Position Review & Preview: Alex Gonzalez, Shortstop

Welcome to Milwaukee, Alex Gonzalez.  Gonzalez was almost instantly a fan favorite after he was signed to a $4.25MM deal this offseason, not so much because of what he’s done in the past, but because he is replacing the much-maligned Yuniesky Betancourt.  Betancourt was not an unmitigated disaster least season; his early-August hot streak helped the Brewers go 10-2 through that stretch, and defensively he was not as bad as he had been in years past.  Still, he lived up to his reputation as one of the worst players in baseball.  Defensively, Betancourt amassed a career-low .965 fielding percentage, a -7.5 UZR/150 (standardized ultimate zone rating), and a -7 DRS (defensive runs saved).  It didn’t get much better with the bat; although Betancourt’s .252 average and 13 dingers were passable, he rarely walked and swung at an obscene number-nearly 60%-of pitches thrown outside the zone.  It’s amazing that he struck out only 63 times.

At the plate, Gonzalez doesn’t offer much more than Betancourt did.  He’s slashed just .247/.291/.398 for his career.  No one will be mistaking the guy for Troy Tulowitzki.  With Atlanta last year, Gonzalez became more aggressive than at any other time in his 13-year career, chasing pitches outside the zone and striking out 126 times (although, in Gonzalez’s defense, he did make contact with what would be balls at a 70% rate).  Unfortunately, he also reached base less than at any time in the last five years.  It would be wonderful to see that OBP edge up past .300 again, but I’m not holding my breach.

Where Gonzalez shines, though, is on defense.  He rarely commits errors and has great range at the position.  Braves fans raved about his defense last year, rating him a “great” or “Gold-Glove caliber” shortstop.  Jim Powell had nothing but good things to say about Gonzalez’s glove, too.  DRS rates him slightly lower, as an “above-average” or “great” fielder.  Any way you cut it, Gonzalez should be a welcome addition to an infield that struggled mightily to convert batted balls into outs in 2011.

Gonzalez certainly started off on the right foot this spring, too.  Gonzalez scorched the ball in his 22 games, amassing a .473/.517/.836(!) line in 22 games.  Usual disclaimers regarding opposition quality and sample size apply, but still, it’s a nice way for him to begin his tenure with a new team.

2012 Projection: 145 G, 550 PA, 520 AB, 132 H, 56 R, 30 2B, 1 3B, 15 HR, 61 RBI, 23 BB, 107 K, 1 SB, .254/.271/.401


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

Position Review & Preview: Rickie Weeks, Second Base

by Nathan Petrashek

You could hear the collective moan around Brewer Nation on July 27, 2011.  As Rickie Weeks, the Brewers’ All-Star second baseman, tripped over first base and lay flat on his face, everyone knew it was serious.  Weeks, a tough-as-nails type, would usually spring right up, but these were not normal circumstances.  Weeks was placed on the DL with a severely sprained ankle the following day and would miss all of August before returning on September 10.  Even now, at the start of spring training, the sprain is just fully healed.

The injury wasn’t devastating to the Brewers – the team actually went on a tear in August – but with the offensive juggernaut Prince Fielder departing, Weeks will be key to filling the void in 2012.

The time missed in 2011 obviously affected Weeks’ counting stats, but by all other measures, Weeks was the same hitter as in 2010.  Weeks ended both years with a .269 average, and while his on base percentage was slightly higher in 2010, his slugging percentages were almost identical, too.  Pitchers tried adjusting to Weeks’ 29-HR 2010 campaign by throwing more offspeed pitches, but it didn’t matter; Weeks’ avoided the temptation to chase balls outside the zone.  In fact,Weeks’ swing percentages were virtually unchanged from 2010, though he has always been aggressive at the dish.  In essence, Weeks is a known quantity on offense; he is an average contact hitter with good power and discipline.

On defense, Weeks has been a work in progress.  After trucking along in negative UZR/150 territory for his first few years at second, Weeks finally pulled up into the positive in 2010 and 2011.  Weeks isn’t the flashiest player, but his now-average range isn’t going to hurt the team much; if anything, he’s struggled more with balls hit straight at him last year.  He continues to give up errors at an unacceptable rate, leading all second basemen with 15 last year (tied with Dan Uggla).

The biggest question isn’t what Weeks will do on the field, it’s whether he can stay there.  Weeks has, to say the least, a lengthy injury history.  While I don’t think he’ll fall below last year’s 515 plate attempts, it’s safe to say that 2010’s 754 is an outlier.

2012 Projection: 135 G, 607 PA, 532 AB, 145 H, 90 R, 29 2B, 4 3B, 24 HR, 72 RBI, 61 BB, 130 K, 12 SB, .272/.359/.477

Position Review & Preview: Mat Gamel, First Base

Is this the year Mat Gamel finally sheds his "prospect" label?

by Nathan Petrashek

The “review” part of this article practically writes itself; Prince Fielder had one of the best seasons of his career and launched himself into a 9-year, $214-million deal with the Detroit Tigers.  I could tell you how awesome Prince was last year, but you already know.  The tougher part of this is explaining how exactly anyone is going to fill Fielder’s shoes.  Mat Gamel gets that rather undesirable task.

For four years, Mat Gamel has been a man in transition.  His career transactions page at Brewerfan.net reads like a flight itinerary at an airport.  Gamel has been up and down between the majors and minors so many times, he probably keeps a suitcase packed.

For years in the minors, Gamel played third base.  That changed last year when the Brewers, anticipating Fielder’s departure, shifted Gamel to the other corner.  This should be a dramatic improvement defensively. At third, Gamel was horrendous; not quite 2007 Ryan Braun bad, but you get the picture just from that comparison.  His range and arm are decent, not great, but you can hide some of those deficiencies at first base.

