SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Milwaukee Brewers, Now With Run Prevention

Every day, from March 1st through March 30th, we will be posting a new team preview for the upcoming MLB season, written up by our excellent network of baseball bloggers. Follow this section for daily updates as you prepare yourself for the summer ahead. Team previews will be posted in ascending order of Las Vegas World Series odds.

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SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Milwaukee Brewers, Now With Run Prevention

By Kyle Lobner of Brew Crew Ball

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Introduction

Following their 2008 playoff appearance the Brewers experienced a setback, as an awful starting rotation held them to 80 wins in 2009. Doug Melvin and the front office staff responded by restructuring a bit to make room for two new starting pitchers in 2010, and they hope it will be enough to allow the returning core of position players to carry them back into contention.

Position Players

The core of the 2009 lineup returns intact, with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder continuing to make their case as one of baseball’s best 3-4 combinations. Last year’s biggest surprise, third baseman Casey McGehee, will get every opportunity to prove that his Rookie of the Year-candidate season was no fluke. Corey Hart’s performance has declined each of the last two seasons but he’ll also get one more shot in right field.

Meanwhile, the Brewers are looking at changes in center field, at shortstop and catcher, and what might as well be considered a change at second base.

In center field, Mike Cameron was a quietly productive Brewer for two seasons, but his high price and advanced age meant it was time for the Brewers to move on, and they’ll attempt to do so with Carlos Gomez. Gomez is young and full of potential but has yet to put it all together at the plate, where he’s posted a .292 career OBP over three seasons. At the very least, he’s a plus defender with excellent speed. If he can provide league-average offense, his base stealing and defense will make him valuable.

Carlos Gomez was acquired from the Twins in exchange for shortstop mainstay J.J. Hardy, but the Brewers hope they won’t miss a beat with top prospect Alcides Escobar stepping in. Escobar’s defense has been Major League ready (and perhaps Major League elite) for several seasons now, but his offense is more of a question mark. If his first extended taste of the Major Leagues was any indication, Escobar’s bat will be just fine: He hit .304/.333/.368 in 134 plate appearances in August and September. Like Gomez, he also has plus speed.

At catcher, Gregg Zaun will turn 39 in April, but he was signed to a two year deal over the offseason and enters the season as the Brewers’ primary catcher. If he plays in 100 games this season, he’ll become the third-oldest catcher ever to do so. With that said, Zaun is still an elite pitch-blocker and his bat shows few signs of decline; he hit .260/.345/.416 last season. The Brewers have had Jason Kendall catching nearly every game for the last two seasons, so any offensive contribution from the position would be an upgrade.

Finally, Rickie Weeks returns at second base after missing most of the 2009 season with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist. Weeks’ career has been a tale of high expectations, flashes of brilliance and disappointment, and he’s running out of opportunities to prove he can be the player the Brewers expected him to be when they drafted him with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft. Before getting hurt last season, Weeks was off to the best start of his career, hitting .272/.340/.517 in 162 plate appearances. He’s the only viable candidate the Brewers have to bat leadoff, and his performance this season will go a long way towards deciding the team’s 2010 fate.

Rotation

At 24 years old, the Brewers hope Yovani Gallardo can become the true ace of the staff this season. Despite missing most of the 2008 season with a knee injury, Gallardo has already made 51 career starts as a Brewer, and posted a 3.57 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings while doing so. The Brewers need Gallardo to keep his pitch counts down so he can work deep into games and pass the ball directly to the back of the bullpen this season.

After Gallardo, the Brewers will likely start the first of two offseason acquisitions, Randy Wolf. The Brewers had to overpay to get Wolf (3 years/nearly $30 million), but they hope he can provide stability and quality innings. In other words, it’s the same thing they were hoping for when they signed Jeff Suppan three years ago. There’s reason to be more optimistic about Wolf, though: he pitched exceptionally well last season, and has thrown over 400 innings over the last two years.

The second of two rotation acquisitions is Doug Davis, who returns to the site of his career resurgence. Davis had a 5.03 career ERA when he rejected an outright assignment to the minors from the Blue Jays and signed a minor league deal with the Brewers. He would make 111 starts for Milwaukee over the next four seasons, posting a 3.92 ERA and logging at least 200 innings for three straight seasons. Davis allows a lot of baserunners (career 1.49 WHIP), but manages to work through it consistently and has pitched at least 190 innings in five of the last six seasons.

Statistically, Manny Parra (6.36 ERA in 140 IP) was one of the worst starting pitchers in franchise history last season, but his high ceiling and flashes of brilliance will earn him at least one more shot in the Brewer starting rotation. Parra allowed far too many baserunners last season to be effective: 11.5 hits and five walks per nine innings. With that said, his pure stuff might be as good as anyone on the Brewer staff. Parra could potentially benefit as much as anyone from the hiring of pitching guru Rick Peterson, who will have his hands full as he tries to get Parra and others to maximize their potential.

