2009 FINISH: 80-82, third place
PYTHAGOREAN W-L: 78-84
OFFENSE: The 2009 Brewers finished third in the National League in runs scored. They still have a pretty good offense, but some regression is likely this year. Gone are Mike Cameron, an underrated player on both sides of the ball, and Felipe Lopez, who hit brilliantly down the stretch. Replacing them are Carlos Gomez, a toolsy young player and solid defender who has shown absolutely no hitting ability so far in the majors, and Rickie Weeks, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury. Weeks still isn't old and has some hope of a breakout (and he was off to a great start last year before getting hurt), but he's been frustrating Brewers fans for years now.
The '09 Brewers also got a lot of mileage from third baseman Casey McGehee, who's kind of like their Garrett Jones--a player who did little in the minors, but surprisingly had a great major league rookie season. Regular BD readers know I've been pretty skeptical of Jones, but I'm even more skeptical of McGehee, who was a complete nonentity in the minors and had knee surgery over the winter. (He says the knee is fine.) If McGehee tanks, the Brewers might be able to make up the difference if rightfielder Corey Hart finally breaks out, but I've learned my lesson--I've been betting on him far too long.
Gregg Zaun takes over for Jason Kendall at catcher, and Alcides Escobar replaces J.J. Hardy at shortstop. Both these changes should be improvements over what the Brewers got in 2009. Time will tell how much the 38-year-old Zaun will be able to handle, but anyone is better than Kendall at this point, and if the Brewers are very lucky, one of a couple of prospects (Jon Lucroy or Angel Salome) could end up seizing the job at midseason anyway. I'm not completely sold on Escobar, who had a surprisingly decent 125 at-bat stint with the big club last year--his minor league profile suggests he'll hit for a good batting average, but that's about it, at least at the beginning of his career. Still, he's a decent bet to improve upon the .661 OPS that Milwaukee shortstops posted last year, and he's a terrific defender.
Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder will still anchor the offense, and at their ages, there's no reason to think they won't be up to the job.
PITCHING: It could hardly be worse than it was last year, when the Brewers had five pitchers throw at least 96 innings with ERAs of 5.20 or higher. Not having learned their lesson from the $42 million contract to which they signed one of those five (Jeff Suppan), the Brewers signed 33-year-old Randy Wolf to a three-year, $30 million deal that was the most lucrative of his career. They also welcomed Doug Davis, who enjoyed the best years of his career as a Brewer in 2004 and 2005, back into the fold. Davis has big problems with walks and frankly scares me a great deal, but for $5 million, he's fine. The excellent Yovani Gallardo joins these two at the front of the rotation. Beyond that, the Brewers are basically flinging crap at the wall, hoping that two of Suppan, Dave Bush and Manny Parra will somehow be passable.
The Brewers will enter 2010 with a rather expensive veteran bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins, coming off a good season in Houston, joins the team on a two-year, $7.5 million deal. Trevor Hoffman will stick around and make $8 million. And David Riske, signed to a three-year stinker of a contract before the 2008 season is still in the organization rehabbing from Tommy John surgery--he hopes to be ready by Opening Day, although I'm sure the Brewers aren't waiting with bated breath. Todd Coffey, who quietly pitched 80-plus good innings last year, will team with Hawkins and lefty Mitch Stetter in setting up Hoffman. Overall, it isn't a bad bullpen, particularly if workhorse Carlos Villanueva bounces back, but it's hardly a guarantee that Hoffman can keep pitching well at age 42, and the late innings could get messy if he doesn't.
PROGNOSIS: It's hard to be too pessimistic about a team with three young stars as bright as Fielder, Braun and Gallardo, but the Brewers are in a tough spot. Their younger players are getting expensive, and Milwaukee already looks like a fading dynasty, throwing money at its problems and trying to overcompensate for a player-development pipeline that has merely trickled since Braun and Gallardo arrived a few years ago. And even as a fan of a franchise that throws around the word "dynasty" pretty loosely, it's worthwhile to point out that the Brewers were never a dynasty in the first place: they've had three .500 seasons in the past five years, and one playoff appearance. It's really tough being a small-payroll team, even when you build intelligently, as the Brewers mostly did.
The signings of Wolf and Davis should help this year, but this team is frantically treading water. They're getting increasingly expensive, with a payroll that should be around $90 million this year. From a Brewers fan's perspective, that's fantastic, and we can only hope that Bob Nutting spends so lavishly when the Pirates are ready to compete. But from these eyes, it looks like the Brewers aren't spending to win a World Series so much as they're spending to stave off another inevitable rebuild.
There is reason for hope, however--Gallardo and Braun are both still quite young, and Braun is signed through 2015 to a very favorable contract. (The Brewers control Fielder through 2011.) The farm system is in better shape now than it has been in a few years--they don't have any marquee prospects like Braun or Matt LaPorta were for them, but there's impressive depth in the low minors, particularly in pitching talent. (The Brewers had six picks in the first two rounds of the 2008 draft and five in the first two rounds of the 2009 draft, which has helped.) This isn't the Astros we're talking about here.
The trick for the Brewers will be to get through the next couple years while all that talent develops, and in the meantime to figure out how to negotiate their issues with their payroll and with the imperfect team they currently have at the big-league level. This year might be a rough one.
4. Milwaukee Brewers 76-86
5. Houston Astros 73-89
6. Pittsburgh Pirates 70-92