I meant to ask Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav), PitchFX guru extraordinaire, if new research into pitch framing may begin to change the ways umpires call games thereby decreasing the effectiveness of pitchers like Jonathan Lucroy. That was my intention. Instead I found myself in a spirited discussion with Adam Brown (@SouvenirCity) about the futures of the Brewers and Cubs respectively. That is, more often than not, how sports discussions go when beer and pizza (and cheese steaks) are present .

Harry happens to live in my neighborhood. If you’re unfamiliar with his work go read this and bask in the glory that is Jonathan Lucroy (and to a lesser extent, Martin Maldonado). On this day he’d arranged a meetup at Monti’s , the best Philly  cheese steak* place in Chicago by far, and even better, arranged for the food to be free. I assume the idea was for all of us (50 people strong by my count) to spend more on beer. I did my part.

Monti's

*I once considered the Philly cheese steak to be low ceiling, high floor option similar to most Thai food or Italian beef. Italian beef is almost always a perfectly solid choice, but there is virtually no chance that it will blow you away. Monti’s proved me wrong as their version of the cheese steak is simply amazing. Maybe they’re better in Philadelphia itself, but I doubt it.

I met a lot of great people that day (including @CeeAngi, @wrigleyvillenat, and ran into @bachlaw ) but the most fun discussion was with Adam who was as pessimistic about the future of the Cubs as I was optimistic about the future of the Brewers. Optimistic probably overstates things, which is part of my problem when I’m speaking and not writing. Truthfully I think the Brewers have only a puncher’s chance at the playoffs over the next 2 seasons at which point a painful rebuilding process will probably take place. Many people I know and respect think it should be underway already, though I disagree because of one very important point which I repeatedly told Adam.

“In two years the Cubs will be starting a dynasty.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Skepticism on the future of the Cubs starts and ends with their pitching. The farm system is loaded with position prospects and even if half of them fail they have the makings of a great offense in the near future. Javier Baez is either the best or second-best prospect in baseball depending on who you ask. Albert Almora and Jorge Soler aren’t far behind. Dan Vogelbach, who many don’t see as one of the Cubs’ 10 best prospects has Prince Fielderean upside with the bat, though his fielding* leaves much to be desired.

*Yes, even compared to Prince, who was always niftier on his feet than he looked. Vogelbach’s natural position is probably DH, but even in that scenario he is probably a decent trade chip. 

A few folks I bumped into at this event compared this Cubs’ class to the Brewer class of hitters that made them competitive starting in 2007 and I think that’s fair. The big difference is that the Cubs can pile on an extra $100,000,000+ to fill in holes. If the Cubs make a trade similar to what the Brewers did in getting CC Sabathia there is no reason that they will have to let him walk if they don’t want to. They lack pitching prospects, but there is nothing stopping them from buying/trading for a starting staff when the time is right, and that time is coming sooner than people think. In any case, the NL Central is already strong and if the Cubs finally have a front office that can make use of their vast resources, they may become the NL Central version of the Yankees with the Cardinals already firmly established as the Red Sox.  This is about to get very difficult for everyone else.

Adam and I established that the current Cubs are bad (and they are) and that after the Brewers the next worst team was probably the Reds. Adam asked Harry how many wins better the Reds’ starting pitchers were than the Brewers. He said about 6 and I think that’s probably about right. It might be generous towards the Brewers. To catch the 3rd place team the Brewers need to make up a ton of ground with an inferior pitching staff. The Reds won 90 games last year compared to 74 for the Brewers. It seems impossible that they could bridge that gap in just a year, let alone also catch the Pirates for 2nd. Then again…

The Brewers are reaching the end of their window, but if I’m trying to pick a bounce-back team there are a few things I look for, and the Brewers have a bunch of them. First and foremost, I like a team that had giant holes last year. If you have a 74-win team because all of your players are below average you’re going to need to replace a bunch of players to realize a  significant upgrade. If you have a 74 win team because just a few players were absolutely deplorable you need only replace a few players. That I can work with.

