Welcome to Circling the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. This week, the two tackle the Brewers’ infield.
Ryan Topp: Now that the World Baseball Classic has started despite my best efforts, I suppose it’s time to start talking about the 2013 Brewers. We’re going to be doing a 4 part, position-by-position breakdown over the next 4 weeks, starting today with the Brewers’ infield minus the catchers.
I know we’re both at least a little skeptical about the Brewers chances overall in 2013, but on paper at least, the infield looks like it should be one of the stronger areas of the team. Corey Hart made a pretty successful transition from right field to first base last year and looks good to return from knee surgery earlier than expected. At second, Rickie Weeks should be fine, as long as he’s able to avoid playing the way he did in the first two months last year for extended stretches. Aramis Ramirez had a fantastic season in 2012 at third and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all in his mid-30’s. Finally, the main area of weakness for the Brewers’ infield last year, shortstop, has been plugged more than adequately by young Jean Segura, who looks poised to potentially break out offensively in 2013.
What could there possibly be not to like about this group, Steve?
Steve Garczynski: I’m on board with Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart as two guys that you can pencil in to do what they do, for now. Contract extensions with either of those two would scare me a little, but for 2013 it’s a decent duo in the infield. I expect Weeks to bounce back and produce closer to his 2011 levels. It was clear that his ankle still wasn’t 100% to start 2012 and that sunk his overall line last year. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t produce a .250/.340/.450 triple slash with 20+ home runs.
Corey Hart is getting close to that edge, and I hope the Brewers’ front office doesn’t get panicky about signing him to an extension if he gets off to a hot start (in May because Hart apparently doesn’t like to play in April). He might pop 30 home runs one more time, but I think he’s more likely to be a 25-28 home run guy at first base, with a .330-ish OBP and a slugging percentage that falls just shy of .500. Age and injuries are going to start taking a toll on Hart, so the cagey old vet skills will be what floats him for another season.
Aramis Ramirez was ridiculous in 2012. He wasn’t quite Prince Fielder, but I didn’t expect production that close from a 34-year-old third baseman. The bad news is that I don’t expect it to happen again. Maybe he won’t collapse, but let’s at least agree that he won’t set a career best with 50 doubles again. The fear with Ramirez is injuries, though I have to point out that it only seemed to be an issue in 2009-2010 and not some career long trend.
Anyway, that gets us to Jean Segura who is the wild card of the infield. He’s a kid surround by a bunch of old guys, and also position player who is the bridge to the future. He started to show he could hit major league pitching by the end of September. It’s something to give us hope, just don’t buy that as the real 23-year-old Jean Segura. September stats are tricky with call-ups filling out rosters. Still, Segura should be a definite upgrade over the non-major league talent that the Brewers had to run out to short after Alex Gonzalez when down for the season. Baseball Prospectus has Segura around replacement level, where Fangraphs is a little more bullish, saying that he’ll be a 2.4 win player. I think those two projections are pretty good for Segura’s floor and ceiling. I’d be perfectly happy with that production from him this year.
Does that sound like a fair assessment heading into 2013 for this infield?
RT: Overall, I think that is pretty fair. For a strong group, there seems to be an unusual lack of certainty, but a lot of that is probably just a function of having three players leaving or past their primes and one guy still breaking into the league. If they can stay on the field and Segura can take any sort of step forward, they should be fine offensively.
Beyond the offense of the starters, there are a couple of fairly concerning things still to talk about when it comes to the infield. Coming into camp, the Brewers looked to be pretty deep in the infield, with veteran Alex Gonzalez coming back for utility duty and Mat Gamel set to take over at first until Hart returned from injury. Of course, Gamel went down for the season very early in camp, and now it’s unclear who will take over at first in April and just who the 6th infielder will be when Hart returns. The Brewers have some options including minor league vets Taylor Green and Jeff Bianchi, former rookie of the year Bobby Crosby, and possibly even top 1B prospect Hunter Morris, though he likely wouldn’t stick around for backup duty after Hart returns. If nothing else goes very wrong on the infield for the rest of the year they should be able to get by, but they’ve already used up some key depth and the season doesn’t start for another month.
The other big issue facing the infield is the defense. It’s quite possible that the 36-year-old Gonzalez is the best defender on the roster, and he’s not even starting. Weeks and Segura were savaged by both UZR and FRAA, which is not something you want to see from your middle infield combo. There was some disagreement, at least metrically, on Hart and Ramirez, but the aggregate was something right around average. Hart at least has some room to improve as he continues to get more reps at first, but he’s also coming back from injury so it’s hard to say how he’ll hold up. Ramirez’s season defensively was, to say the least, a pleasant surprise given the trend he had going in recent years in the field.
Honestly, the best thing you can say for the infield defense is at least they have a lot of fly ball pitchers this year. Of course, that doesn’t really play well in Miller Park, but you do what you can with what you have, right?
SG: Weeks had shown dramatic improvement in the field until last season, and that can also be attributed to the 2011 ankle injury. If Weeks is getting by mostly on speed in the infield, that doesn’t bode we’ll for his defense as it ages. He’s playable, but we’ve probably seen his best days at second already.
Segura is still a project in the field and his build fits better at second base. He isn’t long and rangy, so maybe he’ll be athletic and savvy enough to get by at short, but the Brewers would be wise to keep searching for a new shortstop and plan on moving Segura to second when Weeks’ time in Milwaukee runs out. I’m not going to condemn the kid based on last season. Fielding stats tend to be unreliable with only one season of data, and Segura statistically is only being judged on two months.
Ramirez and Hart are competent on the corners. Corey Hart has been praised in the field for essentially not being Prince Fielder who ranged from atrocious to poor at first. It helps to be 6’6″ instead of 5’10”, but the glove on its own isn’t that much of an upgrade.
Even the back ups don’t inspire much confidence. Alex Gonzalez is old and coming off a major knee injury. It’s doubtful that he’s as good as his rep anymore. Gamel was an indifferent fielder, and Taylor Green never projected to be anything more that a below average third baseman. This bench is not filled with late inning defensive replacements.
Really, quality defensive play from this group is mainly going to come down to smart defensive shifts, something that Ron Roenicke and his staff were complimented for executing well in 2011. Can they do it again in 2013?
RT: At least they are forward thinking about shifting, so they have that going for them. Other than that, I guess we’re sort of stuck just hoping that Ramirez doesn’t collapse and that Segura improves in what will only be his third year of playing the position. That should at least keep them out of the terrible defensive category, though it would be nice if the organization could find a way to start producing a few plus defenders on the infield one of these days.
Overall, while it’s not a perfect group, the Brewers’ infield does figure to be one of the more powerful in the game, and they also do a solid job of getting on base. Between knee surgeries for both Gamel and Hart and Ramirez’s knee sprain, they’ve already suffered through some painful moments health wise If they can stay clear of the trainers room, they should be a solid unit…at least until the deadline when one or more of them could possibly end up on the trading block if the team falls out of contention.
Next week, we’ll look at the outfielders and catchers.