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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: FIRST THINGS FIRST

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While the Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Tigers determine who'll play on baseball's biggest stage, the Brewers are stuck in vaudeville—specifically, the Abbott and Costello act that goes, “Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third...”

In the routine, which plays on absurd nicknames, those lines are statements of fact. But for Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke they're real questions: “Who's going to be our regular at first in 2014?... What's our best option at second?... How do we know we'll have stability at third?”

Of course there are other issues after a 74-88 season that included all sorts of injuries and Ryan Braun's drug suspension. But Bud and Lou's script is a good start.

 

Frank: First Corey Hart's knee wasn't ready in the spring, then Mat Gamel's knee gave out for the second straight year, and ultimately Hart couldn't play at all. So it seemed like everyone on the team played first at some point, almost all of them with no previous experience there. So who's the remedy for 2014?

Artie: Melvin and Roenicke were hoping Hunter Morris would be a contender but he definitely hurt his chances by having a sub-par year at Triple-A Nashville.

F: In 2012 at Double-A Huntsville he hit .303 with 28 homers, 113 RBIs and a .357 on-base percentage. But this year in about the same number of games those numbers fell to .247, 24, 73 and .310.

A: Which is why Morris wasn't called up after they knew Hart was out for the year, and even after rosters expanded in September.

F: They sure could have used the Huntsville version of Morris instead of all the non-first basemen they had to use. Yuniesky Betancourt, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Francisco, Blake Lalli and both catchers had time at first. Betancourt and Francisco got the most starts, 108 between them. Each of them hit 13 homers but had way too many shortcomings. Francisco flat-out dropped too many throws and struck out 95 times in 240 at-bats...

A: Is he related to Jose Hernandez? For Francisco everybody is Clayton Kershaw!

F: And the free-swinging Yuni hit .212 with a microscopic on-base mark of .240.

A: Hunter Morris could have done that. In fact, I'm pretty sure I could have done that!

F: I'm thinking neither Betancourt nor Francisco will be in the 2014 plans.

A: Betancourt's out for sure, unless the clubhouse needs an extra janitor. Francisco I could see as a possibility, depending on how he looks in spring training, but only as a backup and not at first. He'll only be 27 next year, five years younger than Betancourt, and he could be some insurance at third base—where they have another question mark involving Aramis Ramirez.

F: All those strikeouts, though...

A: But he's a left-handed bat with some pop, and you known how Mr. Melvin is hypnotized by guys who can hit the ball out. He's been ga-ga about that ever since his days as the Rangers' GM. They say chicks dig the long ball, but Doug really digs it.

F: But back to first base. Who's your top contender?

A: You've got to say Hart is the most logical, sensible and best choice.

F: Assuming he takes a one-year contract heavy on performance incentives. And he's said he wants to stay.

A: That's pretty much his only option, since he was on the shelf while his old deal ran out. He proved himself at first in 2012 but nobody knows if his knees can hold up. So what other team would take a chance on him?

F: Unfortunately, Hart seems to have a habit of showing up in February with some kind of ailment. Two years ago it was a side muscle, last year a right-knee problem that required surgery in March, and this year the same knee.

A: And that was before he hurt the other knee during his rehab, which meant more surgery. Hart's problems mean Morris has to get a look in Arizona, but I'm too scared to think about anything beyond that.

F: For me, Hart has always been an underachiever, considering that he was supposed to be this terrific combination of power and speed.

A: I disagree. If he's healthy you could expect a .280 batting average, 20-plus homers and 80-plus RBIs. Not many guys can do that consistently. In fact, from 2010 through '12 he averaged 29 dingers.

F: A “lame duck” contract would certainly give him lots of incentive. But he's a big guy, and will TWO repaired knees hold up under him?

A: Hey, let me have a winter of hope!

F: There's plenty more to discuss about the Brewers, and not just at second and third base. So we hope our readers will follow us to the website...

 

SECOND BASE

F: It's got to be Scooter Gennett's job to lose going into camp. They'll be paying Rickie Weeks $11 million, but after the struggles he's had the last two years...

