The 2012 Brewers - raising a glass to the vagaries of weekend FedEx schedules and "dude's process"

2011 recap

96-66, 1st place in NL Central Division

Scored 721 runs, allowed 638 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 90-72.

The High Life: The Brewers rode ridiculous seasons from Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder (166 adn 164 OPS+) to carry a good offense. Productive and mostly healthy years from Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Nyjer Morgan helped. The rotation didn't feature any Cy Young candidates but featured an above-average and balanced 800-ish innings from Zach Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Yovani Gallaardo. And they were bolstered by an excellent bullpen, led by John Axford (sub-2 ERA, 46 saves). The Brewers were lonely at the top of the division until St. Louis made its mad dash at the end, holding on to win its first division crown since 1982.

Natty Light: The left side of their infield, as I'll get into below, was more than bad. And while the rotation was good, they didn't enjoy an Ace season from Greinke (who recovered nicely after suffering a preseason hoops injury). Some of the disappointment in the team's pitching derives from a lack of defensive support. The Brewers ranked 4th in the NL in FIP but 7th in ERA while playing in a fairly neutral park, although they finished right smack in the middle in team defensive efficiency.

2012 outlook

The key members of the pitching staff all return to Milwaukee this season. So outside of a big rebound from Greinke (possible) and a shoulder-related dropoff from Marcum, there shouldn't be a huge change in Milwaukee's pitching performance - general caveats about pitching predictability aside. On the offensive side, the big elephant in the room is ... no longer in the room. Ah-ha-ha-ha. To rephrase, will Prince Fielder's departure create an insurmountable production deficit?

It certainly would appear so. Fielder enjoyed an MVP-season at the plate, with a traditional .299/38/120 slash line and 164 OPS+, while playing in all 162 games. That can't be replaced by one player, but by making a few changes in the infield, the Brewers hope to approach their total offense from 2011:
  • The heir apparent to Fielder at 1B is Mat Gamel, who welcomes name-brother Mat Latos to the Central this year. Gamel is 26, and his top prospect label is just about expired. Still, he's been OPSing 900-plus in AAA for the last few years, so the Brewers are going to give him a long look.
  • I mentioned the awfulness of the Brewers' left side of the infield above. Welll, it's hard to overstate how bad 3B Casey McGehee was last year. His Janishian slash line of .223/.280/.346 (in 155 games!) was the worst for a 3B since Atlanta's disastrous experiment transplanting Vinny Castilla out of Coors field ten years ago. His OPS+ was 69, and his WAR was minus 1. He gets replaced by Aramis Ramirez, who was one of the top offensive 3B in the league last year with a 136 OPS+. That was his best year in some time, and he's going to be 34. And his defense is nothing to write home about either. Still, the net improvement from McGehee to Ramirez should be a good three wins.
  • The other infield upgrade was swapping out Yuni Betancourt for Alex Gonzalez. Sea Bass had a very Sea Bass-line in Atlanta last year, slashing .241/.270/.372. Yuni's line? .252/.271/.381. Unless there's a massive defensive difference between the two - which I doubt since Sea Bass is now 35 with mostly average defensive ratings for his career - I see this as a wash.
  • So did they fully replace Fielder? Probably not, but if Gamel hits at a level his minor league pedigree suggests, and Aramis doesn't lose too much from his 2011 production, it gets them close.

There are other offensive questions. Putting all the steroids stuff aside, Braun had a really, really good year last year that will be hard to duplicate. Braun's followed an every-other-year pattern in his career thus far, OPS-plussing 154, 146, and 166 in even-numbered seasons while putting up a 130 and 131 in the odds. With the loss of Fielder and the distractions from the PEDS decision, I expect at least some regression in Braun's performance. There's also Corey Hart's balky knee but could be a red flag for a tall outfielder entering his 30s. Bill Hall All-Star Nyjer Morgan (OPS of .843 against the Reds, about a hundred points higher than his average) enjoyed a good 2011 (.304/.357/.421), but needed a .362 BABIP to do so. Less luck on balls in play or an ill-chosen brawl could render him a liability.

The biggest hope for improvement on the pitching side is a return to Cy Young form for Zack Greinke, who's in a contract year. After returning to the rotation in May, Greinke showed few ill effects in leading the NL in K/9 and posting a K/BB over 4 to 1. The one-run gap between his ERA and FIP is certainly a reason for hope for Milwaukee fans, but it's also the second straight year where he's shown a discrepancy between his peripherals and performance. Since the Brewers didn't make a significant defensive upgrade for this year, we'll likely see whether last year was simply bad luck.

The major concern with the staff, as I mentioned above, is Marcum's shoulder and its effect on his September and October woes. Gallardo and Wolf should continue to do what they do, so Milwaukee has at least a solid top of the rotation. But without a healthy or productive Marcum, the team may be forced to rely on the likes of Marco Estrada or others that they'd rather not.

Final Thoughts

I wish I had a snazzy closing for this preview, but work is beckoning and I'm drawing a blank. The final calculation is a team slightly worse than last year, which puts it in the upper 80s for wins and in line with expectations for Cincinnati and St. Louis. A late September series in Cincinnati could make or break their year. Hopefully, the Reds will be on the smiling side of the scoreboard, and in the standings.

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