Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers:

2009 Record: 80-82

General Manager: Doug Melvin

Manager: Ken Macha

Organizational Philosophy: after making its big run late in the 2008 season, the Brewers decided to stand pat in 2009 and trade established players like J.J. Hardy in order to make room for their MLB ready prospects. In the offseason a lot has been made about the hiring of new pitching coach Rick Peterson and his proposed desire to integrate a new philosophy widely embraced during his years on the Oakland coaching staff. 

Peterson's plan calls for the use of extensive computer and video analysis to dissect a pitcher's delivery and find ways to limit injuries and improve overall performance.  The front office is behind this plan and since a lot of money to scheduled to come off the books after the 2010 season it seems the Brewers are moving in the direction by acquiring and cultivating young talent, and in the case of both Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, agressively using their resources to retain players and improve their ballclub through both shrewd money management and performance technology. 

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Yovani Gallardo ($414K)
Randy Wolf ($9.25M)
Jeff Suppan ($12.75M)
Manny Parra ($426K)
Dave Bush ($4M)

After being shut down in 2008 by way of tearing his ACL, Yovani Gallardo made good on his promising 2007 rookie season and pitched very effectively last season.  He will be 24 at the start of the season and is predicted to move into elite status.  Gallardo should be a 200+ strikeout pitcher for the next few seasons and if he can get his BB's down (he did post a rather high BB/9 of 4.56) but his 45% groundballs to 35% flyball ratio does point to a high 12.3% HR/FB to possibly come down a bit next season.  If he can corral his walks and sustain his 9.0+ K/9 he should be incredibly effective in 2010.

Landing Randy Wolf in the free agent market was probably due to the Dodgers deciding not to offer Wolf arbitration.  By not having the Type A tag on him, the Brewers didn't have to relinquish any draft picks this June.  Wolf was signed to a sensible 3 year/$27 million dollar deal and the park change he'll go through could be a factor.  Before 2006 Wolf pitched for the Phillies and was victimized by a few seasons of very high HR/FB rates; considering his home park then was one of the most notorious HR parks in baseball, these rates are understandable.  Since moving the NL West, Wolf has been pretty neutral in terms of groundballs to flyballs allowed.  Last September, he did go down with an elbow injury (only missed one start) that had some worrying whether he would go back under the knife (he did receive Tommy John surgery in 2006).

Some have blamed Wolf's dimunitive size for his recent elbow and shoulder injuries and wonder how much longer he can sustain a career as a upper-tier starter.  Over the past three seasons we have seen improvement in his BB/9 rate (going from 3.42 in '07 to 3.36 in '08 to 2.44 last season) but his K/9 rate has dropped significantly (from 8.24 in '07 to 7.66 in '08 to 6.72 last season).  If his control is here to stay, Wolf can hover around a 7 K/9 and still be effective.  According to the Hardball Times, the Brewers park factor hasn't been too forgiving for flyball pitchers.  If Wolf sees an increase in his FB's allowed (his average is around 42%) then his ERA will suffer.

Jeff Suppan has always been a mediocre pitcher with less than mediocre stuff and last season saw his numbers crash together in another display of expensive futility.  Suppan has only two things going for him 1.) he has a solid changeup but his ineffective fastball does nothing to help set up this pitch. 2.) his numbers do show a pitcher who leans more on the side of groundballs allowed but this is useless when a good portion of his flyballs are leaving the park.  Suppan hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2007 and it would be a miracle if he got anywhere near 180 in 2010.  Since he is untradeable all the Brewers can do is shuttle him out there every five days, hope for the best and wait until his contract finally comes off the books after next season.

Since he was drafted, Manny Parra has always been criticized for his bad mechanics and meddling injuries.  During the offseason he went in for a "minor" surgery to clean up his pitching shoulder.  Parra's numbers have always threatened to be promising.  His first full season with the Brewers he had a K/9 of 7.97 and induced 51% groundballs in 166 IP.  However, his high BABIP and HR/FB dulled any kind of true excitement for the young southpaw.

In 2009 his BB/9 rose to 4.97 while his K/9 slipped a bit 7.46.  He still showed good groundball trends but his BABIP and HR/Fb was still a bit high (.365 and 12.1%) and this wasn't a good match for a pitcher who walks a lot of batters.  Next season Parra will be 27 and if he can exhibit any kind of control he should be an excellent mid-rotation starter.

Dave Bush may have quietly had his best statistical season since his 2006 breakout.  In 2009 Bush showed improvements in both his K/9 (7.01) and BB/9 (2.91); unfortunely a high BABIP (.324), low strand rate (63.3%) and career high in flyballs allowed (44%) ballooned his ERA to 6.38 in 114 IP.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to invoke all that Dave Bush hype we fantasy baseball players were sucked into after his 2006 season.  His fastball isn't very fast (tops off at 90 mph) and it has no sink to it.  Most of his pitches come up in the zone (explaining all those flyballs) and can also be the catalyst for his high frequency of HR/FB's.

