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The Total WAR Project, Part VI: Milwaukee Brewers

The Total WAR Project is a series of posts that analyzes the closest competition facing the Phillies in 2010. The posts use Wins Above Replacement, a metric designed to use offensive and defensive production within a single stat.

The latest in the series of Total WAR Posts has us examining the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that has risen from irrelevance to prominence in near-meteoric fashion. Behind a core of homegrown prospects (so many, in fact, that they were able to trade the excess for CC Sabathia in 2008), the Brew Crew has established itself as a legitimate contender in the N.L. Central.

That was, at least, until last year, when nearly every player not named Fielder, Braun, Hoffman or Gallardo struggled to produce in a positive way. The Brewers found themselves on the outside looking in during the October playoff stretch, something their fans were likely none too pleased to experience following 2008’s playoff berth.

Will their offseason moves bring them back into contention for the Wild Card, or even the N.L. Central? Let’s take a look.

2009 Roster

C1: Jason Kendall (1.2 WAR)
C2: Mike Rivera (0.3 WAR)

1B: Prince Fielder (6.8 WAR)
2B: Rickie Weeks (1.5 WAR)
3B: Casey McGehee (2.2 WAR)
SS: J.J. Hardy (1.4 WAR)
INF: Craig Counsell (2.8 WAR), Felipe Lopez (2.6 WAR), Alcides Escobar (0.3 WAR), Bill Hall (0.2 WAR)

OF1: Ryan Braun (4.8 WAR)
OF2: Mike Cameron (4.3 WAR)
OF3: Corey Hart (0.8 WAR)
OF4: Jody Gerut (-0.2 WAR)
OF5: Frank Catalonatto (0.1 WAR)

SP1: Yovani Gallardo (2.7 WAR)
SP2: Braden Looper (-0.9 WAR)
SP3: Manny Parra (0.6 WAR)
SP4: Jeff Suppan (-0.7 WAR)
SP5: Dave Bush (0.3 WAR)

CL: Trevor Hoffman (1.5 WAR)
SU: Carlos Villanueva (0.4 WAR)
RP: Todd Coffey (0.8 WAR)
RP: Mitch Stetter (0 WAR)
RP: Mark DiFelice (0.4 WAR)
RP: Seth McClung (-1.0 WAR)
RP: David Weathers (-0.3 WAR)
RP: Chris Narveson (0.3 WAR)
RP: Claudio Vargas (0.2 WAR)

2009 Total WAR: 33.4

When weighting that number against some of the teams in our previous episodes, consider there are 29 players listed above for the Brewers.

Despite that, Milwaukee’s 33.4 number fell well below divisional rival St. Louis (44.6) and potential wild card foes Atlanta (46.8), Los Angeles (47.3) and Colorado (44.7). Hardy alone suffered a massive drop in production, losing more than three-and-a-half wins and earning himself a demotion to Triple-A in mid-August. The Brewers obviously thought, even then, that prospect Alcides Escobar would be the better choice both in terms of performance and finances. The demotion delayed Hardy’s free agency eligibility by an extra season, so even if the Brewers hadn’t been able to deal him to Minnesota for centerfielder Carlos Gomez this winter, he would’ve been maintained for another year at sub-free agency cost. Moot point, though, you’re right.

The mystery of Corey Hart’s Missing Production also hasn’t helped. Hart, a four-and-a-half win performer in his own right in 2007, has put up OPSes in the .750 range each of the last two seasons. His walk rate was the best of his career, but his strikeouts also bloomed considerably, up from 17.8 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in ’09, all without any wild or unusual fluctuations in average on balls in play.

Fielder and Braun are stalwarts in the lineup, and should put up numbers on par with what they’ve established as their personal norms over the past three seasons. By WAR alone, Fielder was the second-most valuable first baseman in all of MLB in 2009, trailing only that Pujols dude*. The jokes about his weight are plentiful, and Cardinals fans harbor some incredibly irrational hate for him in light of his home run celebrations, but the fact of the matter is that the big man can smack a ball pretty hard and pretty far.

