I’m pretty sure that things weren’t supposed to end the way they did. Nearly 10 months after the foundation for this team was laid with the trades for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers have been eliminated from the postseason. As irrational as it is to be disappointed in a team that came within two games of the World Series, that’s the exact sentiment of many fans.
Nobody is going to feel any better about it gets colder and baseball fades farther away. However, if you’re a follower of the hot stove, free agents and the like, you could be in for a very interesting winter. The Brewers will be NL Central favorites again if they can retool their roster to successfully replace what they’re going to lose (not just Prince Fielder). However, an inability to do this effectively may very well put them into 75-80 win limbo, and everyone here knows what that feels like. To gear the team up for another year of contention while ensuring the long term health of the franchise, the Brewers need to focus on three things this offseason. I plan to dedicate a whole post to each of these in the next month, but for now, here’s a quick rundown of what needs to be done.
Rebuild the Infield
This task isn’t as daunting as it seems. For years, the departure of Prince Fielder has been touted as the date the Brewer franchise descends back into the cellar, but with some shrewd dealing, his former employers may not miss a thing. As Toby Harrmann pointed out on twitter, Fielder, Casey McGehee, and Yuniesky Betancourt combined to add about 6 wins to the Brewers total. Two to three win players don’t just magically appear when you need them, but there are still all kinds of ways this 6-win gap can be plugged. Unless you have a large amount of money bet on which extra-large, non-animal-tested uniform Prince Fielder will be wearing next season, how the Brewers go about replacing his contributions should be the most interesting story of the offseason.
Restock the Bullpen
While the Brewers can likely bring their infield back to most of its’ former effectiveness with one or two moves, restoring a bullpen that was the team’s secret weapon for most of the second half is going to be a different story. Francisco Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, and Takashi Saito are all good bets to either test the free agent waters or retire, and each are likely bound for some regression if they do come back. To replace them, the Crew has a number of potentially useful relievers sitting in AAA, among them Mike McClendon, Mitch Stetter, and Brandon Kintzler, and two potentially dominant arms with major question marks in Zach Braddock and Santo Manzanillo, as well as perennial wild card Kameron Loe, who is only a strong defensive infield away from being an effective setup man again. The pool of free-agent relievers is also very deep, but throwing gobs of money at baseball’s most volitale subgroup is rarely something fans feel good three years down the road. It’s impossible to see which direction this is going to go, which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so interesting.
This is more of a long-term storyline, but one that will loom large if the Crew makes any kind of long-term commitment to a player in the next couple months. The Brewers currently have about $58 million committed to seven players (Braun, Weeks, Fielder, Hart, Gallardo, Wolf, Greinke) for next season. In addition, Shaun Marcum, Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez, Casey McGehee, and George Kottaras are all going to be eligible for arbitration. The Brewers have a good part of their homegrown core locked up well into the future, but these players are also getting more and more expensive as the calendar goes to 2013 and 2014. If the Brewers make a successful run at a big-time free agent or extension, the club is probably going to be very stingy going forward, and will have no choice but count on a farm system lacking in upper-level depth to produce cheap, productive big-leaguers sooner than later. Leaving at least a little financial wiggle room for the coming years should be a priority during this one. To see what eventually happens to a payroll-bloated club who can’t win with its’ current roster, you only need to swing by Miller Park the next time the Astros come to town.