For the fourth straight year I have the enjoyable task of previewing the Milwaukee Brewers. Last year I did alright on the preview, as I predicted 85 wins and the Brewers reached 83 and I hit the mark on a couple of individual players, as well. I missed the win totals badly in my other two previews, predicted 75 and 85 wins in 2005 and 2006, while Milwaukee ended up with 81 and 75, respectively. Maybe I learned something in 2005 and 2006 or, more likely, I donít know what Iím talking about and just got lucky in 2007. Regardless, grab a seat and letís take a look at what 2008 holds for the Brewers. Seriously, make sure you're sitting down. This isn't going to be quick.
Beginning at catcher, here are two numbers to consider: sixteen and six. Those are the number of players to have played catcher for the Brewers over the past seven season and the number of opening day catchers the team has employed over the same time span. The only player to start two opening days was Chad Moeller and he, along with Damian Miller and Johnny Estrada, is actually one of the more recognizable names on the list. After that you go to career backups, such as Paul Bako, Gary Bennett and Keith Osik, and then lesser luminaries, such as Jesse Levis, Marcus Jensen and the other Kevin Brown. Those numbers are going to increase with the signing of Jason Kendall and, given his age and one-year plus option contract, will possibly rise again in April 2009.
The team was so desperate to get rid of Johnny Estrada that they dealt him for Guillermo Mota, who was about to be non-tendered by the Mets. Estrada clashed with other players and the coaching staff and Milwaukee desperately wanted to get rid of him. However, they replaced him with the only catcher in the majors who is worse defensively at stopping the running game than he is. Kendall caught only 20 of 111 potential base stealers (15.3%), a mark which was second worst in the majors, only beating Estradaís 11-of-79 (13.1%). However, that total includes times that a pitcher picks off a runner, who tries to make it to second. That happened three times out of his five caught stealing with the Cubs and Kendallís actual mark is much worse with those instances excluded.
Kendallís option will vest at 110 starts, which Kendall has exceeded every year of the last five, but I would be surprised if Milwaukee isnít looking for a new starter in 2009, regardless of whether Kendall is still a Brewer. ZIPS projects Kendall to have a .255/.324/.321 line, which is worse than all three of his potential backups and a very minor improvement on his .244/.301/.309 line he put up between Oakland and Chicago. Things went so bad for Kendall last year that he finished with more caught stealing than stolen bases for the first time in his career. Manager Ned Yost has at least recognized Kendallís offensive limitations and has already announced he plans to bat Kendall ninth in games he starts.
Competing for the job of Kendallís backup are Eric Munson, Mike Rivera and Vinny Rottino. To deal with the last first, Rottino is more of a backup infielder who has the bonus of being able to play catcher, so Iíll mention him in a bit more detail in the infield section. It doesnít seem like Milwaukee would carry him as their only backup catcher, so it looks like one of Munson and Rivera will make the team. Rivera, a favourite in sabermetric circles when he was younger, got 142 at-bats in with the BrewCrew in 2006 and hit .268/.326/.458 for a 97 OPS+ but was only given 15 plate appearances in 2007 as a reward for that performance. He didnít hit that well in Triple-A Nashville last year, but has a relatively track record in the minors for a backup catcher candidate.
Munson, a former 3rd-overall pick, had two years of 300 at-bats each for the awful mid-2000ís Tigers team where his batting average was low, but he slugged in the .440ís. Over 306 plate appearances for the 2006-2007 Astros Munson had a 57 and 74 OPS+. Neither player has a strong defensive reputation, but it appears as if itís Munsonís job to lose. Heís gone 10-for-24 in spring training and given their predominantly right-handed lineup, the Brewers are making a lot of noise about carrying as many left-handed bats on the bench as they can, which gives Munson an advantage. Milwaukeeís backup catcher is a position worth watching (I canít believe I just wrote that, either) as heíll either get a significant amount of playing time or else Kendallís option will kick in for 2009, forcing the Brew Crew to stick with Kendall for another year or carry an expensive and ineffective backup.
