Hope Springs Eternal, Part 2

III. Rickie Weeks, Zack Greinke, Corey Hart

With the age of Aramis Ramirez and the injury prone nature of Rickie Weeks and Shaun Marcum many expect injuries to be a problem for the Brewers, but injuries are generally a problem for every team.  Take, for instance, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers.  Due to a broken rib suffered while playing basketball Zack Greinke only started 28 games while Wolf, Gallardo, and Marcum all started 33.  Greinke pitched only 171.2 innings while the aforementioned all exceeded 200 with Wolf of all people topping out at 212.1.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a full season from Greinke in 2012 which not only gives you additional value, but also decreases innings thrown by Wolf, Narveson, and middle relief.

Rickie Weeks played only 118 games and was a shell of himself for the playoffs.  This is, unfortunately, the norm for Rickie, but he did play 160 games in 2010.  A healthy year out of the 2nd baseman would fix a lot of problems.

Corey Hart missed 32 games with various injuries (if memory serves the most damaging was an oblique strain), but when he played he was very valuable.

The Brewers may suffer injuries again this season.  It happens.  But with a little luck it’s not too hard to imagine them being healthier than last year.

IV. Little Things Kill.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers would not have made the playoffs without the valiant work of our boy Russell Branyan.*  His hot start (1.140 OPS in May, 1.059 in June over 76 PAs) bailed out the team on several occasions and led directly to several wins.  Despite only getting 152 PAs he managed to put up 1.3 WARP, 1.3 WAR, and a .72 WPA.  Basically in a quarter of a season he created more value than the vast majority of players create all year.

But small sample streaks are a double-edged sword which leads us to Kameron Loe.  By all accounts Kam was one of the best relievers in baseball.  No, really.  He had a respectable 3.50 ERA but his peripherals really shined.  He had a 2.80 FIP, a 2.78 xFIP, and had guys driving the ball into the ground 63% of the time.  His WHIP was a stellar 1.13.

If you’re like most people this is not the Kameron Loe you remember, and despite his numbers his WPA was an awful -1.42.  So what happened?

Well, there was this game.  And this game.

And some other high-leverage disasters.  Ron did a lousy job with Kam, but Kam’s really very good and this type of high-leverage trouble usually goes away if you’re good enough.  Ron will probably find some other way to screw up, but Kam will hopefully enjoy success commensurate with how he actually pitched this season.

V. Miscellaneous

A.  Mat Gamel has not had success at the Major League level, but if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic look no further than the move to 1st base.  The 2008 Baseball Prospectus annual had this to say about Gamel:

“If you thought Ryan Braun was a bad fielder, get a load of Gamel…”

Gamel was never going to be a competent 3rd baseman.  He’s been working on it in the minors forever, probably knowing all along that he’d never be passable.  Simply being at a defensive position where he can possibly succeed has to be a huge weight off of his shoulders.  He’ll never be great offensively but there’s still some mash-tastic talent there.  Without the stress of knowing he is putting the fans behind 1st base in mortal danger with every unhinged throw this is the time to flourish.

B. Nyjer Morgan may have been more valuable than some expected last year, but if you look at his whole career and not just his atrocious 2010 performance with the Nationals a repeat performance starts to look more likely.  For one thing Morgan is protected from lefties by virtue of his platoon with Carlos Gomez which helps a great deal, but besides that Morgan has always had pretty good on-base skills.

OBP by year –

2007 – .359 (118 PAs)

2008 – .345 (175 PAs)

2009 – .369 (in 533 PAs)

2010 – .319 (in 577 PAs)

2011 – .357 (in 429 PAs)

The small power spike may come from the consistent platooning and it may regress to the mean, but excepting for one year Nyjer had never been an out machine.  He has on two occasions in the past given away a ton of outs on the base paths, but the Brewers kept his caught stealing percentage in check last year and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again.  One of the benefits of a platoon is that you’re always wary of losing time to the other guy.  Morgan probably benefits from the situation more than most.

C. The bullpen didn’t lose as much as you think.

Saito and Hawkins were excellent, but consider the following.  K-Rod was only on the team for a brief period in 2011.  He’s still an excellent pitcher and with him and Axford anchoring the bullpen Roenicke’s ability to make mistakes is limited.  More teams should probably go with two closers as it really keeps bullpen nonsense to a minimum.  Kam Loe remains an excellent situational pitcher, especially if you need a double play (and especially with a more competent infield behind him).  Getting Jose Veras (an actual valuable pitcher) for Casey McGehee was kind of amazing.

D. Too right-handed?

The Brewers have a very right-handed lineup.  The only regulars who figure to be left-handed are Nyjer Morgan and Matt Gamel (if he makes the team and starts at first).  I don’t think this is nearly as big of a deal as some for a few reasons.

First, they will have lefties on the bench, and not a single one of them is named Craig Counsell.

Second, have you seen the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers lineup?  They had exactly 1 lefty in the lineup (Prince).  That’s it.  Here’s a post by Joe Sheehan when he was still at BP in 2008 lamenting their extreme rightward tilt.

They won the Wild Card.

The 2008 Phillies hit Howard and Utley back-to-back all year and won the World Series.  They remained a good team after that even replacing Pat Burrell with Raul Ibanez giving them an extreme leftward tilt.  Being a bit heavy-handed may not be ideal but with a flexible bench it can be managed just fine.

E. Interleague!

No Red Sox or Yankees this year, no sir.  The Brewers will face the Twins (6 times! Bad), White Sox (bad), Royals (OK), and Blue Jays (pretty good, but not the Red Sox or Yankees).  The Cards get the Indians (meh) instead of the Twins and the Tigers (good) instead of the Blue Jays, and have 6 games against the Royals (OK, as previously mentioned).  The Reds have 6 against Cleveland, but they get the Yankees (good) out of the East.  I think the Brewers have an advantage here.

VI. Conclusion

So, how are you feeling now?  Sure, things could go terribly wrong.  Marcum’s arm may fall off tomorrow.  It may have fallen off yesterday for all we know.  What we have to keep in mind is that there are plenty of ways that this thing can go right.  All you can do is put the tools in place, recognize your weaknesses, try to overcome them, and hope for the best.  The Brewers, if nothing else, did a great job of recognizing and addressing their weaknesses.  That’s a good sign.

I’m seeing 91 wins this year and I think they win the division (barring giant, enormous season-ending injuries of course).  One of the good things about winning 96 games is you can lose 5 off that pace and still be pretty solid.  I think they’ve replaced Prince’s production almost entirely with what I’ve explained above.  I’ll ding them a bit for nagging injuries (Aramis probably won’t play 150 games and who knows about Rickie), but I like the way they’re put together.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing Aoki in spring training since I have no idea at all what to expect there.  Spring training games can’t start soon enough.

*RRSMB, proud sponsor of Russell Branyan.

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