Brewers one step closer to playoffs after Lopez deal

Arizona Diamondbacks vs Colorado Rockies in Denver

Yesterday, the Brewers struck a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, sending LF Cole Gillespie and MR Roque Mercedes to Phoenix in exchange for second baseman Felipe Lopez.

Lopez, who can fill in across the diamond, steps in as the Brewers’ primary second baseman after Rickie Weeks was lost for the season May 18th thanks to left wrist surgery.

29, Lopez joins his fifth team in the bigs. Always long on promise, it’s taken Lopez a while to come around to that promise. He opened his career with Toronto in 2001 before moving to Cincinnati two years later and busting out in 2005 to the tune of a .291/.352/.486 line in 580 at-bats, establishing his long-dormant power potential. He would be dealt half a season later thanks to returning to his punchless ways. He headed to the Washington Nationals along with Austin Kearns for Bill Bray and Gary Majewski. (You might recall that there were accusations of Nationals GM Jim Bowden not being entirely forthcoming in both pitchers’ injury histories before sending them to Cincinnati.)

Lopez would end up spending the equivalent of two seasons in Washington before going to the St. Louis Cardinals to finish out last year. The knock on Lopez was never about his contact or plate discipline — it was about his lack of power pigeonholing him into a utility role and his attitude. Concerns about his attitude have dissipated, but questions about his power still loom.

Indeed, when Lopez was released from Washington last year, he did so on a .234/.305/.314 line. At 28, his opportunities were dwindling. He was rejuvenated in St. Louis to the tune of .385/.436/.538 in 156 at-bats and hoped to parlay that into a successful free agency contract. The economy changed that, so he signed a one-year, $3.5 million pact with the Diamondbacks in the off-season to replace Orlando Hudson.

So far on the year, Lopez hasn’t quite reclaimed the power that he was supposed to have, as he’s hit six home runs and cranked out 28 doubles for a .412 slugging line. However, when your career slugging percentage is .397, you call that progress. What put Lopez on the radar this year was his hitting over .300 (for now), which would make the first time in his career he’s finished with a line over .300. In 345 at-bats on the year, he’s hitting .301/.364/.412, which is a very good line for a second baseman… at least traditionally. In this day and age of Ian Kinsler and Chase Utley, his .776 OPS ranks him 14th out of 20 qualified second basemen.

Plus, Lopez has garnered a much better understanding of the strike zone: in 2004, he struck out 30.7 percent of the time. He’s cut that down ever since, and is checking in at a career-low 17.1 percent this year. If Lopez keeps up this up through the end of the year, he could land a multi-year deal as a second baseman (I like him for Detroit).

This trade has several ramifications for the Brewers. First, they can send Mat Gamel down to the minor leagues to get regular at-bats and move the Craig Counsell/Casey McGehee platoon over to third base. Second, it gives them tremendous flexibility in future moves. Lopez is able to play shortstop (602 career games at short as opposed to 238 at second) — mind you, not particularly well, but he can — which means the Brewers could make a move to get the disappointing JJ Hardy out of the lineup soon if the club opts to turn back to Gamel.

A different move could also be in order: to deepen the bench, the team could turn Hardy into the season’s second Jhonny Peralta and boot him over to third to make room for the defensive whiz that is Alcides Escobar. Escobar would bring the team tremendous range and while his bat may not play as well, suddenly the Brewers have a ton of mix-and-match options on a daily basis for their infield.

As for who the Diamondbacks got? Gillespie has a shot to serve as a fourth outfielder in the bigs, while Mercedes is a 23-year old still in High-A. Not counting on much from these two; this trade was more about jettisoning Lopez’s remaining salary.

Several people have expressed surprise/disappointment that the Brew Crew didn’t acquire Doug Davis in the deal. The Brewers have a need for a starting pitcher, and there’s been a lot of talk about Davis rejoining the Brewers. Davis pitched over 200 innings three years in a row for the Brewers when he donned their uniform from 2004-6, going 34-34 with a 4.04 ERA. He was later traded along with Dana Eveland and Dave Krynzel in a forgettable trade for Greg Aquino, Johnny Estrada and Claudio Vargas.

Davis is a free agent after the year and has expressed a desire to test free agency, leading to trade speculation. However, scuttlebutt is that Davis and the Diamondbacks may agree on an extension, which likely brought pause to Jon Daniels’ mind about dealing him. Regardless of that development, however, it’s likely the Brewers wanted to keep their starting pitching options open. They can always try to get Davis at a later date, and by waiting, they can explore other deals: Roy Halladay and Brad Penny have also been linked to the club.

At 47-45, the Brewers are three out of the division and still in the hunt for the wild card. Adding Lopez gives the club a shot in the arm offensively, something they lost when Weeks was injured. It gives them a deeper bench, plus loads of options surrounding Gamel, Escobar and Hardy. Now, all they need to do is acquire a dependable starting pitcher and suddenly the Brew Crew might be the favorites to win the NL Central.

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