A year ago I reflected on the strength of 2006ís NL rookie class, as Prince Fielder only finished 7th in Rookie of the Year balloting despite a .271/.347/.483 line. In my 2007 preview I predicted Fielder would avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and would be make the first of many All-Star appearances that year, despite the presence of Pujols, Howard, Delgado, Derek Lee, Berkman and Todd Helton at first base. Well, I got that one right and itís best to leave it at that and ignore the fact I didnít mention anything about 50 homers or a ridiculous slugging percentage. Fielder became the first Brewers in fifteen years to finish in the top 10 in MVP balloting, finishing third behind Jimmy Rollins and David Wright. He nearly doubled his walk total, demonstrating an improved batting approach from his rookie season. Fielder also became the youngest player to hit 50 homers in a season, which accounts for his improvement of nearly 150 points on his slugging percentage, as he finished with 35 doubles, the same total as 2006. and a phenomenal final line of .288/.395/.618. Oh yeah, he doesnít turn 24 until May.
While I was optimistic about Fielderís future entering 2007, I think itís wise to be slightly pessimistic entering 2008. Itís not that I donít think Fielder wonít be a productive hitter or doesnít have a bright future. He will be a productive hitter in 2008 and he does have a very bright future. His defensive weaknesses arenít going to be anything more than a minor annoyance. However, Fielder has nowhere to go from here but backwards. You canít really improve on a 50 homer season as a 23-year-old. (Thereís your lesson of the day kids. Donít become too successful too soon, as you have nowhere to go but down.) As Chris Jaffe wrote about Fielder, ďA person who leads the league or sets a home run record has nowhere to go but down. That's not a knock on him as he's a great homer hitter. Then again, so were Mays, Foxx, Mantle, and Kiner and look what happened to them the next year.Ē What Jaffe is referring to is that the four youngest players to 50 homers prior to Fielder were Willie Mays, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Ralph Kiner and Foxx saw his homer total drop by 10 the following year and the other three saw it drop by at least 15. Fielder should continue to be a productive hitter and player, but there will almost certainly be a small but noticeable drop from his 2007 production.
Rickie Weeks returns at 2B for the Brewers, as J.J. Hardy does at short. Going into 2007 I wrote that the Brewers would likely take a .280/.340/.440 line from Weeks, who seemed a better candidate for slow and steady improvement rather than bursting onto the scene like Fielder did. The former Golden Spikes Award winner struggled with a nagging wrist injury he had surgery on during the 06-07 offseason and eventually went on the DL for 3 weeks and playing hurt both before and after the DL stint. When Weeks did play he was not productive and at the end of July he was hitting .212/.330/.363.
After a brief trip to the minors Weeks was back in Milwaukee on August 10 and he was a force over the last two months of the season, improving his OPS from .693 to .807. Weeks hit 9 of his 16 homers in September and posted an OBP of .442 over the last two months of the year. One must be cautious about reading too much into a couple of good months at the plate, but there is strong reason to believe that Milwaukee fans may have seen what a healthy young player coming into his own can achieve. Although Weeks brushes aside questions about his health, he does admit the wrist injury affected his batting and that this offseason is the first time heís been healthy in three years. ZIPS predicts .254/.363/.422 line, but I think thatís a bit pessimistic and Iím going with .273/.378/.452. Weeks is a good candidate to show improvement at the plate over a full season and if he doesnít his production is still fine for second base, as even in an off-year Weeks hit 16 homers and had 25 stolen bases, along with 78 walks.
On the other hand, J.J. Hardy started out well last year, but ran into troubles as the season progressed. At one point in May he was the NLís leader in home runs, one of the unlikeliest names on MLB leaderboards at that time. At the All-Star break Hardy was hitting .280/.338/.495. He slumped a bit in the second half and finished the year at .277/.323/.463, which wasnít too far off his line in mid-July, but a far distance from his line at the end of May of .304/.350/.567. ZIPS doesnít like Hardy much for 2008, predicting a line of .262/.318/.421 and thatís probably not a bad forecast. Hardy was never the offensive prospect some of his young Brewer teammates were and his biggest asset has always been his defense. Last year I wrote that Hardy had to show something with the bat in 2007 as he had a 75 OPS+ in 2006 and that may be too low for the Brewers to live with. I suggested that if Hardy doesnít improve his offense he might get pushed in the second half of the year by Craig Counsell. Well, it seems he may have responded to my motivation exactly as the Brewers hoped, as Hardy stamped his spot in the Brewers lineup with a hot two months. If Hardy can continue to put up a 90-100 OPS+ with a good glove at short, heíll fit nicely in the seven hole of the lineup. However, batting in front of the pitcher and Kendall may lead to a decrease in his runs scored total.
