Paul Heinz

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Brewers’ Off Season Moves Both Perplexing and Promising

Brewer fans were assured this off season that Doug Melvin and company weren’t going to be satisfied with a one and done playoff run.  Regardless of how 2012 pans out for the Crew – and it’s not looking particularly rosy in light of the very real chance of losing Braun for the first fifty games – the team has been engineered to make a run at a consecutive NL Central title.

This isn’t to say there weren’t some questionable moves this off season.   The highlight of the 2011 Brewers team was its pitching, and while all five starters are returning in the spring, the bullpen took a significant hit, though not as big as initially expected. 

Most surprising was Alex Rodriquez’s decision to accept arbitration, who was unable to find a team willing to offer him a closer role out of the pen.  Although the Brewers weren’t exactly hoping to have him return as a very expensive set-up man, perhaps it’s for the best in light of the two pitchers Melvin let get away.  The aging LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito, both of whom came off injuries in 2011 to make major contributions to the Brewers’ bullpen, were lost to free agency.  Perhaps Melvin decided to quit while he was ahead, the way in hindsight he perhaps should have done with Trevor Hoffman after his stellar 2009 season, but it’s difficult to understand in light of how inexpensively these players were snatched in the open market.  Hawkins signed a one-year contract worth $3 million with the Angels, and Saito signed a one-year deal with the Diamondbacks worth $1.75 million.  Why Melvin thought it wasn’t worth pursuing these players for these prices is perplexing.

Another surprise was Melvin’s unwillingness to sign a two-year deal with Jerry Hairston, whose contributions at second base and centerfield down the stretch and into the playoffs were impressive.  The two-year $6 million deal Hairston signed with the Dodgers might have fit in well for the Brewers, who have injury-prone centerfielders in Gomez and Morgan (not to mention terrible strikeout ratios) and second baseman  Weeks.  The Crew also lost Mark Kotsay (again, for a meager $1.25 million) to the Padres, so utility infielders and outfielders are currently in short supply, and the prospect of losing Braun makes these needs more pressing than usual.

On the other hand, the Brewers upgraded the left side of the infield, which was atrocious both on defense and offense last season.  At shortstop, the Brewers upgraded from Betancourt to Alex Gonzalez – a defensive upgrade only, as Gonzalez is as awful at the plate as his predecessor – and at third the Brewers let go of McGehee and signed Aramis Ramirez to a three-year deal.  It’ll be interesting to see what kind of numbers Ramirez can put up at Miller Park, as his 2011 stats for a woeful Cubs team were exceptional.   And Ramirez might also serve to fill another hole – that left by Prince Fielder in the cleanup spot.

As insurance against Braun’s possible suspension, and as a left-handed outfielder off the bench, the Brewers are currently looking at Norichika Aoki from Japan, and have until January 17th to agree to terms.  Several other players have been invited to spring training, but the only real question marks at this point are the bullpen and utility infielders and outfielders.  Barring injuries, the Crew’s opening day roster is fairly well set. 

Ultimately, if the Brewers have difficultly out of the pen in the 6th and 7th innings, or if an outfield or infield injury comes to pass, fans might cry out to Melvin about the inexpensive players he let get away.  But one can’t argue that the team isn’t in position to be competitive, which is a significant change from years’ past.


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