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September 17, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Milwaukee Brewers

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 83-79, second place
Current record: 70-75, third place

Life is like a sausage race. Sometimes you get eaten.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: The Brewers never could fill the gaping holes in their rotation left behind by CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, instead having to rely on 23-year-old Yovani Gallardo to anchor a group of starters that was just too thin. As Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information points out, the Brewers started 30-20; since, they're 40-55. Their ERA across the first 50 games was 3.98; in the 95 games since, it's 5.22. Overall, Milwaukee ranks a stunning 29th out of 30 teams in starters' ERA after finishing third in 2008.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: General manager Doug Melvin has declared that he will be more aggressive in pursuing quality starting pitching than he was last winter. But how? He could try the free-agency route, but there will be competition for John Lackey, and there is generally a lot of risk in this free-agent class. The Brewers could try to deal one or both of their struggling young position players-either J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, or both-but that probably wouldn't be enough to coax another team into giving up the kind of frontline pitcher the Brewers will need to contend in 2010. No, Melvin needs a big piece of bait. He has Prince Fielder, who might be growing out of the Milwaukee market anyway, given that he's two years away from free agency. A swap of Fielder would undoubtedly give Milwaukee a pitcher along the lines of a Gallardo, and create a suitable backbone for the rotation.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

Despite reaching the postseason last year for the first time since 1982, PECOTA pegged them for an 83-79 season, with an 18.5 percent chance at winning the division and a 10 percent shot at the NL Wild Card. Interestingly enough, even given the free-agency departures of Sabathia and Sheets, the team projected to be stronger on the run prevention side (sixth in the league) than on the scoring side (ninth), a counterintuitive forecast given the fact that six of the lineup's eight projected regulars are between the ages of 25 and 29-or in their statistical prime as far as their expected production. Fielder and Ryan Braun have certainly lived up to expectations, ranking third and eighth in the league in EqA, respectively. Although Rickie Weeks suffered a season-ending injury in May, and J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, and Bill Hall all disappointed, the team got solid enough work from the likes of Mike Cameron, Craig Counsell, Casey McGehee, and Felipe Lopez that they actually rank third in the league in team EqA. On the other hand, the rotation has been an utter disaster.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Key stat: 5.59

That's the ERA of all of the Brewers' starting pitchers aside from Gallardo, whose 3.84 mark is the only one that's better than the park-adjusted league average. Braden Looper (4.77) has eaten innings but done little else worthy of note. Jeff Suppan (4.87) and David Bush (5.85, including 8.24 since the end of May) have combined injury and ineffectiveness, while Manny Parra (6.42) has been dreadful. Fill-ins Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, and Mike Burns combined for a 7.25 ERA as starters, not only revealing the organization's sheer lack of rotation depth, but also compromising their bullpen depth via their absence from the relief corps (in the cases of the first two) and their short starts. As a unit, the Brewers rank 15th in the league in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.444), and dead last in rotation ERA (5.19).

The fault here lies with Melvin for his failure to replace Sabathia and Sheets with anything approaching adequacy. Getting a full season out of Gallardo, who was limited to just four starts in 2008 due to a torn ACL, was enough to partially offset those front-end losses from the rotation, but when it came time to open the wallet last winter, the best the Brewers could do was to sign Looper to a one-year, $4.75 million deal with incentives and an option. The bigger problem, of course, is the four-year, $42 million deal they're still paying to Suppan, who's rewarded the Brewers with a Looper-like 4.80 ERA through 91 starts thus far. Freed of that obligation, they might have been able to afford another midrotation starter who could have helped keep them afloat.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Rumor Central

Trades: It's hard to get bigger than Fielder, both in trade value and in size, but the Brewers might have to face a big reality: How can they afford him in two years when he becomes a free agent? Buster Olney has suggested Fielder could land in Boston for a package surrounding Clay Buchholz, or San Francisco for Matt Cain and prospects. The Prince and Papi, or the Prince and Kung Fu Panda? Such talk will only grow louder.

Moves: Nobody likes a lame duck, but Ken Macha doesn't seem to mind the thought of being one. He told reporters this week, "I'm not worried about it. I've got a contract for next season. That's the way I look at it." But Melvin has a classic front-office choice to make-extend his manager, or make the change. He might not be worried, but we're certain Macha is hoping for a strong finish before duck season.

Who 2 Watch 4: Mat Gamel, 3B

The question really is just what to do with him at this point. Unable to repeat last year's success at Triple-A with a solid, but unspectacular line of .278/.367/.473, Gamel also spent 50 games in the big leagues proving to everyone with a pair of eyes that he's just not a good enough defender to stay at the hot corner. Pegged by many at this point as an AL-only player, the Brewers might be forced this winter to do what they should have done last year when his value was higher, and trade him.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 35 of 54
Spent: Just over $6 million
Hits: They inked their first 23 selections, and while this group lacks a high-profile name, it has a lot of serviceable pieces, including RHP Eric Arnett, the club's top pick. The overall haul includes outfielder Max Walla, right-hander Kyle Heckathorn, and catcher Cameron Garfield, and is a decent start to replenishing the club's farm system after recent trades and graduations left the organization without an abundance of young talent.
Miss: Outfielder Kentrail Davis. Most scouts see him as a left fielder with average power and contact problems. He will take a walk and runs well, but he's not a burner, and doesn't have a good arm. Even so, he got $1.2 million as a sophomore-eligible college player.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

Right now, it's difficult to see the 2010 Brewers as a team whose aspirations might rise higher than a .500 record, an all-too-familiar spot for an organization that recently went 14 seasons without reaching even that plateau.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  The Who,  Prospectus

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