The Brewers, coming off of a monumental collapse to miss the playoffs in 2014, made two major changes over the offseason. First, the team moved Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays for Adam Lind to fill the black hole that has been first base since Corey Hart’s knees failed him in 2013, most recently filled by Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Second, they traded rotation stalwart Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers for RHP Corey Knebel, SS Luis Sardinas, and pitching prospect Marcos Diplan to bolster their bullpen, infield, and system depth. These moves, plus losing platoon second baseman and top right-handed pinch-hitter Rickie Weeks, are the only major changes from an 82-80 third-place club.
Just a note before we start. Since the Brewers play in the NL, all batting statistics will be for non-pitchers to help comparability with AL stats. Just adopt the DH already, NL!
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Brewers mash. It couldn’t be any other way in Miller Park, which mostly plays well for power (right-handed in particular), but more on that later. The Brewers finished 10th/11th/7th in the triple splash stats last season, but the OBP was propped up by being third in the league in HBP. They finished in a tie for 21st in walk rate, which will likely fall, as Reynolds and Overbay both walked more often than Lind. Expect an offense predicated on slugging once again in 2015. The lineup should have great depth, with six of the eight spots manned by players who should be at least league-average hitters, and the two that won’t are the middle infield spots. One thing does cloud the Brewers’ offense, though. The health of Ryan Braun’s right thumb could swing the season. The cryotherapy procedure Braun underwent in the offseason has allegedly helped with the nerve issue that turned Braun from a near All-Star-level hitter in the first half to below-average in August, and downright terrible down the stretch. However, until it is put through the rigors of the season, nothing can be certain. I am optimistic it will keep him from completely falling off the table this year; even if I have doubts it will ever be completely healthy again.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Per Baseball Reference’s Play Index, the Brewers only had 105 plate appearances by left-handed hitters against southpaw pitchers, fewest in all of baseball. This was partially due to the team only having four lefty hitters play large roles on the team in 2014, and Gerardo Parra and Logan Schafer didn’t spend any time on the team together, but the Brewers did use platoons aggressively during the year. Scooter Gennett only had 42 of his 474 plate appearances against lefties, while Overbay was at 29 of 296. Expect much of the same during 2015, as the team has already stated Jonathan Lucroy would start at first against lefty starters, though that plan might change with Lucroy slated to miss much of Spring Training with a strained right hamstring. As for Gennett’s platoon partner, I would guess Sardinas (or Jean Segura if Sardinas replaces him at SS) or Luis Jiminaz will replace Weeks in the short side of the platoon.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
The Brewers swung early and often in 2014. No team swung at the first pitch more often during the year, and the team had three players in the top 30 in the league in that category, which lead to the aforementioned low walk rate. However, they also had a low strikeout rate, just 21st in baseball, despite employing noted whiffers Reynolds and Weeks. This should change, as Lind only swung at the first pitch in about five percent of his plate appearances this past year, though he would have been in the bottom 40% of strikeout rate had he qualified, so expect the Brewers to still put the ball in play quite often.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
Ron Roenicke’s nickname is Runnin’. That tells the outside observer about all one needs to know about the Brewers’ philosophy. The Brewers have only finished outside the top 10 in stolen-base attempts once under Roenicke’s command, and that was his first year in 2011—a Brewers team that had power up and down the lineup. The Brewers also tied for second in the frequency with which they took the extra base in 2014, per Baseball Reference. All in all, the team uses its collective speed to put pressure on opposing defenses every chance they get.
The Brewers were 13th in sacrifice bunts in 2014, led by Segura’s 10 and Gennett’s 8. Segura sacrificing is natural: he hits into quite a few double plays due to his high ground-ball rate, he hit poorly regardless of the double-play potential, and he also led the team with 10 bunt hits due to his good speed. Gennett, on the other hand, comes directly from Roenicke’s philosophy. The club has been top 10 in sac bunts every year of his tenure, except for 2014, and even led the league in 2012. Roenicke also aggressively uses the squeeze play. Since he took over, the Brewers have the most sacrifice bunts with a man on third and less than two outs, with 32, which is over half again as many as the second-place team. In fact, they have the first, second, tenth and 24th-highest of 120 team seasons.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
The biggest pressure point and potential injury replacement will be Braun’s thumb. The Brewers at least have a capable replacement in Parra. The second should concern Brewers fans much more. Aramis Ramirez has had injury trouble each of the past two years, and the Brewers have no obvious replacement for him, with Jason Rogers the only other natural third baseman on the 40-man roster, but he is turning 27 in a month and has only 10 Major League PA. The only other options would be journeyman utility infielder Jimenez, barring a move.