Last year Milwaukee combined for 85 homers from their first and third basemen. The Yankees were second at 68 and only the Braves and the Devil Rays also reached 60. Milwaukee was one of only eight teams to top the 200-RBI mark, finished second in the majors with 237 RBIs. Hereís a trivia question for you readers: 84 of those 85 homers were hit by Fielder and third baseman Ryan Braun. Who hit the other homer? And for bonus points, name the date, team and opposing pitcher. If anyone can answer that without looking, you should be writing these previews.
Anyhow, Braun won the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Award with a phenomenal .324/.370/.634 line and a lead glove. After making his MLB debut on May 25 Braun was hitting 3rd in Milwaukeeís lineup two days later and would go on to set the MLB rookie record for slugging percentage with a .634 mark, which beat Mark McGwireís 1987 record of .618. Braun hit 34 homers over about four months, drove in 97 runs and he even stole 15 bases. He will be moved to left field for 2008 as the Brewers decided his defense was too much of a work in progress for him to continue at third. In case you missed the offense vs. defense debate that characterized the Braun vs. Tulowitzki debate, you should be aware Braun committed 26 errors in 112 games.
Itís worth considering Braunís 2008 in light of the context of his 2007 and Iíll write about him at third base and do the same thing with his replacement, Bill Hall, when talking about outfielders. Although spring training is the time for high praise and optimistic pronunciations, apparently Braun has been impressive in left field and Yost has stated, ďHeís got a chance one day to win a Gold Glove.Ē Iím not sure I believe that, but some Brewers fans believe Braun could have been an average third baseman in time, so it doesnít seem like heís a lost cause in the field. To get to the heart of the matter, Braunís defense is not what people care about unless he continues to post fielding percentages under .900. His meal ticket is his bat.
ZIPS forecasts a .294/.332/.554 line from Braun, which sees his BABIP drop to a more standard rate and a slight reduction in his power. That seems reasonable, but whatís important to note is that Braun only played for two-thirds of the season last year. A full season of Braun should at least equal last yearís combination of Braun, Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino, and if Braun can maintain most of his production the Brewers should get even more production from that spot in the lineup. P.S. The answer to the above trivia question is Tony Graffanino on July 26, 2007, off Kirk Saarloos in a 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1997 when Craig Counsell crossed the plate with the World Series winning run for Marlins I imagine very few people thought the diminutive infielder would still be playing in the majors ten years later. However, he proved them wrong, as he likely has been doing his entire baseball career. Counsell hit .220/.323/.309 for the Brewers last year in 282 at-bats and will return as Milwaukeeís primary backup infielder for 2008. Although not an offensive force Counsell has some value because of his versatility, as heís capable of playing all three infield positions without difficulty. Plus, Counsellís veteran presence may have value on team with two young middle infielders. With Counsell on board the Brewers donít have to carry a second backup infielder, but almost certainly will. Tony Graffanino was last yearís second backup infielder, but he tore his ACL and wonít be healthy until partway through the 2008 season. Heís currently unsigned and that injury may be the end of his fine career.
Abraham Nunez was signed to compete for a bench spot. Nunez got over 600 plate appearances the last two years for the Phillies, putting up OPS of .577 and .600 in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Heís a strong defender and that bodes well for him, considering GM Doug Melvinís statement that the bench will have a strong defensive flavour and that the team is ďleaning towards defensive abilities.Ē Nunez also has value because heís a switch-hitter, and both of his competitors, Joe Dillon and Vinny Rottino, are right-handed hitters. Both Dillon and Rottino are versatile, although neither is as strong with the glove as Nunez is. Dillon played for Milwaukee in September last year and put up a .342/.390/.500 line over 76 at-bats. He played every position for Milwaukee except shortstop and centerfield over 39 games with the big league club. Last year for Nashville he hit .317 with 28 doubles and 20 homers. Rottino, a Wisconsin native, has 23 at-bats over the last two years as a September callup, not doing much either time. However, he can play the corner infield and outfield, as well as catcher, and hit .289 with double-digit totals in doubles, homers and stolen bases in less than 400 at-bats for Triple-A Nashville in 2007.