A: Plus he's coming off a hamstring tear. And Scooter's much better defensively. They'll call it an open competition, and of course if Gennett falters it'll become one, but they've got to have their fingers crossed that Scooter will build on his solid second half.

F: Remember, he did struggle in his first stint with the Brewers, which was most of June. He hit just .214 in 17 games, although he had a total of only 45 plate appearances.

A: But after coming up at the end of July he hit .351 with an on-base of .381 in 185 plate appearances.

F: It's a nice dream that the Brewers might be able to trade Weeks, but it ain't gonna happen during the winter because his history of injuries makes him too much of a risk at such a high price.

A: Maybe if he's tearing up spring training they could deal him—but they'd probably have to agree to eat part of his salary. Or in July if they fall out of the race again...

F: Or if they are in the race and Melvin decides to try for another Sabathia-like deal for one more top pitcher...

A: But if they're in the race one reason might be that Rickie remembered how to hit! Anyway, they're stuck with him for the next few months.

A: Gennett hit just .154 against left-handers, albeit in a small sampling of 41 plate appearance. But if it looks like that will be a weakness again, well, Rickie could be the platoon guy against lefties. He's .262 against them lifetime.

 

THIRD BASE

F: I wonder if Gennett could play third base, platooning there with Ramirez and at second with Weeks.

A: It's an interesting thought, but I've heard that Gennett is pretty much considered just a second baseman. He's not a big guy and so you wouldn't expect the kind of run production a third baseman should give you, although he does have some pop in his bat.

F: Now I'm wondering if Weeks could play third, as a way of spelling Ramirez.

A: I'd be interested in seeing that kind of experiment in the spring. Rickie's a liability at second, but the throws from there are trickier than most of 'em at third. Still, you get some weird angles at third too, and who knows where the ball would wind up if Rickie's doing the flinging? But it's worth a look, I guess.

F: The thing is, Ramirez will turn 36 in June, and coming off this 92-game season can anyone really expect him to get back to the 149 games he played in 2012? It's one thing to have a single injury that gets corrected through surgery or extended rest, but Ramirez kept hurting his left knee from spring training right through the final week, in that skirmish with the Braves.

A: And third base is one of the weakest spots in the Brewers' minor-league operation. There's nobody who's close to being ready.

F: Did you see the letter to the Journal Sentinel that suggested they put Braun back at third, where he started?

A: From my memories of how he fielded there, that would penalize the team.

 

THE OUTFIELD

F: The more common theory is that they'll ask Braun to shift to right field, a la Geoff Jenkins, to get Khris Davis into the daily lineup in left. But to me, anything that takes Norichika Aoki out of the lineup is a bad thing.

A: I supposed you could platoon Aoki with Davis in left, but who'll bat leadoff when Aoki doesn't? Gennett and/or Weeks?

F: I suppose if Hart's knees hold up they could make another try at having him lead off.

A: But that's just it; leading off would not be good for Hart's knees—trying to beat out infield hits, going from first to third, trying to steal bases.

F: Back to Davis. Are you sold on him as an everyday player?

A: Not really. He hit 11 homers and batted .279 but it was only over 153 plate appearances. And it seemed like he was dinged up too as the season wound down. Plus he's considered a risk defensively—certainly as compared to Aoki or Logan Schafer.

F: Schafer did not make the most of his opportunities this year. He hit .211 and had an OBP of just .279 in 337 plate appearances.

A: And why mess with Aoki, who still has a bargain price of $1.5 million for next year. You'd have the leadoff spot set. But then again, Davis hits with power, and Doug digs the long ball!

 

THE OFFENSE

F: It's not like the Brewers fell off the map in terms of power this year, even with Braun suspended, Ramirez ailing and Hart a no-go. Yeah, they were down from the league-leading 202 homers they hit last year, but they still finished sixth in the National League with 157.

A: That's impressive when you look at some of the knuckleheads they had to rely on. Hell, they even had two more homers than Cincinnati, and if you'd asked me in September who had more dingers I'd have said the Reds for sure.

F: When you consider whose bats were missing for all or part of the year, their offense held up OK. Their run production dropped from a league-leading 776 last year to 640, but that was still eighth-best in the league.

