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The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers will enter the season coming off their most successful season as an organization in over 20 years.  The 2011 Brewers won their first playoff series since 1982 after winning the NL Central for the first time in team history while also winning more regular season games (96) than any other previous Brewers team.  The 2011 Brewers, as expected out of a team that had their regular season success, also had many great individual regular season performances.  Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder had MVP caliber seasons (an award Braun should win), the pitching was solid led by starters Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf and a bullpen led by John Axford.  The Brewers 2011 pitching staff ranked in the top 10 in MLB in WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) 3rd (1.24), BAA (batting average against) 8th (.246), and strikeouts 5th (1257).

The 2011 Brewers would ultimately fall to the World Series Champions St. Louis Cardinals (I can’t believe I just wrote that) in 6 games in the NLCS.   Outside of game 1 of that series the Brewers didn’t look anything like the 96 win regular season team that they were.  Further proving the MLB playoffs are a pure crapshoot and the expected results can’t be based off the prior success of teams in the regular season, especially when a guy who looks like this is the manager of the World Series winner.  In that NLCS series the pitching for the Brewers fell apart, posting a 1.65 WHIP and .864 OPS (On base + slugging percentage) against.  Not one of Greinke, Gallardo, and especially Marcum could turn in anything that resembled a competent outing by a major league starting pitcher.

Where do they go from here?  The majority of the 96 win team will be back outside of Yuniesky Betancourt (whose option has already been declined) and to put it nicely he sucks, the bullpen will see some turnover as LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, and Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez are all free agents, bench players Mark Kotsay and Craig Counsell will be free agents (calling him a bench player is a compliment to Craig Counsell), Jerry Hairston Jr. is a free agent, and finally the Brewers first baseman of the last 7 years, Prince Fielder, will be a free agent.  General Manager Doug Melvin is in a position this offseason to re-load a team through free agency with a strong core of players already in place.

The Brewers aren’t really losing much outside of Prince Fielder, obviously he’s a big loss but they still won 96 games last year, even if he is replaced with league average production you can expect the Brewers to contend for the NL Central again as they would be projected to be a mid-high 80 win team with a league average 1B, mid-high 80 wins has historically has been enough to win a weak NL Central division.  Carlos Pena (.819 OPS in 2011) is a solid option to replace Fielder, he won’t cost much (1 year deal for $8-12 million), he plays solid defense, hits for power (30 HR +/-) and he takes walks and gets on base (101 walks and .357 OBP in 2011) which is something the Brewers don’t do well.  The internal option is calling Mat Gamel up who was once a top prospect and really hasn’t done much to prove either way that he is or isn’t a good prospect anymore other than being blocked by established players at the major league level (Braun/Hart in the OF, McGehee at 3B, and Fielder at 1B) and him falling out of the good graces of Doug Melvin and the front office by being bullish on having to consistently move positions in the minors and not being given fulltime at bats in the majors (he only has 171 ab’s in 4 major league seasons).  Gamel continues to hit in the minors and this year he had a line of .310/.372/.540 in AAA with 28 HR.  He has done all he can do in the minors as he has hit at every level, it might be time he is given the 1B job with Prince all but gone.

Betancourt is easily replaceable and won’t be missed as he has the range of an average high school shortstop and an offensive approach that wouldn’t cut it in most beer league softball leagues.  Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins should be the two targets here as both are free agents.  Reyes is going to cost more years and money and the Marlins are said to be front-runners for him but the Brewers have the money to afford the exciting shortstop.  There are concerns with Reyes though, at only 29 he has had multiple calf, hamstring and knee injuries, so there is some risk in giving Reyes a long-term deal and could be one that is regrettable in a few years.  Rollins (33) is 4 years older than Reyes but is still a solid plan b to him.  Even at his age Rollins can be expected to post a .730+ OPS and play good defense.  If he could be had for a 2-3 year deal he might be a better option than Reyes on a 5-6 year deal.

