It’s a good time to be a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers – albeit one with deep, entrenched roots or one of the bandwagon variety, and make no mistake about it, there are plenty of the latter. After outlasting the St. Louis Cardinals and tying for the third best record in all of baseball, the Brewers currently stand a few wins away from an event that hasn’t been witnessed in quite some time: a World Series appearance, a first in almost 30 years. It seems – at least for the time being – that the franchise’s beer stein runneth over.
One offseason removed from dealing the team’s top prospects, General Manager Doug Melvin, who correctly determined that the club’s window of opportunity could be one of short existence, is now facing another difficult situation, one that’s been shadowing the team for the entire season: the potential loss of free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder. After locking up the team’s other superstar, Ryan Braun, how can the Milwaukee Brewers, the epitome of a mid-market team, expect to re-sign its slugging first baseman, who figures to earn a deal in excess of $20 million annually, which, ironically, is about half the amount his father Cecil made during his entire13-year career? They won’t, or better yet, they can’t.
So, how do the Brewers, a team whose 2011 payroll was more than $10 million below the league average, replace Prince Fielder? They don’t – at least not at one position.
The club’s left side of the infield struggled mightily – an understatement of sorts. In 1184 combined plate appearances, Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee combined to hit .238/.275/.363, and according to fWAR, the wins above replacement version determined by fangraphs.com, the duo was worth less than one win above replacement level, 0.8, actually. See, the Brewers don’t need to replace Prince Fielder’s production at first. No. Instead, they need to match the combined 6.6 WAR total between the three positions. (Spoiler alert: this may sound similar to those who have seen Moneyball, and that’s because it is exactly the same purpose, only with more advanced, up to date metrics; and a method that has been applied countless times as well.)
Yuniesky Betancourt, no matter which metric is used, is a terrible Major League Baseball player. Terrible. Since 2009, Betancourt has hit .252/.277/.381, which, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), is 28-percent less than the league average, third worst in baseball over this time. And according to UZR/150, he’s been the fifth worst defender in baseball (-11.8 runs) too. Clearly, there is no reason to believe that Betancourt, 29, will suddenly morph into a serviceable player, and he, like Fielder, is eligible for free agency this offseason (assuming the club declines his $6 million option).
McGehee, on the other hand, has been a quality ballplayer, solid, not spectacular. From 2009 to 2010, his first two seasons in the bigs, the former waiver wire pickup hit .291/.346/.477 – 18-percent better than the league average – which was ninth among big league third baseman. His glove, like Betancourt’s, has been a major flaw, but at least he hit – until this season anyways. And there are several red flags indicating that this season’s .223/.280/.346 line might not be too far off from what should be expected in 2012.
Despite slugging .477 during his first two seasons, McGehee was never actually a power hitter throughout his minor league career. In 698 games spread over six minor league seasons, he slugged .409, and never topped .429, which occurred in his last season in Triple-A. In fact, only once – his 2007 season in Double-A – did McGehee post overall numbers above the league average production; and he was only four-percent better that season. From 2006 to 2008, his minor league Isolated Power (ISO) never topped .148 (the MLB average is usually around .150). And what’s more alarming is the fact that his major league power numbers have started to trend back towards his minor league numbers. Yes, he’s been somewhat unlucky this season – his BABIP is .249 – but other peripheral stats are beginning to fall in line with his minor league numbers. His last three full seasons in the minors his ISO’s were .127, .143 and .133. His first three seasons in the big leagues: .197, .179 and .123. His slugging percentages in the minors during that time: .406, .422 and .429. His slugging percentages in the majors the next three seasons: .499, .464 and .346. That’s two consecutive seasons of decline at the big league level.
So, the question, unlike the answer, is a simple one: Was Casey McGehee’s power spike in 2009 and 2010 a two-season anomaly, or was this season’s outage the anomaly? And his power – or lack thereof – becomes even more pertinent for two reasons: his poor defensive skills and below-average walk rates, which, not coincidentally, happen to be almost identical to his minor league numbers. Basically, without his power Casey McGehee isn’t a starting big league third baseman; it makes him a role player.
So, what is Casey McGehee?
Well, given the fact that he was 26-years-old before he showed any type of power and because it’s declined since his initial breakout season, it’s very likely that he may never meet his 2009 and 2010 power numbers. But! But it’s also very likely that he will rebound next season as well. His real power likely resides somewhere between his 2009-10 numbers and his disappointing 2011, which would be eerily close to what his minor league numbers would indicate as well. How about that! His .249 BABIP this season also gives reason for hope too. Historically, he’s hovered around .300, which is what one would expect (it’s also the league average). Realistically, he will probably hit in the .260/.320/.430 range next season, which would be about 8-percent or so below the league average, and combine that with his subpar defense and the end result will likely be a 1.0 WAR player. Meaning: McGehee is probably headed towards becoming a role player, not a starting third baseman on a contending team looking for substitutes for Prince Fielder’s lost production.
Now what? Exploring possible upgrades.
The Brewers, according to baseballprospectus.com, had a team payroll just north of $84 million in 2011 (not including any mid-season pickups). Along with the $15 million available after Fielder departs, the team also saves a little more than $2 million from Betancourt’s expiring contract and $4.25 million from LaTroy Hawkins’ expiring deal too. That’s roughly $21 million available to shore up the problem areas and re-sign arbitration eligible players Manny Parra, Carlos Gomez, Shaun Marcum, Casey McGehee, Nyjer Morgan, George Kottaras, Kameron Loe and Mitch Stetter. Marcum will likely receive the biggest raise – somewhere in the neighborhood of an additional $3.5 million or so – while the other will likely get modest raises. Conservatively, the team could have about $14 or $15 million to spend among the first base, shortstop and third base positions. And that’s assuming players like Craig Counsell, Sergio Mitre, etc… will resign for approximately the same value if they are brought back.
