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The Strike Zone

Winter report card: Milwaukee Brewers

Corey Hart The cost-cutting Brewers will have to replace Corey Hart, who underwent knee surgery, with an in-house option. (AP)

With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.

Milwaukee Brewers

2012 Results: 83-79, 3rd place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: SS Alex Gonzalez, 1B/OF Travis Ishikawa, RHP Kameron Loe, RHP Shaun Marcum, OF Nyjer Morgan, LHP Manny Parra, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, C Yourvit Torrealba, RHP Jose Veras

Key arrivals: RHP Jairo Asencio, RHP Burke Badenhop, SS Bobby Crosby, RHP Kelvim Escobar, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP Mike Gonzalez

Last year, the Brewers put a brave face on the departure of free agent Prince Fielder, doing their best to remain competitive by using the savings to increase payroll to nearly $100 million, adding free agents Aramis Ramirez, Norichika Aoki and Alex Gonzalez, and retaining late-season acquisition Rodriguez. The team dug itself a big hole through the first three-quarters of the season with a 54-66 showing that left them 19 games out of first place, 12 1/2 back in the wild card race and without Zack Greinke, who was traded to the Angels. Even so, they rallied to post an NL-best 29-13 record the rest of the way, thereby grazing the periphery of the wild card race and salvaging just the franchise's fourth winning season in the past 20 years.

Alas, things don't look even that sunny for the Brewers this time around. While the nucleus of their roster is reasonably sound, they've done almost nothing this winter to enhance their chances of contending again. That said, even with around $50 million coming off the books, much of what they've shed is inconsequential. Morgan (.239/.302/.308) couldn't match his strong 2011 showing, Ishikawa (.257/.329/.428) was a replacement-level fill-in, Gonzalez was limited to 24 games due to injuries and Loe, Parra, Rodriguez and Veras were the bullpen's four busiest pitchers aside from closer John Axford, part of a unit that ranked dead last in the league with a 4.66 ERA and second-to-last with 3.9 walks per nine. Marcum, who missed more than two months with an elbow strain but made 21 starts with a 3.70 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine, is the biggest loss by far; he signed with the Mets earlier this week. The emergences of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta, and the return of Chris Narveson should help offset his loss, but that still leaves Yovani Gallardo as the only pitcher in the rotation with even one 30-start season to his name.

Gorzelanny has one 30-start season as well, but that came back in 2007 with the Pirates. The 30-year-old southpaw, who signed a two-year, $6 million deal, started just once for the Nationals last year but put up a solid season of relief work (2.88 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine, 72 innings). He'll pitch middle relief while fellow ex-Nationals southpaw Mike Gonzalez holds down a late-inning role and tries to keep his body whole. The oft-injured 34-year-old put in just 35 2/3 innings of 3.03 ERA work in 2012 after going unsigned last winter following offseason knee surgery. He has reached 50 innings just twice in the past six seasons, but at a base salary of $2.25 million for one year, with incentives that won't be applicable unless he winds up closing for much of the year, he's not a bad bargain.

Badenhop, who made 66 appearances and threw 62 1/3 innings of 3.03 ERA ball for the Rays, will take up some of the workload, and Johnny Hellweg, a 6-foot-9, 24-year-old prospect who was acquired from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade, could earn a spot as well. Asencio, who made 30 appearances with a 4.91 ERA for the Indians and Cubs, will have to overcome significant control issues to be more than organizational depth.

Among the more notable additions from among the assortment of players brought in via minor league deals are two who seem to be off a missing persons list. Crosby, the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year with the A's, hasn't played in the majors since 2010. He battled so many injuries over the course of his career that he reached 100 games in a season just one more time after that, back in 2008. A career .236/.304/.372 hitter, the now-33-year-old is a utilityman even if his comeback succeeds. Escobar, 36, has been away even longer, with just one big league appearances since the 2007 season, a five-inning start in 2009. Since his last full season, he has undergone two labrum surgeries and one to repair a torn shoulder capsule, so there's even less reason to hope for much out of him.

Unfinished business: Left out. If the deck weren't already stacked against Milwaukee, first baseman Corey Hart will miss the first six weeks of the regular season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Friday. He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee last March and recovered to hit .270/.334/.507 with 30 homers in 149 games, but this one, due to a defect in the joint surface, will require a longer recovery.

In his absence, Mat Gamel will play first base, the position at which he opened last season before a torn ACL knocked him out for the year in early May. Once a well-regarded prospect due to his power, the now-27-year-old has hit just .229/.305/.367 with six homers in 269 major league plate appearances, the majority of them back in 2009. As the only lefty in the lineup besides Aoki, he does provide a bit of balance in the lineup — if he can stay in it. Once Hart returns, Gamel will have to scramble for playing time at the infield corners, leaving a lineup that skews even more to the right than the one that ranked second-to-last in the league in plate appearances from the left side. They got just a .250/.319/.377 performance from such hitters, compared to .263/.327/.457 from their righties — the widest split in the league. Fortunately, the Brewers' righties are as good as any team in the league at hitting same-side pitchers, with a .261/.323/.448 line en route to a league-best OPS in that category.

The free agent market has been picked over, but a few lefties out there may be worth a flier for a bench spot, either instead of or in addition to Gamel. First baseman Casey Kotchman hit just .229/.280/.333 for the Indians last year, but he's only one season removed from a .306/.378/.422 showing with the Rays. Former All-Star centerfielder Grady Sizemore missed all of 2012 due to a microdiscectomy in his lower back and microfracture surgery on his right knee after playing in a combined 104 games in 2010-2011, but he could be available by midseason. Bobby Abreu (.242/.350/.342 in 257 PA for the Angels and Dodgers last year) can still get on base and has been productive from the left side in the past three years (.258/.368/.420).

Preliminary grade: C-. Having set a franchise record with a $98.2 million payroll last year, the Brewers have been forced to cut costs considerably, hence the quiet winter; right now, they figure to wind up with a payroll south of $80 million, their lowest since 2007. Their nucleus can still help them compete in the NL Central, but unless a whole lot goes right, they're likely to be on the outside looking in come October.
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