Sunday, April 3, 2011

Initial Rankings of the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers

Despite a lackluster start to the 2011 campaign, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated put together some pretty compelling reasons for why the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers look like a playoff bound team (source).

According to Verducci, 15 of the last 16 years (the last five years in a row) a team with a losing record made the playoffs the follow year. All told a shocking 31 teams over the last 16 years made the playoffs after having a losing record the previous year. Those 31 teams made the playoffs thanks to improved pitching and defense*.

The only bad news it that those teams do not get back to the playoffs that often. Only 7 of the previous 30 teams made back-to-back playoff appearances with the Cincinnati Reds trying to become the 8th in 2011. Let's not put the cart before the horse though, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers need to make the playoffs before we worry about the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers making their second straight playoff appearance.

With the Milwaukee Brewers adding starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers fit the profile of a losing team that improves pitching and defense to make the playoffs.

The 2011 Milwaukee Brewers have a fairly expensive disabled list so before I rank the 25-man opening day roster I thought I would rank the disabled list:

#5) Manny Parra (LHP): So much promise but very little payoff. Since Parra was only effective in spurts the Brewers shuttled Parra between the starting rotation and the bullpen in 2010. With a much better starting rotation in 2011, Parra has the opportunity to flourish as a left-handed reliever or look for a new team since Parra is out of minor league options.

#4) LaTroy Hawkins (RHP): Paying veterans to fill holes is always expensive but relief pitching seems especially expensive since relief pitchers can lose their mojo in no time. Hawkins was injured for most of 2010 and is picking up where he left off at the start of 2011.

#3) Corey Hart (RF): After slipping on wet grass, Hart missed most of spring training and looks set to miss the first month of the season. The Brewers do not want to rush Hart back but $6.5 million is a ton of money to pay a hurt right fielder.

#2) Jonathan Lucroy (C): The potential starting catcher for the next decade for the Brewers suffered a freakish broken pinky on his throwing hand during spring training. Luckily the injury does not look like a long-term problem. All of that is good news because the Brewers have been looking for a long-term solution at catcher since B.J Surhoff. Just to put into perspective how long that has been, when Surhoff caught for the Brewers they played their home games at County Stadium and were a member of the American League.

#1) Zack Greinke (RHP): Pretty amazing that a small market team like the Brewers pulled off blockbuster trades for C.C. Sabathia and Zack Greinke in the last few years. Unfortunately those trades have somewhat gutted the Brewers farm system. The window for major league baseball teams to win is small so I applaud general manager Doug Melvin for rolling the dice on the socially awkward Greinke.

Onto my rankings of the 25 guys that made the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers opening day roster:

#25) Erick Almonte (INF/OF): After having a cup of coffee in the majors in 2001 (4 at-bats over 8 games) and 2003 (100 at-bats over 31 games) for the New York Yankees, somehow Almonte is making another appearance in the majors after an eight year absence. Almonte making the opening day roster is less of an indictment on him and more of an indictment on the farm system.

#24) Sean Green (RHP): Older right-handed relief pitchers are a dime a dozen, which means Green’s days in Milwaukee are numbered once Hawkins is healthy.

#23) Jeremy Reed (OF): The poor man’s Scott Podsednik will meet the same fate as Green once Hart is healthy.

#22) Brandon Kintzler (RHP): Looks like a nice young arm for the Brewers after appearing in a handful of games for the Brewers in 2010 during September call-ups.

#21) Mitch Stetter (LHP): Every bullpen needs the token lefty specialist. Stetter needs to perform better in 2011 if he wants to stick on the roster for the entire season.

#20) George Kottaras (C): Lucroy’s broken pinky means Kottaras has a chance to prove he should continue as the back-up catcher in 2011 instead of Wil Nieves.

#19) Sergio Mitre (RHP): The Brewers turned the carcass of Jim Edmonds into the carcass of Sergio Mitre via Chris Dickerson. The Dickerson/Mitre trade makes no sense, especially following the Hart injury. The Brewers continue to struggle to find quality bench guys not named Craig Counsell.

#18) Takashi Saito (RHP): Gotta love paying a 41-year old relief pitcher almost $2 million, luckily Saito is only signed for 2011.

#17) Nyjer Morgan (CF): The Brewers traded minor league infielder Cutter Dykstra and $50,000 to the Washington Nationals for centerfielder Nyjer Morgan. The much-maligned Morgan put up good numbers in Pittsburgh and Washington in 2009 but regressed in 2010. With the underachieving Carlos Gomez doing his best to play his way out of his starting spot in center field, the Brewers are going to have two potential starting center fielders that will probably never figure it out.

#16) Zach Braddock (LHP): After a great 2010 season, Braddock opens the season as the top left-handed option out of the bullpen for the Brewers.

#15) Wil Nieves (C): Witch Lucroy on the disabled list, Nieves will keep the starting spot warm until Lucroy returns. Rookie manager Ron Roenicke will have to decide whether to keep the old man (Nieves) or the young buck (Kottaras) as Lucroy’s backup. If I were in charge, I would go with the young buck.

#14) Carlos Gomez (CF): The centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade a few years back was subsequently traded to the Brewers in exchange for oft-injured shortstop J.J. Hardy. Gomez shows flashes of why the Twins traded for him a few years back but can never seem to do it over a full season. As I said earlier, Morgan and Gomez will probably platoon for most of the season leaving the Brewers without an actual starting center fielder.