The fifth spot is still a bit up in the air, with two likely candidates and a dark horse battling for it:

  •  Jeff Suppan is entering the final year of one of the worst free agent contracts in franchise history, and will earn $12.5 million this season despite being below replacement level in 2009. Suppan’s veteran status and huge contract probably give him the inside track for the final spot: the Brewers still have to pay him, even if they release him.
  •  Dave Bush likely has higher upside than Suppan, but his 2009 season was derailed when he was hit by a line drive last June. He finished the season with a 6.36 ERA in 114.1 IP. Bush appears to be healthy this spring and is probably the best of the three pitchers battling for this spot, but he also has a non-guaranteed contract, and the Brewers could save roughly $3 million by releasing him before Opening Day.
  •  Finally, Chris Narveson has an outside shot at best to make this team, but he’s made the most of limited opportunities: He posted a 3.83 ERA in 21 appearances (including four starts) last season, and has allowed just one hit in his first five innings of work this spring.

Bullpen

While the Brewers trimmed payroll a bit in other areas to make room for Randy Wolf and Doug Davis this offseason, they actually spent more on the bullpen, which will be a surprisingly expensive part of the team in 2010:

  •  Trevor Hoffman will make $8 million to return as closer. At this point, age appears to be just a number for Hoffman, who had one of the best seasons of his career at age 41. He needs just nine more saves to become the first pitcher ever with 600.
  •  LaTroy Hawkins (2 years, $7.5 million) will pitch the seventh or eighth inning. At 37 years old, Hawkins is no spring chicken either, but he had a 2.13 ERA in Houston last season.
  •  Todd Coffey ($2.025 million this season) finished seventh in the majors with 78 appearances last season and had a 2.90 ERA while doing so.
  •  Claudio Vargas ($900,000 this season) also returned as a free agent. He was very good after being acquired from the Dodgers, posting a 1.78 ERA in 28 appearances and working his way into a key role in the bullpen.
  •  Carlos Villanueva ($950,000 this season) pitched in multiple roles and struggled at times last season, with a 5.34 ERA, but has a career 3.96 ERA and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever.
  •  Mitch Stetter ($400k or so in 2010) is a very capable lefty specialist, who struggles a bit with walks (5.7 BB/9 in his career) but has held lefties to a career .175/.302/.299 line.
  •  David Riske ($4.5 million in 2010) will likely return sometime late in May or early in June – he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Because Riske will open the season on the DL, there’s one spot left in the bullpen for one of the following:

  •  One of the trio of Jeff Suppan/Dave Bush/Chris Narveson.
  •  John Axford, a hard-throwing righty who pitched in the big leagues in September.
  •  Scott Schoeneweis, a veteran lefty in camp on a minor league deal.

In The System

There are a few prospects that could make the jump to the minors this season if the need arises:

Mat Gamel spent significant time in the Majors last season but it appears there’s not a spot for him on the team this spring, with Casey McGehee playing every day at third base. Gamel got inconsistent playing time last year and struggled, but his bat is solid. He’ll start the season in AAA, and don’t be surprised if he attempts to learn a new position or two while he’s down there.

Zach Braddock is a hard-throwing lefty with electric stuff who posted a 1.79 ERA between high A and AA last season, then pitched very well in the AFL. He has an outside shot to make the team out of camp, but since he’s never pitched above AA and the bullpen is already pretty crowded, odds are he’ll be sent back down.

Two catching prospects, Jonathan Lucroy and Angel Salome, are starting to form a logjam in the upper levels of the minors while they wait for a job to open up. Lucroy hit .267/.380/.417 in AA last season, and Salome hit .284/.334/.413 in AAA. Ken Macha has said he’d rather have a veteran as a backup to Gregg Zaun, so both rookies will likely return to AAA and the organization will have to find a way to get both the at bats they need.

Finally, Lorenzo Cain could be called upon to help the team this season as well. Cain had a hot spring last year and opened a lot of eyes, but tore the PCL in his knee early in the season in AA, and struggled mightily the rest of the season. He’s back in big league camp this spring and appears to be healthy. He could be the first outfielder called up if a spot opens up.

Miscellaneous

Another Brewer storyline this spring has been the hiring of veteran pitching coach Rick Peterson to work with the staff. Peterson is an expert in biomechanics and injury prevention, and has a very solid Major League track record with the A’s and Mets. He’s one of the reasons many fans are expecting marked improvement from some of the Brewer holdovers, and if he can turn some of the underachieving Brewers or reclamation projects into solid contributors, it’ll go a long way toward helping this team succeed.

Another storyline that doesn’t draw a lot of attention is age. The core of this Brewer team is still very young, with Ryan Braun (26), Prince Fielder (25) and Yovani Gallardo (24). But behind them, the Brewers are relying on a lot of aging veterans, with all of the following players likely to be on the Opening Day roster:

It’s also possible Scott Schoeneweis (36) and John Halama (38) could join them in the majors at some point this season.

Conclusion

Vegas gives the Brewers 50/1 odds to win the World Series, which seems about right, with preseason projections ranging anywhere from 75 to 93 wins for this team. Certainly, it wouldn’t take much for the Brewers to become a contender: Solid performances from the new arms in the rotation, Rickie Weeks and one of Carlos Gomez or Alcides Escobar could propel them to the top of the NL Central.

However, as things stand right now they’re clearly behind the incumbent NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals, and will likely remain so unless they show significant improvement or the Cardinals come back to the field.

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