Sports Illustrated came out with their MLB preview issue last week, and I just got around to reading it now. There's actually some very interesting stuff in it, including a bunch of one-liners from scouts about each team. However, I didn't quite agree with the storyline they attached to the Brewers and the NL Central as a whole. Here's how they see the division shaping up:
1. Reds (89-73)
2. Cardinals (87-75)
3. Brewers (84-78)
4. Pirates (70-92)
5. Cubs (66-96)
6. Astros (57-105)
All the projections here seem pretty reasonable. I would personally give the Brewers a couple more wins here at the expense of the Cardinals and Reds, but that's my own hopelessly biased, subjective opinion. Also, this preview was written well before we knew Ryan Madson would miss the whole season, so the Reds are probably projected a bit higher than they should be. Thus, St. Louis and Milwaukee are probably both a little bit underrated here, but that's not SI's fault.
The thing that I did disagree with, at least concerning the Brewers, was the amount of emphasis placed on the overwhelming void created by the loss of Prince Fielder. While this was understandable (the main focus for the NL Central preview was the loss of Fielder by the Brewers and Albert Pujols by the Cardinals, who will recoup a lot of his production by the return of Adam Wainwright), I do feel that both the division and team preview understated the efforts of the Brewers to replace him: The writer(s) spent far too much time trying to compare Mat Gamel straight up to Fielder, with Gamel having three paragraphs written about him compared to a combined two sentences on Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez. We’ve said this time and time again in the offseason: The Brewers couldn’t, and weren’t going to replace Fielder with one player. They needed to replace the combined production of Fielder, Casey McGehee, and Yuniesky Betancourt with three (or more) players. Looking at Fielder/McGehee/Yuni vs. Gamel/Ramirez/Sea Bass instead of Fielder vs. Gamel alone is provides a much more complete picture:
(RAA is from Baseball-Reference, and measures how many runs above or below average the given player was with the bat in 2011.)
There’s still going to be a huge gap between Fielder and Gamel, but when you consider the extent to which Fielder’s loss was mitigated by the improvements made at other positions, the loss seems overstated, both in the story and the season predictions. Don’t get me wrong, the absence of the Prince is going to create a sizeable void in the lineup, but I don’t think the aggregate loss is that large, even if Ryan Braun is a little worse off without Fielder to protect him in the lineup.
If the Brewers are being predicted to be around five wins worse without Fielder (SI’s 85 wins compared to their 90-72 Pythagorean record last year), that would account for almost the entire difference between Prince and a replacement-level player. Mat Gamel is, in all likelihood, going to be better than a replacement-level player, and the Brewers made multi-win upgrades at two other positions. There are certainly other reasons to expect the club to decline that we’ve overlooked, but it seems to me that the Brewers may be getting severely underrated due to the loss of Prince Fielder, and could surprise a lot of people thanks to the job the front-office has done to replace as much of his bat as possible.