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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012

Goal 1: Less Bull From the Pen

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Talk about the glass being half-empty or half-full; this season the Brewers' glass almost drained completely, then came close to overflowing. In the first two months, a spate of key injuries helped drop them under .500. From late June through mid-August, an astounding series of meltdowns by relief pitchers threatened to make the year a total disaster. But the final six weeks saw a 29-13 surge that produced a winning record and almost a playoff berth.

That leaves the glass at least half-full of optimism for 2013. There's no reason to doubt the Brewers' offense, and young pitchers made big contributions down the stretch. But everything starts fresh in the spring, and the lesson of 2012 is to expect the unexpected.


Frank: No one will be surprised that our chart shows the Brewers' big problem this year did not involve scoring.

Artie
: Losing Prince Fielder didn't keep ’em from leading the league in runs and homers.

Frank
: Or Ryan Braun from improving on his MVP power numbers, to 41 homers and 112 ribbies. Even without the “protection” of Fielder in the cleanup spot, Braun walked only 63 times, just five more than last year.

Artie
: Thanks, Aramis Ramirez, for your 27-and-105 season! And how about the Brew Crew leading the majors in stolen bases?

Frank
: The chart illustrates the overall decline in pitching, but I have a few more stats that point directly to the bullpen. The most damning is that the Brewers' record in games they led after eight innings was 72-11.

Artie
: ELEVEN leads coughed up that late? That had to be the worst in the majors.

Frank
: I couldn't find a website that showed all teams in that category, but I'll bet you're right. What I can confirm is that the Brewers led the majors with 29 blown saves and 32 one-run losses.

Artie
: Yet somehow they wound up with 83 wins. The bullpen stabilized, but too late. I'll always go back to those three games in Philadelphia in late July.

Frank
: All 7-6 and with leads blown in the ninth, eighth and 10th innings, respectively. The team ERA went up by more than half a run this year, and most of it came from the bullpen. The starters had a season ERA of 3.99, the relievers 4.66.

Artie
: It seems John Axford got himself right again—except for that last disaster in Cincinnati—and Jim Henderson will probably take over the eighth-inning job. Beyond that it looks like lots of new faces in the pen next year. They gotta cut the cord on Manny Parra and Kameron Loe!

Frank
: And there'll be almost a completely new starting rotation, except for Yovani Gallardo. Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf left during the summer, Shaun Marcum is undoubtedly leaving as a free agent, and Chris Narveson might have trouble coming back from shoulder surgery.

Artie
: Youngsters like Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta were bright spots in September, but who knows if they can do it over a full season, ain’a?

Frank
: So Doug Melvin will be looking for a veteran starter, either in free agency or a trade.

Artie
: Uh-oh, that “veteran starter” thing worries me. Melvin's record in acquiring such a guy is not exactly sterling.

Frank
: Greinke and Marcum certainly worked out in 2011, and CC Sabathia in ’08.

Artie
: But you know who I'm thinking about— “Soup” and “Loop.”

Frank
: Jeff Suppan, the $42 million mistake, and Braden Looper, whose 14 wins in ’09 masked a 5.22 ERA and 39 homers allowed.

Artie
: So be careful, Doug. By the way, who'll be out there in the market this winter?

Frank
: The list of potential free-agent starters includes Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Dan Haren, Paul Maholm, Jeremy Guthrie and Francisco Liriano.

Artie
: Several of those guys have medical histories that aren't appealing. Lohse has made himself some money with a real good season, but he's a Cardinal, just like Suppan and Looper were before Melvin signed ’em.

Frank
: Greinke tops the free-agent pitcher list, and some people think the Brewers might have a shot at getting him back. But if he turned down $100 million of Mark Attanasio's money already, why would things change?

Artie
: He did well enough with the Angels, 6-2 and a 3.53 ERA, to increase his asking price. My worst nightmare is that Greinke winds up with the Cardinals!

Frank
: In place of Lohse after the Brewers sign him? I'm sure Tony La Russa would urge the Redbirds to do it, just to vex you.

Artie
: I wouldn't put it past him. I don't know how, but he had to be behind that ridiculous infield-fly call that helped the Cards survive the wild-card game.

Frank
: Of course Melvin could get a starting pitcher through a trade, too.

Artie
: The problem there is that you've got to give up quality to get quality. I've heard some speculation that as well as Corey Hart played in switching to first base, he'd be the best guy to deal for pitching.

Frank
: Or perhaps Rickie Weeks, who did remarkably well to finish even at .230 and 21 homers after that horrible start.

Artie
: I'd hate to see Hart, a 30-homer guy, depart for some No. 2 or 3 starter. And I think Rickie was still feeling last year's ankle injury for much of the season. Maybe they'll try instead to move Mat Gamel or even that strong prospect at first, Hunter Morris, who was an MVP in Double-A.

Frank
: You never know about dealing a top prospect. Brett Lawrie, part of the swap for Marcum, is developing into a star for Toronto. But Matt LaPorta has bombed out with Cleveland since he left in the Sabathia deal.

Artie
: Every season for just about every team, you can play the “what if” game. But I can't remember a Brewer season that had as many what-ifs as this one. What if they hadn't lost Gamel at first and Alex Gonzalez at shortstop so early?

Frank
: And Jonathan Lucroy for six weeks, as he was about to hit his way into the All-Star Game? And what if Marcum hadn't developed that vague elbow problem that sidelined him for two months in mid-season?

Artie
: And most importantly, what if just one of those knuckleheads in the bullpen had been as consistent as everyone expected? They might have gotten by with either Axford or “K-Rod” imploding, but not both! They had 16 blown saves between ’em.

Frank
: The adversity did have its compensations. Hart's shift to first gave Norichika Aoki a chance to prove himself in right field. Lucroy's absence moved Martin Maldonado into the catching picture, and he was impressive. Gonzalez's injury and Greinke's departure produced Jean Segura, who looked good at short. And those young pitchers got a chance to show what they can do at the top level.

Artie
: But in February the anticipatory what-ifs begin! What if Ramirez shows his age? What if the young arms falter? What if Carlos Gomez can't sustain his offensive improvement? What if Axford has another roller-coaster year?

Frank
: There's just not enough certainty in this dang game! But give yourself a vacation from Brewer angst. Now you need to worry about the team that gave up a late lead Sunday in Indianap....

Artie:
This discussion is over!