It's a beautiful time of the year--we're in the last weekend before spring training officially opens! The Brewers are one of the more set rosters in the league and it would be surprising to see any major changes, barring injury (knock on wood), but there are a few positions where players will be fighting for a spot. Let's take a look-see at what battles will be going on in Maryvale, starting with the position players today and pitchers at a later time.
Jonathon LuCroy is the starter at catcher, and almost certainly will stay in that role opening day. George Kottaras, however, might lose the backup role he filled in 2010, despite hitting nine home runs in just 68 games (250 at bats) and having a .701 OPS. Even with an awful .203 batting average, the Grecian Sensation had the seventeenth highest wOBA amongst catchers with at least 250 at bats--ahead of Russell Martin, Chris Snyder, AJ Pierzynski, Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina, and Ronny Paulino amongst others. He was about as good as you could hope for from a backup catcher offensively. Kottaras's defense, on the other hand, has been widely panned and tradition is that teams usually look for defense first from their backup. The competition is primarily going to come from Wil Nieves, with Martin Maldonado being the only other catcher on the 40 man roster. Nieves comes over to the Brewers from the Washington Nationals, where he put up the exact same batting average as Kottaras in 2010. Despite that, Nieves is clearly the inferior hitter with a .227/.273/.297 career slash line, an OPS that is .128 lower than what Kottaras has managed to put up over his career. Nieves, though, has often been praised as a very good (or at least above average) defensive backstop. Maldonado has been in the Brewers minor leagues since 2008, splitting last year between Brevard County, Huntsville and Nashville with a .239/.310/.374 slash line. He has a career line of .225/.300/.303. Personally, I would prefer Kottaras to reprise his 2010 role. I like his bat off the bench and feel his clear offensive value makes him more valuable than Nieves, despite his poor defense.
Craig Counsell is going to be on the team, so we don't really have to worry about him. It's the other infield bench spot that is in a bit of a flux. Doug Melvin has publicly stated that Yuniesky Betancourt is the de facto starting shortstop, though I'm not sure I believe him. If Luis Cruz and Betancourt play similarly during spring, than I think Yuni will be the starter out of spring training. Of course, Counsell could always commandeer plenty of starts over the season, or there could be a platoon. By now, we are all pretty well versed in each players talents. Yuni might actually be the best offensive player of the bunch, depending on what kind of year the Deity has. Last year, Betancourt had a .009 higher wOBA due to his power surge, though Counsell had a much better 2009 in what was a resurgence year for him. Luis Cruz is the best defensive player out of the three, but is also the worst hitter. Cruz has a career .242 wOBA in just 169 major league plate appearances and hasn't done much better in the minors. Last year in Nashville, he had a .281/.309/.414. Both Cruz and Counsell can play 2B/3B/SS, but Betancourt has played just nine games at a position other than shortstop when he played second for the Mariners in 2005. Of course, there is always Mat Gamel waiting in the wings, too, but he can't even play his natural third base so his only value on the bench would be as a pinch hitter. With Mark Kotsay already being touted as the primary pinch hitter, it seems likely Gamel will head to Nashville yet again.
After trading Lorenzo Cain, it looks like Carlos Gomez is going to get another shot at starting in a major league outfield. If only he could figure out how to take a few walks, that would be a lot more appealing. As it stands, Gomez's defense will keep him a fairly valuable player though I could see a strong spring from Chris Dickerson paired with an awful spring from Gomez causing the Brewers to change their plans. Dickerson has been a favorite of mine since the Brewers traded Jim Edmonds for him last year. He doesn't have a lot of pop in his bat, but he gets on base at a fairly high rate (.356 career OBP). In addition, in a small sample size Dickerson has had an incredible UZR/150 (41.5 career UZR/150 in CF). He's probably not as good as UZR indicates, but I think it's safe to say that he is likely an above average defensive player. Personally, I would like to see Dickerson in center field to start the year but I doubt the Brewers go that route. Dickerson might not even make the team at this point as there is only one bench spot available in the outfield if we assume that Kotsay and Gomez make the team, which I think is a safe assumption. That leaves Dickerson, Brandon Boggs, and Jeremy Reed to fight for that one spot. Reed, being a non-roster invite, likely has the biggest disadvantage though if the Brewers prefer him they could always release Boggs or Dickerson and put Reed on the 40 man roster. Reed has not been a good hitter in his career but has been above average defensively whereas Boggs has hit very well in the minor leagues but has been well below average defensively in an extremely small major league sample size. I'm hoping that Dickerson takes the final bench spot and is the first outfielder off the bench and I hope that the Brewers can manage to keep Boggs as an outfielder in Nashville. One mustn't discount that Boggs has spent his entire career in the Rangers organization, which we all know Doug Melvin loves.
It's nice that the few position battles the Brewers have are likely for bench roles. That's a good sign of a stable team. Personally, I'm most interested in seeing how the shortstops play, particularly Yuni and Cruz.
Scratch that, personally, I'm just most interested in seeing the Brewers doing baseball things again.