The Brewers won't replace Prince Fielder's offense in 2012, but they have newcomer Aramis Ramirez at third base and -- despite a months-long scare -- a full season of defending National League MVP Ryan Braun.
Major League Signings
- Aramis Ramirez, three years, $36MM.
- Alex Gonzalez, one year, $4.25MM.
- Norichika Aoki, two years, $2.25MM.
- Total spend: $42.5MM.
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RP Jose Veras from the Pirates for IF Casey McGehee.
- Claimed IF Jeff Bianchi from the Cubs.
- Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mark Kotsay, Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Josh Wilson, Felipe Lopez, LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, McGehee.
Draft Picks Gained or Lost
- Obtained 27th overall selection from Tigers for Price Fielder. Also obtain supplementary first round pick, 38th overall.
As expected, Prince Fielder signed elsewhere, but beyond that the Brewers' winter was far from routine. Most notably, Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance before contesting the 50-game suspension and winning the appeal.
It marked the second consecutive intrigue-filled offseason for Brewers fans. They watched a year ago as GM Doug Melvin traded for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, but the club relied primarily on free agency this winter.
Though his destination of choice proved to be a surprise, Fielder's free agent departure had seemed inevitable for months, if not years. Even after setting an attendance record and making it to the NLCS, a $200MM commitment would not have made sense for the mid-market Brewers. They've steadily raised payroll under owner Mark Attanasio, but other, more affordable options existed for Melvin and the rest of the Brewers' front office.
They turned to the free agent market to improve the left side of their infield, signing Aramis Ramirez for three years and $36MM and agreeing to terms with Alex Gonzalez on a one-year, $4.25MM deal. The duo offers power, but at 33 and 35, respectively, Ramirez and Gonzalez may soon start to decline. Gonzalez remains an excellent defender, so he should help make up for Ramirez's less-than-stellar glovework. Meanwhile, the Brewers expect Ramirez to replace some of Fielder's offensive production.
“We needed some power back in our lineup missing Fielder even though we’re not going to get it all back,” assistant GM Gord Ash told MLBTR.
Instead of pursuing a free agent first baseman, the Brewers have handed the starting job to 26-year-old Mat Gamel. They cleared space for him by sending Casey McGehee to the Pirates for reliever Jose Veras and seemingly had little interest in Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman and other free agent first basemen. Despite Gamel's struggles with the Brewers, he has had limited opportunity at the Major League level and his minor league stats are excellent. Various models project Gamel to have an on-base percentage of .330 or so along with a slugging percentage of .440 or so in 2012 -- an outcome the Brewers would surely welcome. Plus, the Brewers may be better off defensively with Gamel at Fielder's old spot.
In a surprising development, reliever Francisco Rodriguez accepted the Brewers' offer of arbitration. His salary diminished via the arbitration system, but the Brewers probably weren't expecting to spend $8MM on the right-hander in 2012. Spending that kind of money on a setup man seems excessive for the Brewers, and finding a way to anticipate the reliever's decision and withold the offer of arbitration may have been preferable.
With Rodriguez back for another year and Veras now in the bullpen mix, manager Ron Roenicke should have enough quality right-handed relievers in 2012. The Brewers will be short on left-handed relief unless Zach Braddock pitches better or Manny Parra returns to health. They may lock John Axford up long-term, and doing so could create savings for the closer's arbitration years.
The Brewers' top five starters accounted for all but seven of the team's starts a year ago, and none of the five were eligible for free agency, so Melvin essentially left the rotation alone this offseason. The club showed interest in deepening its starting staff with minor league deals, but it's difficult to convince free agent starters to join a rotation with five established pitchers.
“They tend to gravitate to places where there are a few more openings,” Ash said. “They say ‘we don’t see the same opportunity here that we see somewhere else’ and they sign with another team.”
Shoulder issues have sidelined Marcum temporarily and if he's out for longer than expected swingman Marco Estrada will provide rotation depth. Top prospect Wily Peralta has the potential to start in the Major Leagues at some point relatively soon, though he may not presently be ready.
The Brewers signed Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki to a modest two-year deal, and added Jay Gibbons and Corey Patterson just in case. Corey Hart may miss Opening Day, so the depth may prove useful even though Braun is eligible to play the entire season.
The Brewers lost one of the game's top power hitters this offseason, but their window for contention didn't collapse when Prince Fielder left. By strengthening the left side of the infield and adding complementary pieces up and down the roster, Melvin increased the chances that the Brewers will return to the postseason in 2012.