The Brewers' offseason focus is finding a first baseman and figuring out how to keep the heart of their lineup healthy after injuries forced 125 different lineups in 2013.
- Ryan Braun, OF: $99MM through 2020 (plus $18MM deferred to be paid in 2022-2031)
- Carlos Gomez, OF: $24MM through 2016
- Kyle Lohse, SP: $22MM through 2015 (plus $7MM deferrred to be paid in 2016-18)
- Aramis Ramirez, 3B: $20MM through 2014
- Yovani Gallardo, SP: $11.85MM through 2014
- Rickie Weeks, 2B: $11MM through 2014
- Jonathan Lucroy, C: $9.25MM through 2016
- Tom Gorzelanny, RP: $2.8MM through 2014
- Marco Estrada, SP (4.035): $3.5MM projected salary
- Burke Badenhop, RP (5.116): $2.1MM
- Juan Francisco, 1B/3B (2.156): $1.4MM
- Norichika Aoki, OF: $1.5MM club option ($250K buyout)
With 2014 payroll obligations already in the neighborhood of $80MM (not including salaries for pre-arbitration eligible players), the Brewers have to be frugal in free agency and may not be interested in taking on much salary in any proposed trade. But, if he could, GM Doug Melvin would spend lavishly to keep his marquee players healthy. The injury bug struck early. Corey Hart underwent right knee surgery in January and was expected to return in May, but he injured his other knee during rehab requiring a third knee surgery in 16 months. The rest of the first base depth chart was wiped out during Spring Training: Mat Gamel re-tore his right ACL missing his second consecutive season, and Taylor Green was sidelined by hip surgery. The Brewers wound up using seven first basemen in 2013, none of whom had ever started a MLB game there. As expected, first base was an offensive sinkhole for the Brewers with a slash line of .211/.256/.359 and a MLB-worst .629 OPS.
The Brewers need to find a solution at first base. Hart, who earned $10MM this past season, has said he will take a pay cut to remain in Milwaukee (MLBTR's Steve Adams estimates the hometown discount will be $6MM for one year). Melvin says Hart will be in the mix, but what's Plan B if he doesn't return? Juan Francisco's power intrigues the Brewers, but he struck out 95 times in 270 plate appearances while displaying a horrific split against left-handers (.156/.206/.219 with no home runs). The Brewers have altered Francisco's batting stance, which he will continue to experiment with during winter ball. A platoon would be optimal, but the available free agents are either too expensive (Mike Napoli), a defensive liability better suited to DH (Kendrys Morales, Mark Reynolds, Mike Morse), or not a clear upgrade over the pre-arbitration eligible Sean Halton (i.e. the other right-handed first base bats on MLBTR's 2014 Free Agents list). A trade is unlikely with Hunter Morris, their seventh-best prospect per MLB.com, waiting in the wings with a service clock which has yet to begin ticking. Morris did regress at Triple-A after a banner season at Double-A in 2012 and was not among the team's September call-ups, but the Brewers are notoriously patient with their young players. Another option is to give catcher Jonathan Lucroy more playing time at first, which would provide additional at-bats for his backup Martin Maldonado, who struggled offensively in 2013. Manager Ron Roenicke attributed Maldonado's fall off to a lack of playing time and intends to give him 50-60 ABs during Spring Training with the hopes of a better start to 2014.
Roenicke is also hoping for a better start to 2014 for Aramis Ramirez, who spent two separate one-month stints on the disabled list with a knee injury. The knee never healed fully, resulting in a dramatic offensive downturn: 12 HRs (the fewest in a decade), 49 RBIs (a career-worst as a starter), and 18 doubles (down from a NL-leading 50 in 2012). Not only did the injured knee sap Ramirez's power, it also limited his range in the field. With a salary committment of $20MM and no other true cleanup hitter in the system, the Brewers are not in a position to move Ramirez this winter, so they need him healthy and productive in the middle of their order.
The middle of the order also depends on the return of Ryan Braun, who landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career (right hand nerve inflammation) and was suspended 65 games for violations of the Basic Agreement and the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program stemming from his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic. If Braun suffers a post-Biogenesis decline, the Brewers do have options with the emergence of rookie Khris Davis (.279/.353/.596 with 11 home runs in 153 plate appearances). Davis, however, has been susceptible to injury (wrist, quad, and hamstring problems in September alone) and has defensive limitations making him strictly a left fielder (an attempt to learn first base in Instructional League a couple years ago was an abject failure). The Brewers acknowledge internal discussions about a possible move to right field for Braun in order to free up left for Davis and making Norichika Aoki, the incumbent right fielder with a very affordable 2014 club option worth $1.5MM, a prime trade chip. Melvin, however, seems hesitant to deal Aoki.
