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Brewers '09 Season Preview

The penultimate installment of our NL Central season previews moves up north to preview the team who is, apparently, many Cards’ fans newest most hated rival – the Milwaukee Brewers.

  • ’08 record – 90-72
  • ‘08 Pythagorean record – 86-76
  • Runs per game – 4.63 (7th in NL)
  • Runs yielded per game – 4.25 (4th in NL)
  • DER -- .700 – 2nd in the NL (Defense Efficiency Ratio)
  • BP projected record – 83-79
  • Chone projected record – 81-81
  • Welcome: Braden Looper, Trevor Hoffman, Jorge Julio, Casey McGehee
  • Don’t let the door hit you…: C.C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Salomon Torres, Mike Lamb, Ray Durham, Gabe Kapler, Russell Branyan, Guillermo Mota, Brian Shouse, Eric Gagne
It goes w/o saying that no team in the division lost more in the offseason than did the Brewers. Maybe that fact alone will enable Cards’ fans to stop getting all worked up when they untuck their shirts after winning a game. We’ll see. Anyway, these are not the same Brewers we saw last year. They’ll have big time rotation issues and their closer – the 41 year old Hoffman – will begin the season on the D.L. Their offense will still be pretty good and they’ve got two good, young starters in the rotation, but I surely won’t mind missing Sheets and Sabathia whenever we play them.

Rotation: I could end this section after the following sentence: Jeff Suppan will be the Brewers opening day starter. Last year, Suppan was a replacement level starter – w/ a 5.51 FIP and worth minus 0.1 wins. He was paid $8.3 M and was worth negative $400,000. He’ll "earn" $12.5 M this year, and another $12.5 M next year. Remember when so many Cards’ fans wanted us to resign him following the ’06 season? Chone sees him as a replacement level starter again while PECOTA’s a little more sanguine – worth about 1 WAR. Braden Looper is the other ex-Card on the staff. Looper was a 1.7 win pitcher last year – nearly league average – but in many ways is a very similar pitcher to Suppan. Looper was better last year, his 2nd as a starter, than he was in ’07 b/c he was able to reduce his walks, increase his strikeouts slightly, and improve his GB%. If he can do those things again, he could be ok. Like Suppan, though, he doesn’t miss enough bats to be much better than average.

Dave Bush is the other vet in the rotation. He was a 1 win pitcher in ’08 and only once was worth more than 2 wins – in 2006. The Brewers’ rotational hopes rely on the young guys – Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra. Gallardo should be a fantastic pitcher though he was injured most of last season. The Brewers trusted him enough to give him the ball in game 1 of the division series last fall against the Phils – he walked 5 and gave up 3 unearned runs in 4 innings – and then he was sensational in relief of Suppan in game 4 but the hole Suppan dug was too great. Sounds like prophecy to me. Anyway, Gallardo has it all. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be special. Parra was the Brewers’ 3rd best starter last year w/ 2.4 WAR despite pitching just 159.1 innings. He doesn’t figure to have the upside of Gallardo, but those 2 are – right now – the Brewers’ two best starters and have the potential to be 2 of the best in the league. I’d take them ahead of anyone on our staff not named Wainwright, or maybe Carpenter. (And considering salary and age, I’d take Gallardo over Carpenter.)

Bullpen: The Brewers’ pen was a lot better than anyone realized last year. They’ll miss Torres and Brian Shouse, but not Gagne, and Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung return. Both were terrific last year as Villanueva finished w/ a 3.10 K/BB ratio while McClung’s was 4.70. There are major depth issues here this year that didn’t exist last year w/ Hoffman’s injury and the loss of Shouse but at least they have Todd Coffey and Jorge Julio.

Catcher: Jason Kendall, once again, is the Brewers’ backstop. Kendall wasn’t particularly good at the plate last year – the perfect #9 hitter – but was fantastic defensively last season. Throwing out 40% of potential baserunners will do that for you. About 6 weeks ago, I determined that Kendall was worth nearly a win above average defensively last season and was the best catcher in baseball defensively in ’08. Whether he’ll be able to do that again in ’09 is questionable – he hasn’t had a CS% greater than 24.5% since 2004 – but he was fantastic last season. Kendall’s played more than 135 games for each of the last 9 seasons so I don’t even care who his backup is – it doesn’t seem to matter.