Bill Hall, who struggled last year while trying to adjust to centerfield, will move to third base for 2008, which will be his third position in three years. Hallís a capable infielder who didnít take as well to center field as the Brewers hoped. He struggled in the outfield and Braun struggled at third, so allowing Hall to move back to the infield and hiding Braunís glove in the corner outfield should do wonders for the Brew Crewís defense. The Hall-Braun shuffle will improve the fielding and weíve concluded that a full year of Braun should offset any drop in his production, so what can we expect from Hall offensively?
After successive seasons with an OPS over .800, including a very quiet 35-homer, .899 OPS campaign in 2006, Hall struggled to a .254/.315/.425 line in 2007. Never a top offensive prospect, the more optimistic people will say Hallís offensive woes came as a result of his defensive struggles, but the more pessimistic might suggest Hall was never the potent bat that 2006 suggested he was. He might not post a .900 OPS again, but Hall seems to be an excellent candidate for a offensive comeback if he can establish a comfort zone in the infield. He posted an OPS in the low-to-mid .800s in 2005 and could return to that level of production again. ZIPS pegs Hall for a .270/.335/.475 line, which sounds a bit pessimistic, if anything. The projections donít consider the psychological factor and, while thereís no guarantee, Hall could be much more at ease this year than he was last.
Hall had one of the quietest 35-homer campaigns in recent memory in 2006 and his outfield partner, Corey Hart, followed it up with possibly last yearís quietest slugging percentage over .500. Hart went .295/.353/.539 over 505 at-bats with 33 doubles, 24 homers and 23 stolen bases. Donít dismiss that as a rookie fluke, either, as Hart isnít some marginal prospect who exploded on the scene. He had a .913 OPS in Triple-A during a full season in 2005 and a .975 in a half-season in 2006.
The Brewers were determined to give him regular playing time in 2007, Hart responded and has cemented himself a starting corner outfield role going forward. ZIPS and other projection systems love Hart, and ZIPS forecasts a line of .289/.353/.518 in 2008. So much for the sophomore slump. Normally Iíd suggest the smart money would peg a good-hitting rookie like Hart to decline the following year. I still think thatís a good possibility for Hart, but the projection systems like him and seem to think his 2007 season established his level of production going forward. If Hartís production drops, it wonít be by too much
Hart will have a new team mate in centerfield as the Brewers signed Mike Cameron to patrol center in 2008. Cameron, formerly a defensive wizard and now just a solidly above-average center fielder, was the player that allowed the Brewers to shift Hall and Braun. The net effect of these moves on team defense is substantial. Cameronís already shown a willingness to take Braun under his wing and help him with some of the nuances of playing the outfield, as has Hart who himself transitioned from third to the corner outfield via first base.
Cameron will get an offensive boost to his raw numbers as he moves from PETCO to Miller Park and ZIPS has him putting up a .254/.341/.447 line. Since 2001, discounting his injury-shortened 2005 season, Cameronís hit at least 30 doubles and over 20 homers in every year but one. Interestingly, Yost has been using Cameron in the two-hole, which some managers have shied away from doing because of Cameronís high strikeout total. Cameron will replace Geoff Jenkins in Milwaukeeís lineup, which wonít have Jenkins presence in it for the first time since 1997. The career Brewer signed with Philadelphia in the offseason, ending a decade in Milwaukee. Jenkins hit .255/.319/.471 last year, so what Cameron loses on slugging percentage should be more than compensated for by improved OBP and defense.
If we assume the Brewers will carry twelve pitchers that leaves five spots on the bench, one of which will go to the backup catcher and another will go to Counsell. If we give a second backup spot to one of Nunez, Dillon or Rottino that leaves two backup outfield spots. Another player will make the team out of spring training as Cameron will begin the season with a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, but will presumably be sent down at the end of April if everything goes according to plan and no one is hurt.
