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NL Central Preview/Roundtable Part Four: Brewers

I think it was Prince Fielder's dad 
stole the cookies from the cookie jar

The Brewers are going to be good, really good.  I think the only question is whether it's going to be this year or in 2007.  I kind of opt for 2007 as Fielder Weeks Hardy and Hart consolidate this year, but as I say somewhere within, I could be wrong. . . . .

Milwaukee Brewers

1. The Brewers made a few moves this offseason, mostly in deals with the Blue Jays. Detail the best and the worst of these transactions, and give your reasoning behind each.

Brew Crew Ball: The day the Overbay trade was announced, I sent a love letter to Doug Melvin.  Okay, that's not true--but only because he took out a restraining order when I sent one after the Richie Sexson trade.  Something just occurred to me a couple of days ago about the Overbay trade.  We all remember the two big trades Billy Beane made last offseason, shipping away Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.  Each of them was for a trio of players, a nice mix between current production (Haren) and potential (Barton).  Doug Melvin basically got the low rent version of the Mulder haul for Lyle Overbay.  Instead of Dan Haren, Dave Bush.  Instead of Kiko Calero, a ML-ready 4th OF in Gabe Gross.  Instead of Daric Barton, a lefty pitching prospect in Zach Jackson.  All this for a barely league-average first baseman already making $2.5m?  I love Lyle, but that's just too good to be true.

I'm less enthusiastic about the Koskie acquisition.  I trust he'll bounce back somewhat from his injury-riddled 2005, but even still, he'd better make one heck of a platoon partner for Bill Hall.  It's only a couple million, so if it means we have Bill Hall as a supersub and Zach Sorenson doesn't spend a single day on the Major League roster, it's probably worth the money.  I'm even less enthusiastic about the re-signing of Dan Kolb.  I loved the guy as a Brewer and I had no idea he'd be such a disaster in Atlanta.  Hey--I don't mind bringing him back, but for $2m?  I guess when Bobby Howry is getting $4m/yr it's not so bad, but every year a Melvin/Maddux reclamation project pitches better than Kolb will this year.  Money better spent buying me plane tickets and season passes.

Bucs Dugout: I'm no fan of Dan Kolb, but I like the Overbay and Koskie moves. Overbay was blocking a great young player in Prince Fielder, and the Brewers got good value for him - Zach Jackson is a high-upside prospect, and Dave Bush and Gabe Gross can both be solid, cheap role players the next few years.

I probably like the Koskie deal better than Brew Crew does. Bill Hall is a useful player, but he's probably better as a contingency plan than as a regular. He hit very well last year - actually, he had the same OBP and SLG that Koskie had in '04 - but there's little in Hall's performance record to suggest he can keep that up. The Brewers were right to look elsewhere and use Hall as a sub.

Meanwhile, Koskie cost them next to nothing - about $4 million for the next two years, if my math is right. (Brian Wolfe, the minor league reliever the Brewers traded to get Koskie, isn't going anywhere.) The Pirates signed Joe Randa for $4 million for one year, and Koskie's a much higher-upside player - he's only one year removed from being a plus hitter at third base. Randa's more reliable, but when you've got Hall around you don't need to worry that much about reliability. You can spend the $4 million and hope you're getting the guy who hit 25 homers in 2004. If you aren't, that's okay - Hall won't be great, but he'll be good enough. Koskie is a smart gamble for the Brewers.

2. The Brewers have quietly put together one of the better rotations in the National League; true or false? Explain your reasoning for each of the five starters (but be as in depth as you feel like you need to be; you don't need to write an essay...except for you Jeff.)

