Tuesday, March 22, 2005

2005 Brewers

The NL Central has not one, but two teams that have managed to post losing seasons for the last 12 years in a row. That's quite a feat. But the future is looking brighter for the Brewers. They have some solid young players on their roster, several more top notch prospects on the way, and they've finally managed to shake themselves from the Selig family.

Rotation

Last year's rotation managed a respectable 47 Win Shares. That's not bad. The problem was, two of their starters (Ben Sheets and Doug Davis) accounted for 34 of those Win Shares. That's bad. Both Sheets and Davis would have been the #1 starter for the Cardinal staff last year based upon ERA+, which gives the Brewers a great right handed/left handed 1-2 punch at the top of their lineup. Can they build around them this year?

Ben Sheets - At the young age of 25 last year, Mr. Sheets really came into his own as he pitched 237 innings, striking out 264 batters with a 2.70 ERA and a 154 ERA+. The only items of concern I see are the fact that he's thrown 216.2 or more innings in each of the past three seasons (and at a young age), and that he's allowed 21 or more home runs in each of those seasons. However, his progress appears to be real, and to my knowledge he hasn't had any signs of arm injury to be worried about.

I honestly think that 2004 was just the start for this guy. I'll stay somewhat conservative and only increase his 2005 WS total by one, giving him 22 for this year.

Doug Davis - After playing for three different teams in the 2003 season, the Brewers made Davis a member of their rotation last year - and it paid off. Davis posted his first 200 inning season, and did so with career bests in ERA (3.39), ERA+ (122), and Wins (12). Interestingly enough, his ERA+ wasn't that much of an improvement over his 2004 numbers, when he had a 113 over 109.1 innings, which makes me wonder just how he ended up getting traded twice that season.

The irregular workload over the past few seasons makes it hard to judge how good Davis will be this season. Based upon his career ERA+ numbers, he appears as if he'll be slightly above average at worst. In other words, as long as he gets innings, he's going to be successful. He had 13 Win Shares last year, and 7 in 2004 over essentially half a season. In order to be on the conservative side, I'm going to predict a slight decline in 2005, but only down to 12 Win Shares. That would still be, by far, his 2nd best season in his career.

After Sheets and Davis, it gets ugly. As far as I can tell, the next three in line are likely to be Victor Santos, Wes Obermueller, and Chris Capuano. The three combined for a 5.25 ERA in 2004.

Victor Santos - Santos is quite the journey man for someone that's only 28 years old. Over the past 4 seasons, he's played for 4 different organizations, getting both starts and relief appearances in each and every season at the major league level. He was really good in 2001 for the Tigers. He was really bad in 2002 for the Rockies. And he's been below average in 2003 for the Rangers, as well as 2004 for the Brewers. 2004 was, however, the first season in which he topped the 100 innings pitched mark, racking up 154 innings over 31 games, 28 starts.

Santos had an ERA+ of 83 in 2004, which was almost exactly at his career mark of 84. He also posted 4 Win Shares, which was his best since the 2001 season. Santos is at an age where he could actually improve by a bit more, but it's kind of hard to imagine to be honest as he gives up a lot of hits, a lot of home runs, and a lot of walks. I'll mark him down for 4 more WS in 2005.

Wes Obermueller - You know a rotation has problems when a guy with a 5.80 ERA is given 20 starts in a season. Obermueller is a lot like Santos in that he gives up a lot of hits, home runs, and walks. Unfortunately for Obermueller, he also doesn't strike anyone out as he has 98 career K's over 191.1 innings. He had 4 WS last year over 118 innings, after posting 2 in 2003 over 65.2 innings. Looks like he's good for 1 WS per 30 innings pitched.

So I guess the question is - how much is he going to pitch this year? Or, on the other side of the coin - who else do the Brewers have that can take his place? I'll write him down for 150 innings pitched, and thus 5 WS this season.

Chris Capuano - Capuano wraps up the rotation of 29 and under starters. The young lefty wasn't horrible last year, posting an 83 ERA+ over 17 starts, 88.1 innings. He's going to have to give up fewer home runs, though, as opponents his 18 off of him last year. I'll assume that he's going to improve slightly with a slightly larger workload, giving him 5 WS in 2005.

Lineup

Last year, it looked a little something like this (ranked by WS.)