At the end of last season, Bush was hit with a "fatigued arm" and all the tricep trouble he was experiencing most of last season isn't very promising.

Coming up the Brewers have a lot of young and intriguing pitchers but they are still raw and were no where near AA last season.  One pitcher worth mentioning is 25 year old Josh Butler.  A former Tampa Bay prospect, Butler had to overcome a few seasons lost to injuries but in 2009 he pitched effectively through four levels in the minors before making three appearances as a Brewer in relief.  Butler could be an effective back-end starter as his effective sinker does keep the ball in the park (only 4 HR's allowed last season in 140 IP).  Butler's fastball is very overpowering (sits around 90 mph) but he does mix it up with a solid curve, changeup, and slider.


Trevor Hoffman ($7.5M)
Todd Coffey ($800K)
LaTroy Hawkins ($3.25M)
Mitch Stetter ($407K)
Claudio Vargas ($900K)
Carlos Villanueva ($447K)
David Riske ($4.5M)
Chris Narveson ($400K)
Chris Smith ($400K)
John Axford ($400K)
Chuck Lofgren ($400K)

In terms of flyball survival in Milwaukee, Trevor Hoffman posted his usual high flyball rates (46.4%) and avoided the longball by only giving up 2 HR's in 54 IP last season.  Hoffman posted an incredible and unsustainable 3.1% HR/FB rate in 2009.  Looking at Hoffman's fastball and changeup, both pitches were very dominant in terms of value but how much regression can we expect from Hoffman in 2010?

One trend that followed Hoffman before 2007 was a high frequency of line drives allowed.  Between the years of 2002 to 2006, Hoffman had a high LD ratio that averaged to 23% (I didn't include his shortened 2003 season due to shoulder surgery) since then he has averaged around 15.5%.  Some have pointed to Hoffman's recent use of a rising fastball since he has induced more infield flyballs than usual.  Age will be a factor in 2010 as Hoffman enters his age 42 season.  Those most similar to Hoffmkan after his age 41 season didn't fare well the following season.  Hoffman did become a bit more flyball prone during the second half but a high strand rate saved him.  Next season I would expect him to be again dominant vs. right-handed hitting but expect the other numbers to trend upward.

Signing Hoffman over the offseason to $8 million may be further offset as Todd Coffey continues to build on his positives trends.  Long considered a closer-in-waiting, Coffey showed good command (2.6 BB/9) and excellent GB skills (good for over 50% each season).  Despite having a mid-90's fastball, it isn't polished enough to punch out a couple of batters per frame.  He'll always be dependent on a good defense behind him which is why most teams value him as a decent set-up man.  He will be 29 next season and may be put into more high leverage situations than expected.  2010 will be a career defining season for him.

LaTroy Hawkins was signed this offseason for 2 years and 7.5 million, after posting a career season in Houston in '09.  At the age of 37, Hawkins still has an excellent fastball but higher than usual rates in BABIP and Strand could put him on path to regressing next season.  He has shown that he can lower his BB/9 and keep it there (2.60, 3.19, 2.27 over the last three seasons), so there is hope and he may be expected to get a few saves in 2010.

Mitch Stetter has become the main situational lefty in this bullpen.  He has shown the ability to dominate left-handed hitting but can be volatile against righties.  His trends of inducing a lot of flyballs (50% last season) and BB's makes him scary.

Claudio Vargas spent his first full season in the bullpen last year.  In was very lucky in '09 due to a BABIP of .203 and a strand rate of 90% in 41 IP.  Don't expect the same low ERA this season.  The shortened season in the pen definitely did wonders for his fastball, though (averaged at a career high 91 mph after regressing a bit in the prior three seasons).

Junk ball artist Carlos Villanueva had a few spot starts last season and pitched well enough to score slightly above league average.  He was hounded, however, by a high BABIP (.322), low Strand (67%) and and saw some of his groundballs get slammed as line drives.  He is serviceable out of the pen and as the emergency starter for the low price he is being paid.

On the other end of the pay spectrum, David Riske has done next to nothing to earn the 3 years/$13 million dollar contract he signed before the 2008 season.  The latest report has him missing just about half the 2010 season after electing to undergo Tommy John surgery last June.  He is already suspect too giving up far too many walks and the layoff and expected rise in BB/9 for first year TJ survivors doesn't look too promising.