As for the batting order, I would project it like this, though Ramirez is likely to continue in the cleanup spot against RHP:
|V RHP||V LHP|
|Carlos Gomez – CF||Carlos Gomez – CF|
|Jonathan Lucroy – C||Jonathan Lucroy – 1B|
|Ryan Braun – RF||Ryan Braun – RF|
|Adam Lind – 1B||Aramis Ramirez – 3B|
|Aramis Ramirez – 3B||Khris Davis – LF|
|Scooter Gennett – 2B||Martin Maldonado – C|
|Gerardo Parra – LF||Jean Segura – SS|
|Jean Segura – SS||Luis Sardinas – 2B|
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
Miller Park, as I stated above, is great for power. However, it doesn’t always play this way. Miller Park is really two different stadiums. With the glass panels across the back walls open and closed. The retractable roof gets all the attention, but the giant sliding windows that line the walls of the stadium have a greater effect. When they are open, the ball jumps off of the bat, particularly when the roof needs to be closed. When they are closed, even the air in the stadium feels stagnant. This second case normally only occurs in April, when the temperature makes power tough to come by anyway.
The Brewers’ schedule will be tough, with the Cardinals and Pirates both primed to continue their playoff level performances from a year ago and the Cubs another year into their youth movement’s progression. This is probably the final year before the Brewers should attempt at least a partial rebuild.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Everything about the Brewers’ run prevention is predicated on inducing weak contact by pounding the zone down and away. This strategy is used to help cut down on fly balls in Miller Park, which tend to fly over the fence once it warms up (as I mentioned earlier). It also takes advantage of Lucroy’s and Maldanado’s framing proficiency, as lower pitches tend to be easier to “pull” back into the zone. The only issue with this pitch-to-contact strategy is that the Brewers’ defense leaves something to be desired. Apart from Gomez, Parra and Sardinas, the Brewers defense is stocked with players that are average at best.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Brewers MLB.com beat writer, Adam McCalvy, at the Baseball Prospectus event at Miller Park last year. He told the few of us around about how Doug Melvin liked to think of the Brewers’ starting rotation. Top to bottom, it didn’t look all that strong, but if you flipped it over and looked from the bottom up, suddenly the Brewers looked a lot better than most of the teams with a star at the top. The point was, the Brewers’ starting rotation had great consistency from top to bottom, and had good depth. This depth was cut into greatly with the trades of Estrada and Gallardo, but the top five is still fairly fairly even. The biggest issue, however, is that the starters didn’t work that deep into games. Not one hit the 200-inning mark in 2014, and only Kyle Lohse and Mike Fiers averaged over 6.1 innings/game.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Into the late innings, Roenicke loves roles. He will almost always put the same pitcher into an inning in a close game, even if he is over his head (hi Kameron Loe in 2011). Expect Jonathan Broxton to close, Will Smith to get the eighth, and Tyler Thornberg, if healthy, to pitch the seventh. After that, the Brewers do have a few interesting options for matchups. Brandon Kintzler could be effectively deployed in place of a LOOGY, new acquisition Knebel is a flamethrower, and former top prospect Jeremy Jeffress got his career back on track as a ground-ball throwing reliever.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
To the Brewers’ credit, they do attempt to overcome the infield’s defensive issues by shifting aggressively. This does not just count the exaggerated, Ryan Howard-type shifts either. They will often pull one of the middle infielders closer to the bag or a corner infielder off the line, even if the rest of the spots play straight-up. The outfield plays straight away, but that is due to the amount of ground Gomez can cover in center field and Parra in one of the corners when he subs for Davis or Braun. The team is not great at turning double plays, but that, again, stems from their lackluster defensive infield. This isn’t really due to any one player being out of position, but rather, they are simply below-average across the board, save for a few spots. Luckily, Parra and Sardinas can both help cover this up by subbing in for Braun and Ramirez late in games.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Lucroy does little to slow down runners. He gave up the most stolen bases, and only threw out about a quarter of those attempting this year. However, he does everything else extremely well. His framing prowess is well-known, but he is also a great pitch blocker. He only allowed five passed balls in 2014, which tied him for the fewest in baseball among primary catchers, and only Sal Perez allowed fewer on a per-inning basis. Maldonado is also quite good, but he has an absolute cannon for an arm. His ability, along with just enough offense, is what allows the Brewers to feel comfortable using Lucroy as Lind’s platoon partner.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
As I stated above, the park allows quite a few home runs for a good chunk of the year. Apart from that, the field is quite normal. The outfield’s only quirks are where the fence angles back into center field and along the end of the party zone in RF. The one thing that seems to trouble visiting players is the cutout in foul territory. It angles sharply in towards the line in the shallow corners. This leaves little foul territory along the lines in the outfield and can allow triples if the fielder plays for the ball to hit the cutout, but the ball just stays inside.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The farm system is, to be frank, terrible, though getting ever so slightly better. The Brewers have failed on most of their recent first-round picks, the guys who should be cracking into the big leagues right about now. Two of the three from 2009, Eric Arnett and Kyle Heckathorn, (and the third, Kentrail Davis, is turning 27 this year and has yet to hit AAA) have been released. They failed to even sign Dylan Covey in 2010, after he was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes during the post-draft medical process. Taylor Jungmann was supposed to race to the Majors, but four years later, he is just now showing some of the ability that made him a high pick. Jed Bradley has done nothing, and will need to get back on track quickly in his age-25 season to even come close to justifying a top half of the first round selection.
