The Fates of Forty Men 2009 – Part 4: Infielders

The Brewers had a couple pleasant surprises, some tough injuries, and ultimately are left with hard decisions as we make our way into the offseason.  Overall, though, the position players were the strength of the club.  If people are healthy, they should score runs next year, no matter what.  If guys need to be traded, there are reinforcements or comparable alternatives on the way…

* – lock to be on the 2010 opening day roster

** – good bet to be on the 2010 opening day roster

Prince Fielder** – Prince was pretty easily the MVP of the team this season.  After smacking 50 homeruns and starting in the all-star game in 2007, his production “dipped” slightly in 2008.  This season, he not only brought all of his offensive numbers up, he also played in 162 games and made some significant strides in the field; he is no longer a defensive liability at first base.  He has a contract for 2010 already, and still one more year of arbitration after that.  The toughest question the Brewers will face in the off-season about Prince is, “is it time to trade him?”  There is a (sometimes) unspoken understanding that the Brewers won’t be able to pay Fielder enough to keep him in the long term, and his agent, Scott Boras, will price the big guy out of the Milwaukee market.  In my humble opinion, Prince has shown that he is at least as valuable as having a top-tier starting pitcher.  This guy will be a perennial MVP candidate who pitchers are scared to face.  He has also become a leader in the clubhouse.  I’m feeling the same about Prince as I was last year about CC Sabathia– we may lose him in the end, but he’s too good to not ride the wave.  Trade him, and who bats 4th in your lineup?  How do you protect Ryan Braun?  I hope the Brewers make every effort to sign him to a long-term deal this winter, but who can predict what will happen?  The only thing I can predict: no matter where he plays, Fielder will be the most feared bat in any lineup.

Rickie Weeks** – Weeks was well on his way to his best season yet when he tore another sheath in his wrist.  He was settling in to his position defensively, hitting for a respectable average, and doing the things you expect a leadoff guy to do (in addition to blasting 9 homeruns in the first 7 weeks of the season).  Doug Melvin has given him a vote of confidence, and moreover, said that moving him to another position was not an option that the team was considering.  With the overall goal of improving the starting rotation at nearly any cost, though, it’s tough to take definitive meaning from that season-ending press conference.  I expect Rickie to be back (he’s still in the midst of his arbitration years), but I don’t think you can really discount the slight possibility of a trade with anyone.

Casey McGehee** – What a surprise from this time a year ago!  The Cubs minor league  castoff played well enough once he got his chances to warrant serious Rookie of the Year consideration.  The guy came from basically nowhere to hit .300 and drive in 60+ runs.  There were a few balls he didn’t get to over at third base, but he was dealing with bone fragments in his knee all year, and was still pretty solid for the most part.  What I worry about with McGehee is the Bill Hall syndrome: how do we know for sure that this isn’t going to end up being the best season of his career?  Is it reasonable to expect him back next year, hitting 5th in the lineup with the same sort of production we saw down the stretch?  It’s tough to say.  With another bluechip prospect right behind him at third base, I feel like the Brewers will have to consider using Casey in a trade scenario if anyone is interested.  That is, if Mat Gamel gets himself straightened out in winter ball.

J.J. Hardy – How the heart-throb has fallen.  Two years ago JJ was an al-star shortstop and one of the cornerstones of Milwaukee’s resurgence.  In 2009, he never got himself going at the plate, and the August demotion not only delayed his free agency by a year, but more or less sealed the deal with the Brewers moving on to Alcides Escobar at short.  I would be shocked if Hardy is still on the team in February, much less April.  What I worry about, of course, is his value.  He was a more attractive trade commodity a year ago.  At this point, do you use him in a package deal for a major league starter?  Or could he possibly net a near-ready, mid-level pitching prospect from a team in dire need of a starting shortstop?  Either way, all those Milwaukee ladies with their #7 jerseys are going to be sad next Opening Day…

Craig Counsell** – Counsell had possibly the best season of his career in 2009, at 39 years old.  Last season, it seemed like the Crew was willing to check out what else was available on the market for utility middle infielders.  They wound up back with Counsell at a very reasonable price.  Assuming Craig is interested in coming back, I will also assume the Brewers are interested in having him.  A similar “wait-and-see” exercise and a late signing wouldn’t surprise me, though.

Alcides Escobar* – When Escobar joined the team on August 12, I leaned over to Dave Schrubbe (figuratively) and said, “Well, there’s our starting shortstop for the foreseeable future.”  While he was here in the waning weeks of the season, he did nothing to make me think otherwise.  Earlier in the year, when Hardy was bumbling, another one of my favorite phrases was, “I don’t care how raw Escobar’s offensive game is; anybody could come up here and hit .230.”  Well, he did that and them some, finishing with a .304 average in 125 ABs, and pulling off a series of amazing plays all over the middle of the infield.  The Brewers have an embarrassment of riches at this position, and Escobar is going to be our guy for at least another 5 years.

Mat Gamel – The other half of the Brewers bluechip AAA duo for 2009 looked more certain than his counterpart, Escobar, to be up in Milwaukee this season.  He made it, but really didn’t make much of it.  The blame fell on inconsistent playing time, and Doug Melvin admitted in later interviews that if they were only going to have Gamel up with the big club to ride the pine and pinch hit time to time, he would have been better served to stay at Nashville all year.  Personally, I couldn’t decide which impressed me less– the .242 average, or the 54 strikeouts in 128 ABs.  I am hoping against hope that he magically shakes the funk while playing in Venezuela over the winter, but right now, the more likely scenario seems to be that Gamel goes back to Nashville to start 2010, and Casey McGehee starts the year at third base.  Things could be worse, but this is not how it was supposed to play out.

Hernan Iribarren – I don’t know if this guy sticks on the 40-man all these years just by default, or what.  A couple years back, it was sounding like he might actually push Weeks for his job if the latter couldn’t step it up at 2nd base.  Then they moved him to the outfield, then back to the infield, and then he spent a little time on the bench here or there as an injury fill-in, but hasn’t done anything spectacular in Milwaukee.  Still, he hit .311 in 105 games for Nashville this summer.  Seems to be a capable infielder, so if Counsell decir.des to retire, and/or they end up having to trade Weeks, I could see Iribarren in Milwaukee to start 2010.  Do I think either of those things will actually happen?  No.

Felipe Lopez – Definitely the best mid-season pickup the team made this year.  After scrambling to fill the leadoff spot after Weeks got hurt, they finally traded for Lopez and solidified both the top of the order and 2nd base.  Lopez had some fantastic hitting streaks and great individual games on his way to hitting .310 with a .383 OBP.  Both respectable numbers for a leadoff guy, and he hits both ways.  The one place his game is lacking at the top of the order is on the basepaths– only stole 6 bases all year.  Lopez was here after being signed to a 1-year deal by Arizona.  He is a free agent again after the season, but the Brewers could offer him arbitration.  If they do so, he projects as a ‘Class A’ free agent, so it would mean the team that signs him would owe Milwaukee their first round draft pick next year, plus the Crew would get a sandwich pick beteween rounds 1 and 2.  That steep a price on a second baseman would pretty much assure that no one else would pursue him.  Hence, count on the Brewers to say thanks for the help, but see ya later.

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