- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"How many teams can weather the loss of their ace and still win the World Series?" Berkman says. "Losing Adam last year was probably a bigger loss than losing Albert this year."
Some 380 miles north and east in Milwaukee, where Fielder had been the first baseman since 2006, replacing a slugger hasn't been as easy. Fielder had more homers (38 to 37) and RBIs (120 to 99) than Pujols last season, and was five years younger, a superstar beginning his prime years. He led a lineup that belted a league-high 185 long balls and provided protection for Braun, who was first in the league in OPS (.994) and second in average (.332).
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who hit 26 homers and drove in 93 runs for the Cubs last year, moves into Milwaukee's four hole after signing a three-year, $36 million deal. He'll play alongside sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who also brings some power but is an OBP disaster (three straight seasons of sub-.300 OBPs).
Not even the most experienced p.r. professional could find a way to spin Mat Gamel as an adequate replacement for Fielder. Gamel's work ethic has been questioned since his first big league camp in 2009, when he showed up overweight and wasn't taking his opportunity seriously enough. To teach him a lesson, veterans found a portable locker and moved all his possessions outside the clubhouse.
"I've never been an advocate of the weight room, but I realized how important it really is," says Gamel, who boasted a healthy .304/.376/.498 career line in the minors but will turn 27 in July, a late start for a full-time regular. "Some people want to do things their way until they realize 'That s--- ain't working.' Unfortunately for me, I've been that way my whole life."
A lefty who has hit only five home runs in 194 career big league plate appearances, and none since 2009, Gamel has played just two big league games at first base. He led Triple A Nashville with 28 homers and 96 RBIs last season, but, says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, "it's time for him to be a major league player instead of a great Triple A player."
Any team [in this division] can go to the playoffs," Alfonso Soriano offers hopefully. Now there's a statement with more serious spin than a Wainwright curveball. Let us tick off the reasons why:
• Houston celebrates the franchise's 50th anniversary in 2012 (its last season in the National League before moving to the AL West), but the Astros have the look of an expansion team. Twenty rookies saw action in '11, which contributed to 106 losses (worst in the majors) and a 4.51 ERA (worst in the league) by a pitching staff that remains mostly intact.
• The Cubs weren't lovable losers last season, they were just plain losers who dropped the second-most games in the league and played joyless baseball. New team president Theo Epstein and G.M. Jed Hoyer jettisoned meltdown-prone righthander Carlos Zambrano to Miami, but losing Ramirez to the Brewers and first baseman Carlos Peña (team-high 28 homers) to the Rays—while advisable given their high price tags and the franchise's rebuilding state—leaves a big hole in the lineup. (Shortstop Starlin Castro is the only proven every-day player with upside.) Expect another couple of lean years on the North Side while the new front office implements an overhaul of one of the game's most shallow farm systems.
• Pittsburgh was in first place through 100 games in 2011, yet finished with a losing record for the 19th consecutive season and dropped the third-most games in the league.