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2007 Team Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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2006 W-L: 75-87 (4th place)

2006 Pythag: 71-91

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Jeff Suppan, Craig Counsell, Johnny Estrada, Claudio Vargas, Greg Aquino, Grant Balfour, Marino Salas, J.D. Closser.

Going:

Doug Davis, Jeff Cirillo, David Bell, Tomo Ohka, Dan Kolb, Rick Helling, Dana Eveland

The Brewers In a Nutshell:

Last year, Milwaukee was the sleeper in the NL Central.  That didn't go so well.  This year, they're the sleeper again.  With Ben Sheets two years away from free agency, and Bill Hall's and Chris Capuano's arbitration-eligibility reminding us that the quartet of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and Corey Hart isn't far behind, the gap for this Brewers core to succeed may not be a big one.  The addition of Jeff Suppan was the sort of move a team makes when they think they're contending, and full seasons from Sheets and Francisco Cordero will be boosts over the '06 squad's weakest points.  On the other hand, the divison is getting better, and bouncing into contention from 71 pythagorean wins is a very tall order.

Offense:

Only three National League teams scored fewer runs than the Brewers last year, and one of them was the Padres, who don't count.  Only the Cubs were more punchless on the road.  While no one predicted that the 2006 Brewers would outslug the Mets, the opening day lineup did have some punch.

Then the opening day lineup got hurt.  By mid-August, Weeks, Hardy, and Corey Koskie had been lost for the season, while Geoff Jenkins and Brady Clark had hit themselves out of their jobs.  (Turns out there wasn't an adequate replacement for Brady, so he got his back.)  Damian Miller was tiring and Mike Rivera took over behind the plate.  Kevin Mench arrived in trade for Carlos Lee and OPS'd 501 in August.  (501!)  In other words, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

That made this offseason a tricky one for Doug Melvin.  For the most part, he elected to stick with what he had, trusting that Weeks and Hardy would come back strong, and assuming that either Mench or Jenkins couldn't possibly be as bad as they played last year.  The only real upgrade was Estrada, who was acquired from Arizona along with Claudio Vargas and Greg Aquino in exchange for Doug Davis and Dana Eveland.  With the bat, Estrada is a definite step up from Miller, though his high-BA, low-OBP style makes him easy to overrate.

So, while the opening day lineup is similar to last year's edition, it's tough to judge the 2007 squad's prospects based on 2006 performance.  Let's take a glance at how each position performed last year, and how this year's team compares:

  • Catcher:
    • 2006: 246/308/390
    • Estrada's career line is 280/327/407.  That's not a huge advantage, but it ought to make this spot a bit less of an offensive sinkhole.  Depending on who you ask, the Brewers might give it back on defense.
  • First base:
    • 2006: 291/366/498
    • Fielder was one of the only bright spots that lasted the whole season in '06; he'll only be 23 next year, so he could easily be brighter still.  Like at catcher, there's not a huge advantage to be expected here, but as long as Prince stays healthy, he should take another step toward stardom.
  • Second base:
    • 2006: 265/336/388
    • While giving a couple hundred at-bats to Tony Graffanino didn't help matters, Weeks showed that he still hasn't developed much of the power that scouts are waiting for.  Before his injury, he was getting on base at a strong .363 clip, but only slugging .404.  While ZiPS isn't quite so optimistic, PECOTA and CHONE both predict he'll top .450 in slugging.  If he plays 140+ games, that's the biggest plus we've seen so far.
  • Third base:
    • 2006: 282/348/476
    • Thanks to a productive platoon in the first half of the season, the Brewers third basemen were above average.  (And stayed that way, even after David Bell's arrival!)  This year's production from that spot is anybody's guess.  Koskie may never come back, and if the Crew has to live with a Counsell/Graffanino platoon until Ryan Braun is ready, that cancels out the advantage from having Weeks healthy at second base.
  • Shortstop:
    • 2006: 254/330/478
    • That line is made up of some Bill Hall greatness and some J.J. Hardy crappiness.  While Hall will be in this year's starting lineup, so will Hardy.  Projection systems like Hardy for about 260/330/410, which is decent for a strong defensive shortstop.  That would be a decent-sized improvement for Hardy, though, whose career line is 246/319/388.
  • Left field:
    • 2006: 279/335/502
    • Thank you, Carlos Lee.  If Ned Yost platoons Jenkins and Mench (henceforth known as "Menchkins") and each of them rebounds a bit, left field could be just as strong this year.  More likely, Yost will play the hot hand until it gets cold, then leave the cold hand out there for a month.  Look for a decline.
  • Center field:
    • 2006: 255/334/358
    • Now here's some reason for excitement.  Last year, Brady Clark tried to hit for negative isolated power.  This year, Bill Hall will be manning the position.  A pessimistic forecast would improve this position's OPS by 100 points; it's not out of the realm of possibility that it'll increase by 200.
  • Right field
    • 2006: 268/348/442
    • While that line only includes a couple hundred Corey Hart at-bats, it isn't far from what he managed once he got the job.  If PECOTA is right, the Brewers are in for a nice surprise (nearly a 900 OPS!).  If not, he ought to replicate last year's production.
  • Bench:
    • 2006: eh.
    • Jeff Cirillo and Gabe Gross were solid in pinch-hitting roles, but unfortunately the rest of the bench had to start, forcing Doug Melvin to shop at the Graff-Mart in July.  With Graffanino back, Counsell on board, and way too many outfielders to fit on one roster, this year's squad should be deeper.  And, if regression to the mean counts for anything, healthier.
Put it all together: the Brewers should get improvements from C, 1B, 2B, CF, and RF, while suffering at 3B, SS, and LF.  If Braun is ready soon and Jenkins and/or Mench puts together a decent season, that eliminates one or two of the down spots.  There's reason for optimism, but only so much.  

