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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Brewers 2012: Touch 'Em All?

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Last year the Brewers got halfway to the ultimate baseball goal, winning a division championship and a playoff series for the first time in 29 years before falling to St. Louis in the National League Championship Series. This year there are some big changes, especially the loss of Prince Fielder to free agency. Mat Gamel is the first baseman now, and the left side of the infield is also new with Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and Aramis Ramirez at third.

But the 2011 league MVP, Ryan Braun, is still around, along with Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Jonathan Lucroy. And the Brewers' pitching, a major force last year, is intact—starters Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, and the late-game tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

Enough reasons to think the Brewers can repeat their 2011 showing and even take the last two steps? There are doubters, but the Observers aren't among them.

Frank
: The Brewers aren't getting much love in several of the season predictions.

Artie
: Somehow a bunch I've seen—ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Athlon Sports preseason magazine—put them in third place. With the rotation and the back of the bullpen unchanged and the defense improved? I don't get it! Not having Fielder is enough to knock them down to third freakin' place? Is Gamel that much of a question mark?

Frank
: I guess it's more about whether Ramirez can “cover” Braun adequately from the cleanup spot.

Artie
: Of course they lost a lot of homers and RBIs with Fielder. And yes, they're changing three-fourths of the infield. But doesn't everybody say pitching is the most important part of the game? And they for dang sure have the best pitching in the division at this point, ain'a?

Frank
: Best in the Central last year in ERA, WHIP and opponents' batting average.

Artie
: Besides, every team has question marks. Unlike last year, when the Phillies were supposed to have no weaknesses...

Frank
: Or the Red Sox. The two “inevitable” forces last year were the Phillies and Boston, and where were they in late October?

Artie
: So how can the Cardinals not be doubted when they've lost Albert Pujols, the most feared, awesome slugger in everyone's opinion but mine? Somehow they get a pass on question marks?

Frank
: And nobody knows when Chris Carpenter will be able to pitch because of a bulging disc in his neck. I know Adam Wainwright is back, and they went all the way last year without him, but if Carpenter is out for a long time, how can that not hurt them?

Artie
: On offense the big argument seems to be, “Yeah, but they've got Carlos Beltran now.” He's almost 35 and has had lots of injuries, but Beltran instead of Pujols is just dandy while Ramirez instead of Fielder is a big worry? And can Lance Berkman, who's kind of rickety too, repeat the “comeback” year he had in '11?

Frank
: Of course, pitching can go south from one year to the next, and Marcum has had some shoulder problems in camp and needs to get over his terrible postseason...

Artie
: But another thing about the Cardinals. Their closer, Jason Motte—well, he looked good in September, one month of the season, but Axford showed he could handle a whole season of closing after taking over from Trevor Hoffman in 2010. Can Motte do the same this year?

Frank
: How about the Cardinals' bullpen in general? For much of last year it was a huge liability, but something just clicked in September and October. Bullpens rise and fall all the time, but is there some big reason to think that Axford and "K-Rod" will melt down this year?

Artie
: And the Cardinals don't have Dave Duncan as their pitching coach anymore. He left along with my all-time favorite villain, Tony La Russa.

Frank: How about Cincinnati, which seems to be a popular choice this year? You've liked the Reds in the past.

Artie
: For one thing, they just lost their expected closer, Ryan Madson, for the season with a blown elbow.

Frank
: Lefty Sean Marshall, whom they got this winter from the Cubs, could take Madson's place, but Dusty Baker has been hedging on that—maybe because Marshall has exactly seven big-league saves in his career.

Artie
: Then there's Aroldis Chapman, the flame-throwing Cuban lefty, whom they can't seem to figure out how to use. For a while it seemed he'd be a starter, then a setup guy—now will they want him to close?

Frank
: I saw Chapman have a phenomenal outing at Miller Park last July—two perfect innings, four strikeouts, 16 of 23 pitches for strikes and the scoreboard had him over 100 miles an hour seven times. But there were other times when he couldn't find the plate, and he even was sent down to the minors for a spell.

Artie
: Let's look at his 2011 stats: Only 50 innings pitched, in which he gave up only 24 hits and had 71 strikeouts, but also walked 41 guys.

Frank
: Tons of potential, sure, but can he get it together for a whole season?

Artie
: Then you look at the Reds' starters and, yeah, Johnny Cueto had a nice '11 and Mat Latos was a nice pickup from San Diego, but after that it's Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. How are they better than Marcum, Wolf and Narveson?

Frank
: Back to the Brewers. They've improved a lot defensively at shortstop with Gonzalez replacing Yuniesky Betancourt. Weeks, as always, has the issue of staying healthy, and yes, he's a liability to some extent on defense. Ramirez is getting on the old side...

Artie
: He's no Gold Glover, but he's definitely a step up from Casey McGehee on defense.

Frank
: Ramirez can be spectacular in the field, but I've always thought he falls in love with his arm too much—he'll make a nice stop, do a little nonchalant posing and then maybe gun the ball wildly.

Artie
: With Gamel, in terms of defense, who knows? Will he be any worse than Fielder was? On offense, the couple of times he was up in past years he didn't show much, but he was up mostly as a temporary DH in interleague games. And he did have a strong season at Nashville last year.

Frank
: He won't match Fielder's power numbers, and he doesn't have to. They can get enough run production from him, Ramirez, Weeks and Hart—and hey, pitchers can't duck Braun every at-bat. He's struggled in camp, but who knows what that means? A little holdover from his still-mysterious avoidance of a suspension for a positive drug test?