By far the biggest hole on the team in 2013 was first base. According to basically everyone, the Brewers got less from the first base position than any team in major league history. Let that sink in for a bit. Now losing Corey Hart and Mat Gamel made things tough, but there is really no excuse for Yuni Betancourt to be on a major league team, let alone as a 1st baseman. They had -4.6 fWAR from the position , or almost -5 wins.

Had the Brewers merely fielded a replacement-level 1st baseman they likely would have finished closer to 79-83 than 74-88, and 79-83 doesn’t look quite so bad. They will almost certainly improve a ton this year at 1st. As my dad always says, you can’t fall off the floor.

MarkReynolds Mark Reynolds is expected to be the primary 1st baseman when the season starts and should provide at least replacement-level value with the potential for much more. Reynolds has some trouble making contact , but when he does make contact he rarely gets cheated. Reynolds’ power returned last season upon moving from Progressive Field (Park Factor 93) to Yankee Stadium (Park Factor 102). Miller Park (105) will be one of the friendliest places he’s played. The Brewers are also expected to platoon at first base with either Juan Francisco for offensive upside and youth, or Lyle Overbay for his defensive chops which could provide even greater efficiency out of the position by limiting same-side plate appearances.

Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, is worth about 10 wins a season. The Brewers could easily get a 7-8 win upgrade at first base next season and it wouldn’t even take much luck. That is absolutely huge.

 

The other big hole  was in the rotation. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness the Brewers started 12 different pitchers last season. Kyle Lohse and rookie Wily Peralta led the team with 32 starts each, but the team saw  a ton of starts from replacement-level (or worse) pitchers. Tom Gorzelanny was 5th on the team in starts with 10, and while he’s a useful bullpen piece who can make an occasional spot start, no one thinks he can really start regularly anymore. Worse was Donovan Hand (a replacement-level talent if ever there was one) and Johnny Hellweg (whose gangly 6’9” frame is still struggling with repeatable mechanics) each getting 7, Hiram Burgos getting 6, and Afredo Figaro getting 5. Matt Garza may not be an ace, but the upgrade from these guys to Garza may rival the upgrade from Yuni/Alex Gonzalez to Reynolds/Francisco/Overbay. This may get us into the mid 80s.

Those are the big things, but there are little things too. Platooning Rickie Weeks, who was also quite the black hole last year with Scooter Gennett at 2nd should help production at that position. As good as Khris Davis played last season having Ryan Braun back should give a big boost to the offense. It is entirely possible Aramis Ramirez* will give them more games this season than last.

*People think of Aramis as ancient and the idea that he might play more games seems far-fetched. It’s much more likely that last year was the outlier as only once in the last decade has he played fewer than 92 games. He may never give you 140+ routinely anymore, but even getting 120-125 games would represent a substantial upgrade.

Finally, the Brewers may simply benefit from some luck. They finished 2 games under their Pythagorean record, which isn’t too far off, but the Pirates exceeded theirs by 6 wins, which is pretty substantial, and the Reds, who already featured a top-heavy offense, lost a huge chunk of said offense and most of their non-Votto OBP when Shin-Soo Choo left.

Top 3 Reds’ starters in 2013 by OBP

1. Votto – .435

2. Choo – .423

3. Bruce – .329

So that’s the case for the Brewers in a nutshell. They patched up a few huge holes, they got back their best player from suspension, they’ll have a few serviceable platoons working, and they should have regression to the mean on their side at least where the Pirates are concerned. Even in a best case scenario they probably won’t catch the Cardinals, but they almost have to try. In short order the only way the Brewers, Pirates, or Reds are going to compete is by becoming the NL Central version of the Rays.

It felt odd not to discuss Lucroy at all given the recent work on pitch-framing and given that you can actually make a good case that Lucroy is the single most valuable Brewer player, but we’ll save that for next time.

Hi, I’m Paul. I write mostly about baseball and football, and in general it will either look like this or like something in the “Fire Joe Morgan” style. You can follow me on twitter @BadgerNoonan.  Pleased to meet you. Thanks to Wally for inviting me.