#13) Yuniesky Betancourt (SS): As I said in my Most Overpaid and Most Underpaid 2011 Milwaukee Brewers Post, it is never a good sign when $1 million of your contract is being paid by the Seattle Mariners but that is not the last team you played for before the Brewers. Betancourt joined the Brewers as a part of the Greinke trade and the Brewers would replace Betancourt in a heartbeat if they had a better option.

#12) Kameron Loe (RHP): The primary set-up guy for closer John Axford had an impressive 2010. In fact Loe pitched so well in 2010 that the Brewers flirted with putting Loe in the starting rotation but after acquiring Greinke and Marcum in the off-season, the Brewers had more of a need for Loe in the bullpen than the starting rotation.

#11) Craig Counsell (INF): After a great 2009, Counsell regressed a little offensively in 2010. Fortunately the Brewers have Counsell on the roster for his versatility (plays 2nd, SS, and 3rd) and leadership. No matter how Counsell performs in 2011, he has earned the right to be one of the 25-guys on the roster for as long as he wants.

#10) Chris Narveson (LHP): A quality 5th starter on almost any team has consistently out-pitched the field to earn his spot in the Brewers rotation.

#9) Mark Kotsay (OF/1B): After flirting with retirement, Kotsay went from a spot starter to the opening day starter in right field thanks to Corey Hart’s injury. If Kotsay performs well, the Brewers might want to give Hart some reps in centerfielder to see whether an outfield of Braun, Hart, and Kotsay is their best option.

#8) Randy Wolf (LHP): After a bad start to 2010, Wolf settled down to put together a decent campaign. When Greinke gets healthy the Brewers have to decide where to slot Wolf in the starting rotation. Wolf is the 4th best starter behind Greinke, Gallardo, and Marcum but slotting Wolf 4th and Narveson 5th would have the Brewers starting three right-handed pitchers followed by two left-handed pitchers. Either way things are looking up for the Brewers because Wolf goes from the #2 starter in 2010 to the #4 starter in 2011.

#7) Shaun Marcum (RHP): Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays for Canadian minor league prospect Brett Lawrie. Although the Brewers gave up one of their best prospects, they got a middle of the rotation starter in return. Lawrie may turn out to be a great major league player or he may be another Mat Gamel. Either way the Brewers got a quality starting pitcher that is moving from the American League to the National League. Even if the Brewers didn’t make the big splash trading for Greinke, acquiring a starter like Marcum will go down as one of the best off-season moves in the last decade for the Brewers.

#6) John Axford (RHP): After Trevor Hoffman’s monumental collapse at the beginning of 2010, Axford came out of nowhere to give the Brewers a new school Rollie Fingers. Hopefully Axford can pitch in 2011 like he did in 2010.

#5) Casey McGehee (3B): Much like Counsell, McGehee regressed a little offensively in 2010 after a great 2009. McGehee still gives the Brewers some protection for Ryan Braun once Prince Fielder leaves after 2011 so expect McGehee to rebound well in 2011.

#4) Rickie Weeks (2B): It can’t be understated how high the expectations were for Rickie Weeks when the Brewers drafted him after leading college baseball in batting average for two years. After a number of freakish injuries early in his major league career, Weeks finally started to fulfill some of those expectations. As a result, Weeks signed a huge contract extension with the Brewers in the off-season. The four-year, $38.5 million contract** has an $11.5 million option for 2015 that is guaranteed if Weeks meets two conditions***. With all the injuries Weeks has suffered throughout his career, the Brewers are making a huge financial commitment to Weeks. Hopefully Weeks will stay healthy and justify the large investment.

#3) Prince Fielder (1B): The sawn song for Fielder is going to be very interesting to watch. If the Brewers struggle in 2011 they might feel compelled to trade Fielder at the trade deadline. Either way, Fielder has not showed a willingness to sign an extension despite the Brewers reportedly offering Fielder a five-year, $100 extension a few years ago. Since Fielder is represented but super-a-hole agent Scott Boras, Fielder is headed to free agency following 2011. An American League team is an ideal landing spot for Fielder because although he is decent in the field, Fielder looks like he will be a full-time DH during the second half of the mega extension he will presumably sign in the off-season. If I were in charge, no matter how the Brewers play in 2011 they should keep Fielder throughout the season and take the draft pick compensation if they can’t sign him to a contract extension.

#2) Yovani Gallardo (RHP): Gallardo is living up to his big contract extension. Once Greinke rejoins the rotation, the Brewers will have the best one-two punch in baseball outside of Philadelphia and San Francisco. If the Brewers are smart they will continue to market Gallardo and the Chorizo (#5 sausage in the sausage race) to the growing Hispanic population in Milwaukee.

#1) Ryan Braun (LF): With Fielder on the way out, Braun is the face of the franchise for the next decade. Starting pitchers like Greinke and Gallardo are great to have but they only pitch once or twice a week. Guys like Braun play everyday, which is what excites the average fan. Braun needs to continue to produce on a daily basis in 2011 and into 2012 or the Brewers will have a huge hole in the heart of their line-up.

* = 19 straight and 27 of the 31 teams allowed fewer runs the season they made the playoffs compared to the previous year.

** = $7.5 million in 2011, $10 million in 2012, $10 million in 2013, and $11 million in 2014.

*** = First, Weeks must have either 600 plate appearances in 2014 or 1,200 plate appearances between 2013 and 2014. Second, Weeks must end the 2014 season healthy. If Weeks does not meet either of those conditions if he has at least 400 plate appearances in 2014 the Brewers have to pay Weeks $1 million to void the $11.5 million option for 2015.

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