ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 28: Lance Berkman #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates after defeating the Texas Rangers 6-2 to win Game Seven of the MLB World Series at Busch Stadium on October 28, 2011 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Depending on when you're reading this the Milwaukee Brewers have signed or are about to sign Aramis Ramirez, for three years and $34-37 million. This is a solid deal for the Brewers, I think—Ramirez will be 34 next year and sucked at 32, but for the price of Kyle Lohse they've got a guy who's had a 130 OPS+ two years out of three and a 125 OPS+ seven. It's a gamble because he's old, but it strikes me as a good gable.
It's an especially good gamble because the Milwaukee Brewers were historically, hysterically terrible at third base. Casey McGehee, a butcher on defense, hit 13 home runs in 155 games and ended up with a line of .223/.280/.346, which even in the Year Of The Pitcher was worth an OPS+ of 69. That's a win below replacement if you think he was somehow above-average on defense this year, like Total Zone does; elsewhere, it gets uglier still.
What's worse, he was the strongest third baseman they had—the other guys at the position, who had a total of 92 plate appearances at the position and included, for one 0-3 game, our pal Felipe Lopez, hit .146. The Brewers weren't just at replacement level, they were up to two wins below it—Prince Fielder might have been worth 5.2 wins above a replacement first baseman in 2011, but Aramis Ramirez was worth 5.6 wins above Casey and the McGeheetones.
That's the one consolation in this whole Prince Fielder situation for the Brewers—they were terrible at other positions. Sea Bass Gonzalez? Not an upgrade a lot of places, but he can hit like 2011 shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt while fielding like either Alex Gonzalez, which is a significant improvement. If they get a good-enough season from Mat Gamel, or whichever at-least-replacement-level type they run out at first base, they'll have done a good job of replacing most of Fielder's production on the cheap. (Of course, if they'd managed to replace Casey McGehee with anybody at all and resigned Prince Fielder they'd be in better shape still, but at this point I don't feel like needling another team for losing their franchise first baseman.)
That's what's good about being a flawed team like the Milwaukee Brewers were a flawed team—what held them back can be replaced cheaply, because it's the first win or two at third base and shortstop. The Cardinals were terrible up the middle, but they weren't as terrible, which has made things a little more difficult. Here's what the Cardinals can do to make up some of those Pujols wins on the cheap:
- Sign Rafael Furcal. Done! Ryan Theriot was, per Baseball-Reference, a perfect zero—483 plate appearances as a $3 million replacement level player, just waiting to be replaced by someone who is not that. This was the lowest hanging mediocrity on the 2011 team, and the Cardinals have plucked it.
- Move Lance Berkman to first base. Also done! Berkman is unlikely to be as brilliant a hitter as he was in 2011—he set a career high in OPS+, after all—but at first base he seems less likely to give up a win on defense. Allen Craig and company don't have to hit as well as Berkman did if they can be, collectively, an above-average right fielder.
- Push the replacement-level innings further down in the pitching staff. Last year Kyle McClellan was, as a starter and a reliever, the pitcher of last resort in St. Louis; he started 17 times while the Cardinals couldn't get anybody else to do it, and when he returned to the bullpen after the rotation shuffle it was to backstop a bullpen that had seen sub-replacement-level performance from multiple pen suspects. Somebody has to do that job—it probably won't be McClellan, since he's about to cost real money [late night editor's note—son of a]—but he shouldn't pitch 142 innings.
Adam Wainwright will be the primary driver there; the Cardinals' impressive depth in the bullpen, short of another Ryan Franklin-style disaster, will also be crucial.