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June 15, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Big Gamble

by Jay Jaffe

If this is Prince Fielder's last go-round in Milwaukee, he's doing his best to make it memorable. Over the weekend, Fielder led the Brewers to a three-game sweep of the Cardinals, homering on Saturday and Sunday, with his mammoth 440-foot two-run blast on the latter day giving the Brewers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. A free agent-to-be at the end of the season, Fielder is making a strong case for a contract along the lines of Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, having hit eight homers in a 10-game span to climb to second in the league with 19. With his help, the Brewers are the senior circuit's hottest team.

Milwaukee is an NL-best 25-14 since May 3, a point that marked the day before Zack Greinke came off the disabled list and made his Brewers debut. Acquired over the winter in the second of two deals which decimated the team's top prospect list, Greinke and Shaun Marcum represent general manager Doug Melvin's best efforts to shore up a rotation whose collective craptacularity has hampered the Brewers' efforts to return to the playoffs following the post-2008 departures of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia. The aggressive moves were keyed by a sense of urgency over the impending departure of Fielder who, as a Scott Boras client, isn't likely to grant a hometown discount. The Brewers are all in.

Thanks to their enhanced rotation, PECOTA saw the Brewers as the narrowest NL Central favorites, forecasting them for an 85-77 record, a game—actually three points of winning percentage, .524 to .521— ahead of the Cardinals, and three games ahead of the Reds. With Fielder and Ryan Braun doing the heaviest lifting, the offense projected as the league's second highest-scoring unit, and while the revamped pitching staff only projected to rank ninth in run prevention, that's still considerable improvement over 2010, when they finished 14th.

Alas, few compared them to Harvey's Wallbangers over the first month and change. The Brewers stumbled to a 13-19 start, tied for the league's worst record, and averaged just 3.88 runs per game. Greinke, who broke a rib playing basketball just after camp opened, was hit hard in his first turn, and the team lost its next two games as well, ultimately scoring just seven runs over what amounted to a seven-game losing streak. Since then, they're 25-10, outscoring opponents by 46 runs; in that span, only the Red Sox (25-8, +86 runs) have been better.

After being shut out by the Cubs on Monday, the Brewers rank fifth in the league in scoring at 4.28 runs per game. They're doing it by brute force, ranking second in the league in slugging percentage (.418), isolated power (.165), and homers (76) but running seventh in batting average (.253), 12th in unintentional walk rate (7.1 percent), and 11th in OBP. In all they're fourth in True Average at .269, more or less unchanged from last year.

The ongoing problem for the Brewers is that their offense is concentrated in only a few players' bats. Fielder (.303/.416/.622) is third in the league in OBP, second in slugging, and third in True Average at .350, behind Lance Berkman and Matt Kemp, and just ahead of 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto. Braun (.308/.396/.555) is sixth with a .332 TAv, and a once-again-healthy Rickie Weeks (.277/.352/.483) is 24th at .294. Corey Hart (.281/.324/.489) has provided much-needed muscle since rejoining the lineup in late April following an oblique strain; his heating up helped catalyze the team's hot streak. Alas, the rest of the cast is hitting a godforsaken .227/.306/.337, with Jonathan Lucroy (.261) the only other regular with a TAv above .240.

It's not as though this is the result of a great deal of underachievement across the board:

Player

PA

TAv (Actual)

TAv (PECOTA)

+/-

Nyjer Morgan

89

.298

.242

.056

Prince Fielder

286

.350

.316

.034

Ryan Braun

285

.332

.311

.021

Rickie Weeks

302

.294

.284

.010

Corey Hart

149

.290

.282

.008

Carlos Gomez

197

.237

.229

.008

Jonathan Lucroy

178

.261

.254

.007

Mark Kotsay

132

.240

.237

.003

Craig Counsell

91

.223

.234

-.011

Yuniesky Betancourt

229

.216

.235

-.019

Casey Mcgehee

268

.220

.270

-.050

Wil Nieves

54

.125

.211

-.086

After providing surprisingly strong work in 2009 and 2010, McGehee is hitting just .225/.284/.320, and also struggling in the field, with a league-high nine errors and -2.5 FRAA; at -0.7 WARP, he's been the lineup's Least Valuable Player. Exactly what's wrong aside from frustration is unclear; he has no known health issues. Nearly every other hitter else is delivering more or less as advertised, which isn't good when you're talking about the likes of Gomez and Betancourt, two players who should have long since been banished from major-league lineups, or Kotsay, a formerly useful bench player for whom the jig is up.

Lately, rookie manager Ron Roenicke has been platooning the lefty-swinging Morgan with Gomez in center field, a much-needed move given that Fielder is the team's only other lefty bat, a long-standing problem. That move aside, Roenicke isn't exactly awash in options at the big-league level, given that Counsell isn't much of a platoon partner for McGehee. The Triple-A roster features George Kottaras, who'd make a better fill-in than Nieves, but swapping out backup catchers is small beer. Mat Gamel is Nashville's biggest bat, and a lefty swinger at that, but while he's hitting .310/.377/.548, he's a defensive liability who has long since played himself off third base; he could serve as the team's DH for interleague play, but his real future in Milwaukee likely won't begin until next year, when he's the presumptive favorite to take over for Fielder. Taylor Green, Nashville's third baseman, is a lefty swinger who's hitting .309/.384/.566. His PECOTA projection (.248/.313/.385, for a .247 TAv) isn't awful, but scouts aren't big on his tools or his defense; tellingly, he didn't even crack Kevin Goldstein's post-decimation top-20 prospects list, nor did he make Baseball America's top 30. If McGehee continues to struggle, he merits a look.