Infield: This is the year Rickie Weeks and Bill Hall become All-Stars. There. I’ve said it. Both can, at times, be really good and at others, be magnificently awful! You just never know what you’re going to get. Hall’s defense at third has been maligned, but he was a +4 run defender at the hot corner in ’08 – a (gulp!) 28 run improvement over Ryan Braun from ’07. His wOBA, however, was a hacktastic .297. He struck out in more than 30% of his ABs while walking just 8.4% of the time. This wasn’t a 1 year aberration either. In 2007, Hall’s wOBA was just .317. He can hit the ball a long way – when he makes contact – he just hasn’t proven the ability to do it often enough to be the player many expected him to be.

Weeks was about a league average 2B last year (1.9 WAR). He, too, strikes out too often – 24% of the time but he did walk more than 12 % of the time last year and had a wOBA of .334. It’s not very good but it’s downright Pujolsian compared to Hall. In 2007, his wOBA was .365 so there’s room for hope w/ him. J.J. Hardy’s the best infielder the Brewers have. He was worth nearly 5 wins last year – 4th best in the big leagues last year – behind only Ramirez, Reyes, and Rollins. He hit 24 bombs, had a .355 wOBA and an UZR of 8.1 last year. He’s good at the plate, very good in the field, and plays a premium position. He’s a really good player. Prince Fielder can hit, can’t field, and doesn’t play a premium position. He’s ok. He was worth 2.6 wins last season – 5th in the division among 1B. I don’t know if he’ll ever become even a decent defensive player – my guess is no since he’s been minus 10.7, minus 8.7, and minus 9.0 the last 3 seasons – but if he does, he’ll become a much better player, obviously. He has played more than 150 games each of the last 3 seasons. As in the pen, their depth isn’t nearly as good here as it was last year as they have the venerable Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee backing up the 4 starters.

Outfield: Mike Cameron is one of the most underrated outfielders in the game. People say "He’s 35 years old, strikes out a lot, and had a .243 batting average last year" to make their point that he’s just not that good. Only 2 NL CFs were worth more wins last season than Cameron – Carlos Beltran (also underrated, btw) and Shane Victorino. He was worth more than 12 runs defensively in just 119 games last year. Despite striking out a Branyan-esque 32% of the time last year, he still had a wOBA of .353. 25 homers in 508 PAs will do that for you. He’s ok offensively, superb defensively and, again, plays a premium position. That’s tough to beat. He’ll be flanked by Corey Hart and Ryan Braun. Corey Hart made the All-Star team and then went out and proved his worth by posting a .659 OPS in the 2nd half. In fairness, he was pretty good before the break but he, obviously, fell apart in the 2nd half. Still, he’s just 27 so there’s reason to believe he’s going to be pretty good. Braun’s already really good. Moving him away from 3B to LF was definitely the right decision as he was just slightly below average in LF last year after playing 3B like Edward Scissorhands in 2007. He wasn’t quite as good at the plate and moved to an easier defensive position and was still worth almost a win more in ’08 than in ’07. That’s the power of defense. He’s going to be a 4+ win player for a long time and if he can learn to improve his BB rate above the 6% range he’s been his first 2 years, he’ll be fantastic.

The bottom line w/ this bunch is that their margin for error has shrunk dramatically from last season. They’ve lost their 2 best starters and 2 of their best relievers and don’t have nearly the depth they’ve had in the recent past. They do still have an above average defense and plenty of offense, though their offense would improve further if they could make contact more consistently. Only 4 NL teams struck out more than the Brewers did last year. They should be right in the middle of the division – along w/ the Cards and the Reds this season but they’re going to need some really good fortune (they deserve some since they’ll only get the Yankees’ 2nd round pick for Sabathia and, b/c of Sheets’ injury, will end up w/ no compensation whatsoever for losing him) in order to make it back to the postseason.