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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part I, A - The Brewers
by Derek Smart
On July 1, 2004, after defeating the Colorado Rockies by an anti-gravity aided score of 10-9, the Milwaukee Brewers found themselves sporting a 41-34 record, putting them a mere 3.5 games behind the first place Cardinals and a half game back of the Cubs. It was the first time the franchise had been at least seven games over .500 since May 2, 1998, and the first time they had been at least seven games over on July 1 or later since they finished the season 92-70 in 1992.
Much to the surprise of most observers, what was happening in Milwaukee wasn't entirely a mirage - the team was only a couple games over their Pythagorean projection - so Brewers fans could be forgiven if they began entertaining the possibility that their team might end the season with their first winning record in over a decade.
But then, like a 400-pound man performing a trust exercise with an ADD-afflicted hummingbird, the Brewers came crashing to Earth. Despite their relatively fast start, the team finished with only 67 victories, going 26-60 from July 2 onward, capped by an August that saw them win only 6 while losing a grizzly 21 games.
As the record would imply, this rapid descent into massive failure wasn't attributable to one weakness: it was a total collapse. Where the 41-34 Brewers scored an average of 4.59 runs per game and allowed only 4.31, the 26-60 version could muster only 3.37 runs per game while allowing the opposition to score an average of 5.05 times. A nearly two run swing to the bad in your daily run differential will necessarily do grievous harm to your win total, as well as serving clear notice that there are issues in need of addressing.
Have the Brewers begun to cure what ails them, or should fans in Beertown get fitted for their annual mourning shroud?
One of over 17,000 players sent to the Brewers in exchange for a Richie Sexson check-swing, Lyle Overbay acquitted himself extremely well in his first full season in the Majors. He was easily the team's best hitter, and while that may be a case of damning with faint praise akin to complimenting your albino friend on his best tan ever, Overbay was actually the 34th most productive hitter in either league according to VORP, and the fifth most productive first baseman, sandwiched between Jim Thome and Mark Teixeira (Overbay would have led all AL first basemen in VORP). This, in spite of eerily mimicking his team's split personality. Here's a look at his work month by month:
Overbay gets a lot of comparisons to Mark Grace due to his excellent defense and his ability to hit more for average and less for first-sacker-style pop, but his display of brute force in May was distinctly un-Grace-ful. Unfortunately for him and the Brewers, he reverted in successive months to ever less useful iterations of his analog - first came June and the fine vintage Gracie circa 1995, then July and the solid 1997 version, then August and the 2000 echo of Marks past, until September ended with the resounding thud of the former Cub's 2003 desert swan song (yeah, because swans thrive in the desert).
For the year as a whole, Overbay put up a very solid .301/.385/.478 line, and if he could manage to put up similar numbers, albeit with a bit more consistency, the Brew Crew should be very pleased with what they're getting. Overbay is cheap (read: not yet arb-elgible), and for a guy who is essentially holding down the position for the inevitable ascension of the Prince, pretty darn useful.
Say, as long as we're making tortured comparisons to Cubs of old, let's call Junior Spivey, oh, I don't know, Bump Wills? Joey Amalfitano? I choose them less for any performance similarities and more for their status as placeholders for future long time starters. Joey The Mouthful played second the year before Glenn Beckert made his debut, and Wills kept the keystone warm for some fella named Sandberg.
Spivey's likely turning the same trick for one Mr. Rickie Weeks, who despite a mildly disappointing season in AA last year, is still on track to be a Brewer for an extended period. Where he falls in the Beckert-Sandberg production continuum remains to be seen, but he's got a good chance to be on Ryno's side of the mid-point, and that's excellent news for fans in Milwaukee.
As for Spivey himself, while his $2.1M salary is a bit high for a proxy, the Brewers could certainly have done worse (and some might argue that they could have done a bit better and stayed near the league minimum to boot by trading Junior rather than Keith Ginter, but I'll leave that argument for another time). He'll be 30 this year, so it's safe to assume that his peak is behind him, but if Milwaukee gets the .264/.343/.432 line that BP's PECOTA projection sees for him, as well as his second season of more than 500 at bats, they'll be plenty happy with the investment.
There's still some question as to who might be feeding Spivey on the 6-4-3, but Plan A appears to be another infield prospect we've been hearing about for a while, J.J. Hardy. His glove and arm have been ready from early on, but his bat has been slightly wanting, and while he started to show some power in Indianapolis, now there are questions about his health after a shoulder injury he suffered was eventually diagnosed as a torn labrum. He'll need to show he's healthy during the spring to get his shot, but since he's only 23, it won't be tragic if he needs a couple hundred at bats in AAA to get his feet under him.
Plan B (or is it Plan 9?) is Bill Hall, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Brewers would ask Hardy to jump to the bigs with barely more than 100 at bats in AAA. Hall has some nice pop, but he's as disciplined as a two-year old on Supernanny. A whopping 38.3% of his outs last year were via the strikeout while walking only once every 19.5 at bats. To add to the parade of North Side comparables, in 2003 Alex Gonzalez made only 27.6% of his outs while whiffing for the Cubs, and he also hit for more power and got on base better - with a .295 OPB! If being A-Gonz circa 2003 gets you run out of town on a rail, what's an appropriate punishment for daring to be Bill Hall?
If Hall does, indeed, end up starting at short for most of the season, we could see a return to those heady days of 2001 when Jose Hernandez manned the six-hole and was joined in fan-tastic infamy by Richie Sexson and Jeromy Burnitz, with Hall playing the part of Hernandez and Russ Branyan handling both Burnitz' and Sexson's roles.
