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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brewers 2010: Back to the Playoffs!

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A year ago the Milwaukee Brewers entered the baseball season fresh from their first playoff appearance in a generation. Optimists thought the Brewers’ potent offense, led by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and the arrival of closer Trevor Hoffman would take Milwaukee back to the postseason. Pessimists feared the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets would leave a fatal void in the starting rotation.

The pessimists were right. The Brewers’ rotation was the worst in the National League (5.37 earned-run average), which meant a capable bullpen wore down as the season progressed. Fielder and Braun lived up to their talent, but a possible breakout season for Rickie Weeks ended in May with a wrist injury and the team suffered big letdowns by J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart. Still, the Brewers fell just short of a winning season at 80-82.

Now a new season begins with big changes on the Brewers’ roster.

Left-handers Randy Wolf and Doug Davis were signed to shore up the rotation.

Two key positions up the middle belong to youngsters, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Carlos Gomez, and there’s a new starting catcher in Gregg Zaun. Optimists think that even modestly improved pitching and a consistent offense can carry the Brewers back to the postseason. Pessimists think there are too many question marks.

Count the Fairly Detached Observers among the positive thinkers.

Frank: So far, the Brewers have reason to be encouraged about their No. 1 task—improving the rotation.

Artie: The top three starters, however Ken Macha lines them up, are Yovani Gallardo, Wolf and Davis. With a week to go until Opening Day, they had a cumulative spring-training ERA of 3.99 over 13 games, with one bad outing for Gallardo and Davis doing most of the damage.

Frank: And No. 4 Dave Bush, whose ’09 went south after he got nailed on the arm by a line drive, was at 2.13 over three outings. Yeah, it's only spring training, but those numbers are promising—unlike Manny Parra's 6.32, virtually the same as his ’09 mark, and Jeff Suppan's highly unappetizing 7.71.

Artie: But "Soup" hasn't lost his Ned Yost-ian ability to see a mansion in a mud wallow. After giving up four homers in four innings to the Giants in mid-March, he said, "I thought I moved the ball around pretty well."

Frank: As in, a couple sailed over the right-field fence and a couple went out to left? But here's the thing: With young lefty Chris Narveson pitching well—no earned runs in his first three spring games—the five-man rotation doesn't have to include Parra or Suppan. Parra can keep working with the new pitching coach, Rick Peterson, as a second lefty in the bullpen behind Mitch Stetter.

Artie: And Suppan can move to his new role as a $12 million "situational" righty—the situation being that if the Crew is down by 12 runs, "It's Soup time!"

Frank: The thing is, I believe the rotation doesn't have to get hugely better to accomplish what the Brewers need, given their ability to produce runs. If you knock even a half-run off last year's 5.37, it could mean eight or 10 extra wins that could take the division.

Artie: It's not like they're expecting Wolf and Davis to be another Sabathia. They just have to live up to their career stats, ain’a?

Frank: Look at the ’09 stats for the top pitching studs—Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander. I think only Halladay and Lincecum averaged 7 innings per start; the others were around 6 2/3. That's the way the game is played now—if a guy gets into the seventh, the manager jumps for joy. No team wants its starters to average 8 innings, but every team wants ’em to at least get 18 outs consistently.

Artie: It's the difference between a guy going 5 1/3 or 6 1/3—and keeping it close. And the bullpen here looks pretty good. The Sporting News ranks it the best in the N.L. Central.

Frank: LaTroy Hawkins, whom they signed to set up Hoffman, had some shoulder stiffness but seems OK now. Todd Coffey and Claudio Vargas are still looking solid and there's no reason to think that Hoffman will suddenly realize that he's 42 years old.

Artie: Looking at the offense, there's some concern that they've lost something. But I don't really see it. Yes, there's a question of whether Carlos Gomez will hit as well as Mike Cameron did. Gomez won't hit 20-plus homers like Cameron, but they're hoping Gomez's speed will get him on base for Braun and Fielder to drive in.

Frank: The spring stats are mixed; with a week to go Gomez was hitting .310, but his on-base percentage was only .333. And last year he and Cameron both struck out in roughly 25% of their at-bats.