"Those things are like pitching. You never have enough," Melvin said of the Brewers' outfield depth (as quoted by MLB.com's Adam McCalvy). "Look at the injuries that can happen. Aoki can play left field; he can play right field. Whenever we make those decisions, he's probably going to be a part of that offense. You've got to have depth, too, if you're not going to get involved in free agency. We don't know that yet; we don't know where that market is going. Probably outfield is where we have a trade piece if we want to trade to maybe fill another hole."
The Brewers' starting rotation struggled in the first half with hamstring injuries forcing Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada to the disabled list and Wily Peralta to miss a start. Kyle Lohse also skipped a start because of a balky elbow (a possible effect of not signing with the Brewers until March – missing five weeks of Spring Training). Good health brought better results. The quartet of Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta, and Estrada showed enough during the second half of the season to earn a rotation spot heading into Spring Training. Gallardo was the subject of several 2013 Trade Deadline rumors, but the Brewers are not inclined to give up on a homegrown pitching talent with a team-friendly contract unless the return justifies creating a hole in their rotation. Tyler Thornburg (2-1, 1.47 ERA in seven starts), Johnny Hellweg, (the Brewers' minor league pitcher of the year), and Jimmy Nelson (the organization's top prospect, according to MLB.com) will battle it out to become the fifth starter. A veteran will only be brought in to compete with these young hurlers if a Lohse-like situation presents itself.
The bullpen, so dreadful in 2012 with 29 blown saves and ranked dead last in ERA, was a strength in 2013 because of young arms. After trading away John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, Jim Henderson inherited the closer role and excelled with 28 saves in 29 opportunities (he blew three saves while acting as the setup man for Rodriguez). Rob Wooten and Brandon Kintzler covered the 7th and 8th innings, respectively. Tom Gorzelanny failed to impress in a 10-start audition, so he will return to a lefty reliever/spot starter role in 2014. Burke Badenhop, Donovan Hand, Alfredo Figaro, and Michael Blazek (acquired in the Axford deal) are among the in-house options to round out the relief corps. The lone need is a veteran presence at the back end of the bullpen, in case Henderson stumbles. A reunion with Rodriguez is not out of the question because of his relationship with Roenicke. K-Rod has shown a willingness to pitch the 8th inning for him in the past and may do so again, if a closer job is not available elsewhere.
Another area of strength for the Brewers is up-the-middle: center fielder Carlos Gomez, shortstop Jean Segura, and catcher Lucroy. Gomez received a three-year, $24MM contract extension in March and showed he was worth every penny earning his first All-Star berth en route to establishing career-highs in every offensive category. Gomez also led or tied for the team lead in home runs, doubles, triples, and runs scored while becoming the first player in franchise history to record a 20-40 season. He played Gold Glove defense, as well, (the first Brewer to earn the honor since 1982 and the first outfielder since 1979) with a career-high 12 assists, the second-highest total in the NL. Segura, also a first-time All-Star, could be next in line for a Spring Training extension after posting a slash of .294/.329/.423 with 44 stolen bases (second in the NL) in his first full MLB season. Segura, however, slumped in the second half hitting only .244/.268/.315. While both sides talked last month, the Brewers may want to wait one more year before engaging in serious negotiations to see what kind of numbers Segura will produce consistently, a sentiment shared by his agent Joe Klein. Lucroy replaced Braun in the three-hole, leading the team in RBIs while batting .321 with runners in scoring position and less than two outs. Gomez and Lucroy are under contract through 2016 while Segura is under team control until 2019.
The Brewers need to determine who will play second base – Rickie Weeks or Scooter Gennett. Melvin has said the decision will be made in Spring Training and nothing will happen during the offseason to help the franchise make that selection. Not expected to be cleared for baseball activity until February, the Brewers are hoping to use Spring Training to showcase Weeks for a possible trade, a faint possibility due to his injury history and $11MM salary. If a team is willing to gamble on Weeks, the Brewers will have to eat a substantial portion of the salary, a difficult decision for any budget-conscious organization to make. If Weeks is unable to return to his 2010-11 level of production, the next best scenario is a healthy Weeks platooning with the left-handed hitting Gennett (.324/.356/.479 in 230 plate appearances), who struggled against left-handers (.154/.175/.154 in a small sample size of 39 plate appearances). Such an arrangement benefitted Weeks in June when he hit .355 with a 1.106 OPS.
The Brewers play in arguably the strongest division in the National League, but feel they can compete with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds by complementing their core of Braun, Ramirez, Gomez, Segura, and Lucroy with a return to good health and improvements to the right-side of their infield. "Can we win with this roster? Yeah, we can win with the roster we have," said Melvin (as quoted by Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). "I think if our best players are on the field and our young guys take that next step, we can be there."