OK, $15 million between three positions. Obviously, an amount that isn’t nearly enough to re-sign Fielder on an annual basis.
Well, the next thing to do is look within the organization for solutions and, believe it or not, there are two players that could potentially help fill the void created by Fielder’s departure. Triple-A corner infielders Mat Gamel and Taylor Green showed serious promise this season. But it’s important to note that the Brewers are in a “win now” mode. All prospects must be ready to contribute immediately, or backup plans must be put in place.
Gamel is a former twice named among the top 100 prospects by Baseball America and has absolutely dominated AAA pitching over the last two full seasons, (.309/.387/.511 and .310/.372/.540, respectively). His improved strikeout zone awareness for has held two consecutive seasons, a definite positive. After struggling mightily with his strikeout rate his first time in AAA – he struck out in more than 27% of his plate appearances – Gamel has managed to swing-and-miss in less than 18% of the time since then. He also shows a decent pop and a solid walk rate – one that will likely hover near the big league average. Overall, his ceiling – if everything breaks right – could be between 1.0 and 1.5 WAR next season. Ideally, the club would probably be best easing him into regular work. Truthfully, seeing if his minor league numbers translate into big league success (he does have a few red flags, including his age, 26). Meaning that they should probably sign another player on a short term deal, but, unfortunately, the free agent crop – especially at the corner infield spots – is a wee bit thin. And remember: Milwaukee needs to win now so backup options needs to be in place. The best outside options are James Loney and Luke Scott, both non-tender candidates and both left-handed hitters like Gamel, so, unfortunately, a platoon couldn’t be arranged.
The Dodgers – given their ongoing, umm, ownership issues –will most likely be looking to shed some payroll, especially considering the hefty raises due to Andre Ethier and Matt Kempin arbitration. So, James Loney could become a non-tender candidate by the team. And if it were not for his awe inspiring finish – he hit .388/.438/.679 from August 21 through the end of the season – he would have definitely been non-tendered by LA. Now, because of his scorching finish, it muddies the water quite a bit. Either way, he’s been worth on average about 1.5 WAR over the past three seasons, and could easily hover around that mark next season as well. Plus, he would probably sign for about $6 million or so.
Another non-tender candidate is Luke Scott, who has regularly been among the most underrated players in baseball throughout his career. Scott, who’s normally a designated hitter, does have a little experience at first base, 41 games. Unlike Loney’s situation, Scott’s a non-tender candidate because he’s simply underperformed, and then succumbed to shoulder woes. But despite hitting .220/.301/.402 this season, most of his peripheral numbers remained largely intact with his career numbers. His walk rate, 10.2%, was less than one percent below his career rate and his strikeout rate was only 2.6% higher than his career rate. The only noticeable drop in peripheral numbers was his power – his ISO this season was almost 50 points fewer than his career number – and his BABIP was also about 50 less than his career norm. Assuming he’s recovered next season, his power, even if it never matches his previous numbers, is still above the league average, and his batting average should march back in the .260s due to his BABIP regressing back towards the mean. Basically, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be worth 1.7 to 2.5 wins above replacement next season, numbers that are only slightly below his career norms. And he, too, would likely sign for about $6 million.
Taylor Greene, unlike Gamel, may need another season in the minors, at least a partial one. Greene, who turns 25 in November, has consistently shown a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio throughout his minor league career with decent to slightly-above-average pop. The only red flag is that this season is the first time in since 2008 that he has truly excelled at the plate. After two disappointing seasons in Double-A, Green, for whatever reason, rediscovered his swing in Triple-A. Why? Which one is real? The player who was roughly a league average hitter during two stints in AA or the one who was 45-percent better than the league average in AAA? Well, the answer’s probably somewhere in between, most likely a lot closer to the league average. And, unfortunately, there are really no available free agent upgrades at the position. So the team may be forced to go with a platoon of Casey McGehee, Craig Counsell, and Taylor Green.
Shortstop is a bit easier. Houston’s free-agent-to-be Clint Barmes is an ideal fit. He’s regularly been an above-average defender at shortstop – according to UR/150, he’s more than 40 runs above average in over 1500 innings at the position since 2009 – and he’s been worth more than 1.7 wins above replacement three of the last four years. Yes, he’s a bit old (he’ll be 33 next season) and will likely require a two-year $8 million deal, but there’s no reason to suspect any immediate decline in production. None. And at the very least, the team could use in as a super utility player in 2013 if better options become available.
Obviously, the best case scenario involves the team signing Luke Scott and Clint Barmes and having the three-headed monster of McGehee, Counsell and Green at third base. In this scenario, the three positions would realistically be worth about 5.5 WAR, or only about 1.5 WAR fewer than the 2010 season. And the worst case scenario would be going with McGehee/Green and Gamel at the corners and Barmes at short. They would most likely be worth between 3.5 and 4.0 wins above replacement, equivalent to about 60% of the positions production in 2010.
Either way, Clint Barmes seems to be the key to the Brewers’ contention hopes next season without Prince Fielder in the folder. Imagine that.