To listen to the announcers last night and read the paper the last few days, you'd think that we left center field and the number two spot empty for the first 25 games, just waiting to get Mike Cameron back so that we could really start our season.
Cameron's a good player, and he's definitely better than the alternatives. Yes, even Gabe Kapler. But let's be reasonable and try to get a sense of how much Cameron is likely to help this team.
Oddly enough, one possible answer is: Not very much.
Granted, Kapler and Tony Gwynn probably played above their heads, but including last night's game (because I'm lazy), the aggregate center field line for the Brewers so far is 294/342/451. That's pretty darn good for center field--in fact, it's as far above average for the position as any other position on the club. (I know, that isn't saying much.) Even more impressive when you consider it included 44 PAs of Gabe Gross's sub-300 SLG, and 1 PA of Hernan Iribarren's OPS of zero.
Click over to FanGraphs if you want to see a whole bunch of projections for Cameron. My system of choice, ZiPS, gives Cameron a 254/341/447 line. In other words, basically the same as we've gotten so far.
As I've said, we couldn't have expected the platoon (Kaplynn?) to keep producing at that level, but at the plate, Cameron is probably not going to give us a boost.
If you want to compare Cameron's offense to what he is replacing on the '07 team, we'll have to look back at the glory days of the Menchkins platoon. Hall and Braun are probably going to give us about what they gave us last year (more of Braun, but probably not quite so phenomenal), so on offense, Cameron steps in for the left fielders.
Last year, the two-headed monster gave us production of 261/318/453. It's a little worse than the Cameron projections, but not enough to make a big difference. So again, at the plate, acquiring Cameron is a wash. (On the field, anyway; off the field, Cameron is cheaper than Menchkins was, uses one fewer roster spot, and doesn't require special hat orders.)
Of course, I've gotten an awful long ways into a discussion of Mike Cameron without touching on his defense. I guess I saved the best for last.
As you all probably know, Cameron is an elite defender. Defensive metrics make it hard to anoint a winner, but he is possibly the best center fielder in baseball. According to RZR (leaders in 2007 , or 2006), he's among the top few in the league along with Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, and Juan Pierre. (RZR doesn't take outfield arms into effect.)
Another data point: according to MGL's proprietary Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) system, Cameron was among the top CFs from 2000-2003 , as well. (You'll have to scroll down to find the CFs.) In fact, in that span, he's the highest-rated player who was a regular for the better part of those four years. I wouldn't put too much stock in 5-8 year old defensive data--guys slow down, even guys who take a lot of stimulants--but it shows that the 06-07 data is no fluke.
There's no good way to know whether Kapler and Gwynn would have been as good in the field as Cameron will be; we just won't accumulate the data. (*Someone* might have play-by-play and hit location data for Gwynn's time in the minors, but *someone* is kind of lazy in crunching the numbers.)
As I noted in my article about defense earlier this week, the outfield has been strong, and it seems like a good bet that Ryan Braun is not to blame for that. So as the conventional wisdom would indicate, Kapler is a pretty good defensive center fielder, though almost certainly not in the same league as Cameron.
So...that's what we have to expect from our shiny new toy. He's not our savior--there are a lot of other bats in the lineup that have to play that role right now--but he is a key part of the offseason plan that turned the Brewers into what is most likely a solid defensive team.