The Crawfish Boxes:  Sure, without writing an essay, I can get behind that.  True.  You can look up the numbers, if you want.  In 2005, Milwaukee's starters ranked second leaguewide in k/9IP, and fourth in BAA.   They were also fifth in k/BB and top half in WHIP.  If you believe in all that intangible stuff, like a staff needs an ace, Ben Sheets is that, and certainly no team in the majors can throw quality lefthanded starters at you the way the Brewers can with Capuano and Davis.  It's that much more insurance against a teamwide pitching slump.   For whatever reason, Davis has never given the Astros too much trouble, but Capuano pitched lights out against Pettitte early in the season.  
I don't know how much faith you put into the resurgence experienced by Rick Helling last year, but I can testify:  the man mowed the Astros down in 2005. He was able to do the same against a few other teams as well:  he had a 2.39 ERA overall.
Don't think much of Tomo Ohka, though he'll probably be better than Sidney Ponson, anyway.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: Is Sheets healthy? I know there have been some questions about him, and without him, the staff is... well, it's 20% less potentially successful. Replacing Sheets with whoever the "sixth" guy is, would be a huge comedown.

That said, Capuano had a breakout year in 2005 and is clearly capable of being a #1 starter in Sheets' absence. Plus, he and Davis always, always, always give the Cubs fits. Drives me crazy, it does.

Brew Crew Ball: Obviously Sheets is very important.  If the Brewers are going to contend this year, we'll need at least 25 starts out of our ace.  But that overstates the staff's reliance on the #1 guy.  Doug Davis was one of the top 15 or 20 starters in the NL last year, and Chris Capuano proved he could throw above average innings for an entire season without getting hurt.  Tomo Ohka has had a couple of seasons in the not-too-distant past in which he's pitched just as well as Davis or Capuano did last year.  He may not light up the radar gun or look snazzy doing it, but he gets guys out, and he'll be the best #4 starter in the division, hands down.  

Aside from Sheets, the key to the Brewers' season is Dave Bush.  If he pitches as well as he's shown he can, and stays healthy all year, the Crew isn't going to have a rotation of 1-2-3-4-5, it'll be 1-2-2-3-3.  So many teams give up so much in the back of their rotation, and the Brewers have--amazingly--built a rotation in which each of their top five, even six, starters have a very good shot of being above average.  

3. Where do you see this Brewers team in 2006? How about 2007 and beyond? With Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy, as well as prospects like the newly acquired Zach Jackson, can the Brewers reclaim the division in the near future?

Brew Crew Ball:  This year, various projections put the Crew between about 82 and 88 wins.  I like us for about 86, if I were putting money on it.  This year's Brewers team is so much deeper than the last few years' that there's really no comparison.  And for once, we're looking at players with legitimate superstar upside, not just hoping Geoff Jenkins will suddenly hit 45 home runs and carry us to the promised land.  So in 2006, a couple lucky breaks could put Milwaukee in the thick of things for the Wild Card.

In 2007, with the young infield established, perhaps with Corey Hart manning one of the corners, and with one big free-agent acquisition (a #1a to put next to Sheets?) anything less than the Wild Card is going to be a disappointment.  This organization has been building to meet this very schedule for years, and while there's been some success a little sooner than planned, there's not a very big window in which Milwaukee can afford a Fielder/Weeks/Hardy/Braun infield and an appropriate supporting cast before they start heading off to free agency.  I'd love to predict 95-win seasons for '08 and '09, but even the silly fanboy in me realizes that a lot can happen in two years.  So I'll settle for 93.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: I know Brewers fans were excited beyond all rationality that they had a better record than the Cubs last year. And frankly, this was well earned, and I give the Brewers organization all the kudos they deserve for that.

There? Happy? I'm actually being nice.

But seriously, the Brewers appear to be a team on the rise. Weeks, Hardy and Fielder are three kids who could become cornerstones of a great Brewer renaissance, much as Molitor and Yount were for them back in the 70s and 80s. Kids, though, do make mistakes, and at times regress. I could easily see the Brewers return to an 85-loss team this year -- or, if their pitching holds up, hang around the wild-card race for much of the year.

Viva El Birdos: I'm sold on this group of young players; I think the Brewers are going to be contenders for quite a while, assuming their arms hold up. And I have confidence in Doug Melvin to trade from his position-player surpluses to get that done.