Today is Good Friday. (More on that later today.)
Unlike last year, it is not both Good Friday and Earth Day, but Good Friday also is the Brewers’ season-opener.
Because I am a Christian, I am not going to the Cardinals–Brewers game this afternoon. (I also don’t have tickets to today’s game, or any other Brewers game, but that’s not important right now.)
The Brewers had a great 2011, winning the National League Central division and falling two wins short of the World Series. I hope you enjoyed 2011, because 2011 will not be exceeded or even matched in 2012. The baseball playoffs are expanding from eight teams to 10, but none of those 10 teams will be the Brewers.
This message hasn’t gotten through to the Brewers, according to MLB.com:
The return of pitchers’ fielding practice and baserunning drills will mark the end of a strange winter marked by the departure — as expected — of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder via free agency and the news — very unexpected — that National League MVP Ryan Braun was appealing a suspension under MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Just like that, what should have been a celebratory offseason turned sour, with fans lamenting Fielder’s loss and wondering for months whether Braun would be on the field for Opening Day. Manager Ron Roenicke instead tried to focus on the positives awaiting his second season and said in no uncertain terms that the Brewers aim to contend again in 2012.
“We love our team,” Roenicke told a crowd at “Brewers On Deck,” the club’s winter fanfest. “We think we had a great year last year, we changed some things, we have some different personnel this year [but] we think we have a great ballclub this year.”
“Great” does not describe a ballclub that neither has Fielder nor adequate replacements for Fielder. (Which is not a criticism of the Brewers’ deciding to let Fielder leave. The money Detroit threw at Fielder was not as much a problem, on a per-year basis, as the fact that a National League team cannot expect to get production from an overweight first baseman for the next nine seasons, since there is no designated hitter in the NL for portly players of decreasing defensive range.)
The offensive replacement is new third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who was a terrific acquisition for the Cubs in 2003, but that was nine years ago. Ramirez had a good year (.306 batting average, 26 home runs, 93 RBI, .871 OPS) in 2011 for a bad team in an easier park for home runs than Miller Park, and at 35 he isn’t getting any younger. Given the fact that Ramirez played for a character-challenged team (which is nicer than to use the word “gutless,” as in the Cubs’ 2003 El Foldo to Florida in the National League Championship Series) and is supposed to replace the previous clubhouse leader, well, feel free to indulge your inner skeptic.
Ramirez is also a right-handed hitter. The departure of Fielder, the team’s all-time leader in on-base percentage who is second only to Robin Yount in career home runs, means the Brewers have no left-handed power in their lineup. (Lefty centerfielder Nyjer Morgan had four home runs last season. Four.) One reason Braun has played at near-MVP levels is because Fielder was behind him, and the same could be said about Fielder with Braun in front of him. It’s been somewhat surprising that a team with just two legitimate power hitters did as well as the Brewers did in 2011. That will not be repeatable in 2012.
Replacing Fielder as a fielder is former phenom Mat Gamel. It is hard to understand why the Brewers think he can replace Fielder given the fact that his Class AAA manager, former Brewer Don Money, said last year that Gamel doesn’t act like a professional. (There was an incident in a previous spring training where Gamel so offended the actual professionals that they set up his locker in the parking lot.) It is telling that Gamel had no significant role for a team pushing for a championship, despite having been in the Brewers’ system for several years.
Gamel isn’t the only strange staffing decision this season. The Brewers have five outfielders — Braun in left, Morgan and Carlos Gomez in center, and Corey Hart in right, plus Japanese pickup Norichika Aoki — for three outfield positions. One concludes that Hart was uninterested in moving to first base, which could have hidden his decreasing defensive skills. Hart is an unusual case anyway — fast, but not good enough in on-base percentage to bat lead-off, and with some power, but not to make him a high-level power hitter.
Ramirez cannot help but be better at third than Casey McGehee, and if new shortstop Alex Gonzalez is just average, he’ll be an improvement from Yuniesky Betancourt, who had the second worst on-base percentage among regular starters, yet was a terrible defensive player at the infield’s most important position. Despite some head-slapping defensive lapses, I’ve always liked second baseman Rickie Weeks, and he was having a great season until he got hurt in July. Besides Fielder, the player the Brewers will miss will be infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., a tremendously versatile player who played at second, short and third due to injury or ineptitude.
To believe that the Brewers will be able to come close to matching 2011, you have to believe that the Brewers will be as good offensively without Fielder as they were with Fielder in 2011. That’s because their starters not named Yovani Gallardo and Shawn Marcum weren’t as great as advertised last year, and because of the Brewers’ dubious defense, which has improved in one position (shortstop) and may have gone backwards at another (first base). I suppose you could argue that with Zack Greinke, Marcum and Randy Wolf entering their final guaranteed contract years, they will want to do well for their next payday, but that doesn’t mean they will. The Brewers still have Francisco Rodriguez for the eighth inning and John Axford for the ninth, but they’re counting on Jose Veras to replace both Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins to pitch the sixth and seventh when the starters run out of gas. And other than K-Rod and the Ax Man, the rest of the bullpen returnees aren’t that good.
You also have to believe that the rest of the NL Central won’t be better than last year. St. Louis (90–72) demonstrated that it really is how you play at the end of the season that counts, and they had a capable replacement already on the roster for the departed Albert Pujols. Cincinnati (79–83) will be better, and some see promise in Pittsburgh (72–90). Chicago (71–91) and Houston (56–106) can’t possibly be as bad as they were last season. And the rest of the NL still features Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco and Arizona, with Washington possibly emulating the Reds in the up-and-coming department. The Cardinals exposed the Brewers as a team that wasn’t as good as its 96 regular-season wins would make you think.
The Brewers also do not have history on their side. The Brewers have won consecutive playoff berths exactly once, 1981 and 1982. Their pattern is to have contending seasons (1987, 1992, 2008) and then crash back to earth the next season. There is a lot of trade bait on this team, particularly in pitching, should the Brewers be out of the race by midseason. There are too many examples of teams that overachieve in the first seasons of new managers (for instance, the 1987 and 1992 Brewers, or the 1984 and 1989 Cubs) to make you not wonder if that better explains 2011.
Opening Day is great for optimism, because everyone is undefeated. (Except this season, given that some teams have already started.) I see this season like the Packers’ 2007 season, when a hideous NFC Championship interception closed the window of Super Bowl opportunity. The Brewers’ best chance at their second World Series in franchise history ended last October.