Posted by Steve
The requisite amount of time has passed; I am now ready to discuss the off-season and next year. In fact, I actually sat down to write this post a few different times, but it’s lengthy, and I’m just finally getting around to it.
When I first started to write this post, the Brewers were being linked to Jose Reyes pretty heavily, so I had this titled, “The Case Against Jose Reyes.” Thankfully, that chatter has died down in recent days.
In short, Reyes would be a bad idea for the Brewers. Before we even get into salary, locking up Reyes long term is a huge risk. He has had fairly serious durability issues: his games played in each of the last three years are 126, 133, and 36. The Brewers’ biggest problem by far this season was infield defense, yet for all the money Reyes is going to command, Fangraphs has him below average defensively each of the last three seasons.
That’s before you even get into salary. Even if having Reyes long term was a good idea, the Brewers can’t afford him. It would also close the book on a Zack Greinke extension, which I think should be priority number 1 this off-season if at all possible.
I keep reading/hearing that the Brewers have all this money to spend–even national writers are mentioning it. People seem to be assuming the $15.5 million that Fielder got last year will be free to be spent on new players, but that simply isn’t the case.
A number of players, like Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo are due raises, and others are entering arbitration for the first time. The Brewers’ payroll last season was $85 million. MLB Trade Rumors has a good breakdown of the Brewers’ salary situation. In short, it says the Brewers have $58.58 million locked in for players next year; all that money is guaranteed. After that, a handful of players are arbitration eligible. The following are arbitration-eligible players with MLBTR’s arbitration guess in parentheses:
Casey McGehee ($3.1 mil, first year arby)
Nyjer Morgan ($1.9 mil, first year arby)
Carlos Gomez ($1.8 mil, third year arby)
Shaun Marcum ($6.8 mil, third year arby)
Kameron Loe ($2.8 mil, second year arby)
Arbitration Total: $16.4 mil
Other arbitration-eligible players: George Kottaras, Manny Parra, Josh Wilson, and Mitch Stetter.
Of course those are just estimates, but they at least give us something to work with. Total, that puts the Brewers at about $75 million, meaning they have only $10 million until they reach last year’s payroll. When you consider that they will need to add at least two relievers (KROD, Saito, Hawkins are all gone), two backup middle infielders, and a starting shortstop, first baseman, and third baseman, you realize it’s pretty dire.
So much for Prince Fielder’s money.
So, what can be done?
In honor of the Moneyball movie, we can look at this the exact way the A’s looked at replacing Jason Giambi. The Brewers don’t need to replace Prince Fielder at first base. They need to replace his value over the entire team. This can be done with three or four players.
According to Fangraphs, Prince Fielder was worth 5.5 wins above replacement last season. That means that to adequately replace Fielder’s production, they need to find 5.5 wins–and they need to do it fairly cheaply.
Not that I expect people to fully care what my plan would be, but this is my blog, so I might as well create one anyway.
First of all, I need to clear some of that non-guaranteed salary. That means the non-tender hammer is coming down. Kottaras, Parra, Wilson, and Stetter will probably need to be non-tendered. I like Kottaras, but business is business, and he’s no longer a cheap commodity. If he’s open to coming back and a lower price, great–otherwise the Brewers have a fine defensive catcher Martin Maldonado who could get his shot as the backup.
Even after this, that still doesn’t cut into that $16.4 million. Going to have to shed some more.
There’s no better place to start than with Casey McGehee and that appalling projected salary of $3.1 million. There’s no way he should be brought back after last season, especially now that his cheap years are over with. Turning third base over to Taylor Green will not only save money, but it will improve production from 2011.
Kameron Loe is effective if he’s used correctly, but $2.8 mil is a bit high. I’d non-tender him while leaving open the possibility of bringing him back at a lower rate.
There. That cuts off an additional $5.9 million in salary, dropping the payroll to about $69 million. That leaves us $16 million shy of last year’s payroll. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that with the additional revenue from the playoff run and raised ticket prices next year, payroll will jump to about $90 million next season. If that’s the case, that means we have $21 million to fill shortstop, third base, first base, backup catcher, two backup infielders, and about four relievers. Yikes.
When you need to fill that many spots on a limited budget, you’re going to need a lot of league minimum players. That means Mat Gamel is your first baseman pretty much by default. If there’s one thing I want to know after the 2012 season, it is what the Brewers have in Mat Gamel and Taylor Green. Give these guys a full season to show what they’ve got. They’re cheap, and if they produce it will bring real value for years.