With Greinke and Marcum joining holdovers Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf, the Brewers do boast an imposing rotation, which has helped the team rank fifth in run prevention at 3.84 per game. Particularly key is that the Brewers miss bats and don't give out many free passes; they're second to the Giants in strikeout rate (8.0 per nine) and second to the Phillies in walk rate (2.8 per nine). The Ks compensate for a defense that leaves much to be desired. While they're currently only one point below league average in Defensive Efficiency (.695), last year's unit ranked second-to-last, and Betancourt isn't Alcides Escobar (the unit's only substantial change from 2010 to 2011). We shouldn't be surprised if this team's fielding prowess heads south.

Marcum has been the staff's most consistent starter, with a 2.68 ERA, a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 10 quality starts out of 14. He has been relatively lucky on fly balls, but his 3.36 SIERA is good enough for 10th in the league. Wolf has rebounded from a rough first season in Milwaukee; his strikeout-to-walk ratio is back up to 2.5 after plummeting to 1.6 in 2010, his ERA is down to 3.20—nearly a full run better than his SIERA, so beware—and he's second on the staff with nine quality starts out of 14.

As much as any player, Gallardo has encapsulated the team's turnaround. Though he threw a two-hitter in his second start of the season, he stunk on ice for a long spell after that, with a 6.10 ERA, 6.5 strikeouts per nine, a .369 BABIP, and just two quality starts out of his first seven. The word on the street was that he was relying too much on his four-seam fastball. Things turned for him on May 7, when he took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Cardinals; including that start, he has pitched to a 2.00 ERA with six quality starts out of seven, not to mention more characteristic strikeout and BABIP rates (8.8 per nine and .273, respectively).

Greinke is coming around as well. Through May 20, he'd delivered just one quality start out of four and was carrying a 6.43 ERA and yielded four homers in 21 innings while being strafed for a .385 BABIP. All four of his starts since then have been quality ones, and he has allowed just two homers, though at .329, his BABIP is still high. The combination of an unreal 8.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a high BABIP (.352, the league's second-highest mark among pitchers with at least 45 innings) suggests that he's throwing too many strikes, but the important point is that he's coming around. Throw in fifth starter Chris Narveson (4.32 ERA, 3.82 SIERA, 8.0 K/9, and seven quality starts out of 13) and you've got a formidable unit that ranks sixth in ERA (3.74) and fourth in quality start rate (61 percent) with the possibility of improvement ahead—a far cry from the days of David Bush and Jeff Suppan.

The bullpen has been reasonably strong; their 3.19 ERA ranks sixth, thanks to a low walk rate (2.5 unintentionals per nine, third in the league) and in spite of a high strikeout one (7.6 per nine, 13th). Closer John Axford has built on last year's surprising success, converting 18 out of 20 save opportunities while striking out 11.9 hitters per nine. The set-up spot is a sore one, however, with Takashi Saito limited to two appearances thus far due to hamstring and oblique strains; he's now in Nashville on a rehab assignment, trying to overcome a bout of tightness in his 41-year-old shoulder. Kameron Loe has pitched better than his 5.23 ERA indicates (his SIERA is 3.13), but opponents have battered him at a .292/.352/.508 clip in high-leverage situations, compared to .194/.265/.266 in medium- or low-leverage ones. Latroy Hawkins has pitched his way into higher-leverage duty after missing most of last year, but at 38 years old, with a 4.1 K/9 rate, he's on shaky ground. Marco Estrada, who made three quality starts out of four while patching the rotation, is emerging as Roenicke's top seventh-inning guy; as a reliever he has held hitters to a .170/.250/.283 showing in 53 plate appearances. Roenicke's handling of the bullpen hasn't been above criticism, but he has gotten decent medium- and low-leverage work while shuffling through Quad-A types (Sean Green, Tim Dillard, Sergio Mitre, Mike McClendon). Still, while the Brewers are 31-4 when holding a lead after seven innings, it's easy to foresee them needing more bullpen help to survive.

There's hope that the system might have better arms to offer later this summer. Mark DiFelice, who as a 32-year-old rookie made a strong contribution in 2009, is putting up strong numbers at Nashville after missing all of 2010 due to labrum and rotator cuff surgery. On the other hand, Mark Rogers, the 2004 first-round pick who finally reached the majors late last year, has been beset by yet another injury in a seemingly endless line of them; he'll need surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome at some point, but for now is trying to get by with anti-inflammatory injections. Given their winter deals, Melvin is going to be hard-pressed to make significant improvements from outside for the stretch run; the team simply doesn't have the chips to fund a Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran deal, though it's conceivable that owner Mark Attanasio would allow the team to absorb additional salary in lieu of surrendering prospects.

The Brewers have gained 5 1/2 games on the Cardinals and 7 1/2 on the Reds since their run began, but they'll have their hands full keeping pace over the next month. Their remaining interleague schedule includes series against the Red Sox in Boston and the Yankees in the Bronx, a home series against the Rays, and a home-and-home with the Twins, who have been playing better ball lately; using Tuesday's adjusted Hit List Factors, that's a .523 slate. The Reds' interleague schedule is almost equal in difficulty, as they host the Jays, Yankees, and Indians, and visit Baltimore and Tampa Bay, for a .525 slate. By comparison, the Cards host the Royals and Blue Jays, and visit the Orioles and Rays, a .487 slate.

 That schedule is one reason why the Playoff Odds report gives St. Louis a 68 percent chance of reaching the postseason and Milwaukee just a 50 percent chance; the Reds are down at 14 percent. Still, the Brewers did well to recognize a window of opportunity when they saw it, and having recovered after an inauspicious start, they remain in position to make their big gamble pay off. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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