A: And next year everything could fall into place again—depending on health, like it always does.

F: Braun presumably will have something to prove, as will Hart. Ramirez was productive when he could play, so maybe more rest will help. Jean Segura wore down through September but proved he can hit at this level, and Carlos Gomez responded to their big-money confidence in him with a breakout season.

A: And Go-Go was dinged up a lot too, thanks to his wall-banging style in center field.

F: And Jonathan Lucroy, who played a lot more this year because Martin Maldonado vanished offensively, really stepped up. His batting average and OBP took dips but were still good at .280 and .340, and his 18 homers and 82 RBIs were career highs.

 

THE ROTATION

F: In a way they're in the same condition as a year ago—hoping that a late-season surge in starting pitching will carry over into next season.

A: Yeah, but last year they were putting their confidence in a lot of youngsters. And what was the result of that magical thinking? Mike Fiers was a bust in spring training, Mark Rodgers' arm went south in Arizona, Hiram Burgos flopped in six starts...

F: But also, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada didn't start the season well. And Kyle Lohse hit a bad stretch in May...

A: Like the whole team, which went 6-22 to end all hope. But this winter I think there's genuine reason for confidence because the guys who did really well down the stretch—Gallardo, Lohse, Estrada, a more experienced Peralta—are established.

F: But not always consistent.

F: One problem is that those four guys and the other member of the late-season rotation, Tyler Thornburg, are right-handers. Do they need a lefty in there somewhere?

A: It could be Chris Narveson, who essentially has missed the last two seasons with shoulder woes.

 

THE BULLPEN

F: As we always say, you can never really tell about relief pitching from one year to the next.

A: Only one thing seems to be a lock right now, Jim Henderson as the closer.

F: But closers come and go—witness the adventures the last three years with Trevor Hoffman, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.

A: You've gotta figure that Michael Gonzalez is gone. In the last few weeks the biggest mystery was why Roenicke was using him at all.

F: The other lefty, Tom Gorzelanny, had his troubles too.

A: But you've got to wonder if his changing roles, from bullpen to starter and back again, was part of that.

F: But he was supposed to be the one guy who could handle that stuff.

A: One bright spot was Brandon Kintzler pitching his way into the eighth-inning role.

F: And the role of heir-apparent should Henderson fade.

A: But you know that like most teams, the Brewers will bring in all sorts of guys in the spring to compete for bullpen spots. Every year and almost everywhere, it's total guesswork.

 

THE COMPETITION

F: What did you think of Melvin's tough-guy act in his season-ending media session? Among other things, he said, “I can't stand here every year and say we had a great second half, That doesn't work... Our star power wasn't there this year to help us.”

A: Sounded like a major effort to cover his own butt. But what's his definition of a bad start? Yeah, the 6-22 May was a disaster but the Crew was 14-11 in April.

F: What happened in May was mostly that they began playing within their own division—but not against the Cubs. In May the Brewers went 3-15 against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates. And over the rest of the season they were 18-21 against 'em, while smacking the Cubs 13 out of 19.

A: What Melvin really has to do is figure out some way to improve against those three playoff teams.

F: Not that there's any reason to think any of them will decline greatly.

A: But it's always possible, especially if some key guys got hurt. And remember, this year the Indians went from 94 losses to 92 wins, and the Red Sox went from 93 losses to 97 wins.

F; Well, the Reds will be adjusting to a new manager.

A: Once again, Dusty Baker wore out his welcome by achieving in the regular season but not the post-season. I saw a piece by Ken Rosenthal that said the Reds essentially quit on him.

F: Well, losing their last five games, four of them to the Pirates, sure didn't help. The Cubs will have a new skipper too, but what difference could that possibly make?

A: Dale Sveum is well rid of that mess.

F: And hey, Sveum was quickly scooped up by his old boss, Ned Yost, who got a two-year extension after the Royals' winning season. Boy, Yost must really like Sveum...

A: The guy who replaced him in '08 when the Brewers canned Yost with 12 games left. Et tu, Dale?

