Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. You can follow @RyanTopp and @SteveGarczynski on Twitter.
This really is the damnedest season I can remember. The team gets off to a 2-8 start, loses four opening day starters for multiple days each to injury, goes over 30 innings without scoring and looks dead in the water. Then, just like that, they reel off nine wins in a row behind the monster hitting of Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Yuniesky freaking Betancourt. The rotation is completely unpredictable and there are some guys in the bullpen that can’t be touched and others that can’t get anyone out. The team also dealt with some notable underperformances from former all-stars Yovani Gallardo and Rickie Weeks.
When the injuries mounted in those first few weeks, I think most Brewers fans were just hoping to tread water while guys were out and not get too far behind. Instead, the team went on a run, got itself as many as three games over .500. Jeff Bianchi returned from injury on Thursday and, if all goes well, Aramis Ramirez is expected to do the same on Friday. The team survived a month without Corey Hart and things seem to be progressing towards a return in early June.
I think it’s only natural, then, to talk about expectations. Just what should we expect from these guys on an individual basis and from the team as a whole?
Did you know that even though Ramirez got off to a hot start before getting injured, FanGraphs has him at -0.1 WAR for the season because he fielding was so poor? Maybe the Brewers were really fortunate that Betancourt was around to save their season. Or it’s a just something quirky that happens with small sample.
Anyway, Bianchi’s return will be useful for depth and have very little impact on the field. Ramirez is the guy who the Brewers probably hope can help maintain the hot streak. We have to look at who he’s replacing on the field when he returns, and for every #MVYuniB, there is an Alex Gonzalez who is hitting .167/.211/.227 in 71 PAs. Neither Gonzalez nor Betancourt have been strong at getting on base, and that’s probably the place where Ramirez can provide a boost to the lineup.
The really weird thing is that with the way Betancourt has been playing (especially the power spike), I’m not sure Ramirez is going to make the team any better. That’s not a knock on him at all, it’s just that he’ll be reclaiming the position of a guy who’s already producing at a decent level. The first injury return that could have a significant impact on this team may be Corey Hart, and we’ll need to wait another month (without any setbacks) before he brings a solid bat back to first base.
Fortunately, it sounds like the team will move forward with Yuni at first base most days until Hart is back, at least as long as he is hot and Gonzalez isn’t. You could probably make a good argument for keeping Yuni at third and moving Ramirez to first, but that just seems like a battle with too little upside given the time left before Hart hopefully returns. Either way, if Yuni stays hot and Ramirez swings a productive bat, the offense shouldn’t suffer.
Bianchi should be helpful if for no other reason than Roenicke showed last year he was willing to play him and let him pinch hit. That is something that neither Khris Davis nor Josh Prince really ever got the opportunity to do. How effective he’ll be remains to be seen, but he figures to do a little bit better than just occupying a roster spot.
Thinking ahead now, is it crazy to say that we really might be looking at the best offense in the NL this year? While I wouldn’t expect Yuni, Segura and Gomez to continue at their current pace, the offense hasn’t gotten much at all from Weeks, Lucroy or Aoki, and figures to get some substantial boosts from Hart and Ramirez. Did they luck into a situation where even when things went wrong, they got enough from other players that the end product shouldn’t suffer much?
It certainly seems like it. I really hope that at some point we get some fans yearning for the days when YuniB was getting regular playing time and hitting clean up.
Betancourt will probably end up a lot like Mark Kotsay from 2011. Kotsay ended up hitting .270/.329/.373 for the Brewers that year, but it sure seemed like he was a bigger contributor. It helped that two of his three total home runs came while he was starting place of an injured Ryan Braun. He was also primarily a pinch hitter, and had a few big moments that stood out during the long season.
To answer your question about the possibility of the best offense in the NL, I’ll refer you back to what I wrote a few weeks ago:
I’d like to compliment Jean Segura for a solid couple games after a strong spring training. It’s easy to say that the Brewers have a strong offense, but little upside. Segura is the one spot where we could witness guy who can emerge and really change the dynamic of the line-up. Is Segura more important to this team than we’ve acknowledged leading up to the start of the season?
Yeah, yeah, I know. You kinda sorta called this breakout for Segura or something, and we should all give you credit for it. Done and done.
I think what’s becoming clear about the offense is that it was built to be a top to bottom thing. Despite winning 96 games in 2011, the team did receive remarkably little production from either shortstop or third base, and pretty modest production from the catcher spot. This left the run scoring heavily on the shoulders of the 1-5 hitters on a lot of nights. Fortunately, they were more than up to the challenge and the team scored plenty of runs, but I still think a lesson emerged from that experience for the management team not to just punt production at lineup positions if at all possible.
No, the team clearly couldn’t have expected Yuni to come out and do what he has done, or, for that matter, to get so much so fast from Segura or the tremendous (and wonderfully timed) hot streak from Gomez. Still, they did make sure that they were getting either extensive track records or tremendous upside at each position heading into the season, and if they’ve gotten a little lucky with Yuni it’s not like they planned around giving him lots of playing time this year like they did in 2011. He’s come in and taken advantage of an opportunity, but he only got that because better players got hurt and he was never meant to be more than a last resort.
Only time will tell if this offense is going to be the kind capable of carrying a team with modest pitching resources deep into playoff contention. If they do, though, we’re going to be able to look back on this April as a key moment for the team. Things could have gone bad in a hurry for them, but the players refused to let that happen and the team is still well within striking distance of contention even after suffereing a lot of injuries and on the field setbacks. It’s to their tremendous credit that they didn’t allow themselves to be written off early in the first act of the play.