2008 NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

2007 W-L: 83-79
Pythagorean W-L: 83-79

IN

C Jason Kendall, CF Mike Cameron, OF Gabe Kapler, RP Eric Gagne, RP David Riske, RP Salomon Torres, RP Guillermo Mota, RP Randy Choate

OUT

C Johnny Estrada, C Damian Miller, 3B Corey Koskie, OF Kevin Mench, OF Geoff Jenkins, RP Francisco Cordero, RP Scott Linebrink, RP Greg Aquino

At first glance, it doesn't look like the Brewers' offseason was much of an improvement. They got rid of the miserable Johnny Estrada, only to replace him with one of the few starting catchers who clearly isn't an upgrade (Jason Kendall). They added a bunch of relievers but let their best one (Francisco Cordero) leave via free agency.

Sometimes, though, improving isn't just about finding better players. It's about finding players who are right for your team.

Let's take, for example, the player movement in the Brewers' outfield. Milwaukee added Mike Cameron and got rid of Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench. Absent any context, that might appear to be an upgrade, but not much of one - Mench is worthless, but Jenkins might actually be a mildly underrated player at this point. He's typically an average hitter, but he also has had two years in the past five where he's bumped his OPS+ into the 130 range. Cameron's a much more valuable defender. He's probably also a better hitter, but not by a whole lot.

Maybe it's a case of apples and oranges, and I shouldn't try to compare the two at all. The point, though, is that this at first looks like a minor upgrade.

Consider the entire context, though, and a small upgrade becomes a big one. All the Brewers' starters except Ben Sheets ranked in the bottom third (among all pitchers who threw at least 120 innings last year) in batting average on balls in play, and a lot of that was because the Brewers' defense left much to be desired.

Specifically, the problems were Ryan "The Butcher" Braun at third and, from what I saw, Bill Hall in center. Neither player lacks the athleticism to play the position he played last year, but neither seemed to know what to do when the ball was hit his way. Braun was simply error-prone - he had poor hands and often made it very difficult for Prince Fielder to reach his throws to first. Hall, a converted infielder, didn't look nearly as bad in 2007 as Braun did, but he still looked confused and awkward in the field.

The obvious solution would've been to move Braun - an athletic player and good runner - to a corner outfield spot, move Corey Hart (a very good defender in a corner) to center, and move Hall to third. But what the Brewers did instead is even better. They signed Cameron to a relatively cheap contract and kept Hart in a corner, then moved Hall back to third and Braun to the other corner.

That's a mouthful. But, basically, Hall should be an average third baseman, which is an enormous upgrade over Braun. Hart is great in a corner and Cameron is still very good in center, so having an outfield alignment of Braun-Cameron-Hart allows Cameron to shade toward Braun a little bit and make sure that nothing really bad happens while Braun figures out what's going on.

This is not a trivial matter. Remarkably, as one Brewers blog points out, the Brewers' pitchers allowed the fourth fewest walks and fourth fewest home runs in the National League in 2007, and they struck out more batters than all but two NL teams. And yet they finished ninth in the league in runs allowed. Their defense absolutely killed them.

The acquisition of Cameron and the moves that result from it potentially create another weak spot in left field and don't address the rest of the problems with the Brewers' infield defense other than third base (and there are many), but they upgrade the Brewers tremendously. So the pitching staff - which seemed so bad in 2007 - should right itself in 2008. Chris Capuano posted a 5.10 ERA in 2007, but he actually isn't a bad pitcher. Dave Bush's ERA was 5.12, but he's not a bad pitcher either. Look:

Capuano 150 IP, 132 K, 54 BB, 20 HR, 1.14 GB/FB
Bush 186.1 IP, 134 K, 44 BB, 27 HR, 1.18 GB/FB

Those numbers suggest that Capuano and Bush's ERAs probably would've been a half run to a run lower if they'd had an average defense behind them. Look for their ERAs to bounce back this year. Jeff Suppan and Claudio Vargas, too, should benefit from the Brewers' improved defense.

Of course, some of those pitchers may not get the chance to be in the rotation again - not really because they can't handle it, but because of the Brewers' outstanding depth. Sheets can't be counted on to stay healthy and phenom Yovani Gallardo is recovering from knee surgery that should keep him out of action until mid-April, but they're both top-of-the-rotation starters, if healthy. They've also got Carlos Villanueva, who can be a solid contributor in either the rotation or the bullpen, and a solid, major-league-ready starting pitching prospect in Manny Parra.

Of the Brewers' eight credible starters, Suppan may well be the worst of the bunch, but he, Gallardo and Sheets are the only pitchers assured of spots. The other guys will fight it out for the last two places.

Milwaukee's bullpen should also look much better this year, also because of the improvements to the defense. Gagne and Riske are solid additions who should help make up for the loss of Cordero, and with the Brewers' starting pitching depth, they should be able to move some of the excess pitchers to the bullpen, which makes it unlikely that the bullpen will be a sore spot this year.

Regarding the Brewers' hitters - I've said this for at least four years in a row, but I like them a lot. Fielder and Braun are already so good as hitters that it's hard to see them getting much better, and they each may go backward a bit this year. But take Hart, for example - his top PECOTA comps include Dave Winfield, Sammy Sosa, Andre Dawson, Joe Carter and Ellis Burks. He has an exciting skillset that includes hitting for contact, hitting for power, good fielding, and excellent athleticism for a player his size. He hit .295/.353/.539 last year, and I would say that, as good as that already is, there's a very good chance he'll be even better next year.

And take Weeks - overall he hit .235/.374/.433 last year, which isn't bad at all, but he's going to get better - he's not going to be a .235 hitter his whole career. In the second half, he hit .251/.422/.481, which could be a sign that he's ready to deliver on his tremendous potential. Hall, who struggled with his hitting and fielding last year, could bounce back, too.

Jason Kendall is a very bad player. Really bad, to the point where it's fair to wonder why the Brewers didn't acquire someone - anyone - else. But he's the only bad player in the lineup. Everyone else should be close to average as a hitter, at least, while Fielder, Braun and Hart should provide middle-of-the-order production that most teams can only dream of. The Brewers finished 11th in baseball in runs scored last year, and they could leap forward a couple more places this year.

I can't deny it; I like the Brewers. If the Pirates can't win, I'm rooting for the Brewers. This goes back to a rainy Monday at PNC back in 2002, when I was watching Kip Wells take a no-hitter into the eighth inning, despite not actually pitching all that well, only to lose to the Brewers' Jamey Wright. And as I watched both offenses flounder while Wells pitched not-so-well and Wright did his usual Jamey Wright thing, I thought, "I don't know why I bother to watch this." The Brewers were pathetic; the first three hitters in their lineup were Alex Sanchez, Eric Young, and Jeff Hammonds. Young wasn't terrible, but the Brewers' use of Sanchez and Young at the top of their lineup amounted to an admission that they had no particular idea how to score runs except to try to steal second, third and home and hope their opponents' catcher wasn't paying attention. And Wright, aside from that one rainy Monday, was just awful. Richie Sexson, the Brewers' cleanup hitter, was Milwaukee's Brian Giles. I felt bad for him. The Brewers, at the time, were 14 1/2 games out of first. They didn't have any promising players in their lineup and they only had a couple of interesting young pitchers. If the Brewers can recover from that, then surely we can recover, too, right?

Last year, I picked the Brewers to finish first. I was wrong. So this year I'm picking the Cubs, who added Kosuke Fukudome to an 85-win team. But there's a big part of me that wants to pick the Brewers - they have great depth and don't have a lot of holes, and they're a better team than they were in 2007.

2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. St. Louis Cardinals
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

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