Artie
: They're in a lot better shape than they would have been if they'd been without Fielder and Braun for the first 50 games. I just don't get the notion of the Brewers running third.

Frank
: Of course it's possible, but what makes these other two teams so clearly better?

Artie
: I'm not buying it. I've got the Brewers for first.

Frank
: Me too, although I think the Reds will grab a wild-card spot. Adding a second wild card helps the Brewers' postseason chances, and so does the fact that Houston is still in the N.L. for one last year. The Brewers play the woeful Astros 17 times, and the rebuilding Cubs another 17. When more than 20% of your schedule is against those two clubs, you have to like your chances.

Artie
: Of course the Cardinals and Reds get to play those teams, too, but in terms of piling up enough wins, you're better off in this division than in the East, with the improved Marlins and Nationals as well as the Braves and Phillies.

The Rest of the N.L.

Frank: In the N.L. East, I say this is the year the Phillies surrender the division title. Ryan Howard won't be back from his torn Achilles' until June at the earliest, and Chase Utley is out indefinitely with the same knee problem that plagued him last year. They still have the pitching of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, which carried them last year, but I just don't see it this time.

Artie
: I'm looking at the Phillies for third, with an outside shot at fourth behind Washington.

Frank
: I'm going with Miami—remember, no more “Florida”—to win the division. Their pitching looks really good, with Josh Johnson, the newly acquired Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Heath Bell as the closer…

Artie
: And don't forget Carlos Zambrano.

Frank: Wow, Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen in the same dugout? It'll either be a love fiesta or a question of who strangles who.

Artie
: And with their new stadium, they could have a tremendous season. They've got good young position players.

Frank
: And a great left side of the infield, assuming Hanley Ramirez doesn't sulk about Jose Reyes taking over at short—and Reyes keeps his tender hamstrings in one piece.

Artie
: I'm picking Atlanta to nose out the Marlins, even though the Braves collapsed down the stretch last year. They still have that good pitching, but they need Jason Heyward to make a big comeback.

Frank
: And Chipper Jones, who's said this is his last year, needs a quick recovery from a knee procedure.

Artie
: And be on the watch for the Nationals. There's always a team that comes out of nowhere. Last year it was the Indians for a while, then the Diamondbacks.

Frank
: Speaking of whom, the N.L. West has all sorts of pitching, too.

Artie
: That's what makes the Giants my choice: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner—-plus the return of catcher Buster Posey from that terrible injury last year. And Freddy Sanchez missed a lot of time last year. But still, Arizona looked awfully good at the end of the year, including the tough five games against the Brewers.

Frank
: I'll pick Arizona to repeat in the division. The Giants just don't score a lot. And the Dodgers are a possibility, too.

Artie
: They do have some pitching, not just in Clayton Kershaw, and Matt Kemp sounds like he's on a mission to show that he, not Braun, should have been last year's MVP. But it'll really be tough to pass the other two.

Frank
: Now for the N.L. wild cards, who'll play a one-game showdown to get to the division series. We'll discuss the wisdom and effects of that scenario as the season goes on, but for now I'm saying the Phillies' pitching will get them one spot and the Reds will grab the other,

Artie
: After praising the D-Backs, I've got to give them one wild card. And for the other...

Frank
: You don't want to abandon the Reds completely, do you?

Artie
: Actually, I'm going to say Miami. To heck with the Reds this time.



And in the A.L…
.

Frank: As my friends know all too well, I routinely pick the Yankees to go all the way. But the last time they actually did that, in '09, I didn't pick them, so maybe I shouldn't this time. But they really did improve their pitching over the winter—by addition with Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda and by subtraction through dumping A.J. Burnett with Pittsburgh. So I'll stick with my boyhood team.

Artie
: But Pineda just went on the DL with a bad shoulder. Who knows how bad that might turn out? My pick is Tampa Bay; lots of pitching there, too.

Frank
: In the A.L. Central, it seems like every year another team takes over.

Artie
: But not this year. Detroit is just too talented, especially after adding the porky Prince.

Frank
: Agreed. I don't see the White Sox or Indians at all, and Kansas City is still too young. And for the Twins to return to the top, both Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer would have to return to their production from five or six years ago. And that doesn't seem likely.

Artie
: In the West, I think Texas will do it again. I think the Angels are relying too much on aging guys like Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells...

Frank
: Even Mr. Pujols is getting up there. Still, I'll say the Angels win the division but Texas gets a wild card, along with Tampa Bay.

Artie
: I'll let the Yankees be a wild card, and I'll even let them win the one-and-done with the Angels. But Detroit will bounce the Bronx Bombers out of the postseason yet again, and then take the pennant over the Rays.

Frank
: Of course I'll send the Yankees all the way to the World Series, beating the Angels and Tigers on the way. But although I think the Brewers have a good shot at the N.L. pennant, I can't bring myself to predict a Brewers-Yankees World Series. It's my worst nightmare; I wouldn't be able to watch any of it!

Artie
: And you sure wouldn't be able to go out in public with any “NY” logos showing.

Frank
: I'm getting a stomach ache already! So I'll say Miami takes the pennant and the Yankees get their revenge for the '03 World Series.

Artie
: I've got the Brew Crew going all the way, beating Arizona again and then the Giants. And in the World Series with Detroit, it'll be the ultimate payback: “In your face, Blubber Boy!”