Down on the Farm…

By: Ryan Smith

Prince Fielder. Ryan Braun. Rickie Weeks. Yovani Gallardo.

These four guys all played major roles in turning the Brewers from a cellar-dweller to a playoff contender over the last few seasons.

These four are also prime examples of the importance of a strong farm system. Thanks to good drafts and impressive player development, the Brewers were able to outgrow the role of laughingstock and now have two playoff appearances in the last four years.

GM Doug Melvin gambled last year by gutting the farm system, but his gamble paid off in the form of a National League Central Division Title.

Of course, the strength of a farm system can help elevate a team to new heights in other ways. For example, going into last season, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Prince Fielder would be calling some other city “home” in 2012. With that in mind, and with some desirable prospects within our organization, GM Doug Melvin decided to gut the farm system in order to add the pitching that we would need to make one last push with the big slugger manning first base.

Out went Brett Lawrie, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jeremy Jeffress.

In came Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

The rest is history. Melvin’s gamble worked, as the Brewers were able to claim their first-ever National League Central Division Championship, as well as making it to the NLCS.

Those deals, while immensely successful on the field, left the Brewers with the worst farm system in the majors according to Keith Law, ESPN’s lead baseball analyst for Scout’s Inc.

Fast-forward one year and the recovery process has begun. This past week, Law released his Organizational Rankings as well as his Top 100, ranking the best prospects in all of baseball. In 2011, on top of being ranked as the worst system, the Brewers became the first organization to not have a player make it in the top 100.

This season, the Brewers check in at #23 on the Org Rankings. They also have two guys who crack the prestigious Top 100. Today, I’m going to introduce you to those two players: Wily Peralta and Taylor Jungmann.

Wily Peralta, RHP, 6’2”, 240 lbs – Ranked #39 on Law’s Top 100

After acquiring Greinke and Marcum, Peralta quickly rose to the top of the Brewers’ system. Up until 2011, there was some patience within the organization with Peralta, considering he lost all of his 2007 season to Tommy John surgery. Since then, he had steadily improved his numbers every year until 2010, when his K/9 dropped to 6.17 and his BB/9 rose to 5.10.

Even with those less than impressive numbers, people within the Brewers organization continued to have faith in the young pitcher. He seemed to have the work ethic, build, and stuff to become a strikeout pitcher.

Peralta started to really put it all together in 2011, raising his K/9 to over 9.00 and lowering his BB/9 to the mid-3.00’s.

In all honesty, Peralta could quite possibly challenge for the fifth spot in the Brewers’ rotation, though he’ll probably start the year in AAA Nashville.

Peralta is definitely a guy to keep an eye on this year. Without Prince Fielder’s bat in the lineup and with the possibility of the first 50 games with Braun, Milwaukee is going to have to change its reputation as a bat-first team. Milwaukee is going to have to rely on its pitchers now more than ever, and that means that Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada will both be on relatively short leashes, especially since both pitchers have experience coming out of the bullpen.

If either of those guys stumbles out of the blocks, Peralta could get called up to the show. Law views Peralta as a No. 2 or No. 3 in a good rotation (which I think we have with Gallardo, Greinke, and Marcum), but his fastball, which sits consistently in the mid-90’s, will allow him to have a positive impact right away. Peralta also has an above-average slider that sits in the low-80’s and drives hard to the plate. His changeup has a little sink, but he maintains the same arm action as with his fastball, which allows the pitch to work when he’s able to locate it.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Peralta could help the Brewers this year is not just his stuff, but his understanding of the game. While his secondary pitches lack the command that one would like to see, he recognizes the importance of using them to set up his fastball. Also, while he has the ability to rack up strikeouts, he doesn’t feel the need to rely solely on the strikeout. He’s shown the know-how in the past to lure the batter into making weak contact, thus saving his arm and allowing him to pitch deeper into games, a skill that Gallardo still struggles with at times.

Overall, I expect Peralta to have another dominant season in AAA. Don’t be surprised if his numbers drop a little from last year; his understanding of the game leads me to believe he might spend part of this season trying to improve his secondary pitches. Whether it’s in September when rosters expand or earlier than that if Narveson and Estrada struggle, Peralta will get a chance to take the mound at Miller Park some time this season. With Randy Wolf, Zack Greinke, and Shaun Marcum all becoming free agents after this season, there’s bound to be a spot in the rotation opening up for Peralta in 2013.

Predicted Miller Park Arrival – September ’12 (at the latest)

Taylor Jungmann, RHP, 6’6”. 220 lbs – Ranked #58 on Law’s Top 100

Jungmann is one of the main reasons that the Brewers’ farm system jumped in Law’s overall org rankings. The Brewers made the Texas righty the 12th overall pick in last June’s draft.

During his final year at Texas, Jungmann didn’t fail to impress the scouts, posting a 1.60 ERA while recording 126 strikeouts in 141 innings, becoming a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award which is given annually to the nation’s best amateur baseball player.