Chris Narveson is a LHP who got bit by the HR bug last season.  Narveson does look promising since his K and BB rates have been excellent and he did pitch a gem as a starter against the Cubs on September 23rd (5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 10 K, 0 BB).  He could be a sleeper this season and push himself up to the top of this depth chart.  His flyballs allowed could hurt him but he is worth watching.

Chris Smith is another flyball pitcher who got saw a large percentage of them go over the fence.  Smith has the minor league track record to show better command (BB/9 in 46 MLB innings was 3.72 and in 43 AAA innings: 1.27, last season).  Smith can be deceptive with his changing speeds but if he doesn't show pinpoint control he will get hurt. 

John Axford and recent Rule 5 pickup Chuck Lofgren will get a chance to compete this spring for a spot on the bullpen.  Axford went from high A to the MLB last season but his control has been too shaky to for the team to effectively cash in on his high strikeout numbers.

Lofgren has shown better command trends but his secondary stats point to nothing more than a situational lefty in the future.

On the field:

C: Greg Zaun ($1.9M)
C: George Kottaras ($400K)
1B: Prince Fielder ($11M)
2B: Rickie Weeks ($2.45M)
2B: Craig Counsell ($2.1M)
SS: Alcides Escobar ($400K)
3B: Casey McGehee ($400K)
3B: Matt Gamel ($400K)
LF: Ryan Braun ($1.28M)
CF: Carlos Gomez ($437K; arb eligible)
CF: Jody Gerut ($2M)
RF: Corey Hart ($3.25M; arb eligible)

The Brewers signed longtime effective backup catcher Greg Zaun to a modest one year deal last month.  Zaun will provide stability until either George Kottaras or Angel Salome can jockey ahead for some MLB playing time until the officially deemed catcher of the future, Jonathan Lucroy, is ready.

For the next two seasons 25 year old Prince Fielder will be under team control.  The Brewers failed to get Fielder locked to a long term contract and have now quietly shopped his services around.  Fielder is an integral part of this offense and if the team feels as though they will be contenders in 2010.  Last year's power numbers do suggest that he may be a 40+ HR guy for the next three or four seasons and his growing BB% suggests that he isn't done improving.

Could Fielder's trade value be any higher?  At this point with two years remaining Milwaukee could probably wrangle a good top-flight starter with two to three years of contract control.  In my earlier post covering the San Francisco Giants, I suggested a deal where the Brewers send Fielder to SF for starting pitcher Matt Cain (details can be found here).  Another scenario, if the Rangers can get their ownership sorted out, would be to send Fielder to the Rangers for LHP Derek Holland, RHP Pedro Strop and 1B Chris Davis.  To me this looks good on paper but what would the Rangers do about 1B prospect Justin Smoak who the team's hoping is ready by late 2010 or 2011 (that and the new Rangers organizational philosophy stressing the cultivation of young and inexpensive talent just wouldn't jive with a trade like this).  The final possibility I could quickly speculate here would be trading Fielder to the Red Sox for LHP Jon Lester.  Of course, Lester is a very valuable piece of Red Sox's current rotation but their long bid to acquire a major corner infielder coming into his peak years could be enough for them to part with the young lefthander. UPDATE: The Red Sox recent one year signing of Adrian Beltre pretty much sets their infield and makes upgrading 1B a non-priority but if Fielder could move to LF maybe this trade, uh, well nevermind...

Over to 2B, longtime breakout candidate Rickie Weeks is, again, looking to make good on a promising 2010 season.  Before last season's wrist injury (which wiped out his entire '09 season after just 37 games), Weeks was playing excellent defense and showing career highs in power and slugging. 

This is a very tough player to project (which is a major reason why he is so enticing to fantasy players before and during Spring Training), one negative trend I see is his declining BB% and below average contact percentage (MLB average over the last three seasons has ranged from 80.5 to 80.8% over that same period Weeks has averaged 76%).  Another alarming trend I see developing is his low LD%, in last season's small sample Weeks had a HR/FB percentage of 19.1.  In preceeding years that number has been volatile with 13.2% in '07 and 9.9% in '08 and coupled with a low LD rate I have a hard time believing the power is real.  That and the recurring wrist injury (since 2006 Weeks has missed 228 games due to a wrist injury) spells mostly doom in my eyes.

Craig Counsell re-signed with the club in December for a home-town discount of 1 season at 2.1 million.  Counsell will be 40 years old at season's end and may have to stretch last year's magic (.285/.357/.408 in 2009) for another 300+ AB's if Weeks goes down with any kind of injury.  Counsell still has good gap power and has shown the ability to consistently hit line drives and play excellent defense over the course of a season.  If Counsell struggles and Weeks goes down, Casey McGehee could spot 2B in a pinch.