Lyle Overbay - 21
Scott Podsednik - 15
Geoff Jenkins - 14
Brady Clark - 13
Keith Ginter - 12
Craig Counsell - 10
Wes Helms - 4
Chad Moeller - 2

Keith Ginter got most starts (and more WS) at 2nd base, but Junior Spivey was hurt and may be more accurately described as the starter. And Wes Helms only got 274 at-bats on the season. With those things being said, the above players are going to be considered to have been the starters last season. The performances of others will be accounted for on the bench.

From the above group, Counsell, Ginter, and Podsednik are all gone. Counsell will be replaced with J.J. Hardy, Ginter with Spivey, and Podsednik with the newly acquired Carlos Lee. Damian Miller was also picked up this off-season, and will be the new starting catcher.

Lyle Overbay - The Brewers did a good job in getting Overbay from the DBacks for Sexson, who they would have lost to FA after the season anyway. (In fact - Overbay, Spivey, Counsell, and Moeller all came over for Sexson, along with Capuano and Jorge De La Rosa. Four positions starters and a starting pitcher for Sexson? Nice.) Finally getting to play every day in Milwaukee, Overbay posted a .301 average, .385 OBP, and a 127 OPS+. What he lacks in home runs (16 over 579 at-bats) he somewhat makes up for in doubles (53). And while an 863 OPS out of 1st base isn't top notch, the price is right.

With a season under his belt, Overbay should continue to mature and may have another season or two of improvement in his back pocket. He had 21 WS last year. I'm going to put him down for 23 this year, as Carlos Lee comes along to take some of the pressure off of him.

Carlos Lee - Lee come to Milwaukee via trade for, basically, Scott Podsednik. Another nice move by the Brewers in my estimation, as the trade value for Podsednik was likely as high as it was going to get. In return, the Brewers get a player that has topped 30 home runs and 35 doubles in each of the past 2 seasons. His OPS+ has been 116 or higher in each of the past 3 seasons.

Lee will provide the Brewers with some much needed power, as they only had one player with more than 16 home runs last year (Jenkins with 27). Lee posted 24, 20, and 17 WS over the past 3 seasons and will only be 29 this year. I look for Lee to have another solid season, and will mark him down for 22 WS in 2005. Which is a nice improvement over the 15 provided by Podsednik last season.

Geoff Jenkins - Jenkins is another hard one to project. Last year, he played in a career high 157 games, with his previous high being 135 games in 2000. However, he also saw his walk rate, home run rate, and double rate go down last year, resulting in him posting 6 fewer WS over 33 more games.

The bottom line is, Jenkins is a solid player, albeit overpaid (he made $8.7 million last year, just $600,000 less than Jim Edmonds.) The Brewers need the health of 2004 Jenkins, with the play of 2003 Jenkins. I'll simply average his numbers for the past 2 seasons and project Jenkins to have 17 WS in 2005.

Brady Clark - Clark posted a career high OBP of .385 last year, and the good news is that it didn't come from a higher batting average, but from drawing more walks. After drawing just 21 walks in 2003 over 315 at-bats, he managed to draw 53 last year over 353 at-bats. In fact, he had more walks than K's (48). Even more interesting, that walk rate was very similar to the one he posted in 2001 when he drew 22 over 129 at-bats, indicating that he may have "re-discovered" the importance of getting on base.

With Podsednik gone, Clark is likely to get more playing time as the regular in centerfield. We can't be sure that his OBP skills are here to stay, but I am fairly certain that if he stays healthy he's going to top 400 at-bats for the first time in his career (if not 500). Clark had 13 WS last year over 353 at-bats. For 2005, to be conservative, I'm going to say that Clark will only improve to 15.

Junior Spivey - Spivey is still trying to get back to 2002 form when he burst onto the scene with a .301 average, .389 OBP, and an All-Star appearance. Since that season, health has been a problem as Spivey has only played in 165 games over the past 2 years. What's more, his batting average, OBP, and SLG have not been back in the 2002 range during those seasons.

Last year, other than the injury, was somewhat encouraging for Spivey as he had his OBP back over the .350 mark, even though his power was still not back to his previous form. Over the past 3 years, Spivey has had 5, 10, and 23 WS. If Spivey can stay healthy this year, he should be able to post 12 WS for the Brewers.

J.J. Hardy - Good luck trying to project this guy. He only played 26 minor league games last year due to an injury, and has no major league experience. In AAA last year, at the age of 22, Hardy did hit 277/330/495/825, including more BB's (9) than K's (8).

