PHOENIX, AZ - Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers follows through on a swing against starting pitcher Derek Lowe #26 of the Cleveland Indians during the first iing of a spring training baseball game at Maryvale Baseball Park. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
You can break down the Milwaukee Brewers any way you want, but that's the thing your eyes will keep circling back to. Ramirez is good. Prince Fielder is better. When you look at the lineup without Fielder, it's like that moment before you unwrap the first Genesis album with Phil Collins as the lead singer. Everything you once knew is now different. You can't shake the feeling that things are probably worse.
If you believe in wins above replacement, though, note that the Brewers probably would have won the NL Central last year if they had Ty Wigginton or Efren Navarro playing first base. The Brewers won the division by six games; Fielder was worth just under six WAR according to Baseball Reference. Other than the Aramis/Prince swap, the players who made the Brewers good last year are still around.
Even better, the players who prevented the Brewers from being exceptional are mostly gone. Last year Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt combined for 1,184 plate appearances. You might have read about it in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which is a 287-page metaphor for the season that both players had.
McGehee was a feel-good story when he arrived out of the ether, but he had an unexpected and completely miserable season. He'll be replaced by Ramirez in the field, though it might help to think of Mat Gamel as his replacement in the lineup. Gamel is an enigma -- a 26-year-old with more than 1,000 triple-A at-bats and uneven production. He was perpetually blocked by Fielder, and he could be a Brian Giles-type story, a late bloomer whose only crime was playing behind a lot of good hitters. Or he could be a player whose talents are better suited to triple-A. Either way, he doesn't have to do much to improve on what McGehee provided last year.
Betancourt did not have a surprising season. He wasn't good with the bat, and he wasn't good with the glove.
You didn't need the visual evidence, but there it is. If you want the statistical evidence, go nuts, but you probably don't need it. Alex Gonzalez has the same low-OBP approach as Yuni, but he's almost always a plus-defender. It's not like the Brewers improved over McGehee and Yuni so much that they aren't going to notice Fielder is gone, but it's also not fair to pretend that because he isn't in the lineup that the Brewers are now defunct.
Ramirez is one of the most constant hitters in baseball, which is somewhat hard to believe after he struggled in 2010, but for the six seasons before that, his OPS+ was between 126 and 138. Last season: 136. The better short-term player is Fielder. But when the difference is $178 freaking million, the Brewers made the right move. The difference between the two players is about a win, maybe two. For $178 million, you can buy a win. Literally walk up to a man in a suit and buy a win. I'm not going to name names, but they're out there. For $178 million, you bet they are. So the Brewers did as well as they could when it comes to their new cleanup hitter.
That lineup sure looks different, though.
That's how the lineup should look after Hart returns from knee surgery in April. It's exceptionally weird not to see Fielder's name in there. And I had a note scrawled in my notebook that I don't understand now. It reads "hit Ryan Braun angle hard," but I can't remember what that means now. Let's see … he was the MVP … he's very, very good … oh! I know! There are two Ryan Brauns. Here's the other one. There's going to be an old-timer's game in 2041, and some joker in the front office is going to bring in the other Ryan Braun, Alex Gonzalez, and Jeff D'Amico. Won't that be a gas? Two Ryan Brauns!
Oh, right, the performance-enhancing drug thing. Right.
I won't pretend that I know what psychological or physical changes Braun will endure this year. But when a player has a year that good, that transcendent, it's probably a good idea to expect a little less the following year, no matter how good the hitter is. So when Braun's numbers slip a little, I'm sure everyone will consider that.
The rotation seems built for the playoffs -- three deep with a competent #4 in Randy Wolf -- but that was before Shawn Marcum's October disintegration and lingering shoulder problems. If he isn't his old self, that'll put an awful burden on Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, two pitchers whose K/BB ratios suggest they're probably elite, but who didn't convert that into elite run prevention last year. It's probably safe to assume that they're 234 different kinds of awesome.
If Marcum is healthy, Wolf is fine, and Chris Narveson continues being Barry Zito before things really went south, it's a fairly deep rotation. Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project them to be around the middle of the National League pack.
The Brewers should contend, fighting the Reds and Cardinals for a playoff spot or three. But there's something missing. I can't put my finger on it -- not sure if it's just an irrational fear of a Prince-less afterworld, or a suspicion that the October Marcum was an omen, not a blip. It's still a good team, and they'll still have all sorts of chances to plump up against the bottom three of the Central -- they went a combined 34-12 against the Cubs, Astros, and Pirates last year. It's not like those teams got a whole let better.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
With Mat Gamel the de facto starter at first base, the Brewers could have used a right-handed complement to compete for at-bats. It looks like Brooks Conrad will be the backup first baseman, which doesn't help the team that much against tough lefties.
In three of his five seasons in the Central League, Norichika Aoki hit .346 or better. How will that translate to the majors? Absolutely no idea. None. It probably won't. But it could! Wild card!
Not first. They still might make the playoffs, mind you, but I'm going to guess not first. Braun has a great season, but not a super-duper great season, and that will lead to annoying articles at the end of the year.