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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brewers 2011: It's Playoffs Or Disgust

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Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers know all about patience. In 41 seasons since arriving here in 1970, the franchise has played .500 or better baseball just 14 times, with three playoff appearances. A streak of 14 years without a winning record ended in 2007, and the next year the Brewers reached the postseason. But fans' optimism dissolved again in 2009 and '10 as poor pitching sank teams filled with offensive talent.

Now patience has run out, and the Brewers' leadership knows it. Owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin are "all in" for this season after making bold trades for two key pitchers, former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Joining Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf, the newcomers are expected to give the Brewers their best starting rotation in two decades. And with a lineup including Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Casey McGehee and Prince Fielder—perhaps in his final season here—there's no reason to think the Brewers can't win the National League Central Division.

No reason, that is, except the rash of injuries that has hit front-line Brewers, including Greinke and Marcum, during spring training. None of them looks season-ending, but taken together they raise worries. The Observers are trying to stay calm.


Frank:
Before we discuss anything else, I know three great things about this baseball season. One, the Brewers announced back in October that ticket prices would stay at 2010 levels.

Artie:
Which they really had to do because the 77-85 flop last year raised fears that attendance would drop off a cliff. Remember, this was before they had any idea that they'd get Greinke and Marcum.

Frank:
Two, Miller Park has a larger, higher-tech scoreboard.

Artie:
Let's hope the Brewers actually show more replays, even if they're great plays by the opponents. It'd be nice to have fewer commercials, too, but that's a hopeless cause.

Frank:
And three, thanks to my family on Long Island, I'll have tickets for all three of the Brewers' games at Yankee Stadium in June—their first Bronx visit since 1997.

Artie:
Can't wait to get reports on what could be a World Series preview, ain'a?

Frank:
Now, down to business. What are the Brewers' chances to emulate the Packers and add World Series hardware to the Lombardi Trophy? Or at least return to the playoffs?

Artie:
As always, the key is staying healthy. And the March news ain't been too good.

Frank:
Greinke broke a rib playing basketball and won't be ready for opening day. Marcum had shoulder stiffness that forced him to miss some work. Manny Parra has a bad back. Corey Hart has a lingering problem with an "oblique" muscle in his left side. Jonathan Lucroy broke his right pinkie on a bad-hop throw. LaTroy Hawkins is coming back slowly from shoulder surgery. And there were episodes of "tightness" or "strain" in various muscles for Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Gomez and the new shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt.

Artie:
And the young center-field prospect, Logan Schafer, broke a thumb while sliding. That's a fluke thing, but all these muscle strains had the new manager, Ron Roenicke, wondering what the heck these guys were doing in the off-season.

Frank:
Just as you did recently when you suggested that they're doing too much weightlifting.

Artie:
Exactly. The lifting could be exactly the opposite of what's needed in baseball. It adds muscle, yeah, but it can tighten guys up, and when they get to throwing and swinging, they're not loose or limber enough. Roenicke said he'd never seen anything like Hart hurting himself just making a simple throw. Remember, Hart came into camp talking about how he put on 15 pounds of muscle. And Braun talked about how he'd bulked up.

Frank:
Of course, it's very early—and we all know a team that had lots of major injuries early in its season but wound up winning the Super Bowl.

Artie:
So there we go! Let's pencil in the Brewers for the World Series. Doug Melvin is baseball's answer to Ted Thompson!

Frank:
I think the Brew Crew will win their division, which is ripe for the taking.

Artie:
I'm thinking more in terms of second place and the N.L. wild-card spot.

Frank:
Because of defending champion Cincinnati, your favorite "sleeper" team that woke up in 2010?

Artie:
Exactly. As good as the Brewers' rotation looks on paper, I think Cincinnati's is better with Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Travis Wood. And look at their bullpen, with a proven closer in Coco Cordero and the 100-mile-an-hour kid, Aroldis Chapman.

Frank:
But Cincinnati has rotation problems too. Cueto will miss some time with shoulder trouble and Arroyo will have to pitch through mononucleosis.

Artie:
Those things aren't season-ending, though—at least not yet for Cueto—so it leaves the Reds and Brewers even in question marks. The Reds' offense is still strong, led by MVP Joey Votto. If the Brewers are healthy, they can challenge, but I'm picking the Reds just because every time I pick the Brewers I'm wrong.

Frank:
As we both were a year ago in saying the Brewers would be division champs. But I'll take the plunge again, expecting the Crew to be healthy at the right time and the Reds to have trouble duplicating a breakthrough year. And we agree that the Cardinals losing Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery probably is enough to wreck their season.

Artie:
It's all about having the right people on the field. Those oblique and intercostal things in the side can really linger.

Frank:
A related question involves Weeks. He had a great 2010 because he stayed healthy, and he cashed in with a big four-year contract. But was the healthy season an exception?

Artie:
Let's hope he's like Paul Molitor, who missed a lot of games in his early years but got more durable. Here's another big question: How much will Betancourt hurt the defense as the replacement for Alcides Escobar?

Frank:
Everyone expects a drop-off, but Betancourt should produce more runs than Escobar did. Meanwhile, Gomez is excellent in center field, but will he play himself onto the bench again with lousy hitting?

