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Thursday, March 28, 2013

MILWAUKEE BREWERS 2013: ARMED FOR SUCCESS?

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Last year a stunning mid-season collapse of the Brewers' relief pitching prevented them from repeating as a playoff team. Milwaukee led the National league in runs and homers, and young pitchers helped spark a late-season surge, but it was clear that rebuilding the bullpen was Priority One for 2013.

That's been done, but the newcomers need to prove themselves—and so do the young arms in the starting rotation over a full season. A high-scoring offense won't be enough to extend the season into October.

The Observers looked ahead as the Brewers entered their final week of spring training.

 

Frank: There were real solid starts by Wily Peralta and Chris Narveson on consecutive days last week.

Artie: Which was encouraging because until then the starters weren't doing much to write home about.

F: Both guys went six innings, which is enough to make a modern manager fall to his knees in gratitude. Peralta got cuffed around Sunday, but that was only his fourth outing, and he wasn't in the World Baseball Classic, was he?

A: I don't think so. I see you watched as much of the WBC as I did. Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada pitched for Mexico, and both had nice outings last week. Estrada went into the last week of camp with an ERA of 1.88 and Gallardo's was 4.50, but again we're talking about a limited number of innings.

F: Narveson was at 3.14 through four starts, Peralta at 5.74 and Mike Fiers was at 6.98 through six outings. Mark Rogers was at an even 7.00 and pitched himself out of consideration for the rotation.

A: Rogers had what was called a "loss of command" and "loss of velocity." Cry me a river; I haven't had command or velocity for years.

F: I've had my doubts about Estrada as a No. 2 starter but he was impressive last year with a 3.64 ERA in 23 starts, the most of any returning guy except Gallardo.

A: You could look at a lot of teams and ask, "Who is that at No. 2?" Outstanding rotations are mighty rare; the Giants sure have one, and the Dodgers hope they do...

F: But Zack Greinke, who'll pocket at least $147 million over the next six years, has had some elbow trouble. The Dodgers say he's OK again, but...

A: I'm glad the Brew Crew isn't on the hook for all that dough.

F: As for the Brewers' bullpen, the spring ERAs for the acquisitions are mixed. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny went into the final week at 3.12 and righty Burke Badenhop at 2.57, but lefty Mike Gonzalez was at 5.40. And closer John Axford was carrying a 6.75, with his main setup guy, Jim Henderson, at 5.68.

A: Again, we're talking about low innings pitched, and one bad inning can really inflate an ERA. But it is a little concerning.

F: In Gorzelanny and Gonzalez, manager Ron Roenicke has two "situational" guys he can bring in to face lefty hitters. That's something else a modern manager prays for.

A: But if you're routinely using two guys to get one hitter each, that means you're probably using four or five relievers per game, even when you win.

F: Then in June we start hearing about the bullpen getting "fried."

A: And everyone sounds stunned, like it happened by black magic.

F:: With Gallardo the issue always is how many pitches he'll need to get through the sixth inning. I think he fails to reach the seventh too often for an "ace."

A: And when that happens and they use two one-batter lefties... Well, people better bring overnight bags because they're gonna be there a while.

F: On the offensive side, the Brewers seem to have no shortage of guys hitting well.

A: Including Carlos Gomez, whom they rolled the dice on with a three-year, $24 million contract extension.

F: At first I thought Gomez was the poster boy for ridiculous overpayment—until I remembered Nick Swisher will make $56 million over four years with Cleveland.

A: There sure ain't no salary cap in baseball.

F: Yet there's at least as much diversity of post-season teams as in football, and far more than in basketball.

A: The Crew is hoping Gomez's nice second half of '12 will stay with him and improve his discipline at the plate.

F: And while the Brewers had decided to trim payroll this season, they’ve just signed 34-year-old veteran starting pitcher Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract.

A: Given the Brewers' record with aging free agents—Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, Randy Wolf—it will be interesting to see how this turns out. Lohse was 16-3 with a 2.38 ERA for St. Louis last year. If he comes close to duplicating those numbers, it ought to be worth the dough.

F: The only pressing issue in the starting lineup is first base, with Corey Hart apparently out until May and Mat Gamel lost for another season with a wrecked knee.

A: Good thing Alex Gonzalez was available to re-sign, initially as the utility infielder but now as a fill-in—and neophyte— first baseman.

F: There's a good chance Blake Lalli, a backup catcher who can play first, will platoon with Gonzalez.

