Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2013 NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers with @RyanTopp

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2013. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is this Sunday and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to do a NL Central preview podcast with a blogger from each of the division rivals and while I couldn't do a podcast this year (I dropped the ball and didn't realize the season was so close) but I was able to get together with a blogger from each NL Central team to answer 15 questions about their teams and how they think they will do in 2013.

The series is going to go in the order that the teams finished in 2012 and we will go with one preview a day ending with a pretty extensive Pittsburgh Pirates preview that I am working on.

The third preview of the series is going to be the Milwaukee Brewers and today I will be talking with Ryan from Disciples of Uecker. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. They do great work and were nice to come amuse me and answer some questions.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers.

1) After coming close to a World Series berth in 2011 the 2012 Brewers took a step back and just finished .500 last season. How much of a disappointment was the 2012 season?

DoU: It was disappointing and surprising. I think nationally they were a bit underrated coming into the year because of the loss of Fielder. I thought the offense was still going to be OK (if somewhat too right handed) but they ended up being the top scoring offense in the league. The problem, obviously, was the pitching. Specifically, the bullpen completely melted down in historic fashion. It wasn’t so much that they gave up a silly number of runs, they were 12th in runs/game allowed by NL bullpens last year, so bad but not dreadful. It’s that they blew so many close leads, especially in a nightmare 6 week stretch early in the summer. The ninth inning, in particular, was a complete nightmare. According to Baseball Prospectus, they blew 14% of their 9th inning leads. The league average is 5%. If they were merely average, they are right in the thick of the playoff race. But they didn’t, so they weren’t and it stunk. Felt like a lot to me like a last best chance with the group they spent the first half of the 00’s putting together.

2) Despite being pretty average in 2012 the Brewers nearly made the playoffs after a really bad start to the season. They were as good as any team down the stretch so does that give any incite on what this year might bring or was that just a last gasp effort to salvage last season?

DoU: It certainly has people in a relatively positive mood about the 2013 season before it starts, that’s for sure. The team played well for about a month, mostly because the starters were good enough to hand over leads generated by a powerful offense to a suddenly-not-terrible bullpen. Just how sustainable that model is remains to be seen, but I’m skeptical for a number of reasons.

3) The obvious big news on the Brewers team is Ryan Braun. Everyone was wondering what he do last season after getting the positive test thrown out but he responded with a usually great .319/.391/.595 triple slash line and nearly was an eight win player. Over the offseason there was more to the Braun performance enhancers saga. Is this something that Brewers fans should be worried about? Could you see a 50 game ban coming at some points with so many acquisitions out there?

DoU: Well, the news that came out last week that Braun is MLB’s “public enemy #1” and that they’re doing everything they can to get the goods on all the Biogenesis guys says that they certainly are trying. Whether or not they’ll be successful is a matter for people with more inside knowledge than me, and since I thought there was “no way in hell” that Braun would win his appeal last year, I probably shouldn’t wildly speculate here either. If I had to guess, I would say that MLB is going to have a tough time suspending Braun or any of these guys at the MLB level because getting the proof they need is not easy without subpoena power and it’s higher than that needed to suspend a minor leaguer. Anything can happen, though, and if Braun is suspended, it’ll obviously hurt the Brewers chances, as slim as they may be.

4) More recently the Brewers signed centerfielder Carlos Gomez to a three year extension worth $24 million. I know you were a little bullish on this at the start but what is the general thoughts about the extension? Gomez is an outstanding defender but the offense has lagged a little over his career. Do you think that comes?

DoU: Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of this deal. Let’s face it, the reason he got it is primarily because he went off in the second half last year in a way that he’s never really done in his career. His first half looked much like the rest of his career. What’s more, most of the improvement was strongly tied to a power spike, which tend to be less reliable outbursts. As you said, he is a great defender, though even that showed signs of slipping. On the other hand, this deal does end when he’s 30, and he shouldn’t lose too much speed value before then, though he probably will lose some. I think the biggest problem here is just how much of the Brewers future payroll is tied into hitters including Braun, Weeks and now Gomez. They better hope that the young pitching they have is going to be good enough to help them contend, because there isn’t going to be much money to pay for it on the market.