Jungmann has a tall, lean frame and he shows great control of his long arms, allowing him to have more command on his pitches than one would expect. Most scouting reports also rave about his surprising athletic ability considering his frame. His fastball sits consistently in the low-90’s, and he has shown the ability to ramp it up to 95 if needed. If he fills out his frame a little bit more, that pitch could become a pretty dangerous weapon. To go along with that fastball, Jungmann has a hammer curveball that rests in the upper-70’s. His third pitch is a hard changeup, though he didn’t use it much in college because, well, he didn’t have to.

Jungmann impressed scouts with his ability to get batters out without having to rely on the strikeout. His 8.51 K/9 was down from previous years, yet he posted better numbers all across the board. Last season, Jungmann posted a career-low 1.98 BB/9, which is further evidence of his impressive control on the mound.

It sounds like Jungmann will start out this season in High-A, but considering he was viewed as one of the most polished and major league-ready arms in last season’s draft, I could see him making his way to AA-ball pretty quickly. A few reports claim that Jungmann could help out the big league club in 2012, but with the depth in our rotation, I just don’t see that. Unless the Brewers face a rash of injuries like never before, I don’t see any point in rushing one of our top prospects through the system. Let’s just let things progress naturally. I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long to see Jungmann in Milwaukee.

Predicted Miller Park Arrival – September ‘13

Well, that does it for now. I plan on introducing you all to different players within our system throughout the upcoming season, so stay tuned. After all, these could be the guys who we’re cheering for in Milwaukee before we know it.

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  :

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 Deadliest Cardinals Lineup Yet

The Cardinals bullpen was stellar yesterday in Game 3 of the NLCS, shutting down the Brewers’ offense after Chris Carpenter coughed up three runs early.  But the Cardinals’ offense picked Carpenter up, scoring four runs in the first off an uncharacteristically wild Yovani Gallardo.  The win gave the Cardinals a 2-1 advantage in the NLCS, and puts today’s Game 4 firmly in “must win” territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so its not much of a surprise that LaRussa wants his proverbial boot on the team’s throat.

Ron Roenicke has learned a thing or two in the first three games, the first lesson being that you cannot pitch to Albert Pujols.  Pujols is hitting an insane .636 in the NLCS, with 6 RBI and a home run.  After doubling in a run yesterday, Pujols found himself all but taken out of the game by intentional walks (though he did nab second on a wild pitch).  Hard for the one-man wrecking crew to do much damage if he doesn’t get an opportunity to swing.

Thankfully, Matt Holliday, batting fourth, wasn’t able to make the Brewers play for the walks, striking out both times to end the inning.

But old LaRussa is too crafty to let that situation play out again.

Today’s lineup features Pujols batting third, but instead of Matt Holliday following behind, its David Freese.  Freese has been swinging an extraordinarily hot bat in the NLCS, to the tune of a .500 average with 2 home runs and 6 RBI.  Yes, David Freese has actually outslugged Albert Pujols.  So now when the Brewers walk Pujols, they’ll be bringing up perhaps the Cardinals’ hottest hitter.  And then the Brewers will still have to deal with Matt Holliday, batting fifth.  Lance Berkman gets the day off.

Tony LaRussa obviously doesn’t want this thing coming back to Milwaukee, and with good reason.  The Brewers certainly have a shot to win tonight – of the eight position players in the Cardinals’ batting order, only Pujols (.286) and Freese (.353) have career averages greater than .260 against Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf) – but LaRussa’s move has made the road that much more difficult.

The end of the Nieves experiment

In a move that should surprise precisely no one, the Brewers today purchased George Kottaras’ contract from Triple-A Nashville.  In a previous stint with the Brewers this year, Kottaras went 7-26, a respectable .269 with 4 rbi in 26 at bats.  But Kottaras has raked since his demotion, to the tune of .343 with 4 hr and 21 rbi.  He returns to the major league club just in time for a series with his old team, the Boston Red Sox, for whom Kottaras played in portions of 2008 and 2009.

I highlight Kottaras’ offense in the paragraph above to contrast it with that of the player sent down in his place, Wil Nieves.  In 50 at bats with the Brewers this year, the backup catcher has hit only .143 with no rbi.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for a backup catcher (Nieves is, after all, very proficient defensively), but that Randy Wolf refuses to allow Jonathan Lucroy to catch for him.  That means Nieves’ bat finds itself in the lineup essentially every fifth day.  And when you combine his weak bat with those of Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee, or Carlos Gomez, it is no wonder the Brewers have had trouble scoring runs.

Take Monday’s game against the Cubs, for instance.  In both of his at-bats, Nieves came to the plate with runners on.  In the first attempt, he ground into a double play to end the inning after Hart reached on an error.  In the second attempt, Nieves ground out after Betancourt doubled to lead off the inning.  I’m not trying to pin all of the Brewers’ offensive woes on Nieves, but the Brewers lost that game 0-1.  You’ve got to find some way to get those potential runs home.

Hopefully Kottaras can add some much-needed pop to the lineup.  He will likely find himself catching Randy Wolf every fifth day (what is it with that guy, anyway?), so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue the success he had on the farm.

