Friday, April 22, 2011

NL North Preview - Part I

Milwaukee Javier Sanches makes the Brewers King of the Hill

Sixty feet, six inches: that’s exactly how far you need to look to understand how the Brewers rolled to 102 wins last year and a meeting with the Dodgers in the LCS. Milwaukee’s arms combined for the 2nd best team ERA (3.08) and posted the 2nd best WHIP (1.16) in the entire league. Their starting five combined for a whopping 71 wins, lead by ace Javier Sanches whose pinpoint control (0.92 WHIP) helped him go 24-5 last season – an achievement that rewarded the Brewer’s “King of the Hill” with a crown in the form of the Cy Young award.

The bad news for the NL North is that the Brewers’ starting five of Sanches, Gibson, Drew, Bynum and Foster returns intact for another run at the playoffs. And behind the mound, despite the loss of one key player in RF, they should continue to play some of the league’s best defense: the club committed the 3rd lowest errors in the league and the lowest number of poor plays (14), frustrating opposing hitters even further. The run differential was a whopping +273.

If there is a glimmer of hope for division opponents, it’s that a few chinks in the armor were exposed in the off season. Milwaukee’s offense was built on the long ball: the club swatted 245 homeruns last year to rank 5th best in the league. Its 81 stolen bases on the other hand were below the league average. But two players – one a key power threat, and the other responsible for a chunk of those stolen bases – were both lost to free agency.

Gone to the Reds is 35-year-old All-Star Ricky Rose (.300/.366/.583), who lead the club in runs, hits and doubles, and ranked second on the team in homeruns (45) as well as almost all other major offensive categories. He did this while committing just two errors all season, earning a Gold Glove. His departure leaves a big hole to fill. Also gone is durable second baseman Benjamin Hawkins. The 32-year-old signed with the Expos after appearing in 161 games for the Brewers, posting a .360 OBP, swiping 34 bags and scoring 90 times.

To make up for the losses, the Brewers signed 29-year-old switch-hitting COF Pablo Maranon (.275/.356/.433) who appeared in 143 games for the Blue Jays, as well as 32-year-old Alex Pisciotta who managed 10 homeruns in 301 AB for the Giants. Both appear to be a step down offensively however, and neither comes anywhere close to providing the level of defense Rose did. The Brewers also bundled a pair prospects together to trade for the Cardinals’ MIF J.J. Sherman, who likewise is a step down offensively and can’t match his speed but is an improvement defensively up the middle.

There were few changes to the bullpen this year. Most notably, the club extended the contract of Benji Navarro (3yrs/12.1M) after the set-up man appeared in more than half of Milwaukee’s games out of the bullpen, logging 88 innings of work while going 7-2 (teammates tease him about pinch-hitting, as Navarro also went 2-2 with an RBI at the plate, finishing with a 1.000 avg). Aging short relievers Guillermo Gil (1.13 WHIP) and Max Ontiveros (1.26 WHIP) take their 97 innings of combined work to Boston, but the Brewers welcome Rich Harper (1.31 WHIP) in from the Mets and plan to call up prospect Mo Watson from AAA this season to round out the battery.

dwb's take: Silver Slugging catcher Alex Gomez will have to shoulder more of the offense and the defense also declines albeit marginally with the loss of Rose. But will the patches at right field and second base hold? The Brewers face stiffer competition from within their own division, as the Cubs offensive juggernaut arguably improves and the Reds welcome former Dodger ace Willie Diggins (0.96 WHIP, 230 K’s) to the division. Expect the Brewers’ win total to decline this year, but with Javier Sanches and company on the mound, Milwaukee should be considered the favorite to win the NL North.

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