It looks as if the Russ-ster is going to be in a platoon with Wes Helms at third, but even if he only gets 400 at bats, Branyan should easily hit the 150 mark in strikeouts. Even so, it's not the strikeouts themselves that are the big problem; they're only the red flag that signals a deeper issue with making contact at all. His very solid walk rate, which could be an real plus, merely keeps his head above water as far as OBP is concerned. A career batting average of .228 will do that to a guy. So, why play Branyan at all? Wes Helms isn't great, but if things break right he could be around league average.
The asset that keeps teams interested in spite of the copious bat-wind is his mammoth, ridiculous, Babe-Ruth-on-the-moon power. I'll admit it: I like watching Branyan hit. There's something compelling about watching a hitter you know will do something spectacular - no weak grounders to second for Russell. Whether it's sending a ball into a neighboring time zone, or corkscrewing himself into the Earth's mantle, the thing you won't leave a Branyan at bat with is a sense of having been cheated. That doesn't make him a boon to the Brewer offense, but it sure makes for some satisfying theatre.
Speaking of theatre, I'd be guilty of criminal neglect if I failed to mention that there's an X-factor at third base by the name of Jeff Cirillo. The Brewers signed him to a minor league deal and extended him a non-roster invite to Spring Training. Realistically, he has no shot at making the team, let alone cracking the starting lineup, but we all love our Prodigal Son stories, and I'll be keeping my eye on the situation, rooting a little for his return to the good graces of the home folks.
Since this is one of the more convoluted position battles in Milwaukee, it seemed like a good time to ask Al Bethke of the fine Al's Ramblings to chime in. I wondered who he might favor in the battle, and if he had any soft spot for Cirillo.
I favor Russ Branyan, and believe he will start. Most of his projections are in the .350/.500 range, which would be good for a 3B. Cirillo, at this stage, is a utility guy, with some platoon ability, nothing more.
Cirillo isn't the only player hoping to put the lie to whoever said, "You can never go home again." Damian Miller, of the LaCrosse, WI, Millers, returns to his cheesehead roots to man the backstop for the Brewers. He's signed for three years at somewhere between $8.75M and $10.25M, depending on whether the team or player options are exercised in 2007.
The last three years have seen three different catchers receiving the majority of innings for the Crew, and any team that can make that statement while naming the culprits as Paul Bako, Eddie Perez, and Chad Moeller, has given reason enough to overpay a bit for a solid catcher, even if he's in his mid to late thirties. The money Miller's getting isn't egregious - his bat won't damage you, and his defense has always been good - and he represents a sizable improvement on his immediate predecessors.
When writing about Geoff Jenkins last year, I expressed concern over the three-year, $23M extension the Brewers had signed him to. This wasn't borne of worry over what he would do on the field, but rather, how often he could be counted on to take the field in the first place. At the time of the signing, Jenkins had come off of years where he played 105, 67, and 124 games, and had never played more than 135 games in his six years in the Majors.
Ah, beautiful irony. That which fueled my angst was well and good, while the bringer of comfort proved anxiety's true font. Jenkins played 157 games in 2004, but only managed a .264/.325/.473 line in the process - a significant dropoff from his 2003. Just for fun, let's look at his rate stats over the last six years:
There are two distinct types of seasons, and I've distinguished them by the use and non-use of italics. 1999, 2000, and 2003 are very much of a kind, and so are 2001, 2002, and 2004 - except 2004 is the only mediocre season of the three in which Jenkins appears to have been healthy, and that's where the issue lies. Was Jenkins battling nagging injuries last year? I don't know. But his contract is expensive in Wisconsin dollars, and the Brewers need his next few seasons to be more like those three good ones for the deal to be a net positive.
Luckily, Jenkins is no longer the team's lone source of reliable power, thanks to the acquisition of left fielder, Carlos Lee, from the White Sox. It might be overstating the case a bit to say that Lee has been ignored during his tenure on the South Side, but his work has certainly been glossed over, despite finishing fifth, fourth, and third in the AL over the last three years in VORP among left fielders, improving each year in both his rank and overall production. When the only players in the AL better than you at your position are Manny Ramirez and Hideki Matsui, you're doing something right.
Lee's not great with the glove, but he continues to improve, and the fact that he plays left field brings along with it the happy accident of forcing Jenkins and his cannon arm over to right, where it makes more sense for him to play in the first place. But besides adding a legitimate big bat to the lineup and forcing a sensible defensive shift, when Milwaukee traded for Lee they also showed that their allergy to spending money, while not in total remission, is at least more manageable than it was. Lee is owed $8M this year with an $8.5M option for 2006, and if Carlos continues to produce as he has, exercising the option should be an easy call for the Brewers front office.
A side effect of the Lee deal was the creation of an opening in center field, and it looks like the Brewers will only be interviewing in-house. The front-runner appears to be Brady Clark, who has played a total of 167 of his 1866 defensive innings at the position, and despite having a pretty nice season as an occasional starter in 2004, is really no more than a credible fourth outfielder.
The other option is Dave Kryznel, but the only thing to recommend him at this point is his youth, as he has yet to break out at any level. Barring a great spring from him, Clark will get the job, and while he won't be a strength, he shouldn't be a debilitating weakness either. He's not Tike Redman, and that's a good thing.
The Brewers' lineup won't score a ton, but they're certainly in a good position to improve on last year's dismal 634 run output. It won't be enough for contention, but it should be the start of a trend as the team prepares for the day that reinforcements come charging in from Indianapolis.
Tomorrow: The Brewers, Part B - Starting Pitchers, Bullpen, and Bench.