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

Apr 2, 2012, 9:31 PM EDT

ryan braun reuters AP

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.

  1. florida76 - Apr 2, 2012 at 9:49 PM

    Difficult to believe this franchise has never won a World Series, more than four decades of futility. Even newer franchises like the Marlins have found a way to win baseball’s greatest prize. Miller Park also has a drab feel to it, very poor atmosphere. In terms of sports success, Wisconsin has the Packers and almost nothing else. Wasn’t Jeffery Dahmer from Milwaukee?

    • brewcitybummer - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:18 PM

      Very poor atmosphere? The brewers were 7th in attendance in the major leagues last year at 37918 per game. Its a rowdy party atmosphere where people still tailgate. Id love to know what you based your perception of the atmosphere on.

      • tacklemeelmo - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:26 PM

        Clearly the user “florida76” knows all about the atmosphere in Milwaukee.

        Whenever I have been to the stadium the “atmosphere” has never seemed drab to me.

      • dammitjim30 - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:47 AM

        Drab feel to it? Are you kidding me? I’ve gone to several Brewers games over the years and the atmosphere has been nothing but wonderful and how a baseball park should be. The set up for tailgating is far superior than most ballparks. I don’t want to even start with your new Marlins stadium. You obviously haven’t been there before. And Wisconsin has almost nothing else?? The Badgers sports teams have been great in sports for a long, long time.

    • ptfu - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:37 PM

      Floridians shouldn’t be trolling ANYONE about winning World Series, how to run a franchise, or stadium ambiance. Brewers & Milwaukee have their issues but they’re a long long way from never-ending disasters. Florida’s been a lot worse.

      Ask Old Gator about the Marlins’ style of building champions, tearing them down, and general lunacy. The Rays are very well run but have yet to win it all. Both teams have plenty of futility in their respective histories too.

      And as for stadiums, the Trop is widely despised, and there’s a reason the Marlins spent the taxpayers’ money (and generously chipped in one or two of their own nickels) on a new stadium.

      Oh, and Jeffrey Dahmer lived in Florida for a while as well…

      • The Dangerous Mabry - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:34 AM

        Take it easy on him, guys. I imagine the average Marlins fan is uncomfortable going to a game where they don’t know all the other fans personally.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:56 PM

      The comment about Miller Park having no atmosphere cleary shows this jackass has never been there.

      • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 7:56 AM

        Maybe he went in January. It probably feels drab then.

      • stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:28 PM

        No doubt Brew: As Paper says…the moron probably visited in the dead of winter. Of course…I am sure it was still more heavily populated than at anytime last year at the Marlins park.

    • buckybadger - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:22 AM

      The atmosphere for almost all Florida franchises is a joke.

    • stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:20 PM

      Florida76. DO YOUR HOMEWORK if you are gonna’ try and talk shit on HBT.
      Otherwise, your ignorance is confirmed and you ultimately look like a Chump. CHUMP.

  2. seeingwhatsticks - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    Are you sure that Milwaukee is the smallest market? I live in the Bay Area and I keep hearing that Oakland is the smallest market in the league and makes it impossible to compete. You should probably check your sources because I know Lew Wolff would never lie.

    • Drew Silva - Apr 2, 2012 at 11:03 PM

      I probably should have said “television” market. It’s not about the population in the city.

      • techstarsc - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:22 PM

        You’re still wrong. If you check the 2012 Nielsen TV market rankings, Cincinnati is now the smallest market with an MLB franchise.

  3. foodstamp69 - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    who is this guy n whatever he smoking i want some brewers lost prince thats it between a-ram n gamel theyll atleast make the prince thing not so bad cuz our third baseman last year sucked

  4. tacklemeelmo - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Semi-related question here.

    Has the arbitrator in the Braun case released his report on why he ruled the way he did? I thought he had to within 6 or 8 weeks or something, but I’m yet to hear anything about it.

    • ufullpj - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:46 PM

      That’s a good question. Technically, it should be released by now, but it’s also traditionally sealed and confidential, just like the whole process should be. Now, one could argue that since ESPN was able to leak the original report, they should be able to get a leak as to the arbitrator’s reasoning….but one could also surmise that the defense was more than just a chain-of-custody defense…which some national media members not working for ESPN have asserted.

  5. brewcrewfan54 - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:45 PM

    Prince is a huge loss no doubt but the Crew isn’t exactly worse off in general. Third place? It could certainly happen but neither the Reds or the Cards are markedly better than the Brewers on paper. Good thing they play the games because most people picked the Crew to finish third last year also.

    • umrguy42 - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:48 AM

      As a Cards fan, I expect it’ll be an interesting race all around.

      (Although I *did* have to laugh at my friend the Brewers fan, when she proudly posted a pic of the Brewers’ 2011 NL Central Champions banner hanging on the outside of the stadium ;p)

      • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:33 PM

        We’re not used to winning World Series around here like you St Louis fans, just Super Bowls. She’s taking baby steps. Hopefully that Division Banner can be joined with an NL pennant and Comissioner’s Trophy soon.

      • umrguy42 - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:23 PM

        Fair enough, but I totally had to tease her a bit. What’re friends (who follow opposing teams) for? 😀

      • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:54 PM

        I agree. You had a duty as a sport fan to talk a little trash to her. Nothing wrong with that at all!

    • ajcardsfan - Apr 4, 2012 at 5:00 PM

      Brew: Can you make sure Axford remains a stud somehow? I’m counting on him for my top RP slot in fantasy? He can only suck during Cardinals games :)

  6. meteor32 - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    “Milwaukee put it all together last year, capturing the National League Central crown for the first time since 1982”

    This is a neat trick since the Brewers were in the AL until 1998 and the Central Divisions didn’t come into existence until 1994.

    • Drew Silva - Apr 2, 2012 at 11:02 PM

      D’oh. Thanks.

  7. fm31970 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:26 AM

    Miller Park isn’t all that spectacular, I will admit. It’s nice, but there’s really nothing special about it, other than the once-trendy moveable roof. It’s a lot like Milwaukee- no-nonsense, few frills, and very blue collar-feeling. Nothing wrong with that. Besides, Brewers fans would rather watch Bernie slide down than watch that animatronic thing in Miami’s outfield after a homer.

    What does Miami’s stadium have that can top the Sausage Racers?

    • koufaxmitzvah - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:47 AM

      A voyeuristic perspective of entrapped fish?

      • stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:31 PM

        Hahaha! Nice Sandy. Nice.

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