NL Central Questions & Answers: Milwaukee Brewers

Throughout the week we’re going to be posting some Q&A’s with other NL Central bloggers about the upcoming season.  Berselius has written some nice previews for each team so we’re going to try and post those fairly close to one another.  These are some very good blogs and I encourage all of you to check them out.  Up first is the Milwaukee Brewers and the fantastic The Brewers Bar.  Thanks a lot to Jaymes Langrehr for taking the time.

Obstructed View:  Brewers pitching staff has been pretty bad over the last four seasons.  If we use FIP they rank 26th and they rank 24th by ERA.  How much do Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum improve the rotation?

Jaymes Langrehr: I think “pretty bad” is an understatement — we’re talking about some of the worst rotations in club history, aside from the 2008 Sabathia/Sheets group. Adding Marcum alone would’ve given the Brewers a middle-of-the-pack rotation that might’ve been enough to get them within striking distance of playoff contention, but Greinke takes expectations to a completely different level. After the Greinke deal was done, I sat down and tried to determine where the Brewers’ new rotation ranked among the league’s best rotations. They obviously won’t touch Philly, but they weren’t that far off from the likes of San Francisco or St. Louis (pre-Wainwright injury). It’s crazy to think that in one offseason, they probably went from the 2nd-worst rotation in the division to one of the best. Instead of counting down the days until the next Gallardo start, chances are the Brewers will have at least one of Gallardo, Greinke, or Marcum starting in every series.

Obstructed ViewPrince Fielder is set to become a free agent at the end of the season.  We’ve written a bit about the Brewers financial commitments beyond this season and it appears to be borderline as far as available money to re-sign the star.  Will they increase the payroll to keep Fielder around?  Do they have any prospects that could replace him if he leaves?

Jaymes Langrehr: Reading in between the lines, it appears that the Brewers have no delusions of re-signing Prince Fielder. Their message to Prince has been clear after avoiding arbitration with him this year — go out and have a great year, we’re willing to talk at the end of the year if you are, but we probably won’t be able to give you a competitive offer. Both sides seem happy with this arrangement. Mark Attanasio has shown he’s willing to spend and operate in the red for a winner, but I think he’s been very clear that he’s not willing to make bad investments. For a team like the Brewers, giving Fielder what he’s asking for (something similar to the Ryan Howard or Mark Teixeira deals) would be a bad investment.

Obstructed View:  I live near Kansas City and I’ve watched Greinke a lot over the last several years.  I recall reading in a prospect annual after the 2002 Draft about how he was as good as Mark Prior.  Prior was an excellent pitcher before the injuries of course and Greinke took a little while to reach his potential.  What are you guys expecting out of Greinke as a Brewer?

Jaymes Langrehr:  I’ve been careful to temper my expectations for Greinke a bit, just because we don’t know yet how he’ll respond to his new surroundings. It would be crazy to expect him to repeat his 2009 season ever again, but even if he’s half as good as he was that year, this rotation is going to be something else. I do think he’ll enjoy the benefits of pitching to National League lineups, and he seems excited about getting to hit, too. A lot of people are going to compare this Greinke run to Sabathia’s time in Milwaukee, which won’t be fair — Greinke isn’t going to be throwing complete games on short rest every turn through the rotation and putting up sub-2.00 ERAs/sub-2.5 FIPs. But I think the atmosphere in Miller Park will be similar, with the added benefit of the team having Greinke for two years, not just a few months. Honestly, I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that Greinke is a Brewer — it’s still surreal seeing him wear the uniform in Arizona.

If I had to guess, I’d peg Greinke for production closer to his 2008 season than his 2009 season, which would put him at around 5 fWAR.

Obstructed View:  Do the Brewers win the division this year?  What are your thoughts on how the NL Central ends up?

Jaymes Langrehr:  I think they can, but the division is so wide open that I hesitate to definitively say that they’re the favorites. I’d be lying if I said the injury to Adam Wainwright didn’t help the Brewers’ chances, but the Reds and the Cardinals will both be very good again this year, and I actually think the Cubs could give the top three some headaches if everyone stays healthy and you guys get hot.

Right now, I would probably slate the Brewers a game ahead the Reds/Cardinals. I know they’re the clear favorite to many people now that Wainwright is out, but I still have a few concerns about depth and the bullpen. Jonathan Lucroy broke a finger during catching drills early in camp and might not be ready for the start of the season, and Corey Hart looks like he’ll be out for a few more weeks with an oblique strain before taking his first hacks of the spring. I hate the fact that Yuniesky Betancourt will be the team’s everyday shortstop, and I almost hate it more than the fact that the alternatives are Craig Counsell and Luis Cruz. I hate having Carlos Gomez‘s bat in the lineup, but the fact that he’s the only plus defender in the outfield makes it a neccessity. I think the bullpen can be really good, but they also look like they’ll be really young. I am happy, though, that Doug Melvin seems to have taken a break from throwing big money at middle relievers.

If anyone in this division can get to 90 wins, I think they win it. Right now, though, I’m not convinced there’s a team that’s clearly a 90-game winner.

Obstructed View:  The Brewers have put a lot of energy into winning right now.  A couple years ago their farm system was stacked, but several of the players have now been traded.  Prince Fielder is eligible to become a free agent at season’s end.  Ryan Braun will begin to earn more money than he ever has.  Greinke is a free agent after 2012.  I don’t know need to tell you.  Focusing on winning now doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing the future and the Brewers haven’t done that, but is there a sense of urgency within the organization to win now like never before?

Jaymes Langrehr:  It’s definitely a weird feeling. Those of us that follow the Brewers are used to following the minor league prospects just as closely as the big league club, trying to project the lineup five years from now. Now we can’t, because there honestly isn’t a single impact prospect in the system. The best bats project to be solid fourth outfielders or utility infielders at best, and the best pitchers look like they’re headed for the bullpen or are 5th starter types. But the big league team is stacked, and for the most part, now signed long-term. The organization can likely survive a year or two of toiling at the bottom of the prospect rankings, but this year’s draft — with two picks in the top 15 — is incredibly important.

There is a sense that the team is operating within a two-year window, with Fielder hitting free agency after this season, and Greinke and Marcum potentially doing the same after next season. I don’t exactly buy that, because with a core of Gallardo/Braun/Weeks/Hart, the team should at least be competitive beyond 2012. Signing either Greinke or Marcum to an extension would help extend that window, though, and I think that’s what most fans are counting on.

As far as 2011 goes, though, this season does have a bit of a “whatever it takes to win” feeling to it. It would have been a shame to let this year pass by without ever really finding out what a Fielder-led team could do with decent pitching, so it is nice that Melvin was able to find a way to make it happen (of course, his job likely depended on it). It should be a fun year to watch, but expectations have gotten to a point where I’m having trouble envisioning a year that doesn’t end in heartbreak.