Climbing Out of the Canyon – Part 4

Finally we come to the first improved team in the NL Central as I continue to preview the 2007 division. St. Louis (Part 1), Houston (Part 2) and Cincinnati (Part 3) failed to impress me–it seems as if an overachieving Pirates squad could hang with those teams. Milwaukee, however, is a different story.
Ned Yost’s Brewers finished at 75-87 in 2006, 8.5 games back of the Cardinals. Between last July’s trade deadline and a few key off-season moves, though, they’ve retooled their roster. Their Hot Stove transactions, according to ESPN:
ADD: Craig Counsell, IF; Jeff Suppan, SP; Johnny Estrada, C; Claudio Vargas, SP; Greg Aquino, RP
DROP: Jeff Cirillo, IF; Tomo Ohka, SP; Edward Campusano, RP; Doug Davis, SP; Dana Eveland, SP/RP; Dave Krynzel, CF; Dan Kolb, RP
David Bell and Rick Helling remain as free agents.
On July 1st, the Brewers were 40-42 and within striking distance (only 4.5 GB) of the division leaders, St. Louis and Cincinnati. By the end of the month, though, they’d plummeted in the standings and were nearly 10 games out of first. On July 29th, they unloaded rent-a-player Carlos Lee and top prospect Nelson Cruz to Texas in exchange for closer Francisco Cordero, outfielders Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix, and a minor league pitcher. They limped to a disappointing finish after playing .500 ball for the first half of the year.
General Manger Doug Melvin went to work after the World Series. He moved a durable starter in Davis, a promising LHP in Eveland and a AAA speedster buried on the depth charts in Krynzel and brought in a starting catcher and replacements for his lost pitchers. The trade was a rare example of a package deal that seems to have worked out well for both sides.
Heading into 2007, the Brewers have an exciting, young core:
Weeks, 2B
Clark, CF
Hall, LF
Fielder, 1B
Jenkins, RF
Estrada, C
Koskie, 3B
Hardy, SS
Consider, too, that they potentially have the most talented rotation in the division: Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas should lead the staff. The Brew Crew only got partial seasons of work from Hardy and Sheets in ’06. If those two stay healthy for a full year, it’s almost as if they added two more free agents. Even if Suppan doesn’t live up to the hype built up from a strong post-season, he’ll be a sturdy force on the mound every fifth day.
The infield is full of raw players with lots of upside, if you lump in 2005 first-rounder Ryan Braun at the hot corner. Prince Fielder is on the verge of turning into a poor man’s Ryan Howard. Weeks can wreak havoc at the top of the order, and Hardy is a sure-handed short stop. If Koskie isn’t healthy to start the year, Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino will keep Braun’s seat warm until he’s ready.
Milwaukee’s outfield is a beautiful disaster. They have six players (Hall, Clark, Jenkins, Mench, Nix, Hart) who are legitimate candidates to start. On the list of small market studs that fans don’t know but should, Bill Hall finishes near the top–he went .270/.345/.553 in his second year of full-time work. Like Fielder, he’ll soon be a superstar. Clark should be serviceable near the top of the order, and if Jenkins can rebound from a down year in 2006, the Brewers’ lineup will be dangerous.
Too much depth is a pleasant problem to have, as Melvin should be able to deal Jenkins, Mench or Nix to fill a hole that may arise in Spring Training or the early part of the year. Perhaps he could add depth to his bullpen, providing another arm to relieve some of the stress on Derrick Turnbow, Aquino and Cordero. If the Brewers flop, it’ll be because they can’t hold on to leads.
Melvin’s been doing everything right, and he has the flexibility to continue to work on his roster. If his core stays healthy and the guys in the rotation pitch to their career numbers, Milwaukee will play meaningful games in August and September. With only the cellar-dwelling Cubs to preview, it appears as if the Brewers are the class of the Central.

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