A: Lalli hits lefty, which is always good, and he's been well over .300 in the exhibitions.

F: Along with Gomez, Rickie Weeks, young shortstop Jean Segura...

A: Which probably means they'll all go "0 for April."

F: I see you're worry-warting in mid-season form.

A: Hey, we're talking about the Brewers. As they say, "Please root responsibly."

F: One guy who wasn't hitting much until last week was Ryan Braun.

A: He may be sitting at home soon waiting for a 50-game suspension to pass.

F: Major League Baseball says it's investigating everyone whose name was listed by that shady clinic in Florida, but I don't buy the idea that Braun is a "special target." Why would MLB want to lose one of its top stars, even if it was angered by his successful appeal of that positive drug test in '11?

A: One theory is that it's part of a strategy to lessen the power of the players' union. But it ticks me off that nobody in management—field managers, team executives, MLB itself—ever gets any heat for helping "enable" the drug users.

F: Besides Lalli, another guy who could make the team is Khris Davis.

A: Even though he can play only left field, he could be valuable off the bench as a righty bat with power. He's hit six homers in Arizona.

F: Throw in Aramis Ramirez, Norichika Aoki and Jonathan Lucroy and there's no reason to think the offense will drop off.

A: It better not because there are too many pitching questions! That's why I expect 81-81 and third place in the NL Central. Sure, there's a chance they might luck out with young pitchers like Oakland did last year. But I just don't see it.

F: Well, just for kicks I'll say that I do see it. The Brewers win the division!

A: You're a gentleman and a scholar, I hope.

 

THE DIVISION

F: But your pick in the NL Central is...

A: Cincinnati again. That offense is pretty darn good, and they had a really strong bullpen last year—which is no guarantee, of course.

F: And for second place?

A: The Cardinals, though it pains me to say it. They just seem to find a way to plug whatever holes come up. I've read that they're supposed to have the highest-rated farm system in the majors.

F: Looks like they may never have Chris Carpenter again, but he was out for almost all of last season and they still made the playoffs. But now they've lost their shortstop, Rafael Furcal, for the season.

A: They'll find someone.

F: And after the third-place Brewers I assume you have Pittsburgh.

A: Yeah. They have a lot of good young players but you never know what they're capable of...

F: The last two years they were capable of a great first half and a terrible collapse in August and September. But I've got them for second place this year, partly because I really want to see them get their first winning record since 1992. Then I have the Reds and Cardinals, and of course the Cubs in last place.

A: I know the division is smaller this year because the Astros went to the other league, but I'm predicting that the Cubs will find a way to finish fifth and sixth.

F: The Brewers' games against Houston are dropping from 17 last year to only three. Then again, they were only 9-8 against the 107-loss Astros.

A: But the Crew was 13-4 against the Cubbies. And this year they play 'em 19 times. I can't wait for those!

 

THE REST OF BASEBALL

F: How about the NL East, where Washington is touted as a budding superteam? I've got them winning the division.

A: Me too, although Atlanta looks mighty good too. But I have the Nationals winning the whole shebang.

F: If that happens, people might attribute it to the addition of a fifth "racing president," D.C.'s version of our sausages.

A: Who's joining George, Tom, Abe and Teddy?

F: None other than the Big T, William Howard Taft.

A: Wow, do they have enough material to make a costume that big? And why him?

F: I guess it has something to do with the real-life feud he had with Mr. Roosevelt, his predecessor. And he can be a foil for Teddy. The gag always was that Teddy, who sports a big grin, never won because he'd fall or get distracted or knocked off course.

A: That doesn't sound very Rooseveltian. Shouldn't the fall guy be someone like Millard Fillmore?

F: Well, Teddy finally won at the end of last season; now he and Taft probably will duke it out a lot.

A: Like the Nats and Braves.

F: And in the NL West, how about that other alleged superteam—at least in terms of payroll—the Dodgers?

A: Nope. Not even in the playoffs for me. I'm sticking with the Giants. Their pitching is just too much and they hit just enough, because they don't need to hit a lot.

F: I like the Giants too, but I'll pick L.A. for a wild card, just because I want my old Yankee idol Don Mattingly to succeed as a manager.

A: And I think Arizona will rebound from last year and return to their playoff form of '11, when they almost beat the Brewers.

F: In the AL East, I'm sure the Yankees will have the sympathy of everyone...

A: Minus one, and I think you know who that is.

F: But they lost so much power from last year's lineup...