Bad Manners and Lucky Breaks

Sometimes when you go to a ball game, you wind up sitting near that one guy whose devotion to his team knows so few limits that he feels he must constantly remind others of his superiority to all other fans of his team.  He’ll be loud and decked out in team apparel, and will make sure that you know whenever something happens on the field.  And you’ll know what he thinks about it, too.  You may even see him heckling opposing players; I once listened to a guy in outfield seats repeatedly shout “SALLY DAAAAY!” at Matt Holliday each time he came to bat.

Today, it was a Mets fan clad in an ill-fitting jersey who raised his hands in triumph at every ball thrown by a Brewer pitcher or strike taken by a batter.  He clapped-I’m not lying-clapped on a safe call following a pickoff attempt at first base, simply because Brewer fans were booing.

Needless to say, it was especially irritating to watch his antics after the Mets knocked around Kameron Loe to the tune of five runs in the eighth.  Loe wasted a beautiful outing by Randy Wolf, who threw 6.2 innings of 1-run ball.  By the end of Loe’s performance, the Mets led 6-2, and it looked like the Brewers would drop the series.  And the Mets fan danced and danced.

I gave him a little taste of his own medicine in the bottom of the inning when Braun doubled, knocking in Morgan and Weeks to cut the deficit to 2.  And then I kindly reminded him that Prince was coming up and was going to knock one out just for him.  “Fine, we’ll still be up a run,” was the reply.  Apparently Mets fans aren’t very good at counting.

And I’ll be damned if Prince didn’t hit career home run number 209, tying the game and putting Fielder ahead of Gorman Thomas (208)  for third on the franchise home run list.  Prince won’t top Yount’s 251 before he leaves in free agency this year, but man, what a season Fielder is having.  The shot was Prince’s second of the night, in fact, and his ninth in the last seven games.  I am going to miss that man.

It was Tony Plush who sent me out into the rain with a walk off double in the bottom of the ninth.  He might not have recognized the significance of his hit (he said later he thought it was the bottom of the eighth), but everyone else in the stadium did.  Morgan’s ho-hum line this year (he’s only on base at a .387 clip and slugging .557) has me really excited that as a first-time arbitration player next year, he could be around for a while.

Randy Wolf’s Brand New Bag

wolf2.jpgJust a few weeks ago, we were speculating what could be wrong with Randy Wolf.  In his first start against Cincinnati on April 3, he allowed six runs and ten hits over four innings.  His next start against Chicago was shaky, too; Wolf went six innings, allowing nine hits and another six runs (two earned).  Wolf lost both games.  It wasn’t a pretty start.  As of April 9, Wolf’s ERA stood at a disappointing 7.20. 

Since then, though, Wolf has been stellar.  He rebounded against Pittsburgh on the 14th, striking out ten (ten!).  He didn’t give up a run in that start or his next against Philadelphia, a strong offensive club.  Against Philly, Wolf went another six innings with five strikeouts.  He followed that up with a gem against Houston on April 24, throwing eight innings and allowing only one run.  His ERA stands at 2.64, and he’s got a 3-2 record.

That sets the table for today, when Wolf faces off against the Astros again, this time in Houston.  Wolf usually does well against the Astros (career: 3.27 ERA, 70:29 K:BB). 

Whatever adjustment Wolf and Rick Kranitz hammered out is obviously working.  The stars are aligned for another big game for Wolf, which (if it happens) would be Wolf’s fourth quality start in six outings. 

It’s kind of interesting, though; Wolf has been pitching for the Brewers for over a year, and we still have no idea what to expect from him.  We know what kind of tosser he is: a fly-ball pitcher that looks for contact and doesn’t issue many walks.  But as far as what to expect on a daily basis, we’re still scratching our heads. 

It’s like that for some guys in baseball.  What makes some guys just so dominant against some teams and not others?  If you can figure that out, the Baltimore Orioles (0-14 against Boston’s Jon Lester) would love to know.

Randy Wolf has no doubt put together a great string of games in April of this year.  But it’s early, and Brewers fans are still waiting for the real Randy Wolf to stand up.  Is it the Randy Wolf from the first half of 2010 (5-7, 4.92 ERA) or the second (8-5, 3.56 ERA)?

Brewers/Astros Postgame, 4.24.2011

Brewers topped the Astros on Sunday, 4-1, and took the rubber game of the series behind another strong start from lefty Randy Wolf.

Wolf was outstanding, throwing 108 pitches over eight innings, 75 of them for strikes.  The Astros only mustered one run, a J.R. Towles shot to left field in the eighth.  It was Wolf’s fourth consecutive quality start after a disastrous outing on April 3 against Cincinnati. 

John Axford closed out the ninth on his bobblehead day, striking out Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee.  As is Axford’s trademark, he allowed a single with one out, but pitched out of it to end the game.

Offensively, the Brewers’ latest callup, OF Brandon Boggs, got the party started with a solo shot left in the second.  The Brewers’ other three runs came in the third on a Weeks home run (his fifth), a Prince Fielder RBI triple, and a Casey McGehee RBI single.  The offense finally seems to be clicking, with every starter chipping in a hit except Wolf, who is no slouch at the plate but padded opposing starter Wandy Rodriguez’s stats by striking out three times.