Kyle Lobner of Brew Crew Ball contacted me to ask me to answer five questions about the Braves. So I returned the favor. Here are his answers to my questions about the team we’re about to face:
Question: The Brewers have gotten some unexpectedly good offensive performances this year, particularly from the 26-year olds Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, who have both demonstrated a lot more power and batting average than we’re used to seeing from them. How much of this is luck, and how much of this is for real?
Answer: There’s probably some of both involved in both cases. It might be a little more luck than skill for Lucroy, who is hitting .351 on balls in play this season and almost certainly won’t be able to sustain that, even as someone who runs pretty well for a catcher. The biggest reasons for optimism with Lucroy are twofold: First, he’s been able to knock his strikeout rate down from over 20% to around 14% this season. Second, he was still productive when he returner after missing quite a bit of time with a broken hand this year.
As for Gomez, he’s certainly hot right now and his career-high 16 home runs this season have been a welcome development, but he’s likely to always be a player whose main skill is defense and who occasionally provides some offensive production as a bonus. Even in the middle of his career year he’s still carrying a sub-.300 OBP, his walk rate is actually down a bit from last season (from around 6% to under 5) and well over 20% of his plate appearances end in strikeouts.
Q: Rickie Weeks is safely above the Mendoza line, finally, but this has still been something of a nightmare season for him after signing that big deal a year and a half ago. Bad luck, or have his skills degraded? What do you expect from him over the rest of the contract?
A: I think Rickie Weeks might be the most underrated Brewer on the roster this season. He got off to a dreadful start and was hitting .159/.290/.289 on June 9, but has posted a .272/.357/.459 line since, which is roughly in line with the player he was in 2010 and 2011. Even when Weeks wasn’t hitting his ability to produce long at bats and draw walks meant he still carried some value.
One of the theories regarding Weeks is that he was still hampered early this season by an ankle injury he suffered last season and returned too early from. That’s certainly possible, and it’s part of the reason I’m inclined to believe his rough start to 2012 was an aberration. Weeks was arguably the most valuable Brewer on a team that also had Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in 2010.
Q: Is it time to give up on Mat Gamel? Are there any other prospects close to the majors that you’re expecting big things from?
A: Some of the circumstances involved aren’t his fault, but I think it’s possible any contribution Gamel makes to a major league team in his career will happen in a different uniform. Injuries and bad timing have limited Gamel’s ability to get consistent playing time in the majors and have put him in a tough spot going forward once again: He was expected to play first base for the Brewers this season but his injury opened the door for Corey Hart to move over there and have a great year. Now there’s no spot available for Gamel to return to.
There’s still a chance Gamel will develop into a very good major league hitter, but he’s 27 and has no clear position to play. I’d feel better about the 2013 Brewers with Corey Hart at first and Norichika Aoki in right than I would with Hart back in right and Gamel at first.
Most of the other impact future Brewers on the horizon are pitchers. Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg are with the team as September callups and are probably the #1 and 2 prospects in the organization at present.
Q: The Brewers watched Fielder walk and then traded Greinke. What will it take for them to compete in the near future?
A: Despite everything the Brewers have given up, they return a team that’s probably not far from being very good next season. They lead the NL in home runs and are second in runs scored and their current starting eight (Lucroy/Martin Maldonado, Hart, Weeks, Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Gomez and Aoki) are all back for 2013.
The question is going to be pitching. At least three members of the Brewer Opening Day starting five (Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf) will almost certainly be gone, leaving the Brewers with four question marks behind Yovani Gallardo. Mike Fiers leads a group of solid candidates to fill out the rotation, but most of them have limited big league experience and it’s hard to believe the team will go into 2013 without adding a veteran to pitch in.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been better lately but still may face something close to a complete overhaul. John Axford is a near lock to be back with the team in 2013 but Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra may all be gone.
Q: Looking forward the next few years, who do you fear the most in the division — the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, or Pirates? Who do you fear the least?
A: Well, let’s start by scratching the Astros off the list – they’ll be finishing last in the AL West next season. The Pirates have been bad for so long that even this season’s flirtation with contention hasn’t convinced me that they’re a long term threat. The Cubs are kind of a sleeping tiger in the division because they have money to spend, but they’re a long way away from putting together anything interesting.
So that leaves the Reds and Cardinals. The Reds have done a pretty good job of putting together a team that could be good together for a long time, so I’ll list them as the greater long term threat. I think the Cardinals’ window to contend might be closing as their veterans get older.