Here’s a fun piece of Brewers trivia to stash for a few years down the road: Who was Milwaukee’s right field opening day starter in 2011, the year they won their first division title as a National League club?
Of course — of course — the answer is Erick Almonte, a 33-year-old journeyman who hadn’t touched a bat in the major leagues since 2003, back when he was a shortstop on the Yankees. Almonte was thrust into the role after Corey Hart suffered an injury and was forced to miss the first month of the season. In his absence, Almonte and Mark Kotsay combined for a stunning -1.34 WPA in just under a month’s worth of games (as Nyjer Morgan saw some time there before breaking his thumb), with Almonte reaching base just three times in 29 chances and Kotsay slugging all of .286.
The 2012 season will also likely begin with Hart on the disabled list following news that the Brewers’ incumbent right fielder will need arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. This time, however, the Brewers are prepared, with more than washed up has-beens and never-beens behind Ryan Braun, Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez.
The obvious new depth is Japanese acquisition Norichika Aoki, who is the likely favorite to step in to play right field, particularly against right-handed pitching (flanking Morgan in center field along with Braun). Although Aoki will remain something of a mystery until he gets his feet wet against American pitching, he at least provides hope and at best provides the kind of bat which has been talented enough to be one of Japan’s best for much of the decade. If he lives up to his ZiPS projection, the drop-off from Hart to Aoki shouldn’t be too noticeable over a month or less.
As last year’s situation showed, however, the fourth outfielder can fall swiftly after being forced into the fray. However, between Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer, the Brewers have sixth and seventh outfielders who can at least claim to have some major league skills. Schafer projects as a fourth outfielder long term but he has more than enough fielding ability to warrant a spot on some current major league rosters, even if he won’t hit much — he has all of 13 professional home runs since his 2008 debut and owns a sub-.800 minor league OPS. Gindl is the opposite. Where he shows promise of the bat to be of some use — .307/.390/.472 at Triple-A, including 23 doubles and 15 home runs over 538 plate appearances — he is a classic tweener, better suited to center field with the bat but lacking the glove to stick there. Still, both players have skills that, if used correctly, should help the Brewers through any rough patch of injuries.
The bar is not set high for whoever ends up in right field come Opening Day. An on-base percentage over .110 and a slugging percentage in the .300s would be an improvement on last April’s right field production. Ideally, the Brewers can show that with their newfound depth they have turned one of last season’s glaring weaknesses (at least in the early going) into a strength — one they will need to shine if they are to repeat as National League Central champions.