Candidates for these places on the bench include Gabe Gross, Tony Gwynn Jr., Gabe Kapler and Laynce Nix. Kevin Mench, who has returned to Texas, was the primary backup last year and also platooned with Jenkins, although Gross and Gwynn both got at-bats as reserves. Kapler was signed to a major league contract after not playing in 2007 and spending the year coaching in Bostonís system. Nix got 12 at-bats with the Brewers last year and was invited to spring training as a non-roster invitee. It seems likely that the Brewers will break camp with Gross and Kapler as the main outfield reserves, with Gwynn taking the spot temporarily vacated by Cameron. Gross and Kapler make a good tandem off the bench, as Gross is left-handed and Kapler right-handed and both can play all three outfield positions passably. They can platoon in center in Cameronís absence, with Gwynn coming in late for defensive purposes. Gross has struggled as a pinch-hitter in his career, batting under .200, but the Brewers like his bat and havenít ruled him out as a regular down the road, although at 27 his productive years are slipping away. The Brewers sent him down for a spell during the season to Triple-A to keep him fresh and give him regular at-bats and might do the same this season. Kapler has been impressive this spring and the coaching staff speaks highly of him. Milwaukee was interested enough to give him a major league contract after he sat out for a year and wasnít particularly useful as a bench player the year before, so it seems evident they have plans for Kapler, which leaves Gwynn on the outside looking in, despite one of the biggest triples in the majors last season.
Last year I spoke about the depth the Brewers had in the outfield and this year the teamís depth can be found in the starting rotation. There are at least eight legitimate candidates for rotation spots, led by Ben Sheets. Sheets posted a 3.82 ERA for the second straight year in 2007 and although he didnít match 2006ís ridiculous 116/11 K/BB ratio, he still had an impressive total at 106/37. Some might call it worrying that last year Sheets finished the year with his highest ERA, highest walks allowed total, lowest strikeout total and lowest ERA+ since 2003. Others might say when a pitcherís down year consists of a 117 ERA+ youíve got a pretty good pitcher there.
The biggest red flag with Sheets is, and has been for a while, his health. He made 24 starts and threw 141 innings, which is the third straight year heís made less than 25 starts and thrown less than 160 innings. Thereís been no reports of problems with Sheetsís health so far this spring, so the Brewers are cautiously optimistic that he might finally be able to stay healthy. Another 10 starts from Sheets could mean a world of difference in a tight NL Central. PECOTA forecasts a 3.96 ERA for Sheets, but I think heíll beat that by a third of a run or so. The real question around Sheets is whether heíll post that over 130 or 200 innings.
Jeff Suppan enters the season as the Brew Crewís number two starter. The Brewers signed Suppan to a 4-year contract last offseason in a move that was panned by several analysts, including Keith Law, who called Suppan a number four starter. Not a classic number two, Suppan is a steady mid-rotation pitcher whose main strength is his durability. Last year I wrote of Suppan, ďSince 1999 Suppan has only had one year where his ERA+ wasnít under 100. In 2002 he had a 97 ERA+ with KC, which followed three years where he had ERA+ís 109, 112 and 103. After that Suppan split a season between Pittsburgh and Boston and although he was left off Bostonís postseason roster, he finished the year with an ERA+ of 105. Suppan spent the last three years in St Louis with ERA+ís of 100, 120 and 107. The 2006 NLCS MVP may not be the flashiest pitcher, but itís hard to argue with 8 years of 30+ starts and 7 out of 8 years of ERA+ís over 100.Ē
However, I cautioned that Suppan may be in for a fall as his K/9 and BB/9 ratios in 2006 were the worst theyíve been in the last 3 years. In 2007 they fell to 4.96 K/9 and 2.96 BB/9, which were minusculely worse than his ratios in 2006. Suppanís didnít post another ERA+ over 100, but an ERA+ of 97 meant that he was an average starter, as relievers average lower ERA+s than starters. However, Suppan threw 206.2 innings, which has a great deal of value and he likely didnít actually pitch any worse than he did in 2006, but rather felt the effects of Milwaukeeís below-average defence as compared to the great infield defence he had previously in St. Louis. Suppan seems like a good candidate for a major decline one of these years, but Iím not sure it will happen yet. His days of posting ERAís in the 3ís are probably done, but another ERA in the mid 4ís and 190 innings seems reasonable.