Artie:
He's had a good spring, but once the season starts the guy seems like kind of a knucklehead, chasing bad pitches.

Frank:
Now that the Brewers have traded for Nyjer Morgan, there's sure to be platooning if Gomez starts poorly. Morgan had behavior issues last year in Washington, but he's got great speed.

Artie:
Which works into Roenicke's plan to be more aggressive on the base paths. Speaking of pitch-chasing, that's something I worry about with Fielder, too.

Frank:
This is his "contract" year, so he has a lot of incentive to put up big numbers.

Artie:
But also a lot of pressure if he starts slowly, like last year. And in the Sporting News I saw that the "book" on Braun last year was that he got "pull-happy" because he was trying to overcompensate for Prince.

Frank:
Even though Prince was "covered" well by Casey McGehee in the fifth spot.

Artie:
Fielder wound up with an on-base percentage over .400 because he started taking marginal pitches and walking. But with a huge payday on the horizon, will he go back to chasing big numbers by chasing pitches?

Frank:
The first few weeks of the season could be crucial. In their first 35 games, the Brewers play Cincinnati six times and Atlanta, which looks like a power, eight times.

Artie:
And also Philly three times.

Frank:
With only 13 of the first 35 at Miller Park.

Artie:
I don't like this "tightness" thing with Marcum's shoulder. It always starts with tightness; in 2008 with Toronto he probably felt tightness in his elbow before they told him he needed to get Tommy-Johned. And I'll bet Wainwright's disaster started with "tightness."

 

The Rest of the N.L.

Artie: What'll probably happen in the N.L. East is Florida will play better than anyone expected, the Braves will hang in there, but unless that super-rotation breaks down, it'll be the Phillies.

Frank:
I think Atlanta will get the wild card, although it'll be tough because they'll play the Phillies and Marlins so often.

Artie:
Chase Utley has knee problems, but with Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Phillies can afford to lack a little offense for a while. But their closer, Brad Lidge, has a bad shoulder.

Frank:
Being Lidge-less might not be all that terrible. Even at 100% he's a tightrope-walker. He had a decent 2010 but might be due to repeat his horrible '09. How about the N.L. West?

Artie:
The defending kings, the Giants!

Frank:
Just to be a goof, I'm going with the Rockies, because they're a solid club and because so many things broke right for the Giants last year and yet they ju-u-u-st barely made the playoffs.

Artie:
But this year the Giants may be adding another N.L. rookie of the year in Brandon Belt. What a great name! He plays outfield and first base. Might start the year in the minors, but they'll bring him up the way they did Buster Posey last year. And there's your big offense, especially if a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval has a revival.

Frank:
Still, because it's so hard to repeat and they really cut it thin last year...

Artie:
Colorado isn't a crazy pick. They have some pitching to go with their usual hitting

 

And in the A.L. ...

Frank: This year my Yankees will surely feel the nation's love in their role as plucky underdogs. The Red Sox loaded up this winter with Carl Crawford in left field and Adrian Gonzalez at first, and the Yankees whiffed on Lee and Greinke and just about anyone else they pursued. So they'll play the David role and get lots of sympathy.

Artie:
Dream on. Besides, once they pull off a deal with Seattle for Felix Hernandez...

Frank:
They better pull off something to help their rotation. CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, fine, but how can I or anyone else have confidence in A.J. Burnett? And after that, it's question marks. That's why I can't pick the Yanks to take the A.L. East. But of course they'll wind up winning it all as a wild card.

Artie:
I agree on the wild card, but just like last year I'm taking Boston over Philly in the World Series. Ugh, even as I say it I think it sounds boring. I'd much rather have new blood in the Fall Classic like we did last year. But right now Boston and Philly are the teams with the fewest question marks, which is all you can say in a March prediction anyway. So many things can happen—mid-season trades, minor-league call-ups and, above all, injuries.

Frank:
How many people predicted Giants-Rangers at this time last year?

Artie:
Hell, two weeks ago how many people filled out NCAA brackets with all four No. 1 and 2 seeds out before the Final Four? That might be an omen; maybe by October we'll be talking about Cubs-Cleveland or Houston-Kansas City.

Frank:
In the A.L. Central I'm picking Minnesota to repeat, if only because they won last year without Justin Morneau for half the season and Joe Nathan for the whole season. Both are back.

Artie:
I lean toward the White Sox this year. The offense is there and they have a potential lights-out closer in a young lefty, Chris Sale, who throws 100.

Frank:
In the A.L. West, I don't think Texas' pitching will hold up without Lee.

Artie:
I was leaning toward the Angels, but Kendry Morales still isn't fully recovered from that bizarre broken leg he got in a walk-off homer celebration. So I'll say the Rangers will find enough pitching to repeat.

Frank:
I'm going with Oakland, just because maybe it's their turn again. Of course, I thought it would be Seattle's turn last year and they lost 101 games.

Artie:
Oakland's not a bad pick. They have lots of young pitching, but maybe not enough offense.

Frank:
Sounds like what they were saying on the other side of the Bay Bridge a year ago, and that worked out pretty well.

2011-03-31