Monday, November 11, 2013

The 2014 Milwaukee Brewers

Today (Monday, November 11) is the last day for players to accept or decline qualifying offers.  The deadline is 4 pm CT.  After that, the free agent season will begin in earnest.  As usual, it figures to be a rather quiet offseason for the Brewers.  There aren’t a lot of open roster spots to fill and looking at the abysmal free agent class, that’s a relief.  First base is easily the largest hole and I believe they’ll re-sign Corey Hart.  Past that it’s likely just a couple of relievers and possibly a bench player will be signed.  They could go for a starting pitcher if the front office decides Tyler Thornburg is better suited at AAA or in the pen.  However, with Jimmy Nelson and Johnny Hellweg waiting in the wings I think it’s unlikely.  With Mark Attansio as the owner, however, it’s not something I am willing to fully write off.  The following is my best guess at what the Brewers’ 2014 opening day roster will look like:

C: Jonathan Lucroy ($2 MM)
BN: Martin Maldonado (****$500 k)
1B: Corey Hart (*****$6 MM)
BN: Juan Francisco (***$1.4 MM)
2B: Scooter Gennett (****$500 k)
BN: Rickie Weeks ($11 MM)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (*$10 MM)
BN: Jeff Bianchi (****$500 k)
SS: Jean Segura (****$500 k)

LF: Khris Davis (****$500 k)

CF: Carlos Gomez ($7 MM)
OF: Nori Aoki ($1.95 MM)
RF: Ryan Braun **(12.5 MM)

SP: Kyle Lohse ($11 MM)
RP: Jim Henderson (****$500 k)
SP: Yovani Gallardo ($11.5 MM)
RP: Brandon Kintzler (****$500 k)
SP: Wily Peralta (****$500 K)
RP: Tom Gorzelanny ($2.8 MM)
SP: Marco Estrada (***$3.5 MM)
RP: Rob Wooten (****$500 k)
SP: Tyler Thornburg (****$500 k)
RP: Donovan Hand (****$500 k)

RP: Free Agent
RP: Free Agent

Unless indicated otherwise, all salary figures come from Cots Contracts.
*Aramis Ramirez’s total salary is $16 million, but $6 million of it is deferred.
**Ryan Braun’s salary is $10 million, but he also gets $2.5 million from his signing bonus.
***Salary figure comes from MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration estimates
****The league minimum is $500,000. Some players might make slightly over that, but not by much.
*****This is just my best guess for Hart’s potential base salary. There would likely be incentives as well.

You can argue against some of my picks but I think this is pretty close to what we’ll see.  Rickie Weeks’ contract is about as close to immovable as it gets so I expect they’ll platoon him with Gennett.  As I mentioned above, I believe the Brewers will bring Hart back.  I’m guessing it’ll be for a deal similar to Mike Napoli’s 2013 contract with the Red Sox.  He got a base salary of $5 million with $8 million in incentives.  I’m also of the opinion that Juan Francisco will return.  I know a lot of people are against it because in their minds Sean Halton’s triple slash of 238/291/396 is just too good to pass up.  For the record, Juan Francisco’s was 227/296/422 (221/300/433 as a Brewer).  Neither was very good but Francisco hit better in the minors, has a massive edge in power (if he can ever hit well enough to utilize it in-game), and can play third base (in addition to first) while Halton can only play first and corner outfield.  Francisco’s defense was pretty bad at first base, but that was his first season ever at the position.  He’s been solid defensively at third in the past.  Francisco is currently working on a new swing in the Dominican Winter League with apparent success.  We shouldn’t make too much out of it though since I doubt he’s facing a lot of quality pitching, but it might just be enough to earn his way back on the roster.  He’s only expected to earn approximately $1.4 million so he won’t be prohibitively expensive.  I’m willing to pay $900,000 more than Halton’s league minimum for the potential Francisco offers.  As a side-note, if the Brewers don’t end up bringing Hart back, I wouldn’t be entirely shocked to see them platoon these two guys instead. 