Yovani Gallardo will begin the season on the DL following minor offseason knee surgery, but should be ready for mid-April. The 22-year-old is seemingly a lock for the third spot in the rotation after posting a 3.67 ERA in 17 starts and three relief appearances last year. Gallardo, a highly rated prospect, breezed through the minors over the past two seasons. In 2006 he made 13 starts at both A+ and AA and threw 78 and 77 innings, respectively, posting a 2.08 ERA and then a 1.64 ERA at Double-A, with impressive peripherals to boot. Gallardo began 2007 at Triple-A and made another 13 starts. His ERA jumped all the way to 2.90 and he struck out 110 batters over 77.2 innings. ZIPS has Gallardo posting a 3.66 ERA over 31 starts and that would no doubt please the Brewers immensely. PECOTAís more pessimistic at 4.05, but if Gallardo did that in his first full year in the majors that would still please the Brewers. Iíll split the difference and say Gallardo posts an ERA around 3.80.
Chris Capuano, Dave Bush, Carlos Villanueva, Claudio Vargas and Manny Parra are all candidates for the final two spots in the rotation. Villanueva is probably the favourite for one of the two remaining spots and after spending last year mostly as a reliever, Yost has announced Villanueva will begin 2008 as a starter, whether itís in Milwaukee or Nashville. Over 53 relief appearances, 6 starts and 114.1 innings in 2006 Villanueva posted a 3.94 ERA, striking out 99 and walking 53. Control is Villanuevaís biggest problem and if he can cut down that walk rate heíll become a decent middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. If not, he could still be serviceable as a back-end starter. ZIPS pegs him for a 4.46 ERA in a year split between starting and relieving, and PECOTA is a bit more pessimistic with a 4.74 ERA. I think Villanueva has potential for improvement and that if Milwaukee sticks with him at the back of their rotation at the end of the year heíll compare favourably to the fourth and fifth starters on many teams.
After a pretty solid 2006 Dave Bush saw his ERA jump by over 70 points as he posted a 5.12 ERA over 31 starts. His spring ERA sits at 8.31 and he may be on the verge of losing his rotation spot. Even worse than Bush is Chris Capuano, currently not pitching due to elbow soreness, whose 4.03 2006 ERA rose to 5.10 in 2007. His spring ERA is worse than Bushís. Capuano seems likely to begin the season on the DL and doesnít look likely to rejoin the rotation once he comes off the DL. Itís a far cry from my prediction last year that, as long as he kept his walk rate down (which he didnít), he would post an ERA just under 4.
Claudio Vargas made 23 starts for the 2007 Brewers and posted a 5.09 ERA. Nearly an afterthought amongst the eight pitchers contending for rotation spots Vargas has had a very impressive spring with a 2.40 ERA in four starts. Combining that with Bushís ineffectiveness and Capuanoís soreness and ineffectiveness and Vargas is a real contender for the last spot. The final contender is 25-year-old Manny Parra, the only southpaw aside from Capuano in the mix. Parra had a very impressive 2006 posting a 3.76 ERA over 26.1 innings for the Brewers after 26 innings of 1.73 ERA at Louisville and 13 starts with a 2.69 ERA at Double-A. Parra has a 0.69 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 14 spring innings, although he has options remaining and Vargas doesnít. Right now it looks like Villanueva will take the fourth spot and Vargas and Parra are the leading contenders for the fifth spot in the rotation and the spot temporarily vacated by Gallardo. Which one sticks in the rotation may depend on how well they do in their first couple starts and how important Milwaukee thinks it is to have a left-hander in the rotation. Dave Bush may be relegated to the bullpen or traded for pennies on the dollar.
Last yearís bullpen was made up of Francisco Cordero, Derrick Turnbow, Brian Shouse, Matt Wise, Carlos Villanueva and Chris Spurling, with Scott Linebrink, Seth McClung and Ray King coming over in the late season deals. Cordero signed a four-year deal to become Cincinnatiís closer and Linebrink and King signed elsewhere in the offseason. I have no idea what happened to Spurling. He was removed from Milwaukeeís 40-man roster in the offseason and he doesnít appear in their list of non-roster invitees to spring training, but there are also no report of him signing elsewhere in the offseason. I assume heís still in their system, but isnít a real contender for the 2008 bullpen at this point. Surprisingly, Wise was non-tendered by the Brewers in the offseason. Iíd rather have him than Guillermo Mota and thatís what the Mets thought too, as they picked up Wise.
