Ramirez in, McGehee out
But it didn’t hurt.
The Brewers were in pursuit of Ramirez before learning over the weekend that Braun faces the suspension after a positive drug test in October. They reached agreement with the 33-year-old veteran on a three-year deal for $36 million.
The Brewers didn’t officially announce the signing because Ramirez has to pass a physical examination. But later in the day they opened third base for him completely by trading Casey McGehee to Pittsburgh for reliever Jose Veras.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said the Ramirez signing was hardly a knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of losing Braun. In fact, Melvin first began talking to agent Paul Kinzer about signing Ramirez at the general managers meetings in mid-November at The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
When Ramirez traveled to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to meet with the Angels, who had interest in signing him, he also took time to visit with Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and manager Ron Roenicke.
“We’ve been talking about him for some time,” said Melvin. “He had a couple of other opportunities, but we stayed with it. We met again with Kinzer at the winter meetings (last week in Dallas).”
The primary reason for pursuing Ramirez was to add a power bat in the lineup behind Braun to compensate for the expected loss of first baseman Prince Fielder to free agency. And the money spent on Ramirez finally closed the door on any faint possibility that Fielder might return to the Brewers.
“I think Prince and (agent) Scott Boras understand that,” said Melvin. “Mark and I talked to Scott at the winter meetings. With the (Albert) Pujols signing (10 years, $254 million with the Angels), we’re respectful of Prince’s position (on the market).
“It’s tough when you’re in a small market and you have one of the best players in the game. We had two of the best. We were able to sign one of them (Braun, to a $105 million extension through 2020).”
Ramirez’s addition will become even more important, however, if Braun is unable to overturn his positive drug test and looming suspension in an arbitration hearing that will take place in January. Braun has maintained his innocence and his defense team remains optimistic, but no player has prevailed in such hearings in the past.
A 50-game suspension would begin on opening day, putting Braun out of action for nearly a third of the season. Melvin said he would wait until Braun’s hearing to talk about his situation and any contingency plans there might be for replacing him.
“I don’t want to go down that path yet,” said Melvin. “Let’s see how it plays out. I can’t comment on it while the process is taking place.”
You don’t have to be a devout fan of the Brewers to know the 1-2 punch of Braun and Fielder in the middle of the lineup made their offense special. They combined for 71 of the team’s league-high 185 home runs last season, the third-highest ratio in the NL according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Braun is a fantastic hitter in his own right, but with Fielder batting behind him teams were reluctant to pitch around him. Ramirez doesn’t have Fielder’s power and like Braun he’s a right-handed hitter, but he did sock 26 home runs and drive in 93 runs in 149 games for the Chicago Cubs last season.
“We just felt we needed to find some more offense, especially with Prince being a free agent,” said Melvin.
Braun, 28, quickly evolved into one of the top hitters in the NL during his five seasons with the Brewers. He has a career .312 batting average with 161 home runs, 531 runs batted in and a .933 OPS.
(on-base plus slugging).
Melvin made it clear that he’s probably “tapped out” with his budget, which is why some of Ramirez’s salary will be deferred. The Brewers played with a payroll of around $95 million and Melvin said he already had exceeded that with Attanasio’s backing.
“We’ve stretched it well beyond where we wanted to go,” said Melvin. “Mark has been very supportive. He’s committed to being a competitive team.”
Ramirez was a Type B free agent, meaning the Cubs get a supplemental first-round draft pick in 2012 as compensation for losing him. The Brewers do not forfeit a draft pick for signing him.
Earlier in the day, the Brewers made official their signing of free-agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who will replace the departed Yuniesky Betancourt. Thus, in a span of a few days, Melvin completely remade the left side of his infield with a pair of veteran players.
There had been speculation the Brewers might move McGehee to first base upon signing Ramirez. But Melvin repeatedly has said he is prepared to turn first base over to prospect Mat Gamel, who finally will get his chance to be an everyday player. Melvin said third base prospect Taylor Green also was contacted and told to “get a first-base glove” to provide another option there.
Thus, when the Brewers open the 2012 season against defending World Series champion St. Louis on April 6 at Miller Park, three-fourths of the infield will have turned over, leaving only second baseman Rickie Weeks. And, should Braun be suspended, there will be a new leftfielder.
How successful the Brewers are in trying to defend their first NL Central title likely will depend on how they fare if Braun is missing for those 50 games.