- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Not long after the Milwaukee Brewers spiraled deep into the standings at the outset of season and speculation began about whether manager Ken Macha might be fired, I wrote here about how awful the Brewers' pitching was and how no manager would have won with that group.
Within hours, I received an e-mail response to that piece -- about how it was a dead-on assessment of Milwaukee's troubles and how poorly the team's general manager had done in building a pitching staff that could contend.
The note was from someone uniquely qualified to render an opinion on the matter: Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
He will not repeat his mistakes going into next year, with the additions of Shaun Marcum -- who figures to be a high-end National League starter along the lines of a Tommy Hanson -- and now Zack Greinke after Sunday's trade with the Royals. Suddenly the Brewers might have the best rotation of any NL team other than the Phillies and Giants.
Under any circumstance, Melvin was determined to make the Brewers' pitching better in this offseason, but presumably, Milwaukee's aggressiveness was fueled by two factors:
1. The contract situation of Prince Fielder, who will be eligible for free agency in the fall. The Brewers tried and failed to sign Fielder to an extension. They also attempted to trade the All-Star slugger to get equal value for him, but found that teams simply won't entertain the idea of giving up high-end pitching for a Scott Boras client, knowing that Fielder almost will certainly walk away when his current deal expires.
So the Brewers ultimately decided to load up for next season in an effort to take advantage of the remaining time Fielder will be anchoring the Milwaukee lineup.
2. It has been a status quo winter, mostly, for the teams in the NL Central. The Reds have invested long-term in Jay Bruce and Bronson Arroyo and want to do the same with Joey Votto, but they basically will go into 2011 with the same young core that won the division this past season.
The Cardinals signed Jake Westbrook and added Lance Berkman and Ryan Theriot, but rival scouts aren't convinced that the changes in their everyday lineup will be upgrades. Theriot was previously traded by the Cubs and Dodgers when both teams were looking for middle infielders, so it's not a lock that he'll help at shortstop. It has been six years since Berkman has played the outfield regularly; his transition back to the outfield represents a nice winter theory that may or may not work out in the summer.
And although the Cardinals have some really great resumes, we don't yet know whether Chris Carpenter's late-season collapse at age 35 was a blip, or a symptom; St. Louis' collapse coincided with Carpenter's problems.
The Astros, without much money to spend, have made incremental alterations. The Cubs need major bounce-back seasons from Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, as well as their primary offseason acquisition, Carlos Pena. The Pirates need more years of collecting high-end talent before playing September games that are meaningful to them.
The relative inactivity of the NL Central clubs makes it more likely that the Brewers' moves this winter could propel them back into the postseason.
That said, some rival evaluators expressed surprise on Sunday over the fact that the Brewers wanted Yuniesky Betancourt back in the deal to be their shortstop, rather than simply make another deal for somebody else to play the position. "He's not going to help them," one longtime talent evaluator said. "I'd bet they'll go into spring training open to the idea of finding another shortstop."
Sending Lorenzo Cain to the Royals means that Carlos Gomez is locked in as the Brewers' center fielder. What all this means is that they won't have a lot of margin for error with their everyday lineup. Rickie Weeks, who is in the middle of negotiations on a long-term deal, really needs to stay healthy. Corey Hart, who was playing so poorly in spring training last year that the Brewers were looking for ways to dump him, cannot regress from his strong 2010. Ryan Braun must hit for more consistency. Casey McGehee has to have another good season.
But Melvin did a good job of starting the reconstruction of Milwaukee's bullpen during the 2010 season, so although the Brewers' relievers will never be confused for San Diego's bullpen, it should be better at the outset of the season than it was last spring. And on paper, the Brewers have the deepest and best rotation of any team in the NL Central, and you could make a strong case that they should be the favorites going into 2011.
As of today -- and there is plenty of time for more deals and tinkering for all teams -- this is how I'd rank the NL Central:
More on the deal
About the Royals' take: They knew that Greinke wasn't going to be around for long. GM Dayton Moore made the right decision to trade him now, and he got two big-time arms in return for the right-hander. Alcides Escobar ranked 147th among 149 qualifying hitters in OPS last season, but it's too early to write him off, and he should be more comfortable than he was this past summer, when Macha repeatedly benched him and double-switched him out of games rather than just allowing him to settle in. His minor league numbers suggest he should grow as a baserunner and perhaps could generate extra-base hits.
The Brewers paid a heavy price, writes John Fay, in addressing the question of which NL Central team should be the favorite.
The Yankees have no regrets that they didn't land Greinke. The Blue Jays are content to bide their time after missing out on the pitcher, writes Richard Griffin. I don't think the Jays were ever knee-deep in the Greinke talks in the way that the Nationals and Rangers were; they were never going to give up Kyle Drabek and Travis Snider for him.
The question of how much the Cardinals have improved was kicked around by the staff of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Some other Greinke-related numbers, from ESPN Stats & Information:
Highest ERA in the majors for a starting staff in 2010:
Part of Greinke's value is his ability to work deep into games. Greinke averaged 6 2/3 innings per start last season, which ranked seventh among all AL starters last season. None of the Brewers' top five starters had that kind of longevity. Another new acquisition, former Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum, averaged 6 1/3 innings per start. The Brewers' top five starters in 2010 in this category (IP per start):
Randy Wolf: 6 1/3
Dave Bush: 5 2/3
Chris Narveson: 5 2/3
Manny Parra: 5 1/3
• With the Greinke deal complete, the Rangers missed out on a possible replacement for Cliff Lee. Two winters ago, the Red Sox were frozen in place by their pursuit of Mark Teixeira, and ultimately, after Boston lost the bidding for the first baseman, it never really caught up.
Texas waited and waited and waited for Lee, and now there aren't any perfect alternatives left for the Rangers. But remember: Texas already has an excellent core in place, and the Rangers' margin for error is greater than Boston had after the Teixeira bidding. That's because in the AL West, the Rangers and Athletics seem to have separated themselves from the Angels and Mariners.
• The big contracts given to relievers have had a major impact on Tampa Bay's effort to overhaul its bullpen, writes Marc Topkin.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Colorado owner Dick Monfort talked about the Rockies' moves this winter.
3. Here's the projected Detroit lineup, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.
4. The middle of the Padres' infield could be markedly better, writes Tim Sullivan.
Dings and dents
• There is sad news about Walt Dropo.
• There is sad news about Phil Cavarretta.
• Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is optimistic about the business community's support for a new ballpark.
• Paul Hoynes addressed the question of whether the Indians attended the winter meetings.
• Cliff Lee gives the Phillies a potentially historic rotation, writes Rob Maaddi.
• Larry Walker's Hall of Fame credentials are now on trial.
• I can't believe the Giants lost to the Eagles. What Philadelphia accomplished felt like the equivalent of coming from behind facing a 12-run deficit in the ninth inning.
• Many thanks to those who came out to the book signings at Lipscomb University on Friday and Saturday; over two days and about 16 hours of work with his pens, coach Don Meyer signed about 750 copies of "How Lucky You Can Be."
• I am locked into a grind-it-out semifinal in our fantasy league, and it comes down to this: If Adrian Peterson scores a touchdown Monday night, I win; if he doesn't, I lose. It will be a long and anxious day.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Last year, Brewers GM Doug Melvin could admit that the team's starting pitchers weren't up to par in the NL Central. He won't have to make such admissions this year.