F: I guess there are no hard feelings.

A: What's that old saying—“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” Well, it's nice that the Royals have their manager and his successor on board.

 

HOW ABOUT THOSE PLAYOFFS?

F: I can't imagine that you're actually rooting for either team in the NL Championship Series.

A: Right you are, but if I had to choose between 'em I'd take the Dodgers. There's no question I want the Cardinals to go down!

F: I'm just sorry the Pirates got eliminated.

A: That was very depressing. But here's one thing I really hope I see in the NLCS: At some point, that hot dog Cuban rookie, Yasiel Puig, hits one out of the park and just stands there admiring it, then starts to slo-o-o-owly jog around the bases as the Cardinals do a slow burn.

F: Sounds like Carlos Gomez and the Braves all over again. We almost saw it in Game 3 as Puig posed at the plate...

A: Thinking he'd hit it out but maybe also celebrating the fact that he'd finally hit the ball...

F: And showboated again after racing to third when the ball went off the wall. I'd guess there's enough of Tony La Russa's attitude left in the Cardinals that another display like that might produce one of your beloved bench-clearing brawls.

A: Exactly. I'm sure that when he retired La Russa made the entire St. Louis organization swear to uphold his "Keeper of the Unwritten Rules" arrogance going. "We'll decide what's the right way to do things"—to hell with that!

F: Well, as you might guess I have a similar enmity toward one of the teams in the ALCS.

A: Hmm, let's see, what might a lifelong Yankee fan have to say about...

F: Just call it ABB, my friend. Anybody but Boston!

A: Even with those rugged beards they're sporting?

F: Yeah, they're all such studs. Gimme a break.

A: And they're hardly the only ones who've used that gimmick. It's actually kind of embarrassing, it's such a cliché! Beards in baseball are like bald heads in basketball. I was watching a Bucks exhibition game the other night and when they showed the coaches sitting together it seemed like the whole staff was bald. Anyone who was near them must have needed sunglasses because of the glare off their chrome domes.

F: And various NHL teams have sprouted "for the duration" beards at playoff time for decades.

A: Beards in baseball, shaved heads in hoops and dreadlocks on D-backs and receivers in the NFL.

F: Well, I don't care what the Red Sox look like, I don't want 'em to win it all.

A: They've done it enough already.

F: Twice in this century. That's plenty!  Fortunately, the night games start so late that I was asleep long before the bearded ones made their big comeback from a 5-0 deficit in Game 2.

A: Certainly in the AL I was pulling for the no-name bunch from Oakland.

F: Me too, and especially after they got jobbed on that non-interference call in Game 4 in Detroit.

A: I'm with you on that! How the hell could those umps say there was no fan interference? And even after they looked at the monitor; what the hell were they watching, the Spice Channel, "Duck Dynasty," what?

F: It was so obvious that at least one fan reached well into the playing area as rightfielder Josh Reddick was leaping for Victor Martinez's drive. The ump who made the call, Gary Darling, later said, "It was clear he was not going to catch the ball"...

A: But how the hell does he know that when the fan messed up the ball's flight?

F: One problem is that the stupid yellow home-run line is below the top of the fence that the fans reached over. Why make it more difficult for the umps by separating those two things?

A: But the main thing is, what makes Darling so sure it wouldn't have been caught?

F: Yeah, it wasn't as obvious as in '96 when the Baltimore outfielder was standing at the wall waiting for Derek Jeter's fly ball and the kid, Jeffrey Maier, lunged out and brought the ball into the stands. But still, it sure looked like Reddick had a bead on the ball. At the very least it might have hit his glove and gone back toward the field. And what would Darling have ruled then: "Uh, no, it was clear the ball was over the line anyway."

A: That principle would negate every fence-climbing catch that ever was!

F: Anyway, I'm glad you're with me in rooting for the Tigers.

A: You got it!

 

GOOD WINS, WITH SOME WORRIES

 

In a phone call from the East Coast...

