>3 Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

>By The Common Man

TCM’s done with the NL West, which means it’s time to move on in our 3 Questions series. And given the events of this past weekend, it’s pretty clear who should be in the crosshairs next, isn’t it?  (As always, you can find the rest of the 3 Questions series here)

Question 1: Have they fixed their rotation issues?

Come on. This is the old question. Let’s update it, in light of Doug Melvin’s exciting moves this offseason:

Question 1 (Revised): How good is the rebuilt rotation?

It looks, at first glance, to be pretty damn good, actually. By picking up Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers have essentially set themselves up with plus starters at each of the front 4 spots. If the team can get to the postseason in 2011, it’s enough to help them make a deep run. While not quite as impressive as Philadelphia’s four-headed monster, it may rival San Francisco’s excellent quartet out West. More importantly, in a postseason series, both Gallardo and Greinke are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain. And Marcum is probably a better pitcher than Oswalt and Sanchez at this point. It’s fairly reminiscent of the Yankees’ moves prior to 2009, when they added both CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett and turned their rotation from a liability into a significant strength.

How strong? Consider the following table from each of the four best rotations in the National League

Team #1 Starter xFIP WAR avg #2 Starter xFIP WAR #3 Starter xFIP WAR #4 Starter xFIP WAR*
Phillies Halladay 2.92 6.9 Lee 3.23 6.3 Oswalt 3.45 3.9 Hamels 3.67 3.8
Giants Lincecum 3.21 6.3 Cain 4.19 4.0 Sanchez 4.11 2.1 Bumgarner 4.03 3.6**
Team Carpenter 3.14 4.6 Wainwright 3.14 4.7 Garcia 3.73 3.0 Westbrook 4.09 1.8
Brewers Greinke 3.76 5.9 Gallardo 3.42 3.0 Marcum 3.90 3.1 Wolf 4.90 1.95

*In this table, TCM is using each pitcher’s 2010 xFIP and an average of both WAR versions (BR.com and Fangraphs) for the past three years (where possible).

**Bumgarner, obviously, only has data available from half 2010 (and one start in 2009).  TCM has extrapolated those numbers over 30 starts.

Looking at the data, it’s not at all clear that the Brewers have pushed themselves into the top two rotations in the league, as others have suggested.  In fact, they may just have enough pitching to rival the Cardinals.  That said, it is a significant improvement over their 2010 squad, and likely to help the team significantly in the standings.

Question 2: Are the Brewers any better defensively than they were in 2010?

In a word, no. The Brewers were the second worst team in Defensive Efficiency in 2010 thanks, in large part to awful defensive seasons by Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee. Then, to acquire Greinke, the Brewers moved two of their stronger defenders, SS Alcides Escobar and CF Lorenzo Cain. Their defense will be adequate in center, with Carlos Gomez penciled in (though they’ll take a big offensive hit for it). And at SS, they’ll go with some combination of Craig Counsell (who is, inexplicably, still an excellent defender) and newly acquired Yuni Betancourt (who is, inexplicably, still employed by a MLB team). All of the offending defenders are coming back, however, and are unlikely to be much improved. So while the Brewers will have greatly improved pitching, their defense will be just as porous and just as ineffective, if not more so.

Question 3: Are the Brewers the team to beat in the NL Central?

The Brewers won just 77 games in 2010 and finished 14 back of the Reds. The additions of Marcum and Greinke, while excellent moves by themselves, probably only add somewhere between 7-10 wins to the Brewers over David Bush and the cast of thousands who filled out the #5 spot. The team should also expect some improvement out of the SS position, and maybe also at catcher. Fielder may bounce back from a down year power-wise, but will likely be offset by Hart coming back to Earth.

The 91 win Reds, meanwhile, have done nothing except resign their own players this offseason, and will need to rely on their young pitchers bouncing back from a rough final couple of months in 2010 and recovering fully from injury in order to stay competitive. The Cardinals have resigned Jake Westbrook, and acquired Lance Berkman and Ryan Theriot, but have significantly hurt their defense in the process. They’re probably headed for around the same 86 wins as last year.

So while the Brewers have clearly moved up in the world, they have not really separated themselves from their competitors. Coming from such a big hole, they’ve likely pulled even, but will be hard pressed to beat out both the Reds and the Cardinals for the NL Central. They’ll need some help and some regression, or for Carlos Gomez to actually figure out how to hit. Having lived with two seasons of Go-Go Gomez in Minnesota, The Common Man doesn’t suggest holding out hope for the latter.