Offseason 2012: Shortstop News

With the World Series mercifully over, we turn our attention to the hot stove.  Teams currently have until Thursday to negotiate exclusively with the 148 players who filed for free agency.  For the Brewers, that includes Prince Fielder, Mark Kotsay, Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Yuniesky Betancourt, Francisco Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, and Takashi Saito.  Do not expect many, if any, of those players to reach a deal with the Brewers by that time.

Two pieces of news relevant to that free agent morass the Brewers are about to embark on.  First, the Brewers today announced that they had declined options on Rodriguez and Betancourt.  Both were prohibitively expensive in different ways; the former financially and the latter in terms of number of wins his retention would cost the 2012 team.  Yet because of a weak free agent market for shortstops – or, more accurately, a weak market in the Brewers’ price range – front office officials have left open the possibility of bringing Yuni back at a cheaper price than his $6M option.  You had to sense this coming when Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke defended Betancourt at their end-of-season press conferences.  That doesn’t lessen the blow if the team has to deal with another offensively and defensively challenged shortstop in 2012.

That brings me to the second piece of free agent news:  the Red Sox announced today that they had picked up SS Marco Scutaro’s 2012 option, depriving the Brewers of one potential cost-effective infield component.  I blogged about Scutaro here, indicating that the Brewers should pursue him as a cheap upgrade to Betancourt, but it appears the Red Sox recognized Scutaro’s versatility and effectiveness as well. With Rafael Furcal likely to remain with the Cardinals after a World Series run, the list of available shortstops beyond Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes is becoming quite unappealing.

One bit of housekeeping news:  This is the first post in Cream City Cable’s Offseason 2012 series.  This series will focus on Brewers’ trade and free agency rumors, and will include a position-by-position review in the coming weeks.  Each post in the series will have the Offseason 2012 tag for easy searching.  Stay tuned; the stove is just warming up!

On Replacing Prince Fielder

Let’s start with the obvious.  There’s a reason Prince Fielder has priced himself off the Brewers’ payroll.  You’re simply not going to find another readily available  guy that can hit forty home runs, drive in over a hundred runners, and walk nearly as often as he strikes out.  There is no replacing that kind of talent, and if you expect Doug Melvin to do so, you will be disappointed.

And for those of you still hoping Prince will be back, well, Prince has a few words for you:

Unfortunately, this might be the last year for the one-two punch [with Ryan Braun]. I think it’s been good. The six years with me and him has been a good run. Hopefully, we can go out with a blast this year. . . . I’m signed through this year but being real about it, it’s probably my last year.”

Those comments stirred up a frenzy in Wisconsin, but there really isn’t anything there attentive Brewers fans didn’t know.  We can safely say that the hefty slugger who has anchored first base for the past six years is on his way out the door, presumably leaving a gaping hole in the lineup.

But hold on a second.  There are some hidden opportunities here that may do wonders to improve the ballclub.

First, it would be nice to have a first baseman that plays solid defense.  Fangraphs says that Fielder’s defense has been pretty bad; in his six full seasons, Prince has only once pushed his UZR/150 into positive territory.*  To be fair, Fielder has steadily improved, from a -11.6 in 2006 to a -5.2 this year.  Still, with a pitching staff loaded with contact pitchers, a defensive first baseman would be a plus.

Second, Prince Fielder’s departure gives the Brewers an opportunity to improve other areas of the club by clearing salary.  Here’s an example.  One well-known liability this season is the shortstop position.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Brewers opt not to pick up Yuniesky Betancourt’s option.  Betancourt has slashed .250/.268/.375, and is terrible with the glove (-8.1 UZR/150 in 2011).  Prince’s departure frees up about $15.5 million, though escalating payouts to Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo will erase much of that.  Still, one cost-effective shortstop option might be Marco Scutaro, currently with the Red Sox, who is slashing .288/.346/.399.  Scutaro is currently making $5.5 million, which is probably right around where the Brewers will want to fall with a new shortstop assuming an internal candidate at first base.  Would I take, say, Mat Gamel or Taylor Green at first combined with Scutaro at short over the defensively challenged Fielder and Betancourt?  It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to sacrifice a little bit of power for a shortstop who makes better contact and plays decent defense.  That might go a long way toward solving the Brewers’ shoddy defense and life by the long ball.

Third, Fielder’s departure gives other players a greater opportunity to shine.  At .305/.370/.564, Corey Hart has been a dream at leadoff, but might do just as well as the third or fourth hitter in the order.  Hart easily has the power to hit 30 or more home runs, and the plate discipline to be a .285 hitter.  Or, perhaps Ron Roenicke could move Rickie Weeks up two spots to bat in front of Braun, guaranteeing that he will see some nice pitches to hammer.

Whatever the scenario, it really isn’t the end of the world that Prince is talking about leaving.  And when it happens, the Brewers may still have a good shot at contending for the division crown; their pitching will be largely intact for 2012.

*UZR/150 is one measure of a player’s defensive prowess, assessing how many runs better or worse a particular player is than an average (0) player.

Magic Number Watch: 4