Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Milwaukee Brewers.
2012 record: 83-79
Finish: Third place, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $99.9 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $72 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 20th
Hashtags: #cuttingpayroll #dfw #hockingloogys #jekyllandweeks #tradeninjas #primewasting #nickjohnson #resplendentmustaches #lawrie #barrenfarm
Considering the Brewers last season led the National League in runs scored and were behind only the Rangers and Yankees in all of baseball, and seeing as their projected rotation included a No. 2 starter who until last year had nine career big league starts, a No. 3 starter with 29 career innings, a No. 4 starter who posted a 6.99 ERA over his last 10 starts and a No. 5 starter whose injury history gives "Infinite Jest" a good run on length, their priority heading into this offseason seemed fairly obvious.
Left-handed relievers, of course.
Now, this is not to impugn Tom Gorzelanny (two years, $6 million) or Mike Gonzalez (one year, $2.25 million). Each is a perfectly useful bullpen piece, which, considering the Brewers offered the worst relief ERA in the game last year, is a keen bit of savvy from general manager Doug Melvin. The trade for Burke Badenhop and minor league deal given to the supposedly-resurgent-but-nothing-more-than-the-Nick-Johnson-of-pitchers Kelvim Escobar could make for a full-on overhaul aside from John Axford and Jim Henderson.
The greater point is that on a club with such a desperate hole in the rotation, Melvin is banking on Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers to fill out his rotation behind Yovani Gallardo. And now the best remaining pitchers include Kyle Lohse (who wants too much money and would cost them a draft pick), Shaun Marcum (who they're not all that jazzed to re-sign) and Joe Saunders (who is Joe Saunders). The Brewers don't have much of a farm system to plunder, and considering their payroll today is at only $68 million or so, how they proceed the rest of the offseason should be a window into whether they're pooling resources for the future or taking a spirited run at a division that, despite the run-scoring aptitude, probably won't be theirs, not with Cincinnati and St. Louis around.
In the wake of the monster Zack Greinke trade last year, the Brewers ripped off a 23-6 run. It looked nothing like their first 121 games nor their last 12, in which they struggled to cobble together anything resembling their run to the NLCS in 2011.
The Brewers' ascent from a small-market, Bud Selig-run charity case to a team with nine-figure payroll and attendance figures approaching (and, in three cases, topping) 3 million is one of baseball's great underplayed stories. The Brewers drafted and developed Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, baseball's best 1-2 punch until Fielder absconded for Detroit. They outfoxed everyone in baseball to get CC Sabathia and Greinke, and they'd make each of those deals again without question.
[Related: Big drop for Brewers' payroll ]
The only ways to explain the Brewers' offseason, then, is to think that either Melvin saw January and February as a time to hop on prime leftovers or that owner Mark Attanasio's purse-string-tightening is sincere after a disappointing 2012. Because the rotation questions are crippling. The Brewers would be lucky to get two of Estrada, Peralta, Fiers and Rogers as contributors. To count on them to anchor 80 percent of their rotation invites disaster.
After years of plundering their farm system for trades – Sabathia, Greinke and the Brett Lawrie-for-Shaun Marcum mess that didn't even net them a draft pick – the Brewers are in the place where no team with bottom-half revenues wants to be: unwilling to supplement in free agency but without a farm system to buttress losses.
Melvin's approach may well be to ride the offense as far as it will take the Brewers, with bullpen patch-ups there to turn 83 wins into 88. That, of course, presupposes more boffo offensive seasons from Corey Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy and Norichika Aoki to complement the near-certainty that Braun's will be spectacular.
The greatest question on the hitting side is the middle infield. Rickie Weeks last year until June 8: .157/.291/.284 with five home runs in 237 plate appearances. Weeks from June 9 on: .266/.348/.458 with 16 homers in 440 PAs. With that Weeks and barely-not-a-rookie Jean Segura hitting at shortstop, it will at least start to make up for the defensive inefficiencies that comprise the worst fielding keystone combination in the NL.
Over the last six years, Ryan Braun has made a pair of postseasons, won an MVP (and should've won another), notched a home run title and even turned into a reasonable facsimile for a left fielder. He turned 29 this offseason, too, which means that we may be witnessing his peak, and for that the Brewers have surrounded him with … this. It is a flawed team, one unlikely to scratch out hopes of contention with superior Cincinnati and St. Louis teams in the division and the Astros having taking their brand of futility to the American League. While Braun isn't a one-man band, his transcendence – or a patented stealth Melvin maneuver – is all that can save these Brewers from the mediocrity of their own starting rotation.
Make Doug Melvin's resplendent
Mustache tingle, swoon
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