Signing Zack Greinke to a long-term contract should also be a high priority for the Brewers.  Greinke posted a career best k/9 of 10.5 in 2011 and had a WHIP of 1.2.  At 28 Greinke is in his prime and can be expected to be an elite pitcher for the majority of the length of his next contract.  A 4-5 year deal should be expected with the average annual value around $15 million.

2B (Rickie Weeks), LF (Ryan Braun), CF (Carlos Gomez/Nyjer Morgan), RF (Corey Hart), C (Jonathan Lucroy/George Kottaras), and the starting rotation (Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson) are all set going into the year.

Third base also remains a big question for the Brewers and as the infamous Charles Barkley would say in 2011 Casey McGehee was TURRRRABLE.  Pairing up with Betancourt, McGehee gave the Brewers a historically bad left side of the infield playing well below average defense and recording an abysmal .626 OPS.  The Brewers will probably consider cutting McGehee if he demands too much in arbitration.  They do have internal options though and that will likely be the way they go.  They have Taylor Green and the 24 year old had an impressive year in AAA last year putting up a batting line of .336/.413/.583 with 22 HR.  The Brewers made a midseason trade for Jerry Hairston Jr. and he eventually took the 3B job from McGehee in the playoffs.  Resigning Hairston would be a wise move for the Brewers, he would likely come cheaply on a 1-2 year deal, and he can play every position except pitcher and catcher.  Going with a combination of Green/McGehee/Hairston at 3B is the most likely scenario going into the season and giving the guy who is hitting the best at any given time is the best plan of action.  Outside of Aramis Ramirez the 3B free agent group is weak and the Brewers likely won’t look to sign him or want to give him the money he will demand.  They could show interest in Casey Blake, Kevin Kouzmanoff, or former top prospect Andy Laroche if they aren’t happy with what they have in house but none of those names inspire confidence.

The bullpen was strong last year and John Axford was one of the better closers in the league.  Saito and Hawkins could be brought back on the cheap, and Rodriguez is going to sign elsewhere.  One thing Doug Melvin has been exceptionally good at is finding cheap production from relief pitching free agents every year.  The list is long and includes names like Hawkins, Saito, Dan Kolb, Todd Coffey, Derrick Turnbow, Salomon Torres are some names that come to mind.  So I’d look for Melvin to bring in 2-3 free agent relief pitchers who are either older or have had past success but had a down year last year.  I would also expect in house guys like Mike McClendon, Mark Rogers, Brandon Kintzler, Tim Dillard, Zach Braddock, and Marco Estrada to assume larger roles.

Finally we get to the bench.  Mark Kotsay was ok last year and could be brought back on another cheap one year deal.  Craig Counsell just needs to go away as even Yuniesky Betancourt thinks Counsell is no good (Ok I will stop with the Yuni B hate, he was kind of ok in the playoffs for the Brewers).  Counsell was awful this season as he threatened to tie the major league record for consecutive at bats without a hit (46) coming one at bat shy at 45 before getting a hit.  Not only did he have that nifty streak going for him he also showed no power as he had hard time getting any ball out of the infield and had a total of 4 extra base hits on the year.  Unless Counsell has incriminating pictures or information on the Brewers front office (a conspiracy I have long been a proponent of) he shouldn’t and won’t be brought back and he should be happy with the good career he had.  The Brewers don’t need to have the hometown hero on the roster anymore to bring fans in as they are now actually a good baseball team that bring fans in based on those merits.  As already stated bringing Jerry Hairston Jr. back should be a priority given his versatility and low cost.  Melvin will likely look to bring in a bench bat that could play a combination of the outfield, firstbase, and/or middle infield.

This isn’t Doug Melvin’s first offseason as GM, but it’s his first offseason like this.  As stated in the title he’s in a position to re-load a team that is going to be a contender next year and he needs to look to make moves that will keep the team as good or better than they were in 2011.  He has gone through building the foundation of this team through having excellent drafts and making strategic trades.  The minor league system doesn’t have the assets to acquire impact players via trade and they don’t have the players on the roster internally to fill areas of need (especially shortstop and going with unproven minor leaguers in Taylor Green and Mat Gamel is no sure thing), it’s time for Melvin to re-load the team through free agency.

Tyler Free