 

F: Because I spent much of Saturday heading east on I-80 I didn't see a single play of the Badgers' dismantling of Northwestern. And because the Fox affiliate in Philadelphia had to finish with the Eagles before showing anything else, the only important play I saw in the Packers' win in Baltimore was Eddie Lacy's run-and-slide that put the game on ice. But for you it must have been a mighty satisfying weekend.

A: Yeah, but I'd describe the Pack's win as "bittersweet" because both Randall Cobb and James Jones weren't around for the finish.

F: Ouch! I see the latest guess is that Jones might miss only a little time and Cobb might be back in December, but missing them for any amount of time won't be good.

A: Boy, Cobb's injury sure looked season-ending at the time! Late in the second quarter he made a great catch over the middle but was all lined up for a hit from Raven safety Matt Elam. He didn't go head-hunting but he nailed Cobb with his helmet in the right knee. Cobb was rolling around on the ground right away and they had to bring a cart out to take him off the field.

F: And the result, as we found out later, was a broken fibula. Did the safety get flagged?

A: No, but Aaron Rodgers got into his face about the hit, and there was a little back-and-forth shoving.

F: Sounds like an illustration of "the new NFL," where defensive backs have to be mighty careful about where they hit guys.

A: I guess it's a matter of interpretation, kind of like, "It all happened so fast, officer." They say you can't hit receivers high anymore, but that doesn't mean you can just lead with your helmet anywhere else. You can hit a guy low but you need to wrap him up, not spear him!

F: Any time they bring the cart out, that can't be good.

A: Cobb was back on the sideline in the second half, but on crutches. Jones also returned as a spectator.

F: I guess he has some kind of knee ligament thing.

A: Cobb is such a weapon, as a receiver and returner and occasional rusher, that you just don't replace him.

F: Fortunately Rodgers still had Jordy Nelson to haul in a long touchdown pass, and Jermichael Finley to complete a long play that put the Packers in position to ice the game.

A: Plus the defense was outstanding in Clay Matthews' absence. They really stuffed the Ravens' running game!

F: I saw they had a goal-line stand in the first half.

A: And A.J. Hawk was tremendous! He was all over the field and had five tackles for loss, including three sacks.

F: Wow, he's sure not known for sacks.

A: That's not something he was ever supposed to do. But with Matthews out, he stepped it up. Later, of course, we found out that Nick Perry will miss a few weeks with a broken foot.

F: Mason Crosby had four more field goals, including one from 45 yards and one from 50.

A: That's nine in the last two games, and they've sure needed them with the offense somehow not scoring TDs. In the first half there were thirteen combined punts! Rodgers seemed a little off again, but he made those big plays when he had to. And Eddie Lacy showed why they drafted him, toughing out 120 yards on the ground.

F: Seems like the Badgers had a lot easier time.

A: Well, they had their own significant loss when Jared Abbrederis went out, apparently with a concussion. But the word seems to be that he'll be able to play against Illinois.

F: Considering how Northwestern moved the ball against Ohio State, the UW defense must have been pretty darn good.

A: Excellent, in fact! They held the Wildcats to 241 total yards, almost 200 fewer than they had against the Buckeyes. And the UW offense was just fine: Joel Stave was 17 for 28 with three scores, Melvin Gordon rambled for 172 yards and James White added 101.

 

THUMB-THING TO WONDER ABOUT...

F: By the way, I was fascinated in a journalistic sense by something relating to Matthews' injury against the Lions. It happened on a Sunday, of course, but it  took until Wednesday for me to find one fleeting reference on the Web to this simple matter: Which freakin' thumb did he break?

A: Hey, you're right. Now that I think of it, all I've seen or heard is that Matthews "broke a thumb."

F: Or even more often, "broke his thumb." As though the guy has only one! And as we speak, four days after the injury, I have only seen one little reference from The Sporting News' website that identifies the actual digit as the "right thumb."

A: It's a pretty simple question/ You'd think someone in the game-day horde of reporters would have asked it.

F: And even in the super-secretive world of NFL teams, I'd think someone would be willing to answer such a question. I know it really doesn't make much difference because Matthews is a linebacker, not a quarterback. But he IS a human being, with two thumbs, so why not just supply a simple piece of information?

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is always rehabbing his knees.