As you can see, Milwaukeeís 2008 bullpen will look very different from how it looked in 2007. Unwilling to pay Corderoís asking price the Brewers signed Eric Gagne to a one-year $10 million contact. I like this move, as Milwaukee paid a bit more than Gagne figured to get in average annual value in order to keep the contract at one year. If Gagne does well, Doug Melvin and Gord Ash can resign him or collect two draft picks as compensation. If he struggles than the decision to stick to one year also looks wise. Gagne struggled in Boston down the stretch, but he was a victim of poor luck in a few of those appearances and, according to reports, his stuff didnít look any worse than it did during his time with Texas. In a case with a bit of risk like this, I think Milwaukee made a smart decision to stick to one year and then potentially look for a new closer next year, possibly with draft picks in hand. PECOTA projects a 3.41 ERA for Gagne, which would be a slight drop on Corderoís performance, but would be okay for a closer who is clearly no longer an elite reliever.
The other reason why Gagneís signing made sense is that the Brewers have no shortage of relievers with closing experience. The team trade for Salomon Torres who had 24 saves over the past two seasons with Pittsburgh. Torres, who bizarrely threatened to retire upon being traded, had 5.47 ERA last year, but had ERA+s of 163, 153 and 136 in the previous three seasons. His peripherals werenít noticeably worse last season and Torres ERA is at least as much a product of luck as of a decline in performance. Heís likely no longer the workhorse who posted a 2.64 ERA over 92 innings out of the bullpen in 2004 or a 2.76 in 94.2 innings the following year, but he should be at an average reliever. Guillermo Mota should also be expected to rebound, but he posted a 5.76 ERA in 2007 and will likely only rebound to an ERA in the low 5s or high 4ís. Most Mets fans have nothing but venom for Mota and heís worn out his welcome in a couple of stops with his stubborn attitude and refusal to listen to the coaching staff. I donít understand the decision to keep Mota over Wise and while Torres will likely rebound to become useful, the same canít be said for Mota.
David Riske could be Milwaukeeís second-best reliever by the yearís end. A free agent signed to a three-year contract from the Royals, Riske put a 2.45 ERA in 69. 2 innings for Kansas City who got a compensation pick when he signed with the Brew Crew. Riske posted ERAís in the 3ís the previous three seasons and PECOTA projects a 3.87 ERA on the year and ZIPS projects 3.80. In both cases it would be the second-lowest ERA in Milwaukeeís bullpen behind Gagne. Riske has some closing experience, as does Derrick Turnbow, who closed for the Brewers in 2005 and 2006. After really struggling in 2006 Turnbow posted a 4.63 ERA in 2007 and both PECOTA and ZIPS project him to improve on that in 2008, with PECOTA projected a 4.50 and ZIPS even more optimistic at 4.08.
Milwaukee has five right-handers basically guaranteed spots in the bullpen in Gagne, Torres, Mota, Riske and Turnbow, so theyíll carry at least one, probably two, lefties in the last two spots. The main lefty will be Brian Shouse, who is 39 and will qualify for free agency next year at the ripe old age of 40. Shouse posted a 3.02 ERA in 2007 but his peripherals were not particularly impressive and I would expect to see him post an ERA in the low 4ís this year. If the Brewers wanted to carry a second lefty Randy Choate was perhaps the lead candidate, but his broke a finger on his hand in spring training and is out for a few weeks. Mitch Stetter, who has 5 career major league innings, is the only other lefty in the contention for a spot on the roster and the Brewers will likely be forced to decide between him, a darkhorse candidate like Seth McClung or keeping Bush or Vargas as a long reliever. They could drop Parra back to the bullpen and use him as a second lefty, but I donít think thatís likely.
So, there is your extremely thorough preview of the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers. To sum up the key components of the team: Fielder should regress a little; a full season of Braun will make up for his drop in production; Hart might regress some too, but improvements by Hall and Weeks could make up for that. The teamís defense should be noticeably better this year, but there is still no hope at catcher. The keys to season could rest in Ben Sheetsís health and how well Gallardo and Parra do in their first full year in the majors.
My prediction: 85-77 and another year looking up at the Cubs.