5) Noricha Aoki was pretty good in his first full season with the Brewers. I assume that he will have the full time right field job and continue to leadoff?

DoU: I think just about everyone was surprised at how well he did, even the Brewers, so I think it’s reasonable to wonder just how good he’ll be going forward. That said, he proved adept at adjusting to major league pitching, and he has a nice combination of discipline and line drive power. He’s also a solid fielder in right. Not bad for a guy they just bid on “to see what would happen.”

6) To put it bluntly Rickie Weeks was brutally bad last season. He was able to contribute with a solid OBP but there is still a ton of talent there. Was that just a down year for Weeks and do you think he is back to how he was playing before 2012?

DoU: Yeah, he really got off to a brutal start in 2012. He hit .158/.292/.294 through June 1st but then hit .260/.344/.445 over the last 4 months of the season. There has been quite a bit of debate among fans as to just how much his ankle injury suffered in 2011 was still hampering him early. I tend to think that played a smallish role, because Weeks certainly has had his ups and downs over the years and for him to struggle for a few months isn’t really shocking. Still, if he’s healthy, I would expect him to be much more the player he was the last 4 months than the 1st 2. The bigger concern with Weeks is just how far his defensive range slipped last year. Hopefully he’ll be able stem that tide.

7) First base has got to be a pretty big concern going into the season, right? Corey Hart is going to be out with a knee injury for the start of the year. Who is going to replace him and while that player can't replace Hart's 30 home runs can they hold the fort?

DoU: At this point, I think most Brewers fans are used to Hart missing the first month of the season with some injury, then coming back and doing what he does. We just wait to find out when he’s coming back. As for a replacement, the #1 guy, Mat Gamel, went down early in camp with another ACL tear that will cost him his season. Taylor Green, another possible guy, is also having some health issues. Believe it or not, at this point it looks like SS Alex Gonzalez is going to take the spot until Hart comes back, which sounds like it’s going to be closer to late April than late May, as originally feared.

8) On the bump this is obviously Yovani Gallardo's team but is there going to be enough behind him with Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada? Over the offseason the Brewers lost Shaun Marcum to free agency and Zach Grienke in the middle of the season via a trade so does all that loss catch up with them?

DoU: This is the $25,000 question for the Brewers this year. The team is trotting out a lot of unproven (though not really young) starters to open the season. They have some things going for them. Both Fiers and Estrada miss a lot of bats despite not featuring big time fastballs, and neither guy walks too many batters. The problem is that both can become very hittable at times. Chris Narveson is coming back from major shoulder surgery and Mark Rogers always seems to be headed to his next date with the knife. Wily Peralta has major upside and throws about as hard as any starter in MLB, but he also spent much of the year walking AAA batters in 2012, before showing improved command in MLB late. Tyler Thornburg is probably a reliever, though maybe a really good one. There are some potential starters in AA, but they’re probably a year or two away. That’s not to say this can’t work. If the lineup mashes again and the bullpen get’s it’s head out of it’s collective posterior, they might be able to pull it off.

That’s a pretty big if, though, and it has a lot of Brewers fans (and some beat writers) screaming their heads off for the team to sign Kyle Lohse, though that seems likely to end like the Suppan and Wolf adventures sooner rather than later. This is the unfortunate result of poor planning by the front office and trading away too much future value to try and win in the short term, both in 2008 and 2011. Pirates fans should take note.

9) The bullpen was pretty bad last season for the Brewers, especially in the closers roll. Heading in to the season is that still a concern for you?