The other issue, besides general talent, is few players are ready to contribute soon. Only one of their top 10 prospects (per Baseball Prospectus) has appeared in AA, Tyrone Taylor, and that was only a five-game cup of coffee at the end of 2014. Jungmann is likely the sixth starter, but apart from him no prospects are ready to play a significant role.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
As I mentioned in the pressure-point section above, both Braun and Ramirez should concern Brewers fans. Save for Parra, there is little near starting-caliber depth available to the Brewers, and a move would almost certainly need to be made should the team want to stay in contention if an offensive player were to go down.
The largest injury concern on the pitching side is starter Matt Garza. He hasn’t started 30 games since 2011, due a variety of arm and core muscle injuries. In fact, the vesting provisions of his fifth-year option in his contract with the Brewers are all health-related. Should a starter require a DL stint, expect Jungmann to be the one to get the call from AAA.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The Brewers are trying to win now, almost by default. The team has two superstars on team-friendly deals, in Lucroy and Gomez, but with little coming to supplement the team. Add in the fact that the division is already strong (and only likely to get stronger as the Cubs’ top system starts graduating talent to the majors), the Brewers need to take advantage before their core ages out of their prime years. I actually think this isn’t the worst idea, as the system is far enough away from providing help that they would need to do a Cubs- or Astros-style tear-down to get the talent, but the Major League team as constructed is currently talented enough to contend for a second Wild Card spot, given a few breaks.
As to the dollars, the Brewers could potentially add some payroll, though it is unlikely until the middle of the season. The Brewers have one of the worst local TV deals in baseball, which is a given being in the smallest media market in MLB, so their ability to handle a payroll is directly correlated to attendance, which also tends to go hand-in-hand with success. We goodlanders have spun the turnstiles in the 3 million range in three of the past four years, but the struggles of 2013 dropped that number down to 2.5 million. While Mark Attanasio has deep pockets like every owner, he is young enough to not have the ability to bankroll large losses without risking those near billions, unlike (say) Mike Illich or Ted Lerner.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
The Brewers have little they can do to help the long term without crippling them in the short term. Now, assuming the team falls out of contention this year, one radical move could be used to help accelerate any potential rebuild. A trade of Gomez in 2015, when he would be more than a rental to the acquiring club, would net the club a treasure trove of prospects. The only way I see anything like this happening would be in the worst-case scenario. Braun’s thumb, Ramirez’s knees, and Garza’s elbow would need to fail; Father Time would need to catch up with Lohse; and even that might not be enough to convince the club that the short term would need to be sacrificed for the long term.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
The Brewers will stay in relatively close contention for the Wild Card slots most of the year, as I expect about 86-88 wins will get the second slot, but I think they will ultimately fall short. Should they be close to striking distance, expect a small move, not unlike trading for Parra last year or Jerry Hairston in 2011, to help patch a hole, but there isn’t a CC Sabathia trade in that farm system. I see an 81-81 record and me slowly shifting my attention more to the tailgating in the parking lot than to the games in the stadium as the season goes on.Next post: How to Lose Rate, Part IV: The Atlanta Braves
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