Springtime Storylines: Did the Brewers improve enough this offseason?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Is something abrew in Milwaukee?

The Big Question: Did the Brewers make enough improvements this offseason?

There was one clear winner this winter on the trade and free agent market: GM Theo Epstein and his Red Sox. But the Brewers, if we’re ranking teams based on how well they conducted the months of November through February, would come in a close second.

Milwaukee had plenty of offense last year, finishing seventh league-wide in team OPS, fifth in home runs and fifth in total bases, but their dreadful starting rotation killed any hope for a division title by the middle of the summer. Dave Bush was awful for most of his 32 outings, Manny Parra completely fell apart and Chris Narveson’s strong second half was weighed down by a horribly weak beginning.

One thing was clear as things began winding down for the Brewers last September: without an influx of high quality arms, the team wasn’t going to be any better in 2011.

So the front office responded. The Brewers had a need and they addressed it, snagging Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays in a crafty early-December trade and then adding Royals ace Zack Greinke a couple of weeks later. The Brewers sapped their farm system along the way and downgraded defensively at shortstop in moving from Alcides Escobar to Yuniesky Betancourt, but they finally formed a rotation that can sufficiently complement the production they have been getting — and should continue to get — at the plate.

Marcum was superb in the ever-tough American League East last season, registering a 3.64 ERA and striking out 164 batters across 195.1 innings. Then there’s Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner and holder of one of baseball’s best fastball-slider combos. Both should shine in the National League Central, where the designated hitter is still outlawed and where the Pirates and Astros frequent the schedule.

But is that going to be enough? Will Greinke be able to rally from his spring training rib injury and a relatively underwhelming 2010 campaign? Are the new potential aces going to make enough of a splash?

Maybe, but first place in the National League Central is not going to come guaranteed. Beyond speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez and maybe second baseman Rickie Weeks, the Brewers are not a strong defensive team. They’ll have to outperform expectations on that end to assist the revamped starting rotation and to capture the club’s first division crown since 1982.

So what else is going on?

  • The Brewers have basically acknowledged that they aren’t going to have the cash available to re-sign first baseman Prince Fielder when his contract runs out at the end of this season. They’ll try, sure, but even general manager Doug Melvin has admitted that the big man has probably priced himself out of the organization’s range. That means one last year with Prince and his explosive bat. It’s part of why they were so aggressive this winter in fielding a potential World Series contender.
  • Young reliever John Axford introduced himself to the baseball world in a big way last season. As Trevor Hoffman’s replacement at closer, the 27-year-old Ontario, Canada native turned in a 2.48 ERA and fanned 76 batters in 58 innings. He issued only 27 walks and closed the year with 24 saves. The Brewers are thinking that he will only improve in the ninth inning as a sophomore.
  • For right fielder Corey Hart, 2010 was a tale of two seasons. In the first half he compiled a .288/.349/.569 batting line, 21 home runs and 65 RBI, earning All-Star honors and landing a surprise invitation to All-Star weekend’s Home Run Derby. Unfortunately he couldn’t keep that pace all year and slugged just 10 home runs against an .802 OPS over his final 64 games while also missing time due to back and hamstring injuries. Was his early-season production a fluke and are the injury issues a sign of what’s to come? He’s already experienced oblique problems in camp this spring.
  • Writing a preview piece on the Brewers and failing to mention Ryan Braun’s name would be odd and we do enough odd things around these parts as it is, so let’s dish out the love where the love is due. A 27-year-old from the University of Miami, the big-bopping left fielder has averaged a ridiculous .307/.364/.554 batting line, 36 home runs, 42 doubles, 118 RBI and 18 stolen bases per season over his first four years of top-level ball. Between Braun, Fielder, Weeks, Hart and third baseman Casey McGehee, the heart of the Milwaukee batting order certainly carries some fire power.

So how are they gonna do?

As soon as the Greinke trade was made final in late December, the talk about a run at the National Central division title began. That chatter picked up furiously when Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright was diagnosed with a ligament injury in his throwing elbow and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The Reds are going to challenge again for first place, the Cubs have improved, and St. Louis can’t be completely counted out, but the Brewers are gunning for 90 wins this year and they have the pieces to get it done if their defense proves adequate. A rotation buoyed by Greinke, Marcum and Yovani Gallardo could be deadly come October.

U.S. Court of Appeals affirms ruling that the minor leagues are exempt from federal antitrust law

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The Associated Press reported that on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling which holds that the minor leagues are exempt from federal antitrust law, just like the major leagues.

In 2015, four minor leaguers sued Major League Baseball, alleging that MLB violated antitrust laws with its hiring and employment policies. They accused MLB of “restrain[ing] horizontal competition between and among” franchises and “artificially and illegally depressing” the salaries of minor league players.

The U.S. Court of Appeals said the players failed to state an antitrust claim, as the Curt Flood Act of 1998 exempted Minor League Baseball explicitly from antitrust laws.

This case is separate from the Aaron Senne case in which Major League Baseball is accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. That case was recertified as a class action lawsuit in March. In December, Major League Baseball established a political action committee (PAC), which came months after two members of Congress sought to change language in the FLSA so that minor league players could continue to be paid substandard wages.

Rockies place Carlos Gonzalez and Tyler Anderson on the disabled list

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The Rockies announced on Monday that outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and pitcher Tyler Anderson were placed on the 10-day disabled list. The club activated reliever Chad Qualls from the disabled list and recalled reliever Jairo Diaz from Triple-A Albuquerque.

Gonzalez, 31, is dealing with a strained right shoulder. He’s in the midst of his worst season, batting .221/.300/.348 with six home runs and 20 RBI in 277 plate appearances. Gonzalez is a free agent after the season and has been commonly brought up in trade discussions, but his latest injury and underwhelming season will make it difficult for the Rockies to get anything meaningful in return this summer.

Anderson, 27, has inflammation in his left knee. He dealt with a knee problem earlier this season, so the injury seems to have been reaggravated. The lefty has an ugly 6.11 ERA with a 63/23 K/BB ratio in 63 1/3 innings this season.

Qualls, 38, went on the disabled list earlier this month with back spasms. He had previously been dealing with forearm inflammation, so it’s been a rough year for the veteran. He is carrying a 4.60 ERA with a 9/5 K/BB ratio in 15 2/3 innings.

Diaz, 26, hasn’t appeared in the majors since 2015. He has appeared in only eight games at Triple-A as he opened the season on the disabled list after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. So far, Diaz has allowed three earned runs on seven hits and two walks with nine strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings.