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Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

No Reason to Suspend 2012 Hopes

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Even during a winter that's been far from bitter, the words sound so sweet: "Pitchers and catchers report..."

When the Brewers start gathering in Arizona this weekend, they'll have plenty of reasons to be confident: the experience gained from winning a division championship and a playoff series; the return of a solid starting rotation and finishing tandem; and plenty of offensive talent.


But there are challenges, too: adjusting to the departure of Prince Fielder; blending three new starters into the infield; and retooling the rest of the bullpen. And there's the strong possibility the team's top star, Ryan Braun, will miss the first 50 games with a suspension for a failed drug test.


Frank:
We probably should assume that Braun will be unavailable for those 50 games, even if he didn't intentionally take a banned substance. Major League Baseball's policy is that strict.

Artie:
And slow. MLB sure takes its time on these things, ain'a? The hearing ended on Jan. 20.

Frank:
Of course Braun would be missed, as will Fielder, but with so many 2011 contributors returning, there's no reason to think a suspension would wreck the Brewers' chances this season. I suppose they would plan to use the newly signed Norichika Aoki in left field, and if he hits anything like he did in Japan, he'll be on base a lot for somebody to drive in.

Artie:
They also signed Corey Patterson recently for outfield insurance, and they have Logan Schafer, who made a big march through the minors last year and hit .331 in 40 games for Nashville.

Frank:
If there were no rainouts, Braun wouldn't be eligible to come back until May 31.

Artie:
Just in time to fly out to Los Angeles, shake hands with MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and hand him the award—at least in the wishes of some.

Frank:
That's an issue we'll address later, if Braun is suspended. What's clear is that if the Brewers had to play 50 games without Fielder and Braun, they'd be relying heavily on the new third baseman and cleanup hitter, Aramis Ramirez, to supply some power.

Artie:
At the Brewers' "On Deck" fan fest I heard an interview with Ramirez, and he seemed like an OK guy, but I started to wonder, exactly how old is he? Plus I had a notion that maybe he's missed a lot of games in the last few years.

Frank:
Let's turn to the trusty baseball-reference.com...

Artie:
Last year he played 149 games. If the Brew Crew gets 149 out of him, great. The year before, 124 games, and in 2009, just 82.

Frank:
That was the year he wrecked his left shoulder trying to make a diving play at Miller Park in May.

Artie:
The year before that, '08, he played 149 games. But in '07, just 132. So that's three of the last five years where he's missed significant time. And he turns 34 in June.

Frank:
And if they did lose Ramirez for a long spell, who would play third? Casey McGehee is gone; Mat Gamel is pegged for first and his defense at third was never good anyway. So it would presumably be either the youngster Taylor Green, whom I think they want to season a little more, or this year's version of Craig Counsell.

Artie:
They picked up a veteran, Cesar Izturis, to be the utility infielder. But he's been mostly a shortstop in the big leagues.

Frank:
Still, there's no reason to think Ramirez is especially brittle; we're just being worrywarts because that's what fans do.

Artie:
I wanted to check on Alex Gonzalez, too. And he just turned 35, so there's a little bit of a red flag there.

Frank:
But as we always say, staying healthy is the key for every player and every team.

Artie:
And on defense Gonzalez and Ramirez are definitely an improvement over Yuniesky Betancourt and McGehee.

Frank:
Neither has won a Gold Glove, but I think they stack up fairly well in some of those cool new statistics that claim to measure range in the field. That's important, especially since three-quarters of the infield is changing and no one knows how good Gamel will be.

Artie:
He did spend a lot of last season at first for Nashville—102 games with 11 errors.

Frank:
The Journal Sentinel had some interesting quotes from Corey Hart, whom the Brewers apparently see as playing first against some left-handers. Of course the right fielder said he'd do whatever the team wants, but he also said, "I'll be as good as they let me be. I'll do every drill they throw my way. I told (Ron Roenicke) it's their fault if I don't get good over there."

Artie:
In other words, don't expect much if he doesn't get some real work at the position.

Frank:
And there was a troubling quote from Rickie Weeks, who said he's still not completely recovered from that badly sprained left ankle. He said, "They kind of warned me that something like this would probably take some time... But I'm pretty optimistic." If Weeks isn't 100% while Braun is missing for 50 games, that could be trouble.

Artie:
That injury happened in late July, and it was a pretty upsetting-looking thing.

Frank:
It wasn't as horrible as Jason Kendall's broken ankle with Pittsburgh in 1999, but it was as bad as it can be without a break.

Artie:
In the outfield, Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez worked out pretty well as a platoon late last season. After Gomez came back from his broken collarbone, he seemed to have more of a clue at the plate.

Frank:
As for the pitching, Shaun Marcum recently told the Journal Sentinel he was adjusting his delivery to use his legs and backside more, trying for more velocity.

Artie:
No one had any argument with his delivery during the season, when he was 13-7 with a 3.54 ERA.

Frank:
The postseason was the opposite—0-3 and 14.90—but I think everyone agrees with him that "It just so happened I hit my funk at the wrong time."

Artie:
Amen to that. It was the worst possible time to turn into Shaun Suppan.

Frank:
But the good news is that the Brewers have all five starters returning, apparently with no health issues...

Artie:
This time Zack Greinke presumably will stay away from pickup basketball, keep his rib cage intact and not miss the first month.

Frank:
And the two studs at the back of the bullpen, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, are back.

Artie:
But they have some work to do with the rest of the bullpen since LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Angels and Takashi Saito with Arizona.

Frank:
The holdovers include Kameron Loe, Marco Estrada and Tim Dillard, and they added Jose Veras from Pittsburgh in the McGehee trade. Last year Veras had 79 strikeouts in 71 innings...

Artie:
But also 34 walks, or 4.3 per nine innings. A little scary.

Frank:
The usual bullpen strategy in spring training is to bring in a legion of arms and see which ones perform best. This time the Brewers can be more choosy because of "K-Rod" and Axford.

Artie:
But a lot still depends on getting to the eighth with a lead. That's where missing Braun might really have an effect.

Frank:
In those first two months they have six games with St. Louis, seven with the Dodgers, three with Cincinnati, six with the Giants, three at Atlanta and three at Arizona. That's 28 games against tough-looking opponents.

Artie:
Really, you can pick any 50-game stretch and find roughly the same thing. And being down a superstar is no good anytime!
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