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.

Matt Carpenter suspended one game for bumping umpire

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Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter has been suspended one game for bumping home plate umpire John Tumpane when he didn’t like a called strike three in the seventh inning of Sunday’s game against the Brewers. Manager Mike Matheny was also ejected along with Carpenter.

Carpenter will serve his suspension Tuesday night, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Through his first 69 nice plate appearances this season, Carpenter is hitting .236/.362/.364 with a pair of home runs and five RBI.

Dave Stewart says Diamondbacks’ early success is proof he was good as GM

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After the completion of the 2016 regular season, the Diamondbacks fired then-GM Dave Stewart and then-manager Chip Hale. Stewart acted as GM for two seasons. His most controversial move occurred in December 2015 when he acquired pitcher Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Gabe Speier in exchange for outfielder Ender Inciarte and prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. After his firing, Stewart blamed his superiors for the trade and said his gut was telling him not to make the trade.

The D-Backs are now led by new GM Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo. The club had a relatively quiet offseason, as its biggest acquisitions were Taijuan Walker and Fernando Rodney. Defying expectations, though, the Diamondbacks enter Tuesday night’s action with a 13-8 record, just a game and a half behind the first-place Rockies. Stewart spoke to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports and said that the D’Backs’ success shows that he knew what he was doing all along.

This means a lot to me because this is the same team, or very close to the one that I put on the field. So basically all of those guys and baseball analysts who said I didn’t know what I was doing, it showed I knew exactly what I was doing.

Everybody was just beat up and not living up to expectations. So all of a sudden, it’s my fault. Well, it’s not my fault. I couldn’t prevent injuries or jump in their bodies to make them pitch better in the starting rotation. We put the right people on the field. So I don’t think anybody should be surprised how well those kids are playing. They’re healthy now. I knew this was going to happen.

Everyone should have seen it coming.

Not to rain on Stewart’s parade, but the Diamondbacks are five games over .500 in a relatively tiny 21-game sample size. Had his team valued analytics during his tenure, he might have known that. Additionally, few of the players performing well for the team right now are players Stewart himself was responsible for bringing to Arizona. Furthermore, the team’s success doesn’t retroactively justify what he gave up for Miller nor does it justify practically giving away Touki Toussaint and signing a 32-year-old Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract.

During and after his tumultuous tenure with the D-Backs, Stewart has appeared very insecure. When he was fired, he quipped, “Quite frankly, I’ve got better things to do.” He appeared on MLB Network Radio in February to deflect any blame directed at him for the team’s failure. And then there’s his most recent quotes in which he heaps praise on himself for the team’s success.

Stewart was an All-Star starter who finished in the top-three in AL Cy Young Award voting three times in his career. He’s understandably competitive and has probably built up a very strong distaste for failure. Sometimes, though, one has to make peace with the fact that things didn’t go one’s way. Stewart simply appears to be tilting at windmills to protect his ego.