Starting Rotation

Thanks to a bunch of guys most baseball fans have ever heard of, the Brewers pitching staff wasn't very good last year.  Much of the problem was in the bullpen (cough Turnbow cough), but the back-end of the rotation, mostly consisting of fill-ins for Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka, didn't carry their weight.  I discovered in this article that Milwaukee's aggregate 5th starter had an ERA of 6.21.

This year, the rotation looks better, and it looks deeper.  (For the record, I know I said that last year, too.)  The biggest difference (or so the Brewers hope) will be a full season of Sheets.  I wrote recently about Big Ben's thoroughgoing awesomeness: even in his shortened campaign last year, he set records.  All the projection systems love him; the only differences are matters of degree.  I don't think anyone doubts that if Sheets is healthy for 30+ starts, he'll be one of the best pitchers in baseball.

The next two guys, Chris Capuano and Dave Bush, are quite solid as well.  Capuano had a brilliant first half last season and threw well over 200 innings for the second consecutive year.  Compared to 2005, his HR and K rates stayed almost exactly the same, but he halved his walks.  His projections put his ERA right around 4, which is nice, but not as nice as what they do for Dave Bush.

Bush had very similar peripherals to Capuano last year--in other words, he was darn good.  His ERA wasn't as friendly, but his projections look past that and are even more optimistic than those for Capuano.  In other words, there's a reasonable chance that the Brewers will have three starters with ERAs near or under 4.00 in 2007.

Jeff Suppan pales in comparison to the front three, but he's still a nice guy to have in your rotation.  He's about as close as you can get to a lock for 30 average starts.  He'll suffer from having the mediocre Brewers defense behind him (after benefiting from the Cardinals wall-o-infield), but after last year's injury-fest, Suppan was perhaps the best choice for Milwaukee among this offseason's overpaid free agents.

That leaves the #5 spot.  Claudio Vargas was part of the bounty for Doug Davis, and should start the season in the rotation.  His 2006 doesn't look very good, but a 4.83 ERA in Chase Field is nothing to sneeze at--it's above average for a starter.  And, for what it's worth (probably nothing), he hasn't allowed a run in two outings at Miller Park.

Behind Vargas are two pitchers who would be good enough for the fifth spot in many rotations: Carlos Villanueva and Zach Jackson.  It's apparently impossible to mention Villanueva without pointing out that he has uninspiring stuff, but it seems only fair to couple that with his 3.69 ERA last year.  He was successful in both Double-A and Triple-A, and deserves first crack at the rotation when injury strikes.  

Jackson wasn't embarrassing in his rotation audition last year, allowing a 5.54 ERA in 7 starts.  He'll only be 24 next year, and has more prospect mojo than Villanueva.  Brewers fans hope that no more starters will be needed, but if those seven can hold out until July, mega-prospect Yovani Gallardo may be ready to jump in.  Between the Florida State League and the Southern League last  year, he allowed an equivalent OPS under 700.  It would be premature to send him to Milwaukee in April, but it's tough to oversell this guy.  

The Bullpen

The 2006 Brewers had a lot of weak points, but the bullpen was front and center.  The only reliever who was with the team the whole year and didn't lose time to injury was Derrick Turnbow, and the Crew might've been better off if he wasn't and had, respectively.

This year, the pen lines up behind Francisco Cordero, who--despite Buck Showalter's apparent belief to the contrary--is one of the best relievers in baseball.  He was even better after being traded last year: he only allowed a run in only one of his first twenty-four outings.  That is even better than Turnbow had been bad.

Setting up for Cordero will be Matt Wise and Jose Capellan.  Wise came back to earth last year after his breakout 2005, but was still well above average.  Capellan hasn't yet lived up to his billing, but has settled in as a moderately successful reliever who has the capability of making batters look really stupid.  Brian Shouse will be the lefty specialist, and Greg Aquino will have a role as well.

That leaves one or two more spots, one of which will probably go to Turnbow.  I haven't the foggiest idea whether Turnbow will become a dominant setup man, or if he'll throw garbage innings until another team decides to take a chance on him.  Under Ned Yost, it'll probably be some of both, and probably not all at the appropriate times.  When the team carries a 12th pitcher, it could be converted starter Dennis Sarfate, any number of spring training invitees, or Villanueva as a swingman.

The good news here is that Cordero's presence ought to decrease the importance of the innings everyone else throws.  From the group of Turnbow, Capellan, Wise, and Aquino, there ought to be at least one solid 8th inning option, and probably multiple choices for Yost.  As opposed to the bullpen juggling that went on last year, Chris Demaria should have no role at all.

All Together Now

It's safe to say that the 2007 Brewers will be better than the 2006 squad in just about every way.  I haven't discussed defense, but even in that department, having Hardy at shortstop will help, while Fielder and Weeks have appeared to improve with major-league experience.

But, are those improvements enough to put the Brewers in the race?  If the starters (namely Sheets) stay healthy, I think it is.  The rotation is one of the best in the league, and bullpen is good enough to keep the pitching staff as a whole among the top four or five in the NL.  The offense will probably not be much better than average, but it won't suffer like it did last year.

If the Brewers do in fact have an average offense and a top-quartile pitching staff, that would give them approximately twelve more wins than last year.  On top of their 75-87 record, that puts them right in the hunt for the wild card.  Combined with their pythagorean record of 71-91, it's not quite so optimistic.  Either way, there's plenty of evidence this team will substantially improve; at the very least, there should be some meaningful baseball in Milwaukee in August and September.