DoU: A good friend of mine likes to say that most relievers are just carnies. The shuffle onto stage and wow you with their one trick, but it quickly loses it’s appeal and they end up on the streets sooner rather than later. I guess that’s my way of saying “I don’t know” when it comes to wondering what to expect from the Brewers, or really any, bullpen. Last year, I thought the group of John Axford, Francisco Rodríguez, Kameron Loe and Jose Veras was really solid heading into the year and they torched the team. Back in 2008, the withered husk of Sol Torres successfully closed for them on a playoff run. Who knows? I do think Axford was pretty unlucky last year, and he should be better. I think Tom Gorzelanny should help and I like the upsides of some of the young guys like Brandon Kintzler and Michael Olmstead. Will that be enough? I’m just gonna stop pretending like I ever know what to expect from big league bullpens.

10) What is your biggest question mark for the team in 2013?

DoU: The rotation. Whatever this team becomes, it will largely be because of the starters. The lineup is going to mash, because that’s what they do, and the bullpen isn’t likely to be that great or that bad. So really, it’s all about the starters, which is scary, but it is where they are.

11) Who is the diamond in the ruff that most non Brewers fans should keep their eye on during the season?

DoU: I really like Marco Estrada. I would like him a lot more as a 4th starter than as a #2, but that’s just where the team is right now. It probably comes as a shock, but he actually struck out more batters per inning and walked fewer than Zack Greinke. His issue is the home run, and trying to work deeper into games. If he can figure out a way to be more effective the third time batters see him, watch out.

12) In terms of the minor league system what is your quick overview of what the Brewers have right now?

DoU: The cliché about the Brewers farm right now is that it’s very deep, but lacks top shelf talent. That’s true to a point, they do have a lot of likely future role players, but no one really stands out as a likely impact star at the moment. That’s fair, but I think it also misses some of the upside. The Brewers have drafted 5 players in the top 50 of the last 2 drafts, and 3 of them lost significant time to injury last summer, and thus haven’t really had much of a chance to put up the eye popping numbers that get you into top 50 lists. They also had some setbacks with recent second round picks. I think there is some real upside in the system, but only time will tell on that one.

13) What are your predictions for the Brewers in 2013 (number of wins and where they finish in the NL Central)

DoU: Well, I’ll tell you this. I made a 6 pack bet with a twitter friend on this, and I took the 4th or 5th side of the bet with 3rd place being a push. I see the Reds and the Cards as the clear class of the division, and I would be pleasantly stunned if the Brewers elbowed one of them out of the way. I have the Brewers and Pirates in roughly the same boat, record wise, but with the Pirates possessing considerably more upside. Then there are the Cubs, who are trying to lose and will probably undermine their current chances even more by trading away guys like Garza and Soriano if the chance presents itself. I’ve been saying 78 wins and 3rd or 4th place depending on how the Bucs do all off season and might as well stick with it now.

14) As an outsider what are your thoughts on our Pittsburgh Pirates?

DoU: I like what they’re doing a lot. In markets like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, you simply have to build from within, lock up talent where and when you can, and try not to make too many mistakes trading away young talent and signing older guys when you do try and “win now.” Philosophically, I think the Pirates have it just right, even if the waiting seems to take forever. The execution has mostly made sense to me too, “Hoka Hey” notwithstanding. This is a dangerous time for a team like the Pirates. The team is showing more legit promise than it has in decades, but it’s not quite there yet while waiting for a couple more stars to emerge from the farm. I liken it to where the Brewers were in 2006/2007, and I hope for the sake of Pirates fans that management doesn’t try and rush things like the Brewers did then, making bad long term decisions in the pursuit of winning now. That’s how you end up where the Brewers were in 2009 and 2010, wasting time because they had too much bad money and not enough young talent. Hell, that’s how you end up where the Brewers are now, looking back at a past that was OK, but could have been so much better if they hadn’t been so damn impatient.

15) Any final parting thoughts for the Pirates faithful?