There’s no doubting Gamel’s offensive chops though, at least as it pertains to minor-league opposition.  Gamel has hammered pitchers at every level on his trek to the majors, compiling a .304/.376/.498 slash line over seven minor-league seasons.  Gamel has displayed decent power, he makes good contact, and doesn’t strike out a ton.  Just a couple years ago, Gamel was regarded as the cream of the Brewers minor-league crop.

So why has Gamel lost his shine?  His limited appearances in the majors haven’t been encouraging.  In portions of four years with the Brewers, Gamel has slashed just .222/.309/.373.  It’s worth noting that line is based on very limited plate appearances (194), and that he did considerably better in 2009 when he had his longest audition (.242/.338/.422 in 148 PA).  There is still plenty of upside here, offensively, though Gamel is likely to put up only average stats at a premium offensive position like first base.

The other thing apparently holding Gamel back is his attitude.  When asked about Gamel’s future in September, Nashville manager Don Money had some harsh words:

“If he can get his head right, and that’s the thing,” Money said. “He’s hard-headed. He doesn’t carry himself well. You have to carry yourself like a professional, and he doesn’t do it and I’ve said it to him.”

So how do we boil this all down into a prediction?  We know that Gamel (1) should have no problem adapting to first base; (2) knocked the crap out of the ball in the minors; (3) has a bit of a focus problem; and (4) has struggled in very limited plate appearances in the majors.  The way I see it, the negative doesn’t even come close to overriding the positive.  Gamel’s attitude should turn quickly in a major league clubhouse, and Gamel is reportedly in pretty good shape heading into spring training.  As I indicated, I don’t view Gamel’s struggles in the majors to date as predictive of his future success.  He’s coming off a monster year in the minors (.310/.372/.540) in which he hit 28 home runs and dropped his K-rate to nearly a career low.  What’s not to love?

Projections for Gamel are all over the place.  Bill James has a pretty aggressive line of .282/.342/.476, and I’m equally bullish on Gamel; he might even beat that.

2012 Projection: 120 G, 488 PA, 127 H, 65 R, 25 2B, 23 HR, 79 RBI, 42 BB, 97 K, 2 SB, .284/.346/.500

Position Review & Preview: Jonathan Lucroy, Catcher

By Nathan Petrashek

Jonathan Lucroy came into spring training last year with a giant question mark attached.  After tearing up the minor leagues offensively to the tune of .298/.379/.459, Lucroy was called up in May 2010 for an injured Gregg Zaun and slashed only .253/.300/.329.  Lucroy, as a prospect touted for his incredible plate discipline and patience, seemingly failed to transition those skills to the majors, striking out more than twice as often as he walked.  It was a somewhat disappointing season offensively, but allowed Lucroy to work on his defense and familiarize himself with the Brewers’ pitching staff.

Lucroy, as always, came into spring training last year ready to make improvements to all aspects of his game.  The Brewers hedged their bets, though, bringing five other catchers into camp, only two of whom would survive to 2012 (George Kottaras and Martin Maldanado).  The Brewers’ move proved fortuitous; Lucroy broke a finger early in spring training, but returned to the Brewers in mid-April and went on one of the hottest streaks I’ve ever seen from a Brewers catcher (though such offensive juggernauts as Johnny Estrada, Damian Miller, and Chad Moeller aren’t exactly stiff competition).

Through May 31, Lucroy was hitting .310 with a .353 OBP.  His plate patience hadn’t necessarily improved (he walked only 7 times versus 30 strikeouts), but showed pop that had been somewhat of a surprise after hitting only 4 HRs in 2010.  After he managed 6 HRs through may en route to a .496 slugging percentage, though, Lucroy’s power, along with his average, plummeted.  He was a .250 hitter in June, and though his average recovered slightly in July, he had only 1 HR in the two months, contributing to a rather pedestrian .329 slugging.  Lucroy’s power returned slightly in August and September (5 HR, .363 SLG), but his average and plate discipline suffered.  Lucroy would finish the year a .265 hitter with a disappointing .313 OBP and a nearly 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  However, defensively he would throw out a respectable 30% of would-be base-stealers, though at times Lucroy appeared to have problems blocking pitches.

Remember, Lucroy’s 2011 decline – which mirrors that of 2010 – probably isn’t a result of overwork.  Lucroy received every fifth day off because Randy Wolf refused to let Lucroy catch.  I suspect that the two could not get on the same page because Wolf and Lucroy are both very protective of their ability to call the game, and the pitcher (who has the ability to control what he throws) will usually win that battle.

There has been no indication that the situation between Wolf and Lucroy will change in 2012.  I expect George Kottaras to again be Wolf’s personal catcher, meaning Lucroy should accumulate about 500 plate attempts.  This split doesn’t do the Brewers any kind of service; Lucroy performed very well against left-handed pitching last year, whereas George Kottaras hit only .174.  Lucroy should always be in the lineup when facing southpaws, regardless of whether Randy Wolf is going for the Crew.

However, I expect Lucroy he will make  further adjustments to major league pitching and improve his bottom-line performance.  Between 2010 and 2011, Lucroy significantly cut down on his swings at pitches outside of the zone, and his aggressiveness at the plate in general, though the percentage of times he swung on the first pitch was essentially unchanged.  If Lucroy can further refine this aspect of his approach, we could see Lucroy on base more frequently, though sitting back and waiting for his pitch could cause his power numbers to dip a bit.

2012 Projection: 133 G, 522 PA, 131 H, 52 R, 16 2B, 10 HR, 63 RBI, 42 BB, 85 K, 2 SB, .274/.328/.382