The Brewers have exercised Norichika Aoki’s 2014 option and announced another Aoki bobblehead day so despite all the trade rumors, until it actually happens, I expect him to be manning the outfield alongside Gomez and Braun on opening day.  Khris Davis hit his way into a reserve or platoon role.  The problem here is he can only play left.  Aoki could play centerfield in a pinch, but there is no true centerfield back up for Gomez.  The Brewers need Jeff Bianchi to back up shortstop (in addition to second and third base) so that leaves no room for Logan Schafer, assuming they roll with a 12 man pitching staff. 

The rotation seems pretty straightforward.  Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, and Marco Estrada are almost sure locks at this point.  There will be lots of trade talks surrounding Lohse and Gallardo over the winter.  While I’m in favor of this, I’ll believe the Brewers trade one when it happens.  They might have enough money to pursue a back-end starter, but I don’t think they will.  In my opinion, Thornburg is the strong front runner for the final rotation spot.  If they do end up acquiring another starter then I’d expect to see Thornburg in the bullpen.  That being said, Jim Henderson, Tom Gorzelanny, and Brandon Kintzler are probably the only relievers that are assured a spot on the roster.  Burke Badenhop stands to make just over $2 million through arbitration and is a potential non-tender.  For that reason I think the Brewers will instead go with Donovan Hand.  The two pitchers offer similar groundball potential but Hand could serve in long relief and even get a spot start or two.  I also think Rob Wooten has a solid chance of making the club out of spring training.  He was decent in 27.2 innings with the Brewers, if not overwhelming.  He didn’t strike out a lot of guys but that could improve as he’s had a solid strikeout to walk ratio in the minors.  Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro, David Goforth, Michael Olmsted, Johnny Hellweg, Jimmy Nelson, Ariel Pena, Kevin Shackleford, and Tyler Cravy could all factor in at some point. 

With the roster as I have it, the Brewers will have committed approximately $86-87 million to 23 roster spots.  In 2013 the Brewers opening day payroll was approximately $88 million.  With the extra $25 million each club is set to receive in national TV money I think it’s safe to assume the Brewers will feel comfortable going over 2013’s payroll.  They certainly won’t spend all of the extra money on the major league roster, but they shouldn’t need to use even half of it.  If I’m right all the Brewers will need from free agency is two relievers (aside from Corey Hart that is, but he’s already factored into my roster mock-up).  I won’t even hazard a guess on which relievers they’ll actually target, but it’d be nice to see them take a chance on a guy like Jesse Crain or Ryan Madson.  Each has a history of success in high leverage situations and will be cheap as they’re coming off of injuries.  It’s likely they’ll only sign one year deals wherever they end up.  They could be the 2014 version of Francisco Rodriguez.  By that I mean they provide mid-season trade potential.  

I see three main problems with this roster.  Having Khris Davis as the fourth outfielder leaves a lack of defensive depth in the outfield.  I’m not concerned about Gomez going on the DL because Schafer still has an option left and he can be called up to replace him.  However, when Gomez inevitably needs a day off Aoki would have to play center.  They might be able to get away with it here and there, but I’m concerned about his diminishing skill set.  Perhaps the Brewers feel comfortable taking that chance, but defense matters.  It’s possible they decide to go with a 6-man bullpen in favor of keeping Schafer on the roster, but I don’t see it happening that way.  Honestly, the real problem here may be wasting a roster spot, which could otherwise be filled by Schafter, on carrying two second basemen only guys.  I’d be comfortable using Bianchi in a platoon with Gennett where he faces left-handed pitching and comes in late in games as a defensive replacement.  The Brewers might be able to move Weeks at the trade deadline, but after two straight disappointing seasons and coming off an injury it’ll be a longshot to happen before opening day. 

