385 RBIs and 164 stolen bases in 985 games over 8 seasons.

Center Field:

Center field will again be the home to the platoon of Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan. Having a righty/lefty platoon definitely gives Milwaukee versatility in center field allowing them to not only play to whomever has the hottest bat at the time, but to also play for advantage when it comes to pitching matchups. While Gomez is the better pure fielder at the position, Morgan brings speed and charisma.

While it is hard to say at this juncture who will win the opening day start (a lot will be determined in spring training), I’m going to go with my gut feeling and place Morgan in my line up due to the intangibles that he brings to the team and his ability to whip the crowd into a frenzy to start off the year. Morgan is projected to hit .288/.345/.362 with 2 homeruns, 36 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in 130 games, while Gomez is projected to hit .242/.297/.375 with 5 homeruns, 24 RBIs and 16 stolen Bases.

Right Field:

Despite some speculation (including talk from Brewers GM Doug Melvin) about Corey Hart being used at first base, it seems like a foregone conclusion at this point that right field will continue to be his primary position. Hart is projected to hit .274/.338/.488 with 25 homeruns and 80 RBIs.

The Opening Day Lineup

Based on the information above, here is what I believe the Brewers may field on April 6th. Keep in mind that injuries and play during spring training could play a role in drastically changing this:

1) Corey Hart RF

2) Nyjer Morgan CF

3) Norichika Aoki LF

4) Aramis Ramirez 3B

5) Rickie Weeks 2B

6) Mat Gamel 1B

7) Alex Gonzalez SS

8) Jonathan Lucroy C

9) Yovani Gallardo P

So, there you have it the potential opening day lineup and starters by position. Go Crew!

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)

Oofta.

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

Offseason 2012: Recapping a Busy Winter

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.