Scouting the competition: The Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers almost won the National League Central this past season. Are they primed to compete again in 2008? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

The Milwaukee Brewers led the National League Central Division for 133 days this season. After leading for most of the summer, the Brewers fell out of first place on August 17th and were never truly able to recover.

Yes, the National League Central was weak this season. But the Brewers had their first winning season since 1992, and despite missing the playoffs, there's a ton to be excited about in Milwaukee for the first time in a long time.

This is a team full of young talent, with a solid nucleus for the future. The 2007 season could be the first of many winning seasons for the Brew Crew.

The offense was the main story in this past season, as the Brewers led the league in home runs with 231. They finished fifth in the NL in runs scored (801), but were 9th in stolen bases (96) and 11th in batting average (.262). So the long ball was extremely important to Ned Yost's club last season.

Prince Fielder is the team's leader for power, as he had 50 home runs and drove in 119. The .288 batting average and .395 on base percentage made him a pretty complete player. Fielder is still very young and will only get better, and now that the Brewers have found a compliment to him on the other side of the diamond their lineup is going to be very dangerous.

Ryan Braun came up in May, and 112 games started at third base later he's the leading candidate for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Braun hit .324 with 34 home runs, 97 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 451 at bats.

J.J. Hardy is the team's shortstop, and he got better as well in 2007 by hitting .277 with 26 home runs and 80 runs batted in. His double-play partner, Rickie Weeks, struggled a bit and even had to go to the minors for a while. Weeks hit .235 with 16 home runs and 36 RBI, but he did have 25 stolen bases to give the team a bit of team speed.

The outfield has some stability in right with Corey Hart, who hit .295 with 24 home runs and 81 RBI. He seems set there, but the Brewers could have some changes in center and left. Bill Hall started 116 games in center field last season, but he hit .254 and had a .315 on base percentage. The Brewers could give Hall another chance or be tempted with Tony Gwynn, Jr. Another option would be to move Hart to center (where he started 28 games) and insert Gabe Gross (.235 – 7 – 24 – in 183 at bats) into right field.

It's doubtful Geoff Jenkins's option will be picked up, which could open up a spot in left field. Kevin Mench (.267 with 8 homers and 37 RBI in 288 at bats) would be the leading candidate there, and the Brewers could look for another alternative for left field.

Johnny Estrada is scheduled to be the catcher again despite a horrible defensive season. The former Brave threw out only 13% of would-be base stealers. His offense was pretty standard for Estrada: .278 with 10 homers and 54 RBI. Damian Miller was Estrada's backup, but he's a free agent. The Brewers claimed Eric Munson off the Astros' roster a few weeks ago and he could be Estrada's backup next season.

Milwaukee's pitching was pretty good, and it might get much better if a few people stay healthy. The staff finished 9th in ERA with a 4.41 mark and finished 10th in quality starts (76). The bullpen did finish second in saves with 49.

The bullpen is where we'll start since that's where the Brewers have the biggest question. Francisco Cordero is a free agent, and while it's been expected that he'll re-sign, it is getting late in the process. If he hits the open market, Cordero could attract a bidding war which might knock the Brewers out.

Cordero had 44 saves and a 2.98 ERA, so e could become one of the highest paid closers in the game. If he were to leave, the Brewers could turn to Derrick Turnbow, who had the job a few years ago before Cordero came over from Texas. Turnbow had 33 holds in the setup role but a 4.63 ERA in 77 games. He might give Yost a heart attack if he's the closer again, so it's likely the Brewers might look for other options if Cordero does leave.

The Brewers have several decent middle relievers that will be back, including Brian Shouse (21 holds in 73 games, 3.02 ERA), Matt Wise (13 holds in 56 games, 4.19 ERA), and Chris Spurling (49 games, 4.50 ERA).

Scott Linebrink came over from the Padres during the summer. He had a 3.55 ERA in 27 games with Milwaukee but will now be a free agent this offseason. Linebrink is not as dominant now as he was a few years ago. The Braves have had interest in him in the past and could again this winter.

Milwaukee's rotation has the pieces necessary to be a strong group, but if Ben Sheets doesn't stay healthy they may never have a true ace. Sheets started just 24 games in 2007, but 14 of those were quality appearances. Sheets was 12-5 with a 3.82 ERA. The Brewers need him to pitch at least 30 games next season and give them 200-plus innings.

Jeff Suppan came over from the World Champion Cardinals and provided the Brewers with decent innings (206.2). Suppan was 12-12 with a 4.63 ERA and was a good number two starter for the Brewers, even though they had to rely on him more as an ace when Sheets was gone. But Suppan is much more effective if he's in the middle of the rotation.

Dave Bush was 12-10 with a 5.12 ERA in 31 starts (15 quality starts). He gave Milwaukee 186.1 innings. Chris Capuano was a big disappointment going 5-12 in 25 starts with a 5.10 ERA. The lefty had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder after the season and should be recovered in time for spring training.

Claudio Vargas started 23 games for the Brewers and was 11-6 overall with a 5.09 ERA. He'll have to battle for a rotation spot, however, as young Yovani Gallardo might have the edge. The phenom was 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA and 12 of his 17 starts were quality appearances. Gallardo could be a future ace of this team, and he'll get the chance to climb up the rotation next season.

Carlos Villanueva got six starts late in the season (including an impressive performance against the Braves in Atlanta) and could be a candidate for the rotation again next year. Villanueva had 16 holds as a reliever in his 53 games out of the pen, so the Brewers will have two options with the right-hander next season. He could also be used as trade bait.

Manny Parra is another pitcher to keep in mind for the rotation, especially if one of the returning starters are traded. Parra was a top prospect a year ago but has battled arm trouble. He came back this summer and had a perfect game in Triple-A, but then Manny missed the final month with a fractured thump. Parra's shoulder is fine now, and the Brewers might be tempted to use this power lefty in the rotation or in a deal.

The Brewers will be an interesting team to watch this winter. With a need for a left fielder, might they call the Braves about Matt Diaz? They have pitching to dangle, so that may be something to watch.

Milwaukee has a few free agents that could interest the Braves, including Damian Miller, who could come in to backup Brian McCann. Miller is more of a defensive player, which is what Bobby Cox usually likes in his backup receivers. Infielder Tony Graffanino came up in the Braves' system and played in Atlanta from 1996-1998. The now 35-year-old Graffanino can play all four infield positions plus the outfield and may not be a bad option as a reserve.

If the Brewers let Geoff Jenkins go the Braves might have some interest at the right price. He's a corner outfielder with solid hitting ability, and if the Braves were to trade a left fielder in a deal for pitching help Jenkins might be an option as a replacement. And while Cordero will be too expensive and would not be needed anyway, the team could inquire about Scott Linebrink as a veteran arm for the bullpen.


Eligible for Free Agency: Francisco Cordero, Ray King, Scott Linebrink, Damian Miller, Tony Graffanino, Geoff Jenkins *, Corey Koskie *
Eligible for Arbitration: Greg Aquino, Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, Johnny Estrada, J.J. Hardy, Seth McClung, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix, Brian Shouse, Chris Spurling, Claudio Vargas, Matt Wise


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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