Artie: But from everything we hear, Gomez's defense is at least as good as Cameron's, so he should help the pitchers that way. As good as Cameron was, sometimes he looked a step slow last year.

Frank: It started with the ’08 playoffs, that drive in Philadelphia by Chase Utley that he couldn't hold, which cost them Game 1. And last year he had several misplays at crucial moments.

Artie: Otherwise on the offense, I think Alcides Escobar is going to hit a lot better than J.J. Hardy did last year. Where's the loss there?

Frank: It would be hard to produce less than J.J. did in ’09.

Artie: I think Gregg Zaun might be an offensive step up from Jason Kendall. And although Felipe Lopez played well after they got him in July to play second base, a healthy Rickie Weeks will produce a lot more power. He was going great—28 runs scored, 24 knocked in and 9 homers in only 37 games—when his wrist betrayed him.

Frank: You've hit on the key to the Brewers' season, after the pitching—keeping Rickie on the field.

Artie: Absolutely. Weeks solidifies everything offensively, whether he leads off or hits second behind Escobar.

Frank: There are a couple of other concerns. Third baseman Casey McGehee and right fielder Corey Hart were both hitting under .200 with a week to go in camp. There's the fear of a "sophomore jinx" hitting McGehee and messing up the No. 5 spot behind Fielder.

Artie: Hart's had trouble with his vision, finally settling on contact lenses. But he didn't do all that much last year, so there's not much to drop off from. And with Jim Edmonds having an excellent spring, there's a veteran presence as a backup outfielder, like Gabe Kapler was two years ago.

Frank: If Gomez struggles, could Edmonds handle the regular job in center at the age of 40, which he'll be in June? But as a pinch-hitter, spot starter and defensive sub, he looks fine.

Artie: There's no reason to think Braun and Fielder will plummet from last year's combined 78 homers and 255 RBI. But now with Escobar, Gomez and a healthy Weeks, there might be more base-stealing to create runs, too.

Frank: They could hardly steal fewer bases than last year (68). More running would give opposing managers something else to think about. And speaking of managers, it's no secret that Macha isn't especially warm-and-fuzzy with his players. Early in camp he said, "Am I going to change? I'm working on it."

Artie: That puzzles me a little. From the interviews I've seen, he comes across well, and as a pretty smart guy.

Frank: Maybe he's not as big a back-slapper in the clubhouse as Yost may have been. But the formula for good team chemistry is simple: "W I N."

 

The Division Race

Artie: Winning is exactly what I think they're gonna do, at least in the N.L. Central.

Frank: Me too. A number of things have to go right, but that's true of any team. Plus the attitude is just as it's been since ’08: The future is now. In this market, management can't count on tons of money for big-name contracts, and specifically they can't count on keeping Fielder beyond 2011. So management will try to do whatever it takes to win this year.

Artie: The main thing, as always, is to stay healthy—especially Weeks. And in the division race, I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid about the Cardinals being such easy favorites.

Frank: I question their durability. Carpenter had a great ’09 but barely pitched the previous two years. Who's to say that won't happen again? And Albert Pujols has these nagging things—a seemingly perennial aching elbow, a back problem this spring—and if he goes down, good night.

Artie: They've turned third base over to a kid, David Freese, so there's potential failure there. Catcher Yadier Molina is iffy for the start of the season with one of those side-muscle things that can linger. Ryan Franklin was great as a closer last year, but will he stay that way? And can Carpenter and Adam Wainwright really be as good as they were last year (36-12)?

Frank: We're saying enough will go wrong for the Cards and enough right for the Brewers. And as for the Cubs…

Artie: They did some great "addition by subtraction" by getting Seattle to take Milton Bradley, but they're still full of head cases.

Frank: Carlos Zambrano supposedly is rededicated to growing up, but that might end with the first 3-2 call he doesn't get. Alfonso Soriano is amazingly undisciplined at the plate and possibly the worst outfielder in baseball.

Artie: Ted Lilly is starting the season on the disabled list. The fifth starter is Carlos Silva, who almost makes Jeff Suppan look like Greg Maddux. And has Carlos Marmol ever proved he can be the closer over a full season? He had 93 strikeouts in 74 innings last year, but also walked 65.

