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!

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By The Numbers: What the Acquisition of Alex Gonzalez Means for Milwaukee from a Defensive Perspective

By Kevin Kimmes

The offseason acquisition of Alex Gonzalez to replace Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop may not at first seem like a very exciting move on the part of Milwaukee. Gonzalez, who turns 35 this year, is heading into the twilight of his career leaving some to wonder why The Brewers have gone and acquired another shortstop with roughly the same offensive output as Betancourt, when the departure of Prince Fielder has left a void in the run production department.  While it is true that Gonzalez has seen a decline in his offensive numbers (.241/.270/.372/.642 in 2011), the move makes perfect sense from a defensive perspective.

Consider this: according to Baseball-Reference.com, last season Milwaukee shortstops accounted for a total of 23 errors, 2 higher than the league average of 21, and tied for 10th most in the league with Boston, Cincinnati, and Washington. Of these errors, 21 were committed by everyday shortstop Betancourt.

By comparison, the Atlanta Braves (the former home of Gonzalez) committed a total of 14 errors at the shortstop position, ending the season tied for 5th least with Arizona. Of these, 12 were committed by Gonzalez.

Additionally,  according to The Bill James Handbook 2012, over the past 3 seasons (2009-2011) Gonzalez’s defensive play has led to 26 less runs being created  as well as 30 more outs created on grounders and flyballs when compared to an average shortstop. During this same period Betancourt was responsible for the creation of 46 runs due to poor defensive play, partially due to the fact that his outs created on grounders and flyballs were 56 plays below average (the worst at the shortstop position). That’s a variance of 24 runs and roughly 29 outs per season between the two.

So, will the addition of Gonzalez’s glove to the Brewers infield mean lower run totals for the teams opponents this season? Only time will tell. But, based on what the statistics show us, I would say that it is pretty safe to believe that we will be in for much higher quality defensive play this season from the infield.

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.

Offseason 2012: Introducing SS Alex Gonzalez; K-Rod returns

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.