Is the beer mug half full or half empty as we appraise the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers? There's a case to be made on both sides. Belly up to the bar and let's try to sort it out.
On one hand, the Brew Crew is coming off its first divisional title and playoff series victory since the Molitor and Yount days of 1982, and there's a superb starting pitching staff ready to go. But the offense has question marks all over the place, with Prince Fielder leaving town and Ryan Braun stuck in PED suspension limbo.
For my draft dime, I'm still expecting Milwaukee to contend. The World Champion Cardinals also lost their share of talent in the winter (Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa are gone, among others) and no one else in the NL Central had a winning record in 2011. The Cubs are rebuilding, the Pirates had the worst record in the second half of the year, and the Astros remain a punching bag: this is still the weakest division, on paper, in the majors (by process of elimination, maybe it's a good time to buy stock in the Reds). Assuming Milwaukee's Big Three of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum can stay healthy, the Brewers should be playing meaningful baseball in September.
So smiles, everyone, smiles. No one likes an unhappy tailgater. All is not lost in Suds City.
What the heck do we do with Braun at the draft table?
While there isn't a specific date set for MLB to rule Braun's suspension appeal, the Brewers expect to know Braun's status before the start of training camp. That's a sigh of relief to fantasy owners, who need to know the score before making critical decisions in the war room.
For the time being, I think we need to operate on the assumption that Braun won't get his suspension overturned; we haven't seen anyone get a 50-game ban flipped since the league adopted its PED rules. The Brewers don't play their 51st game until the final day of May at Los Angeles. A nine-game homestand awaits after that, starting with the Pirates on June 1.
Your stance on Braun depends significantly on your format. If you're in a head-to-head league with a sizable bench, there's a strong case to pursue him aggressively. In roto-scoring formats with short bench space, he's obviously less appealing. Locking up a roster spot is something I always try to avoid in short-resource leagues; you want to be proactive on the waiver wire, especially early. Roster flexibility is a currency, too.
Rotowire's Chris Liss selected Braun in the fourth round of the recently-completed FSTA Expert Draft, moving on Braun with the 47th overall pick (4.08). It's a patented Liss move; he's known for his aggressive, no-fear strategy at the table, and it's served him well through the years (just ask him). I'd probably wait a round or two before going in that direction, being a little more risk-averse with my big chips. There's no right or wrong answer here; there's more than one way to build your championship.
Here are some of the outfielders that fell after Braun in that particular draft: Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence, BJ Upton, Shane Victorino, Alex Gordon. At the end of the day it's a matter of style and context: how soon do you want to focus on upside over floor with your early picks? I've been a monumental Braun supporter for his entire career (he was my No. 1 outfielder last year, not a consensus ranking), but this is one season I'm prepared to let him go unless the price is downright silly.
There's another catch with Braun, of course: the hitters around him. Fielder provided lineup support and protection and that sort of presence is not easy to replace. A spike in Braun's walk rate (and intentional walk rate) is very likely when he returns.
How is Miller Park playing these days?
The long ball is alive and well in Milwaukee; taters have received a 12-percent float over the last three seasons, with a push from both sides of the plate. But otherwise, this hasn't played as an extreme park - there's no reason to fear your streamers in this spot. Batting average and runs scored are a shade below average over the last three years, and obviously the Milwaukee lineup seems less formidable as the season approaches.
Gallardo has enjoyed the home cooking during his career, picking up 30 of his 53 wins at home and posting better ratios there (3.22 ERA and 1.19 WHIP against 4.06 and 1.39). Greinke also had a significant home bias in 2011 (3.13/1.13 versus 4.70/1.29), but it played the other way for Marcum (4.81/1.33 flipped against 2.21/0.97). At the end of the day, I'm not going to take too much from any of those pitcher splits; the strongest batch of data comes in the collective stats from the park, which suggests that it's pretty close to neutral when it comes to run scoring.
Why is Francisco Rodriguez still here? Does he cut into John Axford's closer cred?
The Brewers misplayed their hand with K-Rod and as a result he's still in Milwaukee. The club was hoping Rodriguez would decline arbitration and head to the free agent market, looking for a new team to close for, but Rodriguez instead took the arbitration option and stayed with the club. The two sides agreed on a one-year, $8 million contract before the hearing came up, big money for a non-stopper. Alas, Rodriguez isn't going to be the big dog in this bullpen.
K-Rod was a dominant set-up guy for Ron Roenicke down the stretch, scoring four wins in 31 appearances along with a tidy 1.86 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He struck out 33 men in 29 innings and allowed just one homer. But Rodriguez didn't record a single handshake after the trade; the Brew Crew stuck with Axford as the ninth-inning man all year. The Canadian Closer had two notable struggles to bookend his season (a blown save on opening day in Cincinnati and a Game 5 meltdown in the NLDS against Arizona) but he was 46-for-47 in all other save assignments. He's a Tier 1 stopper, and a lot will have to go wrong before he loses this gig. Likable guy, bat-missing stuff, killer facial hair. Invest with confidence.
Is Mat Gamel final ready to make a contribution?
Get out the post-hype sleeper page, it's time to make another entry. Gamel has been a significant disappointment for three years now, but he's still just 26 and he's finally entering a season with a job to call his own - he's getting the first crack at replacing Fielder at first base.
First and foremost, let's establish that Gamel was a hot property not that long ago. He was Baseball America's No. 34 prospect entering 2009. And he's shown plenty of offensive potential in Triple-A over the last two seasons, especially during last year's 128-game trial: .310/.372/.540 slash line, 28 homers, improving contact rate. He still needs to brush up his work against southpaws, but that's not a major concern; we still live in a right-handed world, after all.
Gamel's defense has been under fire for most of his pro career, but now he's getting a shot at first base, a fairly routine assignment. He's only logged 171 at-bats in the majors, but it's time for the Brewers to see what they have here. There's no significant challenger to the position, not unless you count journeyman Travis Ishikawa (brought in on a minor-league deal) and farmhand Taylor Green. Gamel will have to make a mess of things before he loses this opportunity.
Anyone playing in an NL-only pool needs to take a long look at Gamel, because your corner pool has been depleted significantly. Obviously Pujols and Fielder are gone to the hitter's league, and Adrian Gonzalez made the move last year. Ryan Howard could be out for most of 2012. Joey Votto should probably make his All-Star reservations right now. Perhaps Gamel is ready to post a Freddie Freeman 2011 type of line, something in the .280-75-22-80 range. No one is suggesting you want to bid Gamel to the death, but don't scoff at that potential production, especially considering the post-juice era that we're playing in these days.