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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Brewers still short at shortstop

By Christina Kahrl

Heartbreak in Dallas didn’t entirely belong to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans. The Milwaukee Brewers, their direct rivals in the National League and for the 2011 pennant, had to endure their own series of setbacks. Between the disappointments of finding out that Francisco Rodriguez had accepted their offer of arbitration -- guaranteeing that they’ll be paying eight figures for John Axford’s setup man -- and the associated likelihood that Prince Fielder is now well out of their price range, it wasn’t general manager Doug Melvin’s best week.

The Brewers weren’t entirely inert, though. Perhaps as a matter of expense, they chose to be one of the losers in this winter’s shortstop shuffle by reportedly coming to terms with shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2013.

Alex Gonzalez
Alex Gonzalez certainly won't cure a Brewers offense ailing from the loss of Prince Fielder.
The most generous way to look at the Brewers adding Gonzalez is that this is an upgrade. However, “upgrade” is a relative term, and you basically have to chalk that up to the anticipated difference between Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt on defense. While Betancourt had his best season with the glove in years via interpretive metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating and Plus/Minus, he was still in the negative. As far as you can accept the conclusions of any or all of them, the picture on Gonzalez is reliably better, but from year to year, there isn’t a lot of consensus: Gonzalez’s DRS and Plus/Minus marks have been excellent in the past two seasons, but his usually solid UZR marks veered into the negative in 2011.

Make of that what you will. Besides serving as a reminder that no one of these metrics should be taken as the final answer on a guy’s glove, what this means for the Brewers is that while you can be relatively sure Gonzalez is an improvement as far as their defense, it isn’t like they’ve just brought in Ozzie Smith.

The even more joyless side of the exercise is on offense, which is effectively a push. In 2011, Betancourt had a .652 OPS to Gonzalez’s .642, marks consistent with career clips that are sub-.700 for both. Both pop up prodigiously (Gonzalez finished in the top 10 among batting-title qualifiers with popups in 12.6 percent of his at-bats), while Gonzalez strikes out nearly twice as often. So joyless at-bats and relatively easy outs are routine for both. Both have a little bit of sock, and Gonzalez cranked out 68 extra-base hits in 2010. He’s also five years older than Betancourt, so you can reasonably expect him to lose ground to Father Time, while Betancourt might simply remain at this level of execrable production for a while yet.

And that’s really the problem. The Brewers have been slumming when it comes to shortstops for a while now since giving up on J.J. Hardy after 2009. Dealing the last two years Hardy was under contractual control might have seemed affordable because they were making room for top prospect Alcides Escobar and getting the talented Carlos Gomez from the Twins. But Gomez was as disappointing as a regular for the Brewers as he had been with the Twins, and Escobar gave them a .614 OPS and inconsistent defense. So Melvin dealt Escobar in the package that landed Zack Greinke (no shame in that) while having to accept Betancourt. Betancourt’s improvement in the field aside, he remained what he was as a Mariner and Royal -- one of the most disappointing, overhyped Cuban imports ever, no mean feat given the amount of money burned on that group.

From Hardy to Escobar to Betancourt to Gonzalez, Melvin’s worked his way from prospects past and present down to the real temps. Switching to Gonzalez is effectively more of the same. If this was a team that needed just a placeholder at the position to do no harm on a contender, maybe this works -- not that it did for the Braves with Gonzalez this season, or the Brewers with Betancourt. Absent Fielder, an offensive zero like Gonzalez becomes that much less affordable for an offense.

In essence, this all goes back to Melvin’s major miscalculation in offering K-Rod arbitration. As a result, the Brewers are stuck with affordability as the key criterion in selecting a shortstop, instead of making a play for Rafael Furcal, let alone Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes. Punting a lineup slot -- again -- while they’re losing Fielder certainly isn’t going to help them score runs, let alone defend their division title. If you thought the winter couldn’t get any colder in Milwaukee, guess again.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.