This season, Hardy is going to be getting on the job training. I suspect he'll be hitting 8th, unless he shows promise - which is very possible. My guess is he'll be a solid shortstop that will show flashes of brilliance, and provide an upgrade over Counsell last year. I'll simply mark down Hardy for 12 WS.

Wes Helms - I realize that this may be a platoon with Russ Branyan, or that Branyan may even win the job outright. But for now, I'll assume Helms as the starter, and Branyan on the bench.

Helms was disappointing in 2004 after hitting 21 doubles, 23 home runs, and posting a 100 OPS+ in 2003. He was still getting on base at a respectable clip last year, but his power seemed to have evaporated. Add in the .904 fielding percentage, and you have a guy that lost playing time, and deservedly so.

Over the past 2 seasons, Helms has had 4 and 12 WS. I'm going to assume that his playing time in 2005 will stay similar in 2005, with Helms starting largely against left handed pitching. He'll get 4 WS again this year.

Damian Miller - Miller has been a pretty steady catcher over his career. Over the past 7 years, he's had an OPS+ of 91 or better 6 times, including a 104 in 1998. No one is going to confuse him with Johnny Bench, but he's sure and steady both with the bat and the glove.

Last year, Miller had a career high 442 plate appearances which resulted in him having a career high with 15 WS. Over the previous 2 seasons, Miller had 10 WS each year. As he is now 35 years old, I think the playing time is likely to revert to prior levels. Miller should be able to give the Brewers 10 WS in 2005.

Bullpen

Last year, the Brewer bullpen had 39 Win Shares which included Danny Kolb with 39 saves and a 2.98 ERA. Unfortunately for the Brewers, 15 of those 39 Win Shares have been traded away in the forms of the aforementioned Kolb and Luis Vizcaino. Replacing Kolb and Vizcaino in the bullpen are Justin Lehr and Ricky Bottalico. Right now, I have no idea who the closer is going to be.

Mike Adams - Adams was the best guy in the pen last year not named Kolb, as he posted a better ERA+ than Vizcaino. Adams, pitching as a rookie, posted a 122 ERA+ over 53 innings, and I suspect is in consideration for the closer's job. On one hand, I'm usually leery of players that have success out of the pen as rookies, as they usually have a rough 2nd year. On the other hand, if he is given the chance to close games, his WS totals will go up by quite a bit. Adams had 5 WS last year without recording a save. I'm going to say that 2005 will see him getting 7 WS.

Brooks Kieschnick - Kieschnick flip flopped in 2004, going from a solid hitter that didn't pitch well to a solid pitcher that didn't hit well. (If he can combine the two, it will be amazing.) His ERA+ last year was 110, which is about the same level as Cal Eldred in 2004. He had 4 WS last year. He's probably going to get about the same this year.

Jeff Bennett - Like Adams, Bennett was in the bullpen last year as a rookie. He ended up posting an 86 ERA+, and unfortunately gave up 12 home runs over 71.1 innings. Last year, he got 2 WS. I cannot imagine him improving on that for 2005.

Ricky Bottalico - Pros: Last year he had a 3.38 ERA and a 127 ERA+ over 69.1 innings, striking out 61. Cons: It was his highest ERA+ since 1996, and the first time he'd been over 86 since the 2001 season. Expecting him to repeat last year is a long shot at best. He had 6 WS in 2004, after having 0 in both 2003 and 2002. Are the Brewers going to make him their closer? For their sake, I hope not. I'm going to say that Bottalico can amass 4 WS this year.

Matt Wise - 2004 was the first season since 2001 that Wise pitched more than 8.1 innings. All told, Wise posted a 93 ERA+ over 52.2 innings and had 2 WS. Like Bennett, It's hard to imagine him improving on that in 2005.

Justin Lehr - Yet another pitcher in the Brewer bullpen who was a rookie in 2004. Lehr pitched 32.2 innings, striking out 16, walking 14, and posting an 89 ERA+. Considering he did that at the age of 26, I don't hold out much hope for a pitcher with a career 1.50 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of 1.1. He had 1 WS last year. Look for the same this year.

Bench

Last year's bench put together 31 WS, which isn't bad. (Once again, remember that I'm counting WS from Clark and Ginter in the starting lineup, not the bench.) However, this year's bench has lost some firepower. Ben Grieve, the leading WS player off of the bench, is gone. Junior Spivey (who I counted as a bench player in 2004) is in the starting lineup, with Ginter no longer on the team to take his slot on the bench. Bill Hall, who tied Grieve with 8 WS last year, is still around, but his career .280 OBP has to be of concern.