A: And many of the guys left get regular mailings from AARP.

F: Mr. Jeter and Mr. Rivera and Mr. Pettitte are getting up there, but I think they can still get a wild card out of this year. And remember, the last time I did not pick the Yanks to win it all was 2009, when they did win it all. So I'll use that strategy again and say the rebuilt Blue Jays will take the division.

A: I think it's between Toronto and Tampa Bay, and I'll go with the Rays because of their pitching. Baltimore can't possibly win as many one-run games as they did last year, so they'll fall back.

F: In the AL Central it's tough to pick against a Detroit repeat. So I'll stick with the Tigers.

A: Me too. It would take a miracle season from one of the others, although Chicago could give Detroit a run.

F: And in the AL West, how about another superteam, at least in terms of star power, the Angels of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton?

A: I'd love to pick Oakland to repeat but I just don't think it can all come together again. And Texas has lost some steam. Besides, the Angels have good pitching to go with all that firepower. If the stars can stay on the field, I can't see how they lose the division.

F. Seattle may have the best pitcher in baseball in "King Felix" Hernandez...

A: They're paying him like a king at $175 million over seven years.

F: But unless Hernandez has developed the ability to pitch three out of every five days, it won't do the Mariners much good.

 

NCAA: SWEET AND BITTER

F: Boy, Marquette is taking that NCAA tournament mantra, "Survive and Advance," a little too much to heart.

A: Survive is just what they did against Davidson and Butler, whereas Wisconsin couldn't survive its own lousy shooting against Mississippi. But in MU's case I have no idea how they won twice with whatever it is they do on offense.

F: How so?

A: I know people can make the case that UW's offense is ugly and boring, but Marquette's is just as ugly, but in a hyped-up way. It's like they're running a Chinese fire drill out there! Or a combination of that and a bunch of tumbleweeds, and eventually somebody has the ball close to the basket and tries a shot.

F: I only saw a bit of the Davidson game and none of the Butler game because I was enjoying my niece's participation in Boston College's Sesquicentennial Concert...

A: Wait, how do they know that Sasquatch is 100 years old?

F: Um, that would be the 150th anniversary of BC's founding. Anyway, I know what you mean about the Golden Eagles' fast-paced but sometimes wild-looking style. But however they do it, they play their hearts out. And with all the close games they had in the Big East, they know there are rewards for never giving up.

A: There's no arguing that. And they beat two very good teams to get to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. I've seen chunks of almost every game in this tournament, and it's obvious that just about every team has a lot of quality. The surviving 16 include a 12 seed in Oregon, a 13 in La Salle and a freakin' 15 in Florida Gulf Coast!

F: I don't know if it's ironic or what, but against Davidson the Eagles were saved by something they don't do very well—three-point shooting. They were 1 for 12 but then hit their last three before Vander Blue made another of his last-second layups to win it.

A: But MU's also gotten back to something they've done very well for most of the season—free-throw shooting. After a little slump at the end of the regular season, they hit 85% against Davidson and 80% against Butler.

F: Now MU faces Miami on Thursday night, and if they survive again they could have a showdown with a former campus favorite, Tom Crean, and his Hoosiers.

A: Not that MU fans have had much reason to miss Crean since he bolted for Indiana, thanks to the job Buzz Williams has done.

F: But the way Crean took off in the dead of night, literally, I think a lot of folks here would love to see him humbled.

A: It won't be easy to beat Indiana, and in fact there's still a chance that there could be an all-Big Ten Final Four.

F: But one of those teams won't be Wisconsin.

A: The Badgers were bound to lose at some point, based on how inconsistent their outside shooting was all season. But against Mississippi they really bottomed out—25% overall and 23% on threes. They led by six points with 11-plus minutes left but the rest was really ugly.

F: Still, the Badgers had a good season—12-6 in the Big Ten and winners over Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan, who are still alive along with Michigan State.

A: Michigan played a terrific game to get past VCU.

F: I guess they figured out how to deal with Shaka Smart's "havoc" defense.

A: From what I saw, "havoc" consists of grabbing the other guys' jerseys all game long. Trey Burke had to change his shirt because it was torn away on a layup and Glenn Robinson III had to do it twice, winding up with a different number.

F: The jersey grabbers could do well in international soccer, where it's a specialty.

A: Or as Vegas magicians. They must know the secret of misdirection, grabbing when the refs are looking at something else.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has been true blue to the Brew Crew from Day 1.

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