Enemy Off-Season Update: The Brewers

Milwaukee's signing of outfielder Mike Cameron, made official on Monday, was just the latest maneuver in what has been a busy off-season for GM Doug Melvin.

The Brewers bid adieu (lot of French people up there in Milwaukee) to the following key players from the '07 club:

  • Relievers Francisco Cordero and Scott Linebrink, who left for big free-agent money in Cincinnati and on Chicago's South Side, respectively. (Melvin made Cordero a competitive offer but has acknowledged he may have bungled the negotiations.)
  • Longtime Brewer Geoff Jenkins, whose $9MM club option was declined. Jenkins signed with the Phillies.

Here's who the Brewers have added:

  • Cameron, who signed a one-year, $7MM deal (including incentives), though he will have to sit out the first 25 games of 2008 owing to his violation of MLB drug rules.
  • Reliever and funny goggles wearer Eric Gagne, who agreed to a one-year, $10MM deal.
  • Former Cub catcher Jason Kendall, who signed a one-year, $4.25MM deal with a vesting option for 2009.
  • Reliever Guillermo Mota, who came over from the Mets in exchange for Estrada.
  • Reliever David Riske, who left Kansas City for a 3-year/$13MM deal plus a club option for 2011.
  • Reliever Salomon Torres, acquired from Pirates in trade for two minor league pitchers.

Aside from just replacing the guys who left, what problems was Melvin trying to address? Here are the areas in which the GM and his manager, Ned Yost, thought the team needed to get better:

  • Defense. The Brewers finished 12th in the NL with a .982 fielding percentage. Slugging third baseman Ryan Braun, a one-man blooper reel in the field, made nearly one-fourth of the team's 109 errors all by himself.
  • Run-scoring/getting on base. Led by Prince Fielder, the youngest player ever to hit 50 home runs, the Brewers bashed a team-record and MLB-high 231 HR, but finished 11th in the NL in runs scored. (Lots of homers, but relatively few runs scored--where have we heard that before?) Yost pointed to the team's low walk rate as a problem.
  • Getting more innings from the starting pitchers. The Brewers lost 16 games last season in which they led by three or more runs, most in the Major Leagues, but Melvin said his starting staff, not the relief corps, was the team's biggest disappointment. He pointed out that Brewer relievers were pivotal in the team's 24-10 start, then weakened when Milwaukee starters consistently failed to pitch deep into games.

So how did they do in addressing the problem areas?

Regarding the defense, I see the Cameron signing as a big positive. It will enable the Brewers to move Bill Hall back to the infield, where he'll replace Braun at third. Hall was never a brilliant infielder, but even if he's a bad third baseman, he'll be a defensive improvement over Braun.

Young Braun, meanwhile, will replace Jenkins in left. Learning a new position may stifle his offense, but considering what a great hitter he is and what a terrible third baseman he was, it seems like a worthwhile gamble. For that matter, Hall had a terrible year at the plate in '07 while learning his way around center field; the move back to the infield might just help him rediscover his bat, which could help make up for any fall-off from Braun.

Behind the plate, the Brewers sacked Estrada, who was dismal at gunning down potential base-stealers (11 of 84, 13%), and are replacing him with our old friend Kendall, who was really dismal (5 of 57, 9%). Though Kendall is reputedly a great handler of pitchers, it would be hard to say there is a defensive upgrade here.

As for the need to get more men on base and increase run-scoring, I think the departed Jenkins has been an underrated offensive player throughout his career, and Cameron is coming off a year of .242/.328/.431. That was in hitter-unfriendly San Diego, however, and even in that cavernous park, Cameron connected for 43 home runs in the last two seasons.

Turning back to the catchers, Kendall has been an OBP guy his entire career; his predecessor, Estrada, walked 12 times in 442 PA last season and finished with an OBP of just .296. But Estrada also connected for 10 HR, which is about 20 seasons in Jason Kendall years. Again, hard to say that Kendall will represent a step up.

Where the Brewers may get the biggest offensive lift is from a rebounding Hall, who was not even a shell of the hitting force in '07 that he was in '06 or '05 (OPS+ of 89 vs. 125 in 2006 and 116 in 2005) , and also, Ryan Braun, who amassed 34 HR and 97 RBI even though he didn't even put on a Milwaukee uniform until nearly the end of May.

Focusing specifically on Yost's concern, the team's low walk rate, Kendall should help a little, but the Brewers' greatest hope may simply be in the maturation of their many young hitters and their greater mastery of the strike zone.

Lastly, the pitching issues.

The key to the Brewers getting more innings from the starters would seem to be getting an injury-free year from Mark Prior oops I mean Kerry Wood Ben Sheets. It would also help if Chris Capuano, who won 29 games and logged 440 innings between 2005 and 2006, straightened himself out and joined Sheets and some of the impressive young Brewer arms in the starting rotation.

The bullpen changes are obviously significant. Gagne is now four years and several surgical procedures removed from being one of the game's great closers. His back issues have reportedly been resolved to the point where he is back on a regular running regimen and as a result, has lost a lot of weight...which means he'll look better in front of a mirror, but doesn't necessarily mean he'll replace Cordero's 44 saves.

As for the other bullpen additions:

Mota was suspended for steroid use for the first 50 games of '07; thereafter he went 2-2, 5.76, with 47 K and 18 BB in 59 1/3 innings. He has put a lot of miles on his 34-year-old right arm, and though as recently as 2006, Mota was pretty effective, helping the Mets lock up the NL East title in 18 appearances down the stretch, he hasn't had a good full season since '04. And how does one not wonder which parts of Mota's effectiveness were chemically aided?

Riske picked the right time, his "walk year" with the Royals, to have a nice season. His career numbers are actually quite close to those of Linebrink, who has been regarded as one of the better non-closer relief pitchers in baseball.

As for the almost 35-year-old Torres, who considered retirement following the trade to Milwaukee, his walk and strikeout rates remain good. He even contributed 12 saves out of the Pittsburgh bullpen last season, and as long as Yost doesn't call on him more than 50 times or so, he should help.

Bottom line on the new guys in the Brewer pen: Mota is shaky, Torres is okay, and Riske is maybe okay+. But if the marquee guy, Gagne, can't deliver, Melvin and Yost are going to be scrambling. (Derrick Turnbow's control problems hardly cast him as a good fallback.)

All in all, as a Cubs fan, I find this to be a scary team. Great young talent up and down the roster, including plenty of promising arms. I would rate the Brewers' moves this off-season as mixed, tending toward the positive because of the addition of Cameron and the resulting shifts of Hall and Braun. They'll be a more than worthy opponent for the Cubs and rest of the NL Central in '08...which should make it all the more fun to break their hearts all over again.

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