Brewers could be just as good without Prince
PHOENIX -- For the Milwaukee Brewers it is the Year 1 A.P. (After Prince).
The club is coming off the best regular season in franchise history, but there are doubters, those who wonder how The Crew can survive now that the slugging Fielder has cashed in with the Tigers.
As it turns out, there are a couple of areas in which the Brewers could be substantially better this season than they were in 2011. Does this mean that they will once again win 96 games, win the National League Central and advance to the NL Championship Series? Who knows, but the fact is that this group does not have to fall off the face of the Earth just because its first baseman has driven off in a shiny, new 2012 Detroit Windfall.
The 2012 Brewers should have a significantly improved infield defense, at three of four positions. When this was suggested to Brewers manager Ron Roenicke Sunday he smiled and responded:
"I know what you're getting at. I think we'll be improved defensively. I don't want to pick out anybody because then I've got comparisons going on with guys, and I don't want to do that. I think we should be better defensively in the infield. I'll leave it there."
Proceeding less politely than Roenicke, it can be stated that at first base, Mat Gamel is learning a new position, but he is already better defensively than Fielder. At third, Aramis Ramirez will not win a Gold Glove, but he will still be an upgrade from Casey McGehee, whose lack of range was further exacerbated by a knee problem. But it is at shortstop where the defensive difference will be most pronounced. The Brewers will be moving up from one of the game's least capable defensive shortstops, Yunieksy Betancourt, to one of baseball's best in Alex Gonzalez.
Gonzalez has been a leading light at shortstop for a decade and more. At age 35, is he still at that level?
"Yes, he is," Roenicke said. "In the first couple games, our field was really hard, balls were getting through the infield pretty quick, and it was hard to see where a guy was. After those first couple of games, we're excited with what we see [from Gonzalez]. Great hands, great arm, knows how to play. You're sitting in the other dugout, and I've seen him for years with different teams, and you like him, but you don't really get to see him. Now we're seeing what people have been saying about him."
The other area of improvement will come with the continued good health and availability of one pitcher -- Zack Greinke. Last year during Spring Training, Greinke was sidelined by a cracked rib suffered in a pickup basketball game. He did not make a start until May 4, but even then he was starting from scratch, having his Spring Training during the regular season.
"Honestly, I really don't remember last Spring Training at all," Greinke said. That is probably for the best.
"Just looking at his [regular season] outings, it took probably four or five [starts] before I thought: 'This is the guy we thought we were going to have,'" Roenicke said. "It was well into the season."
Now, the Brewers have a happy, healthy Greinke with a normal spring of fine-tuning his mechanics and building toward another season. Just three years ago, he was the American League Cy Young Award winner.
"I'm just glad that he has a Spring [Training]," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said, noting that Greinke, in his attempts to get back to top form in a hurry last year, had sometimes altered his delivery and was occasionally overthrowing.
Greinke was scheduled to pitch against the Texas Rangers on Sunday at Maryvale Baseball Park, but there was a rare Phoenix forecast for rain. So Greinke threw four innings of a simulated game in the morning. This turned out to be an astute move, because rain halted the Rangers-Brewers game in the fourth inning.
Greinke has eliminated the turn in his delivery to improve his command. He had worried this might cost him velocity, but it hasn't. He is working a cut fastball into his regular repertoire. And he feels comfortable with this team.
"Definitely, I feel refreshed right now," Greinke said. "I'm in a good place -- mentally, physically, everything."
Greinke is 28 years old. Maybe improving on his 16-6 record in 2011 would be difficult, but you could see him being better than the 3.83 ERA he posted last season.
Overall, if you combine a seriously improved infield defense with getting two more months of Zack Greinke at the top of his game, you have significant areas in which the 2012 Brewers should be better than the 2011 Brewers.
No, no one person will replace Fielder and his 38 home runs and 120 RBIs, nor will anybody be able to exactly duplicate his intangible value. But it is not like the 38 homers and 120 RBIs will be a net loss, because Ramirez, the new cleanup hitter, has a track record as a reliable run-producer.
Add it up. The post-Prince era does not have to be a dismal downturn for the Brewers. The 2012 Crew will have less potential for run production, but more ability in run prevention.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.