Frank: Elsewhere in the N.L. Central, I think the Astros will be so bad that they'll hand the Pirates a rare fifth-place finish. But how about the team you called a sleeping giant last year, the Reds?

Artie: They committed $30 million for a young Cuban pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, but the lefty has had back problems. Their previous mound phenom, Edinson Volquez, is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. But there's still a lot of young talent, and if Scott Rolen has a revival at third base they'll have some pop. I say they edge the Cubs for third place.

Frank: So we both say the Brew Crew will take the N.L. Central, and I think the Cardinals will be the wild-card team. On to the other divisions!

 

N.L. East

Frank: Is there anyone who can stop the Phillies? They're trying to become the first N.L. team since the 1942-’44 Cardinals to reach three straight World Series.

Artie: I think the Braves could do it. Real good starting pitching and maybe a new young star in outfielder Jason Heyward.

Frank: I think the old guys at the corners, Chipper Jones at third and newcomer Troy Glaus at first, are too old. And so is Billy Wagner, who's trying to come off Tommy John surgery and be the closer.

Artie: But speaking of bullpens, the Phillies have big questions there. Brad Lidge imploded last year; does he have one more upswing on the roller-coaster? And although they added Halladay to the rotation, Cole Hamels had a bad ’09.

Frank: Still, I think the Phillies have enough, especially on offense, to repeat.

Artie: Don't forget the Marlins, who find a way to be competitive while spending a buck two-eighty on payroll. But yeah, I think the Braves may be a year away from dumping the Phillies.

Frank: Two things seem certain. Washington has no chance, and this year neither do the Mets—music to this Yankee fan's ears.

 

N.L. West

Frank: I'm convinced the Dodgers are over the hill.

Artie: They didn't add much of anything over the winter. And Manny Ramirez may be done; he didn't produce a lot after his drug suspension last year. It looks like Colorado should win that division.

Frank: I always wonder whether the Rockies really have the pitching they seem to have. But they always have the offense, and I'm picking them too.

Artie: The Giants have the best pitching staff, top to bottom, in the league. But can they score enough runs, which they didn't last year? I think it'll go Rockies, Giants, Dodgers, with San Fran as the N.L. wild card.

 

A.L. East

Frank: I'd love to see Tampa Bay return to the playoffs—at the expense of Boston, of course. But I don't think the Rays' pitching is as strong as it was in ’08.

Artie: Not enough to top the Yankees or Red Sox.

Frank: I don't think the Yankees hurt themselves very much losing Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon.

Artie: They picked up Curtis Granderson for center field, which should be real good.

Frank: And although we talked about John Lackey being overpriced, he was a real good pickup for the Red Sox rotation.

Artie: And Adrian Beltre at third base. In Fenway Park he should really hit well.

 

A.L. Central

Frank: The usual suspects here—White Sox, Tigers and Twins scrambling for a title with fewer than 90 wins.

Artie: Boy, everyone's gonna love those open-air games at the Twins' new stadium. They'll need a frostbite ward in April and September.

Frank: Another big chill is that closer Joe Nathan is out for the season.

They gave Joe Mauer his huge contract and Jason Morneau is back from injury, but Nathan's loss could be decisive.

Artie: I'm going with the White Sox, assuming Jake Peavy is healthy again to go 1-2 with Mark Buehrle. But the Tigers could be a surprise.

Frank: Assuming Miguel Cabrera keeps his head screwed on right after his alcohol antics of last year. I'll pick the Tigers, but it's a tossup.

 

A.L. West

Frank: Just like in the N.L. West, I believe L.A.'s time has passed. No special reason except that after winning five of the last six division titles, they're due for a fall.

Artie: It could happen; last year Texas and Seattle surprised folks with winning records.

Frank: This year I'm saying Seattle, even though they gave themselves a case of Milton Bradley-itis. I like their new infielders, Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson, and their pitching looks real good—assuming the abdominal strain bothering Cliff Lee doesn't become a long-term thing.

Artie: Pitching got Texas into contention last year, but it might not hold up again. Rich Harden is their No. 2 and he never lasts a full season. But the Rangers can score, and if I was sure Josh Hamilton would stay healthy, I'd pick them to win. But I'll say the Angels have one more year in ’em.

2010-03-31

 

 

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