A BANNER COMEBACK OR A WHITE FLAG?
The numbers were hardly encouraging for the Brewers heading into the all-star break. At 40-45 they were fourth in the National League Central, eight games behind surprising Pittsburgh and seven behind Cincinnati. They were closer in the hunt for the two wild-card spots, but trailing seven teams.
What's changed since last year, when they hit the break at 49-43 en route to the division title? A slew of injuries to key players has had a huge impact, but as the chart on this page shows, the offense is producing runs at about the same clip as 2011—even with Prince Fielder gone and Rickie Weeks hitting under .200. It's the pitching that's fallen off, performing near the bottom of the NL rankings in key categories.
Milwaukee still has 77 games to turn things around, but how realistic is that hope? With pitching ace Zack Greinke and several others headed for free agency, should the Brewers become “sellers” at this month's trading deadline and retool for 2013?
Frank: So Greinke wound up with back-to-back starts in Houston, thanks to his bizarre ejection after four pitches Saturday. And now he'll probably become the first pitcher since 1917 to start three straight games in the same season.
Artie: There's something about this guy that I really like. I get the sense when he's on the field that he's in such a zone, he's not thinking about how he's perceived by anyone, it's like he's in a sandlot game and he's just out to win. I find it appealing.
Frank: I was impressed by his quotes after the ejection by umpire Sam Holbrook for spiking the ball after a safe call at first. The ejection was just disgraceful; Holbrook couldn't figure out that Greinke was mad at himself for not beating the runner?
Artie: Holbrook could have paused, asked Greinke, “Do we have a problem here?” But no, here's another ump who thinks he's bigger than the game.
Frank: But after the game Greinke took it on himself, saying, “I put him in a bad position and he had to make a decision.”
Artie: A lousy one!
Frank: Greinke's quote is another example of his uncommon candor. I don't know if it has to do with the social anxiety disorder he's coping with, but when he talks it seems there are none of the usual filters or dampers that most ballplayers use.
Artie: No Ryan Braun book of cliches, ain'a?
Frank: It certainly makes Greinke a unique personality. And I wonder if that might make him willing to take less than top dollar to stay in Milwaukee, away from the media hotbeds.
Artie: If his agent is just insisting, “We want Matt Cain money,” that might eliminate the Brew Crew, but in Kansas City Greinke had a no-trade list that apparently included the major markets like New York and Chicago.
Frank: Keeping Greinke might not be as much of a pipe dream as keeping CC Sabathia was in 2008. But more immediately, is it a pipe dream to think the Brewers can get back into the playoff race? Or will Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin feel they have to “wave the white flag”?
Artie: What does that mean exactly?
Frank: Declare the season lost, trade who you can and start looking toward 2013. At the very least, it would mean dealing Greinke and Francisco Rodriguez.
Artie: And getting back what?
Frank: Presumably, prospects including a “shortstop of the future.” Alex Gonzalez is a free agent after the season and next spring will be 36 and coming off knee surgery.
Artie: Plus if they trade Greinke, who's 25-9 in his time here, that's a big void to fill in the rotation.
Frank: Shaun Marcum, 18-10 as a Brewer, also has his contract expiring.
Artie: But he's valueless right now because no one knows when, or if, he'll be back from his elbow trouble.
Frank: Randy Wolf is another free agent to be, but the way he's pitched this year (2-6, 5.80 ERA), what could they get for him?
Artie: Getting back in contention is possible, I guess. Weeks had three hits Sunday, putting him at .199...
Frank: Just a point from the “Mendoza line”!
Artie: And over the last three weeks he's been perking up, even though he has 100 whiffs already.
Frank: He was a .255 career hitter entering this season, and if he got anywhere near that it would be a terrific second half.
Artie: Hell, getting to .230 would be terrific. So if Weeks stays hot, and if Jonathan Lucroy returns from his broken hand anything like he was in the first two months—.345 and a likely all-star—and if Braun and Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart keep producing...
Frank: People were worried about losing Fielder as Braun's “protection” in the cleanup spot, but Ramirez has been dependable—.272 and on pace for 20 homers and 100-plus RBI.
Artie: The offense hasn't been the problem, and except for Wolf neither has the rotation.
Frank: Mike Fiers (3-3, 2.31) has been excellent in seven starts as a sub.
Artie: But the bullpen has been dragging the whole club down.
Frank: In the Miami series last week, every one of the main relievers—Jose Veras, “K-Rod” and John Axford—took at least one turn blowing a lead or putting a game out of reach. Last year Axford converted 23 of 25 save chances before the break; this year he's 15 for 20. And K-Rod isn't doing his trade value or 2013 contract value much good.
Artie: Unless Wolf and the bullpen turn themselves around, I don't see much hope.
Frank: The first three series coming out of the break are crucial: the Pirates and Cardinals at home, then at Cincinnati. Let's say they win all three series and go 6-3. Then they'd be just two games under .500 with more than two months to play.
Artie: And in their division, that might bode well. The Pirates were solid for 100 games last year but collapsed in the second half, and the Reds don't look like world-beaters.
Frank: As the Cardinals proved last year, it doesn't matter how easily you make the playoffs—just make 'em! On the other hand, if the Brewers start the “second half” like, 4-5, they'd be six games under .500.
Artie: And then if Texas or Baltimore, who apparently have good infield prospects, make a serious run at Greinke, it'd be tough for Melvin to resist. But boy, that white flag would make it hard to sell tickets for next year.
Frank: It sure would contradict the Brewers' philosophy of last year: “We're all in.”
Artie: Giving up before August sounds pretty meek.
Frank: Mr. Attanasio made some interesting comments recently to a civic group in Brookfield. He said that if the playoffs don't look likely “and we have an opportunity to restock the farm system, then we really must consider doing that...”
Artie: Restocking sounds good, but are they gonna get six guys for Greinke? And the reason they're “prospects” is that they haven't proved they can play in the majors. So many guys in these trades are labeled “can't miss,” but are they?
Frank: Matt LaPorta has missed in Cleveland since going there in the Sabathia deal. He's a .237 hitter in the majors and got shipped back to Triple A this year.
Artie: If there's any chance to re-sign Greinke—wow, a guy like that doesn't come around often. To really contend you need an ace like that.
Frank: Especially if Marcum's elbow problem is chronic and/or he goes elsewhere too.
Artie: I hope Melvin takes a break himself. He's got busy days ahead.
NO THANKS NEEDED
Frank: Once again, the Observers make things happen!
Artie: You betcha. Um, what happened this time?
Frank: We insist that the Bucks re-sign Ersan Ilyasova and voila! It happens.
Artie: And now we insist that Ersan avoid John Salmons Syndrome, also known as "take the money and fizzle."