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.

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Offseason 2012: Odds ‘n Ends

A few stories from Brewer nation worth highlighting to sum up a busy week and a half:

Braun wins NL MVP

The Baseball Writers Association yesterday announced that Ryan Braun was the winner of the 2011 National League MVP award.  Braun received 20 first place votes and 12 second place votes.  He finished with 388 points to Matt Kemp’s 332, despite Kemp’s stronger statistical showing during the season.  The award shows decisively that team context counts; the Brewers were a playoff team, while the Dodgers barely managed a .500 season.

A chasm separated Kemp and the third-place finisher, Prince Fielder, with 229 points.  John Axford garnered only 7 points and came in 18th in the voting, behind such head scratchers as Pablo Sandoval and Shane Victorino.  I know the award means different things to different people, but can you imagine the Brewers in the playoffs without Axford’s 43 consecutive saves and and 1.95 ERA?  I thought Axford deserved a far better showing.

Sveum lands with the Cubs

The Cubs tabbed Brewers hitting coach and former player Dale Sveum for their managerial opening last week.  The Cubs are in full-on rebuilding mode, so it might be a while before Sveum sees a winning season.  He has a three-year contract, with a fourth-year option.  Sveum was reportedly a top candidate in Boston as well, but took their time and the Cubs obviously wanted to avoid a competing offer.

The Cubs have also asked to interview AAA pitching coach (and also former Brewer) Chris Bosio, presumably for their pitching coach vacancy.

New CBA

The MLB this week announced a new collective bargaining agreement, which many predict will harm small-market teams like the Brewers.  Ryan Topp of Bernie’s Crew has an excellent summary here.

The most significant changes revolve around draft pick compensation.  There are no more Type A or B free agents; now, in order to receive draft pick compensation, teams must submit a qualifying offer to departing free agents.  That offer must be equal to the average salary of the highest 125 players in the game (something along the lines of $12-13MM right now, if I remember correctly).  But the draft pick compensation doesn’t even go the player’s former team; now, it dumps into a pool, and a lottery is held to determine precisely which small-market team is going to receive picks.  The new CBA also discourages draft spending by imposing a cap, with teams that go over budget heavily taxed.  The net effect is to make it extremely difficult for teams to build through the draft.

Baseball’s divisions finally become balanced in 2013 under the new CBA.  The imbalance has been something of a pet peeve of mine for a long time, and shifting the Astros to the AL’s West division makes perfect sense.  In the short term, the move hurts the Brewers because Houston is a terrible major league team.  In the long term, the Brewers will have one less team competing for the NL Central title.

The new CBA also adds a wildcard playoff, a single game in which the two wildcard teams face off “winner-take-all” style.  Implementation may occur as soon as this upcoming season.

Four added to 40-man roster

The Brewer protected four players from the Rule 5 draft by adding them to the 40-man roster: OF Caleb Gindl, IF Zelous Wheeler, P Santo Manzanillo, and OF Brock Kjeldgaard.  The team’s 40-man currently stands at 35, with several positions to fill prior to the start of the 2012 season.