DoU: Hang in there. I really think you have a core that can compete with the Cardinals in a year or two when the Reds have gotten old fast, the Brewers are perpetually rebuilding and the Cubs are waiting on their wave of prospects to emerge at the big league level. I wouldn’t even be shocked if it was this year, if Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon make the jump quickly and smoothly, which is basically why I think it’s more likely the Brewers finish 4th than 2nd. Also, enjoy that stadium. It’s a gem and I hope to get back there for a game again sometime soon.

16) BONUS QUESTION!!!! Just after I finished up this Q&A and had it ready to go the Brewers went out and signed Kyle Lohse to a three year, $33M deal. Since I knew that Ryan had some thoughts on this I asked him to give us his thoughts on the deal.

I’m going to try to keep my thoughts on the Lohse signing short and sweet, but I’m going to fail and they will no doubt end up being long winded and mean spirited. Frankly, I can find a half a dozen good reasons not to do this deal, right now with Kyle Lohse and just a few, mostly bad, reasons for it. First off, signing a 34 year old pitcher with modest stuff to a 3 year deal for significant money is just dumb to begin with. The ax is going to fall sooner rather than later in most cases on his performance, and so you’re basically buying hoping year 1 will be OK and year 2-3 won’t cripple your teams chances to win. I guess there is a time and a place where this makes sense, but it’s certainly not the 2013 Brewers, who I had at 78 wins before this and have at maybe 81 or 82 now. Add to that the fact that to do it, they had to defer 7 of his 11 million dollar salary this year to 2016-2018 to make it work, and you’re just further sticking future Brewers clubs with a bill for a Kyle Lohse that probably will never be the difference between making the playoffs and not making it.

On top of all of that, the Brewers had to give up the 17th pick in this June’s draft and the 2 million or so that goes with it in terms of bonus pool money. For a franchise that can’t afford to sign stars as free agents, or even really pay full market price for even the homegrown ones, this is kicking away an opportunity to draft the next franchise cornerstone. Not that they would have, but you at least have to give yourself the chance, and they’ve clearly punted that here.

On the positive side, this allowed our Beloved Owner Mark Attanasio to sell an extra 25,000 or so tickets Monday beyond what they normally sell this time of year to Brewers fans so starved for action that they’ll accept this as a good move. He’ll surely sell plenty more as a result, and hey, that’s what this is all about. Our team has become about selling the illusion of consistent competitiveness more so than it actually is being consistently competitive. From 2000 to 2005, the Brewers drafted a future all star each and every year. Our Beloved Owner had his GM turn that into 2 playoff appearances from 2006-2012, one of which they just barely snuck in on and the other that they had to decimate their young talent pool to accomplish. Those players are now mostly leaving or are out of their primes and have left or will be leaving soon. But hey, the Beloved Owner spends money and that’s all that is supposed to matter in an owner, right? Not a vision for sustainable success. Just spend money on names, keep the turnstiles moving and eventually you’re the Houston Astros. But hey, they’ve already got $300 + of my money this year, and they’ll soon get a lot more, so why not, right?

This is not the future you want, Pirates fans. Sure, the playoff runs were fun, but they came at such a high cost, a cost that they frankly wouldn’t have needed to pay if they’re made a few tough decisions and just been a little more patient. We were so starved for a winner in Milwaukee that our Beloved Owner stepped in and tried to give us one right away. In the process, they routinely made bad long terms decisions for the sake of short term success that often failed to materialize anyway. Now we’re looking at a pretty bleak future and will probably have to comfort ourselves with memories of the 2011 NLCS for quite a while. So yeah, you could have had Kyle Lohse, but then he just would have been your Jeff Suppan. Now, he’s just our Jeff Suppan part 2. No, that’s not right, Randy Wolf was our Jeff Suppan part 2. Kyle Lohse is our Raff Wolpan III and it sucks. Don’t blog angry, kids.

Before we leave for the day I just wanted to give a big thanks to Ryan. He always does good work and one of the few that actually believe in the Pirates. Make sure that you give them a follow and read their blog. Top notch stuff.

Tune back in tomorrow when we get a preview for the Chicago Cubs with Brett from Bleacher Nation.

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