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Brewers bench could see youth movement

A few unforseen circumstances (Francisco Rodriguez accepting arbitration, Ryan Braun‘s potential suspension) have left the Brewers in a bit of a bind — they’re right up against their limit in terms of payroll, but still have quite a few holes to fill on the bench. As a result, it appears the Brewers will have to fill most of these spots internally.

Norichika Aoki is taking most of the headlines right now, and if the Brewers do end up signing him, it seems like he’ll likely be taking Mark Kotsay‘s old spot on the roster — the go-to fill-in corner outfielder and top pinch-hit option. If Aoki does sign, that will be one bench spot filled, although he’d likely be starting in Braun’s absence.

A Braun suspension would presumably open another outfield spot for the first 50 games of the season. That could be good news for Caleb Gindl (who the organization has always seemed to be high on) or Logan Schafer (who’s had some bad luck with injuries), both of whom seem to be major league-ready…or at least close to it.

Gindl hit .307/.390/.472 for Nashville in the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League last season, which translates roughly into a line of .268/.333/.394 in Milwaukee. That’s not great, but you could do worse when it comes to a bench bat. Schafer hit .315/.385/.439 across three levels last season. Once Braun returns, whoever is taking that 5th outfielder spot could easily be sent back to Nashville.

The infield has a few more questions. Unlike the outfield, there’s still a position relatively “open” — first base. Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, and Rickie Weeks will be starters on Opening Day, but there’s still some question as to who will be manning first. Right now, that job seems to be Mat Gamel‘s to lose. You’ll have to excuse anyone who isn’t exactly confident in Gamel. Small sample failures aside, he turns 27 in July and has only amassed 194 big league plate appearances. He’s out of minor league options. To put it plainly, this is it for him.

If Gamel falters, Taylor Green could get a crack at the first base job. At the very least, he should make for a solid backup option at the corners, stepping in for Gamel or giving Ramirez a day off if needed (at this point in his career, Ramirez probably isn’t going to play in 155+ games like Casey McGehee did the past two years). Green could also serve as Rickie Weeks insurance, having played there a bit during his minor league career. Where he can’t help, though, is shortstop — a position he’s never played as a professional.

With Craig Counsell out of the picture, the Brewers will need someone who can play short off the bench. While there are still some free agent options out there — Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Theriot, to name a couple — players like those might be getting too pricey. If the Brewers truly are right up against what they can spend for 2012, they may need to cut corners in other areas, and this may be one. Eric Farris is on the 40-man roster, but his ability to play shortstop has been repeatedly questioned (he doesn’t have the arm for it) and his bat may not cut it at the big league level. Guys with a .689 OPS in Nashville that can only really play second base don’t make for great utility guys.

The catching situation doesn’t figure to change all that much, since George Kottaras was tendered a contract and enters his first winter of arbitration. That doesn’t mean Martin Maldonando has no chance of winning the backup catching job — his defense probably makes him preferable, actually — but Kottaras has the benefits of familiarity and Randy Wolf‘s trust on his side. Just ask Chad Moeller how long of a leash being a personal catcher gets you.

In recent years, we’ve seen the Brewers go veteran-heavy on the bench while some younger faces occupied the everyday lineup. As the lineup regulars gain more experience — and more zeroes on their paychecks — we’re starting to see that philosophy change. Back when the starters weren’t making as much, the Brewers could afford to spend a little bit on the bench. Now, they’ll have to go younger. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — the St. Louis Cardinals are an example of a very successful team who have consistently used bench spots on younger players. Of course, there’s a downside — these players aren’t proven commodities, and could struggle with limited playing time (just look at what happened with Gamel). There’s also the disadvantage of starting a player’s arbitration clock when he isn’t getting steady time on the field. That’s something that could be big for a team like the Brewers, who always need to be smart about how they manage player control.

Still, this is something the Brewers may have to do, given the current payroll structure. Obviously, things could change before the winter is over. Perhaps Rodriguez or another player is traded to free up some breathing room or fill one of these bench spots. Maybe Mark Attanasio will keep surprising us by rubber-stamping signings while we keep thinking there’s some sort of limit. Right now, though, it’s looking like the Brewers will have to rely on some younger, unfamiliar faces to fill out their bench.