The Milwaukee Brewers' season ended in disappointing fashion on Sunday night when the St. Louis Cardinals whipped them 12-6 in Game 6 of the NLCS. While getting to the NLCS is a great accomplishment, from the beginning of last offseason, the Brewers were "All in" for 2011, so anything less than a World Series appearance I am sure is deemed as a disappointment in Milwaukee.
Now the Brewers face a critical offseason and now will try to avoid the mid-market peak.
What is the mid-market peak you ask? It's very simple.
In baseball, every small-to-mid-market organization hits a peak on the field. For that year, all the stars align, the young talent comes together, players play above their heads, and the organization adds a couple of significant pieces to help the team out. As a fan, you look at the team and say "This is the best team we have ever had or best we have had in a while."
When that team hits their peak, they usually have one legit shot to win it all. When they don't get there, they are forced to re-build.
The best example of this was the 2007 Cleveland Indians. After many years of rebuilding, the Indians had their one shot at the World Series in 2007.
They had CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitching at an elite level. Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner were awesome in the middle of their lineup. Even Ryan Garko chipped in with 21 home runs.
The Indians had a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS and when they couldn't get over the hump, they had to start over again. The next year, the Indians traded Sabathia, Hafner and Martinez fell apart, and their bullpen, which was so good in 2007, was a hot mess.
The Brewers find themselves in a similar situation as the Indians did in 2007. I think this was the best Brewer team they ever had.
Now with Prince Fielder, Jerry Hairston, Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, and Francisco Rodriguez set to be free agents and Yuniesky Betancourt's option next expected to be picked up, the Brewers have a lot of questions to answer before they take the field again in 2012.
The good news for the Brewers is that they will return Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, and will have their entire starting rotation in tact. So the question is, how can the Brewers re-build for next season and suffer from the mid-market peak?
The reality is for the Brewers is that despite the $15.5 million coming off the books for Fielder (assuming he is as good as gone), they don't have much money to spend this winter. And you couple that with the fact that their farm system has been gutted the last couple of seasons, they don't have the prospects to trade for an impact player.
This doesn't mean the Brewers can't add quality pieces and improve in certain areas. I would say the Brewers will have between $10 and $11 million to spend this winter on a first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, and a reliever or two.
Based on those financial constraints, here are some suggestions for the Brewers next season:
First base: Give Mat Gamel his shot. Gamel hasn't done much in 194 Major League plate appearances, but at some point you have to let the kids swim on their own. Gamel will be 27 next season and he hit 28 HR's and had a .912 OPS in Triple-A this season. It's now or never for him and he moved to first base this year for a reason.
Signing Casey Kotchman, who overachieved this season thanks an absurd BABIP (.335), is not the answer for the Brewers. That would be a bad move.
Shortstop: Sign Clint Barmes for one-year, $4.5 million. Barmes isn't a sexy name, but he is an upgrade over Betancourt both offensively and especially defensively. Barmes hit .244/.312/.386 with 12 HR's in 495 PA's for the Astros in 2011.
Barmes' .692 OPS was 46 points higher than Betancourt's was this season. But where Barmes is really an improvement over Betancourt is on the defensive side of the ball.
Barmes was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball in 2011 according to UZR. Barmes' 10.8 UZR/150 was good for third in all of baseball. Betancourt's -7.4 was fourth worst in baseball. Barmes was also fourth in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved with 12, while Betancourt was fourth worst with -6.
Barmes would also bring some versatility as he can also play second or third if needed.
Third Base: Sign Kevin Kouzmanoff for one-year, $2 million. The Brewers are expected to non-tender or trade Casey McGegee and overall, Brewer third basemen hit .215/.275/.324 with 11 HR's in 2011. If the Brewers did tender McGehee a contract, they would have to pay him around $3 million in 2012. McGehee's career is starting to resemble Garrett Atkins and we know how that turned out.
Why not sign Kouzmanoff for a $1 million less and get perhaps better production?
Kouzmanoff bounced around last season between the Oakland A's and Colorado Rockies and managed to hit .235/.284/.372 in 257 PA's. Back in 2010, Kouzmanoff hit 16 HR's with the A's, so he still has pop in his bat.
Defensively, Kouzmanoff has been one of the best third basemen since 2008. His 26.5 UZR over that time frame is good for fifth in all of baseball.
Now with Kouzmanoff and Barmes on the left side of their infield, the Brewers are vastly improved defensively.
Reliever: Sign Frank Francisco for two-years, $7.5 million. With Hawkins, Saito, and Rodriguez not expected back, the Brewers need someone to set up John Axford. That's over 100 innings they need to replace in 2012.
Signing Francisco would be a good start and could eat up half of those innings. The Brewers need guys who can miss bats late in games and Francisco's 9.4 K/9 would be a relatively inexpensive way to do so. With the success of relievers this postseason, prices for them are going to be through the roof.
Francisco would be a nice bridge to Axford.
Reliever: Sign Luis Ayala to minor-league deal: Ayala has seemingly been around forever, but he pitched really well for the Yankees last season. He had a 2.09 ERA in 56 innings and had a 50 percent Ground Ball Percentage.
Ayala could eat up the remainder of those 100 innings and while most relievers are year-to-year, if Ayala could reproduce his 2011 season in 2012, the Brewers would be getting a quality reliever for minimum cost.
The Brewers will never be able to replace Fielder in the lineup, but these moves would allow them to improve in other areas such as defense, which will help the Brewers remain competitive. I am sure most Brewer fans want people who can get on base 37 percent of the time and that makes sense, but those players aren't available at the positions they need help in and at the cost they can afford.
The Brewers will need to win next year with pitching, defense, and an offense that can still score runs with Braun, Weeks, Hart, and Gamel. A couple of improvements on the defensive side of the ball like the ones I suggested, should help the Brewers win 89-90 games next season.
89-90 wins should be good enough to compete for a playoff spot and help the Brewers avoid the mid-market peak that so many teams fall victim to.