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

28 Comments

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.

Guardians take WC opener as Ramírez homers, Bieber dominates

Wild Card Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Guardians - Game One
Getty Images
0 Comments

CLEVELAND – The Guardians were certain of two things: Jose Ramirez would deliver, and Amed Rosario touched second base.

Cleveland’s kids were right.

Ramirez connected for a two-run homer, Shane Bieber dominated Tampa Bay for 7 2/3 innings and the young Guardians played with poise in their postseason debut, beating the Rays 2-1 in the wild-card opener on Friday.

Ramirez’s shot off Tampa’s Shane McClanahan in the sixth inning – the Rays initially appealed whether Rosario stepped on second – helped Cleveland end an eight-game postseason losing streak and left baseball’s youngest team one win from advancing in its first season as the Guardians.

Though short on experience, the Guardians seem to have everything else.

“At this point we’re dealing with what we got in that clubhouse,” Bieber said, brushing off the team’s youth. “And that’s a winning ballclub.”

Bieber, rocked in his only other playoff appearance two years ago by the Yankees, was spectacular, allowing just three hits and striking out eight before being lifted the eighth to a thunderous ovation.

Emmanuel Clase took it from there, getting four outs for his first postseason save and finishing a game that took just 2 hours, 17 minutes – the fastest in the postseason since 1999 and Cleveland’s quickest since its World Series-clinching win in 1948.

Jose Siri homered for the Rays, who dropped their sixth straight game overall and turn to starter Tyler Glasnow in Game 2 on Saturday to keep their season alive. The series winner plays the AL East champion New York in the Division Series starting Tuesday in the Bronx.

With 17 players making MLB debuts this season, the Guardians entered the playoffs unsure of what to expect. Fortunately, Ramirez and Bieber had been here before, and both came through for the AL Central champions.

With Cleveland down 1-0 after Siri’s homer in the sixth and running out of outs, Ramirez delivered – as usual.

“Nothing surprises me,” Rosario said of his teammate, who is batting .455 with homer and six RBIs in his last three playoff games. “For me, he’s the best player in baseball.”

Bieber wouldn’t argue.

“He’s inevitable,” Cleveland’s ace said. “To do it right away, that was huge.”

Rosario singled with one out and Ramirez, a four-time All-Star who finished second to Aaron Judge in RBIs in the AL this season, drove a 1-1 changeup over the wall for just his second postseason homer in 97 at-bats.

However, as the red-towel waving fans in Progressive Field screamed, Rays manager Kevin Cash appealed whether Rosario missed second. TV replays showed him slowing and touching the bag, but that didn’t give Guardians manager Terry Francona any comfort as the Rays proceeded to challenge.

“When they start huddling like that, you start to get a little nervous,” he said.

Cash couldn’t tell whether Rosario missed the bag.

“It was kind of grainy,” he said. “But it certainly looked like there was reason to take a look at it and let’s see what New York had to say.”

While the umpires waited for an official ruling, the crowd spontaneously sang “Jose … Jose … Jose,” like never before, prompting Ramirez to pop out for a curtain call. The home run stood and Cleveland had a slim lead it protected.

McClanahan has given up just two homers all season on changeups.

“Shane’s pitch,” Cash lamented.

McClanahan knew he made a mistake.

“Left it up,” the left-hander said. “He’s such a good hitter, you’re not going to fool him with a bad pitch again in the same spot.”

Tampa Bay didn’t get its first hit of Bieber until the fifth, when Harold Ramirez bounced a single into center. But Bieber buckled down and got two outs before striking out Christian Bethancourt, the right-hander’s third punch-out to end an inning.

When Francona pulled him in the eighth, Bieber left to roars and showed his appreciation by clapping into his glove.

“To hear that, to feed off that energy,” Bieber said of Cleveland’s crowd. “It seemed like every time there were two strikes they were willing a strikeout. And that felt great. Kind of helps me personally elevate my game. I don’t suspect I’m the only one on our team that feels that.”

Bieber’s only postseason appearance was equally forgettable. In 2020, when he won the AL Cy Young Award leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA, Bieber was tagged for seven runs in just 4 2/3 innings against the Yankees in the wild card. Aaron Judge hit a two-run homer off him in the first.

REELING RAYS

The Rays have scored just nine runs during their six-game slide.

Still, Cash believes his team will find a way to push the series to a third game.

“We need to be resilient,” he said. “I’m very confident in this group that they will respond the way they need to and compete and give us a good opportunity to win.”

UP NEXT

Rays: Glasnow will be on a pitch count in his third start since returning from Tommy John surgery. It’s his first postseason start since Game 5 of the 2020 World Series. The left-hander threw 64 pitches in his last outing and Cash will add one inning “and 15 to 20 more pitches” to Glasnow’s workload. He’s 2-5 with 6.56 ERA in eight postseason starts.

Guardians: McKenzie makes his first postseason start. The lanky right-hander went 2-0 with a 2.09 ERA in his last six starts, striking out 41 in 38 2/3 innings. More importantly, he only walked five after being plagued by wildness earlier this season.