Russ Branyan is going to be on the team, whether that means on the bench or starting at 3rd. He provided the Brew-Crew with 6 WS last year over just 158 at-bats. I'm going to say that he'll end up helping the team more than that this year, giving them 8 WS. Those 2 extra WS will go to the bench total in this article.

After Hall and Branyan, along with backup catcher Chad Moeller, the bench gets harder and harder to determine. I assume Dave Krynzel will be there to backup the outfield. After that - who? It's uncertain to me, a mere outsider. Overall, however, I'm going to predict that Moeller, Krynzel, and 2 more bench players will only combine to provide 4 WS on the bench this year. Combine that with 16 out of Branyan and Hall, and you have a much worse bench available to Milwaukee this year.

Totals

Starting Rotation - 48 Win Shares (47 in 2004)
Bullpen - 20 Win Shares (39 in 2004)

Starting Lineup - 115 Win Shares (91 in 2004)
Bench - 20 Win Shares (31 in 2004)

That's a grand total of 203 Win Shares, or 68 Wins. Last year they had 1 less win than predicted (Pythagorean wins), so for this year I'll add a win, bumping them up to 69. Does this pass the sanity test?

I'm showing the rotation as about the same as last year, which makes sense. They basically have the same unit returning, and will be counting on both Sheets and Davis to repeat last year to get that much done.

The bullpen is much worse than last year, which once again make sense with Kolb gone and the only major additions being Ricky Bottalico and Justin Lehr. Not exactly Gagne and Smoltz.

The bench is also shown as being downgraded in a large manner. Even though I counted Clark and Ginter as starters, the Brewer bench really is downgraded with Clark starting, and Ginter in Oakland. Let alone Grieve being gone altogether.

That leaves the only improved portion of the team being the starting lineup, which sounds reasonable. Damian Miller is a nice upgrade over Chad Moeller, and Carlos Lee should provide the team with some much needed power. Brady Clark, as a starter, will likely replace Scott Podsednik nicely, just without the stolen bases.

So - another losing season in Milwaukee. Can it be avoided? Yes, but a few things are going to need to happen.

1. The Brewers need a 3rd starter. Whether that means one of their current guys to step up, or a rookie to come in and win the job (Jose Capellan?), 2 starters backed up by 3 below average guys isn't going to get it done.

2. The Brewers need bullpen help. And one guy isn't going to be enough. If Bottalico and Adams can repeat their 2004 seasons, that's a nice start, but not enough to replace the departures of Kolb and Vizcaino. Once again, they need someone to step up, or for Jose Capellan to come in an blow people away (even though he's more valuable as a starter.)

3. The Brewers need their offense to click. If Spivey can revert to 2002 form and if Hardy acclimates to MLB pitching quickly, the team could easily win an extra 3 or 4 more games than I have projected, putting them closer to the .500 mark.

4. The Brewers need bench help. If Branyan ends up starting most of the time, the Brewers are not going to have anyone available off the bench with good OBP skills or good power. That really ties the hands of a manager in close games. And since I seriously doubt that the Brewers are going to put Rickie Weeks and/or Prince Fielder on their bench, I'm not sure that this area is going to be addressed unless some good waiver plays can be made.

If 3 of the 4 areas above could be addressed, the Brewers might make a run at .500. But right now, I'm afraid they are the doormats of the NL Central in 2005.

If I were the GM of the Brewers, I'd be tempted to start shopping Lyle Overbay and Junior Spivey to other teams. Currently, they are both solid young players will some upside, who happen to be blocking the #1 2nd base prospect (Weeks) and the #2 1st base prospect (Fielder) in the minors. Let's face it - the Brewers are unlikely to even finish .500 this year, let alone make a playoff run. Fielder at 1st and Weeks at 2nd may not be great this year, but they'd take their licks, and maybe even be as good as Overbay and Spivey. If the Brewers could get, for example, a #3 starter for Overbay, and a bullpen pitcher for Spivey - the team could be improved for this season. And with the experience to Weeks and Fielder, along with Hardy, 2006 could be the year that Milwaukee finally remembers what it fees like to win more than they lose.

NL Central Predictions (Current)

Cardinals 95-67
Cubs 95-67
Astros 88-74
Pirates 80-82
Reds 74-88
Brewers 69-93

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