Springtime Storylines: Is there life after Prince Fielder in baseball’s smallest market?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: A Battered Brew Crew.

The Big Question: Can the Brewers still be successful without their Prince?

Milwaukee put it all together last year, capturing its first-ever National League Central title while tallying the most regular-season victories (96) in franchise history. But a loss to the division rival Cardinals in the NLCS and a winter chock full of speed bumps has dulled some of the shine that only six months ago surrounded this baseball team.

First, longtime slugger Prince Fielder chased a nine-year, $214 million free agent contract to Detroit.

The small(est)-market Brewers never really stood a chance of re-signing him, and barely attempted an offer this offseason, but it’s nonetheless a bitter pill. Fielder batted .299/.415/.556 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI in 2011, good enough for 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

New first baseman Mat Gamel posted a superb .310/.372/.540 slash line with 28 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games last season at Triple-A and should be more than ready to handle the pressures of big-league life at age 26. But he’s been unsuccessful in his limited action with the Brewers to this point and will be lucky to make up for half of Fielder’s offensive production in his first full year as an everyday major leaguer.

Then there’s the Ryan Braun PED scandal, which has been settled on the legal end for weeks but is far from erased from the consciousness of your run-of-the-mill baseball fan. To most, Braun got out of his 50-game suspension by lawyering up and finding a loophole. And whether that thought is right or wrong, it’s a belief that will be expressed loudly and probably vulgarly at every road ballpark that the 2011 NL MVP visits this year.

Maybe Braun will be able to shrug it all off. He’s a confident enough dude. But let’s just note that he went 9-for-41 this spring while hearing a fraction of the jeers he’ll receive once games actually matter.

The Brewers should still be a force this year because they have talent in all areas of their roster and because they play in baseball’s weakest division. But they’re certainly not going to breeze back to the playoffs.

What Else Is Going On?

  • In 2010, the Brewers turned in a hideous 4.58 staff ERA. In 2011, that number fell to 3.63. Such are the yields when a team acquires two top-of-the-rotation arms — Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum — in one offseason. Greinke, 28, registered a 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 201/45 K/BB ratio across 171 2/3 innings in his first go-round with Milwaukee. Marcum, 30, had a 3.54 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 158/57 K/BB ratio in 200 2/3 innings. Combined with Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have a real three-headed monster.
  • The back end of the bullpen is also quite talented. Francisco Rodriguez caught Milwaukee’s higher-ups off guard this winter when he accepted their offer of arbitration, but the two sides were able to reach a reasonable one-year, $8 million agreement. K-Rod posted a lights-out 1.86 ERA and 33/10 K/BB ratio after joining the Brewers in an early-July trade. He will operate as a setup man again this year for John Axford, who tied Braves closer Craig Kimbrel for a league-leading 46 saves in 2011.
  • After watching Casey McGehee fall back to earth last season to the tune of a .626 OPS, the Brewers traded the husky third baseman to the Pirates in December for right-handed reliever Jose Veras and signed free agent veteran Aramis Ramirez to a three-year, $36 million contract with a mutual option for 2015. A-Ram batted .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI for the Cubs in 2011, and should represent a significant upgrade at the hot corner if he can maintain good health.

How Are They Gonna Do?

Braun should again challenge for the MVP and the front end of the starting rotation is beyond solid, but the Brewers lack lineup depth and are sure to miss the heart-of-the-order punch that Fielder was able to provide. They’ll drop to third in the National League Central, finishing behind the Reds and Cardinals.

Mets place Zack Wheeler on the 10-day disabled list

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The Mets announced on Monday that starter Zack Wheeler has been placed on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his right arm. Pitcher Tyler Pill has been recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas.

Wheeler, 27, has a 5.21 ERA with an 81/40 K/BB ratio in 86 1/3 innings this season. He joins a long list of injured Mets, including rotation mates Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Tommy Milone, and Robert Gsellman. It’s not clear at the moment how long Wheeler will be out.

Pill, 27, has spent most of his season with Las Vegas, with which he has a 3.47 ERA over 13 starts. He has made three starts and two relief appearances in the majors this season as well.

Report: Royals acquire Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter, Trevor Cahill from Padres

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Robert Murray of FanRag Sports reports that the Royals are acquiring pitchers Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter, and Trevor Cahill from the Padres in exchange for Matt Strahm, Travis Wood, and Esteury Ruiz. Jon Heyman has confirmed the deal.

Maurer, 27, has saved 20 games for the Padres this year despite a 5.72 ERA. He carries with him a 38/8 K/BB ratio in 39 1/3 innings. The right-hander is arbitration-eligible going into the next two seasons and can become a free agent after the 2019 season.

Buchter, 30, owns a 3.05 ERA with a 47/18 K/BB ratio in 38 1/3 innings of relief work this season with the Padres. He’ll be under team control through 2021.

Cahill, 29, has posted a 3.69 ERA with a 72/24 K/BB ratio in 61 innings across 11 starts. He can become a free agent after the season.

Strahm, 25, put up a 5.45 ERA with a 37/22 K/BB ratio in 34 2/3 innings. He underwent season-ending knee surgery on July 7 and will miss the rest of the season.

Wood, 30, has a 6.91 ERA with a 29/20 K/BB ratio in 41 2/3 innings. Given his experience out of both the starting rotation and the bullpen, he can pitch in a swingman role. The lefty is under contract next year for $6.5 million. Wood has a mutual option for 2019 worth $8 million with a $1 million buyout.

Ruiz, 18, signed with the Royals as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in July 2015. This season, in rookie ball, he hit .419/.440/.779 in 91 plate appearances. Ruiz has played both second base and shortstop.