Next season the Brewers seem committed to giving SS Alcides Escobar a long look now that they made some room on their roster.  In 2009, Escobar played excellent defense and showed good contact skills as he hit .304/.333/.368 in 125 MLB at bats.  The team sees Escobar as their future leadoff hitter but his low BB% (only 3.1% with the Brewers; 6.9% is his highest last season in 430 AAA at bats) does need a little work.  Throughout his career he has benefited from a high BABIP and the high frequency of groundballs hit does suggest that his above average speed will help him beat out a lot of grounders.  With time, Escobar should see improvement in his plate discipline and with his excellent contact rates he should show promise in the next few years until he moves fulltime to the top of the order in 2011.

There is a bit of a logjam developing at 3B with prospects Casey McGehee and Matt Gamel ready to be everyday players.  McGehee is a former Cubs prospect and is the oldest since he'll be 27 at the start of next season.  In 355 MLB at bats, McGehee swatted a line of .301/.360/.499.  His power seemed genuine with an ISO of .197 and 16 HR's hit.  McGehee did benefit from a high BABIP of .335 but his lowish K Rate of 18% and his low swings outside of the strikezone (20.1%) does suggest that his BB rate should improve from last season's 8.7% and that hitting close to .300 should be possible.

Regarding Matt Gamel, 2009 was considered a slight disappointment.  Seen as the 3B of the future, Gamel struggled to make consistent contact and watched his K rates grow to an alarming degree in both the MLB and AAA (42.2% in 128 MLB at bats; 32.6% in 273 AAA at bats).  Gamel did show some decent power and the ability to draw walks (12.2% BB rate in both the MLB and AAA; scored between a .194 and .180 ISO in the minors and majors last season).  In his small MLB sample, Gamel showed promising flyball and linedrive trends.  Gamel will be 24 at the start of the 2010 season and could see a some time in AAA until McGehee struggles or Prince Fielder is traded.

After showing atrocious defense at 3B during his rookie year, Ryan Braun has developed into a superstar and decent LF.  Across the board his numbers seem to be improving (saw excellent gains in BB% and brought down his K% below 20 last season), he'll be 26 and it will be amazing to see what he can do offensively as he begins to enter his peak years.  The Brewers have locked up Ryan Braun until 2015 and could provide a lot more value to this club than the $45 million dollars he is set to make over that timespan. 

Carlos Gomez was acquired from the Minnesota Twins this offseason in the JJ Hardy swap.  Gomez will be 24 at the start of next season and has been billed as "promising" since he was a centerpiece in the Johan Santana to Mets trade before the 2008 season.  No one denies Gomez's elite speed but his lack of plate discipline (6.5% BB rate and a 29.3% swings outside the strikezone last season) is troubling; however, he has shown improvement since his debut as a 21 year old with the Mets.  In 2009 Gomez saw his linedrive percentage increase to 19.2%.  His range and defensive skills rate above average and if he could see his BB trends improve he could become a valuable part of this Brewers offense sooner than later.

Jody Gerut was brought over from the Padres as an insurance against Gomez's volatility but his excellent 2008 season has some wondering if he could rebound in 2010.  Last season, Gerut saw decreases in his BB% (6.5% down from 7.9% the previous season) and his ISO (.146 down from .196 in '08).  Gerut is considered an excellent defender but he will be 32 next season; however, his legs should still have a few more seasons and his low BABIP (.243), excellent contact rates and increasing LD% does suggest he should rebound offensively in 2010.

Corey Hart has seen his stats slide in the past three seasons.  Since his debut in 2007 where he hit .295/.353/.539, a lot of promise has been placed on Hart's slim frame during his (now) peak years.  The problem with Hart is his horrible contact rates which scores well below the MLB average.  He has also seen a slight rise in his GB's hit as his linedrives rates have slipped to 17.2% last season.  If the Brewers can get any value from Hart in a trade, I think the team needs to take a chance and cut their losses here and now since he still has two seasons remaining before filing as a free agent.

Next Season's Forecast:  I have mixed feelings over their current offseason.  The relative weakness of their division does make the Brewers automatic playoff contenders but their limited resources and inability to lock up certain players long-term (Prince Fielder) does point to the fact it may serve this club, in the longterm, to make key moves now. 

The Trevor Hoffman signing was unnecessary due to their bullpen depth and limited financial flexibility.  I do like the Randy Wolf signing (only because of Wolf's free agent status) but I think exploring other options (trading both Prince Fielder and Corey Hart) could net them better pieces in terms of pitching.  Their trade for Carlos Gomez is odd since the probability that Jody Gerut could rebound seems high.  Gomez is a hitter that needs to properly develop and his playing time on this current roster will be a question mark unless certain moves are made.

I like the Brewers future but with a few shrewd moves and the money set to come off the books after 2010, things could get very interesting for this organization.

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