There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Milwaukee Brewers.
This one's easy.
The Brewers will open the 2010 season with almost exactly the same lineup as they finished 2009. There's just one change: at shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt replaces Alcides Escobar. On most teams, replacing anyone with Yuniesky Betancourt would constitute a downgrade, but in this case Escobar was so awful at the plate last season that Betancourt can scarcely be worse. Granted, the Brewers will take a defensive hit, but overall this is roughly a wash.
So the same Brewers who ranked fourth in the National League in scoring last season are likely to do roughly as well this season.
The problem last season wasn't scoring runs; it was preventing them. Milwaukee finished 14th in the league with a 4.59 ERA, and their starters were even worse: 4.65 ERA, 15th in the National League. And that after a 2009 that was even worse.
For two straight seasons, the Brewers featured excellent hitting but execrable pitching, and of course it cost them dearly as they finished below .500 both years. Clearly, whatever they've been doing to build a pitching staff -- and a rotation, in particular, just wasn't working. Thes and the es and the Jeff Suppans and the David Bushes just weren't getting it done.
Brewers fans have been incredibly patient, and last year nearly three million of them showed up to watch a 77-85 squad. But even Cheeseheads might run out of patience eventually, and Prince Fielder's impending free agency adds just another temporal imperative. The time is now, and so this winter management pulled the trigger on two big trades.
Second, two weeks later they traded a quartet of young players to Kansas City for Zack Greinke (and Yuniesky Betancourt, but that was just because if nobody plays shortstop you give up way too many singles and also it's really hard to turn most varieties of the double play).
The Big Question, then, is pretty obvious: Are Greinke and Marcum enough to get the Brewers' run prevention into the middle of the National League pack, and thus push the club into real contention?
In a word, yes.
In this case, the math is exceptionally simple. Last season, David Bush, Manny Parra, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano combined for 64 starts, and in the aggregate performed at almost exactly replacement level.
Absent injuries, Greinke and Marcum will make roughly 64 starts, and we may estimate they'll be roughly eight to 10 Wins Above Replacement ... and thus eight to 10 wins better than the pitchers they're replacing.
At this point the simplicity breaks down a little. We can't just add eight or 10 wins to the Brewers' 77 last season, because the other 23 players on the roster are variables, too. We can't just assume that if Greinke and Marcum are healthy all season, the Brewers will win 85-87 games.
You know what, though?
If you run the math, that's almost exactly where the Brewers grade out. And with 85-87 wins going in, a few breaks or a canny trade can push you to 90 and Nirvana.
Greinke and Marcum really are the keys. As they should be, considering how much the Brewers gave up to get them. The farm system is now almost completely devoid of top-tier talent, which means the window might well close after this season.