Spring training is a time every year where fans who are seriously invested in their teams spend lots of time debating just who should make the opening day roster. Now that we know who is going to be on the opening (and it is just that, the opening) 25-man roster, it’s time to take a look at a few specific things that manager Ron Roenicke can do to possibly coax just a few more wins out of the roster that he has. With the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals all clearly in contention for the postseason, a game here or there could make all of the difference in the world between a division title, a wild card or no playoffs at all.
1) Use George Kottaras a little more.
Starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy received and richly deserved a long-term contract to be the Brewers’ catcher of the future as well as the present. His mix of solid offense and defense makes him a more valuable player than Kottaras and he should get the lions share of the starts over the course of the season. There are two pretty compelling reasons to get Kottaras into the lineup just a bit more than on days when Randy Wolf starts, though. First off, the Brewers main deficiency on offense in 2012 figures to be left-handed power. While George isn’t going to hit for a high average or get on base at a monster clip, he does possess a better than .200 career isolated power mark against righties, which is outstanding for just about anyone, but especially a catcher.
The second major reason to get Kottaras in a little more time is Lucroy’s career .200/.283/.293 line in September and October. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but it could quite possibly point to his wearing down. He certainly wouldn’t be the first catcher to suffer late season offensive declines. Lucroy played in 136 games in 2011, despite missing the team’s first 10 games of the season with an injury. Even when not starting, he often came in late to catch for the bullpen guys. It’s quite possible that an extra day off every week to 10 days over the course of the season could keep Lucroy fresher as the season goes on. There is a chance that Lucroy isn’t actually wearing down and has simply just slumped late in seasons thus far, but now that the team has him under contract, watching his workload also makes sense from an investment protection standpoint. Getting Kottaras a few more well chosen starts makes a lot of sense on multiple levels.
2) Tighen up the defense in the late innings
The Brewers already addressed some of the team’s defensive issues in the off-season, most notably by going from a very limited defensive shortstop in Yuni Betancourt to one who has proven to be much better over time in Alex Gonzalez. That doesn’t mean that everything they did upgraded the defense, though. Most defensive metrics measured a substantially improved season from Casey McGehee in 2011, while Aramis Ramirez has consistently slipped over the years defensively, something that makes sense for a large, aging third basemen. As the likely cleanup hitter, it will be hard for Roenicke to sub Ramirez out in late-and-close situations, and the team doesn’t really have a capable guy to sub in there on the opening day roster anyway. Yet, it’s those situations where a good or bad defensive play can make a big difference in the outcome of a game. If and when Taylor Green is recalled to the majors, late inning double switches that get Ramirez out of the game and Green in could really bolster the defense while minimizing the offensive impact. It also wouldn’t hurt to give Ramirez as many innings off as possible to keep him fresh and healthy as the season goes on.
In center field, the Brewers have an embarrassment of riches defensively. In what figures to be a platoon between Nyjer Moran and Carlos Gomez, the team possesses one pretty good defender and one of the very best glove men at any position in the game, respectively. When protecting small leads, the team can mix and match outfielders, making sure Gomez is in center while subbing out Corey Hart for either Morgan or the newly acquired Aoki. Finding ways to upgrade the outfield defense while minimizing the AB’s lost by Hart and even Morgan could easily save a few runs, if it’s done with timing and purpose. It will also be interesting to see if Travis Ishikawa gets used as a defensive replacement at first while he’s on the roster, as he’s quite the accomplished defender and gives Roenicke another double switch option.
3) Find excuses to limit Marcum’s innings to keep him fresh all season
We’ll probably never really know what caused Shaun Marcum’s late season fade that saw him implode in the playoffs and really hurt the Brewers’ chances of advancing to the World Series. It could be simply a case of a pitcher going through a very ill-timed slump, or it could be something of far greater significance going forward. Even though we don’t know exactly what caused the downturn, it hardly seems outrageous to suggest that finding ways to limit his innings this year might be a way to keep it from happening at the end of the season again. The Brewers have Marco Estrada already at the major league level and Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers down in AAA all waiting for a shot to start games at the big league level. Should Marcum come down with any sort of ailment like the hip flexor strain he pitched through last June, the Brewers could take the opportunity to shut him down and give one of the others a chance to start a few times. It’s not something Marcum is going to want to do, or a guaranteed solution to keep the late season issue from recurring, but it is something that could be tried.
4) Sacrifice bunt less, bunt for hits more
Last year, the Brewers led all of baseball in sacrifice bunt attempts. While that may warm the cold hearts of long deceased dead-ball era players like Ty Cobb, we now know that giving away a bunch of outs is a less than optimal way to run a ball club. On the other hand, the Brewers have at least a couple players in Morgan and Gomez capable of bunting for hits at very high percentages when they commit to doing that instead of simply sacrificing. Carlos Gomez has a batting average over .400 when attempting to bunt for a base hit. Of course, bunting for a hit does create more danger of getting runners caught in the event of a bad or missed bunt, but it’s still preferable to giving away so many outs.
5) Play more matchups in the 6th and 7th inning
It’s been well documented that Roenicke prefers set roles for his relievers, especially towards the end of games. It became a major issue in 2011 when he insisted on trying to force square peg Kameron Loe into the round hole of “8th inning guy.” To his credit, General Manager Doug Melvin decided that if Roenicke was insisting on using a set guy in the 8th inning, that he needed to find someone more capable of the job to give his skipper. Enter Francisco Rodriguez, who will return this year to give the Brewers a very good 8th and 9th inning tandem with John Axford. Those two at the end, coupled with a rotation that eats tons of innings should free up Roenicke to use his relievers in a more match up oriented way in the middle innings.
Unlike most of 2011, the team figures to have at least one lefty reliever worthy of high leverage innings in Manny Parra. Though he’s actually been a little better in his career against right-handers than lefties, he still figures to be able to give most lefties a tough time after seeing a bump in his numbers in 2010 once he moved to the pen. Both Kameron Loe and Tim Dillard can be absolute death to right-handed batters, though neither should see many lefty power hitters when games are still close. Using this combination correctly to navigate the middle innings could really limit other teams ability to take advantage of one of the highest run-scoring times in major league games. None of this is to suggest that the newly acquired Jose Veras shouldn’t get a shot to be a “7th inning guy,” at least early on, but Roenicke shouldn’t hesitate to use some of his other weapons to get outs when Veras gets into trouble. If the rotation really proves to be solid, it’s also possible that the team could drop the 7th reliever to add another hitter to come off the bench. In fact, it’s something the management should probably look to do at times when the team has a lot of off days and is getting innings from it’s starters, regardless.