The Milwaukee Brewers finished their 2011 season on a down note, with a 12-6 loss Sunday that clinched the series for St. Louis, but the Brewers can be proud of one of the most successful seasons in franchise history and look forward to the future of the team.
To stave off the bitterness left from the Brewers’ postseason exit, let’s keep pressing on and look forward to the 2012 season.
This season we got to see consistently good starting pitching for the first time in awhile. Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf all had good seasons and all will likely be back in 2012. The Brewers will be strong in this area– arguably the most important part of the team– and will just need to find a solid fifth starter to round out the bunch. Chris Narveson pitched well at times last season and could very well maintain the final spot in the rotation.
As strong as the starting pitching was, the bullpen was laughably bad at times. Closer John Axford had a great 2011, notching 46 saves and a 1.96 ERA, but apart from him there isn’t much left. Unwilling setup man Francisco Rodriguez will be gone next year, as will LaTroy Hawkins. K-Rod was great in his time with the Brewers and was a major reason for their success at the end of the year. It will be a tough task replacing him in the eighth inning spot, and with Hawkins also possibly gone (he’s probably nearing the end of his career, anyway) the bullpen will need some additions to be better in 2012. There are a number of top relief pitchers who will be free agents (Francisco Cordero, Jose Valverde, Johnathan Papelbon, Heath Bell) but it’s likely that none of them will be willing to take a setup role. Other possible additions in free agency include Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink (give him a chance at redeeming his 2007 time in Milwaukee), Jon Rauch, or Fernando Rodney. It’s really anyone’s guess who Doug Melvin will target or if he’ll try to bring up someone from the minors (maybe Wily Peralta to get him some big league experience before he (hopefully) becomes a starter) , but what is clear is that the Brewers need to drastically improve their middle relievers and setup men.
Prince Fielder is most likely gone and it’s hard to tell what that will do to the Brewers’ hitting. He was a beast in the middle of the lineup who was a constant threat to go deep and consistently got on base because he was walked so often. He gave protection to Ryan Braun and, from most accounts, was a good teammate and leader. It’s still possible that Fielder could take a pay cut and stay in Milwaukee, but I wouldn’t blame him for taking what could be over $20 million a year to play in a bigger market. To replace him, the Brewers could move Corey Hart to first base and end his wild adventures fielding balls in right field. He fits the mold with his 6’6″ frame and laziness, and he just signed a multi-year contract earlier this season, so he could provide some stability at the position for a few years. If the Brewers opt to sign a free agent, there are a number of veterans available that could come at a reasonable price. Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, and Jim Thome would all be nice additions, and there are also guys available like Brad Hawpe and Lyle Overbay, but those two would not be ideal.
Elsewhere, the Brewers are set at catcher with Johnathan Lucroy, who had a nice season hitting and behind the plate. He could receive a longer contract this offseason, and it would be the best option for Milwaukee. They also have Rickie Weeks locked up at second base for at least three more seasons, and the hope is that he can stay healthy and finally turn into a consistently dangerous hitter. He will play a big part in replacing Fielder’s production.
Shortstop is somewhat of a mystery, as the Brewers have the option to keep Yuniesky Betancourt but could look elsewhere in free agency. Betancourt came up big in the postseason, hitting .310 and scoring seven runs, but he was average in the regular season when he batted just .252 and also committed 21 errors. It’s been rumored that the Brewers are interested in signing Jose Reyes this offseason, and that could provide the spark the Brewers need to keep the offense consistent. Reyes would be the first true leadoff hitter Milwaukee would have had in awhile, and his signing is possible now that $15 million is off the books from Fielder leaving. If they can’t get Reyes, the Brewers could opt for a defensive specialist like Jack Wilson, or for Jimmy Rollins, who is getting to the end of his career but still has some pop left in his bat.
Third base is also questionable. Casey McGehee had a terrible season, committing 20 errors and hitting just .223 with 67 RBI. He’s eligible for arbitration this offseason and will most likely be back on the team, but it’s unclear if the Brewers can depend on him starting every day. Jerry Hairston played well in the postseason, but he’s not an everyday player and he may not want to return to Milwaukee. The Brewers best option may be to sign a free agent like Edwin Encarnacion (who could return to Toronto on a club option) or Wilson Betemit. Any way it turns out, it seems third base will be a weak spot unless McGehee can return to his 2010 form, when he had 104 RBI.
Milwaukee is set in left field with Ryan Braun, who’s signed through 2015. It’s nice to have a superstar like Braun locked up for so long, as he will keep the fans interested and help to attract top free agents. In center, both Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan are eligible for arbitration and Mark Kotsay will be a free agent. Kotsay isn’t an everyday player anyway, and I’m not sure if Morgan is either because he doesn’t seem to stay focused long enough. And who knows how much longer his antics will be tolerated in Milwaukee? It’s painful to say, but Gomez might be the best option. He offers above-average defense and is a threat to hit home runs and steal bases at the bottom of the lineup. Right field is probably set with Corey Hart, but if the Brewers do move him to first they could sign a free agent like Bobby Abreu or Michael Cuddyer. I’ve suggested free agents at far too many positions for them all to be feasible though, and outfield may be a spot that stays set with the players already in Milwaukee.
Ron Roenicke is a great fit as manager. He’s patient and consistent with his strategies and seems to be well-liked by the players and fans. He was a major part of the Brewers’ success this season and will continue to be in the future, and he could turn into a household name after serving his time as a bench coach for so many years. He will have to be more creative in 2012 with Fielder most likely gone, but it may be more suited to his style, as he can call for more steals and hit-and-runs. Roenicke could influence any free agents the Brewers pick up and he might be in search of more speed and defense at the top of the lineup, making the signing of Jose Reyes important. It will obviously depend on Reyes’ desires, as well as the willingness of owner Mark Attanasio to continue to spend money, which he seems to be happy to do.
The Brewers will probably be missing a big piece of the team in 2012 with the likely departure of Fielder, but the starting pitching and core offensive players that remain on the team leave hope for another playoff run next season and into the future.