I promised some comparisons and illustrations instead of just posting all of the community projections in a row in one post this year, and number one on the agenda is a look at how the projected infield looks in comparison to last years. A lot of thoughtful observers have noted that making up for the lost production of Prince Fielder at first base isn't easy but that the left side of the Brewer infield in 2011 was so bad that it would be difficult not to get substantially better and come out with a better infield overall. That's shown pretty clearly in our predictions.
At first base we have Mat Gamel with a line of .271/.337/.459 and 73% of the playing time. That puts him solidly above a league-average wOBA; I used 1.75*OBP+SLG/3 to approximate wOBA for the exercise here. However, playing first base means you have to be a better-than average hitter to come out above average. Combined with my conservative assumption of -8 defense, over our projected 497 plate appearances if he hits 6th we project Gamel to produce 1.2 WAR. That's a mighty dropoff from the mighty Fielder, but it's cheap, solid production and in this comparison we're just assuming replacement-level production for the rest of the first base plate appearances, which hopefully is not the case.
At second we project Rickie Weeks to bounce back to 2010 form and hit .271/.360/.477 in 87% of the playing time. If he in fact hits leadoff much of the year that puts him at 663 plate appearances. Rickie's defense looks to be solidly above-average at this point, look at his Fangraphs page and you'll notice his horrendous early-career totals replaced by +3s and +5s in the past few years, but to be safe I'll say he's an average defender. Our projections say that he will put up 5.3 WAR, a step up from his injury-shortened 2011 but off his career high set in 2010.
No one's going to be excited by new shortstop Alex Gonzalez's projected line of .244/.286/.398. No one will complain, though if he receives 87% of the plate appearances, as we project, batting around the #7 hole, which would mean about 1.9 WAR if he can play +5 defense at short. That's a welcome improvement on Yuni's .5 effort from last season.
Finallly, at third we have Aramis Ramirez, who we see maintaining his solid performance of last season with a .284/.351/.491 effort. We have a safe projection of 82% of the playing time at third for Ramirez, and I made him a -8 defender. He's been trending downward in recent years but that seems to be a reasonable number. Batting cleanup that puts him at about 3.9 WAR. Just about anything could top Casey McGehee's .3 from 2011, but the Brewers went out and got a legitimate upgrade.
The WAR calculation is a sum of offensive runs above average (converted from wOBA and plate appearances), defense, a positional adjustment, and an adjustment for the replacement level player. The 2011 infield's regulars put up 5.5 (Fielder), 3.3 (Weeks), .5 (Betancourt), .3 (McGehee). BCB projects the 2012 regular infield at 1.2 (Gamel), 5.3 (Weeks), 1.9 (Gonzalez), and 3.9 (Ramirez). 2011 adds up to 10, while 2012 adds up to 12.4.
That's not to say that next season's infield will be better. For one thing, second and third base got a boost from Jerry Hairston Jr. last season, and this year's backups may not provide that same kind of production in the plate appearances unaccounted for here. But this year's infield can be better. And all it would take is for the four regulars to hit their reasonable projections given to them by the BCB community.
Here's this thing in a chart. The x-axis is WAR, and the y-axis is just the regulars, no backups included (assuming replacement level from any plate appearances not taken by the regular at each position). Look how much nice and longer those red bars are at three out of the four positions!
The story of the 2012 Brewers offense is going to framed-- unfairly-- as Mat Gamel trying to replace a superstar first basemen. Upside performance from Gamel is a bonus at this point. The Brewers replaced Fielder in, well, the aggregate. There's a strong possibility that three out of the four infield spots will get better production than they did in a 96 win, NL Central Championship-winning year. And I'll take my chances that the increase in production at those three other spots will offset the dropoff from Fielder to Gamel, and then some.