So how many wins will Gamel bring? That’s obviously tough to say. Bill James projects Gamel for an .818 OPS and a wOBA of .357. Looking at first basemen in 2011, that wOBA would put Gamel in the territory of Carlos Pena/Ryan Howard/Michael Cuddyer. It would certainly be hard to be disappointed with that. Those players checked in around 1.6 to 3.1 wins. Howard was 1.6, because his defense is so bad (how’s that contract looking, Philly?). It’s probably fair to assume Gamel will be a bit below average defensively, so I’ll give him 2 wins above replacement next season.
2 down, 3.5 wins to go to reach that magic number of 5.5.
Let’s look at third base. Like Gamel at first, the solution here needs to be Green out of necessity. He’s shown promise in the minors, and he’s cheap. That’s plenty for me. Green is even more difficult to project, because for whatever reason, James has no projection for him. He shredded AAA to the tune of .336/.413/.583 last season, albeit in a hitter friendly PCL. There’s a stat called Major League Equivalency, which attempts to project a minor league performance across a Major League level. Green’s last year was .291/.357/.476. Considering I’d be thrilled with a full season at that level, I’d be happy to drop that projection to .275/.345/.450. Players with similar offensive production tended to have WARs around 2, depending on their defense. I’ll give Green a WAR of 2 as well, with the grain of salt that this is nothing more than an attempt at an educated guess.
While we could just add Gamel’s WAR to the 0 left by a vacant first base position, we have to subtract last year’s third base WAR. Luckily, Casey McGehee was so bad that anyone else will result in an upgrade, and that’s no exception with Green. McGehee mustered only a 0.3 WAR last year, giving Green an edge by 1.7 wins.
Adding Gamel and Green, we’re now already up to 3.7 wins of the magic number of 5.5. And we wouldn’t even need to spend a million bucks between the two players to get those 3.7 wins. You can see the immense value of pre-arbitration players.
So where are we going to make up that final 1.8? At shortstop, mostly.
This is where it gets trickier. There is no cheap option in the minors that is Major League ready like at first and third. You’ll have to spend some money here. Yuni Betancourt managed just a 0.5 WAR, so fortunately, there is plenty of room for improvement.
My first choice for shortstop is already off the market: Clint Barmes. I love Barmes’ defense, and watching him at short would have been infinitely more enjoyable than watching Betancourt “defend.” I was bummed when I heard about him going to Pittsburgh.
Free agents who would provide the biggest upgrade, like Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes, are too expensive and too risky. The only other free agent that could be a fit is Rafael Furcal, but even he will be risky and more expensive than Barmes, who got 2 years/$10.5 million.
It’s entirely possible the next shortstop could come via trade; in fact, I’d argue that a trade is starting to look like the best route. Trade candidates include Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie, Jason Bartlett, Brendan Ryan or Ian Desmond. All those players will cost a few million except Desmond, and none would take a blue chip package to acquire. Fallback options could include free agents Alex Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria or Ronny Cedeno. All three will be cheap and were more valuable than Betancourt last year by about one win.
I’m going to say that Jed Lowrie will be the easiest to acquire, though I’d be even happier with Marco Scutaro. Boston will probably trade one of the two, especially with hotshot prospect Jose Iglesia nearing the big leagues. Lowrie is projected to hit .271/.348/.437 next year by Bill James, which is miles ahead of Yuni. He’s also a better defender. He was hurt last season, and that is definitely a question mark with him, but he should be a safe bet to put up at least a 1.5-2 WAR, and possibly higher.
If that doesn’t make up the final 1.8 needed to effectively replace Prince Fielder, it comes pretty darn close. This plan also leaves over $15 million to fill out the team. Jerry Hairston Jr. should be brought back for a few million, and his value as the top utility infielder over Craig Counsell last year would provide a significant upgrade as well. I’d like to bring back Takashi Saito at a salary similar to last year (around $2 mil after incentives). You’ll likely see someone like Michael Fiers, Brandon Kintzler or Mike McClendon in the bullpen, as they’re cheap as well. I’d like to add a right-handed hitter who for a bench or platoon spot, and a left-handed reliever would be nice next year as well.
So, there you have it. It certainly isn’t flashy, but it’s cost-effective, and it greatly improves team defense from 2011. If the Brewers managed to pull of these moves (easier said that done, of course), I’d feel good again about their chances in 2012.