* Ryan Howard was ninth, if you include Victor Martinez as a 1B.

Pitching obviously was a major hindrance, as Gallardo and Hoffman provided the only truly positive contributions to the staff in ’09. Losing Sabathia to free agency and Ben Sheets to injury also didn’t help. Will the addition of Randy Wolf help?

2010 Projected Roster

C1: Gregg Zaun (1.3 WAR)
C2: George Kottaras (0.8 WAR)

1B: Prince Fielder (5.2 WAR)
2B: Rickie Weeks (2.6 WAR)
3B: Casey McGehee (1.1 WAR)
SS: Alcides Escobar (2.0 WAR)
INF: Mat Gamel (0.7 WAR), Craig Counsell (1.0 WAR), Joe Inglett (1.0 WAR)

OF1: Ryan Braun (4.6 WAR)
OF2: Carlos Gomez (2.6 WAR)
OF3: Corey Hart (1.9 WAR)
OF4: Jody Gerut (1.7 WAR)

SP1: Yovani Gallardo (3.7 WAR)
SP2: Randy Wolf (3.0 WAR)
SP3: Doug Davis (1.7 WAR)*
SP4: Jeff Suppan (0.2 WAR)*
SP5: David Bush (1.6 WAR)*
SP6: Manny Parra (2.2 WAR)*

CL: Trevor Hoffman (1.0 WAR)
SU: LaTroy Hawkins (0.6 WAR)
RP: Todd Coffey (0.8 WAR)
RP: Mitch Stetter (0 WAR)
RP: Carlos Villanueva (0.4 WAR)
RP: David Riske (0 WAR)
RP: Claudio Vargas (0.3 WAR)
RP: Chris Narveson (0.3 WAR)

2010 Projected WAR: 42.3

Remember, asterisks indicate fan projections and italics indicate last year’s totals.

That signifies a pretty significant improvement from last year, and could catapult the Brewers right back into playoff contention. Fielder is projected to lose about a win-and-a-half, but the addition of Wolf and the optimism that Parra can put together a season solid enough to keep him in the rotation and out of the minors.

If Jason Kendall was worth a win and change last year, I would expect Zaun to produce closer to 1.7-2 wins. Zaun was a guy I lobbied for the Phils to add this offseason as their backup catcher, but they opted for the lefty Brian Schneider over the switch-hitting Zaun, as we all know. He should provide a good deal of value behind the plate for Milwaukee; Zaun ranked as the most efficient pitch blocker in the Majors last year, about five percent – and five runs per 120 games –  better than Kendall, who ranked 17th*.

* Carlos Ruiz is third, something I’ll touch on at a later date.

Zaun should be one of the lone defensive highlights, aside from Gomez, as the Brewers were a steady – if unspectacular – 11th in UZR and 13th in UZR/150, one of the most trusted fielding metrics. Weeks and Counsell put up respectable figures in modest samples in that stat, but they’re completely counteracted by the deficiencies of Braun, McGehee (when he’s at third, where he will be playing regularly in 2010) and Hart. At least Braun doesn’t play at third anymore.

Really, though, in light of the competition facing the Brewers within the division (St. Louis, an improving Reds team) and within the Wild Card race (Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, Arizona), I find it difficult to place the Brew Crew atop any division or playoff race. Too many uncertainties in the rotation and a thin bullpen will be tough to overcome, even with a solid offense like the one Milwaukee features.

I think second place in the Central is a definite possibility for the Brewers in 2010, but I just don’t see them playing deep into October. Tentatively write in Milwaukee for an 85-77 record and a second-place finish in the N.L. Central.

Total WAR’s later pieces will profile the Mariners, Red Sox and Yankees before finishing with the Phillies prior to the start of the regular season.

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