I’m also worried about the fragility of this roster.  Aramis Ramirez is going to be 36 and he missed large parts of the season while dealing with a knee injury that never fully healed.  Ryan Braun went on the disabled list for the first time in his career right before he was suspended.  He admitted to using PEDs in order to come back from an injury during the 2011 season.  Without knowing the full story, one has to wonder if time off due to injuries will increase in the coming years.  To be clear, I’m not worried about his ability to perform at the same level, only his susceptibility to injuries.  Corey Hart missed the whole 2013 season to what ended up being two knee surgeries which makes 3 over the past 2 years.  Kyle Lohse has been fine in recent seasons but he’s dealt with injuries before and will be 35.  Gomez and Estrada both seem to end up on the DL at some point each season.  I like both of them quite a lot, but it’d be nice to see them be healthy for a full season.  With his injury history, Rickie Weeks is a risk especially since he’s coming off a torn hamstring.  I expect he’ll serve in a diminished role next year so it may not matter that much.

The other problem is the starting rotation.  Kyle Lohse exceeded my, perhaps too low, expectations.  He was the best starter for the Brewers.  I’m convinced he’s better than I thought, but I’m not sure he’s much more than a mid-rotation starter.  He’s a pitch to contact, flyball pitcher, throwing half his games at Miller Park.  Despite his excellent walk rate, I think that mix will always worry me.  Yovani Gallardo was a mess for the first half of the season.  I think it was due to his inability to adjust to his lowering velocity.  He’s never had great control and now he can’t get his fastball past hitters.  He did have a good stretch to end the season after coming off the disabled list.  It’s possible he started to figure out how to pitch with his lower velocity, but I can’t know that for sure.  Based on his peripherals I do believe he can regain some of his former skill level, but regardless, he’s now likely a number 3 quality starter at best.  Wily Peralta has exciting stuff.  His average fastball velocity is consistently among the best in baseball.  He just needs to learn how to control his pitches.  He’s shown flashes of being a number 2 guy but more often he pitched like a back-end starter.  I really like Estrada.  He had the best strikeout to walk ratio (8.30 K/9 to 2.04 BB/9) among Brewers starters.  He does have a problem with home runs, but that can sometimes be mitigated by his low walk rate.  I think he has as much potential as anyone else in the rotation.  He just can’t seem to stay healthy for a whole season.  Tyler Thornburg was very good for the Brewers over 7 starts.  He had a 1.43 ERA but it screams “small sample size.”  He gave up zero home runs and unfortunately that’s unsustainable.  He can get his fastball up to 94 and sits 92-93.  The biggest knock against him has always been his size.  Because he’s short for a pitcher, he has a hard time getting a downward plane on his pitches.  This can result in a straight fastball, which in turn results in a lot of hard hit balls.  If he can limit that issue, he could be a solid 4/5 starter.  Jimmy Nelson and Johnny Hellweg provide intriguing depth but they both showed they need more time at AAA to develop.

This team absolutely has above average potential.  I won’t pretend they can’t compete, but I can’t pretend that’s anything more than a longshot.  If everyone is healthy for the whole season the offense will be above average, arguably among the very best in baseball.  If each of the starting pitchers was able to pitch to their fullest, they’d be pretty good.  Still, we can’t ignore the problems I discussed above.  We also can’t judge this team in a vacuum.  They compete in what might be the best division in baseball.  I hate to admit it, but the Cardinals are probably going to be the strong favorite again.  The Reds and Pirates should be very tough too.  Even the Cubs are getting better.  If I had to put a number to it, I’d say this team has the potential to win anywhere from 78 to 90 games.  A 78 win season probably looks good enough mid-season to convince the front office not to sell off pieces or (worse) trade to bring talent in.  A 90 win season is just as likely to finish a couple games back of the second wild card spot as it is to earn it.  There’s a lot of risk involved here for a marginal chance to make the post season.  If it were up to me I’d look to trade some guys for prospects both before the season starts and at the trade deadline, but that’s another article.

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