Why will the Brewers contend in 2011?
1. The Brewers have already patched up their bullpen.
On opening day, the Brewers' bullpen contained (among others) Trevor Hoffman and Claudio Vargas. After two awful starts, Jeff Suppan joined this awful duo. Those three all had ERAs above 6.90 in April and May, and they combined for a stunning minus-2.96 WPA – mostly via Hoffman and his five blown saves, but also from the general incompetence of the trio. That means that this group was three wins worse than merely average relievers.
Since then, Hoffman has been replaced as closer by John Axford, Suppan has been replaced in the rotation by Chris Narveson and in the bullpen by Kameron Loe. Zach Braddock has taken the role of top lefty from Mitch Stetter (a middling-at-best LOOGY who was utterly incompetent against RHB). Vargas’s low-leverage innings have been split between players like Chris Capuano, who is an interesting project if nothing else, and David Riske, who is merely biding the time until his contract expires.
Axford, Braddock, and Loe have been fantastic since joining the Brewers, combining for plus-2.22 WPA in their time on the team, largely coming after Jeff Suppan’s June 7 release. All three will be under team control next year, making them near locks to be important bullpen pieces next season, added to relievers Carlos Villanueva and Todd Coffey.
2. The Brewers have a favorable payroll situation.
With the toxic contracts of Jeff Suppan, Bill Hall, and others coming off the books, the Brewers will shed roughly $45 million in contracts after this season. After arbitration raises, I estimate that the Brewers will be about $25 million below the 2010 opening day payroll, even if Prince Fielder remains a Brewer. That means they'll have some money to play with.
The Brewers aren't losing much, either. The only important player from 2010 who's on his way out is Jim Edmonds, but he can be replaced in-house by either Carlos Gomez or Lorenzo Cain. At every other position, the Brewers are solid. CHONE's August update projects the Brewers with one above-average player (+2.0 WAR per 150 games) at each position.
That means the Brewers can spend most, if not all, of that "extra" $25 million on their weakness: starting pitching. The market this winter isn't great, but Javier Vazquez, Brandon Webb, Ted Lilly, Jon Garland (likely to decline his mutual option), Jake Westbrook, and Kevin Millwood, among others, are all interesting options. Perhaps a better move would be to use some of that cash to deal with a team like the Marlins, who might attempt to move Ricky Nolasco's high arbitration award in the offseason. They could also trade Prince Fielder for pitching, as Mat Gamel could step in and likely be an average first baseman. For the right pitcher, trading Fielder could actually make the Brewers better in 2011.
The roster certainly isn't perfect, but much of it is returning and there's money to fix the holes.
3. The NL Central is weak.
St. Louis has a good team this year, certainly, but it's not without its holes. Perennial All-Stars Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Matt Holliday form an excellent core, but there are question marks after those four players. The back of the rotation has struggled mightily, as the Cardinals have attempted patches with Blake Hawksworth and Jeff Suppan, eventually trading Ryan Ludwick away for Jake Westbrook. Losing Ludwick, one of the better right fielders in the NL, will hurt next year, and Westbrook will be a free agent. They also lose Brad Penny, who has been injured much of the year, and Felipe Lopez, who was an absolute steal in last year's free-agent market. The Cardinals have played like an 89-win team this season according to Beyond the Box Score's power rankings (looking at cW%). They have a modest amount of money to spend this year, but they are losing enough to the point where I wouldn't feel comfortable projecting any sort of major increase, especially given that St. Louis's top financial priority will be locking up Albert Pujols past 2011, the last year of his current contract.
The Cincinnati Reds have played about as well as the Cardinals so far this year, but there's really only one word to describe why I'm not super high on this team heading into next year: regression. Will Scott Rolen continue to be a power threat in his mid 30s? Is Mike Leake a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher despite skipping the minor leagues? Is Arthur Rhodes really one of the best left-handed relief pitchers in baseball? I'm inclined to say "no" to all of these questions. There's enough young talent on this Reds team to still be solid next season, and they might add Aroldis Chapman to the mix as well, and they won't have Edinson Volquez recovering from Tommy John surgery for half a season. That said, there's no reason to believe that the Reds are anything more than an 89-win team themselves, and simple regression says that we should expect something closer to 86 or 87.
4. "Contending" doesn't mean favorites.
The favorites to win the division next year will be, barring the unforeseen, Cincinnati and St. Louis, in some order and for good reason. However, they're not elite teams, and given the crazy things that can happen during the course of the season, they could each just as easily end up as .500 squads as 95-win teams. The Brewers look like a true talent 81-win team right now. They've played .519 baseball since releasing Suppan, and that's just above what the Beyond the Boxscore rankings expect (a .505 cW percent). I would feel pretty confident calling the roster on hand an 81-win team for next season.
The Brewers had a similar projection opening the season last year, and were given playoff odds of about 17 percent by Baseball Prospectus prior to the season. With the money available to plug holes in the rotation, the Brewers can definitely make themselves a preseason contender (say, 30-40 percent playoff odds) prior to the season, even if they're not favorites.
Jack Moore writes about the Brewers at Disciples of Uecker, a member of ESPN.com's SweetSpot Network.