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Monday, March 24, 2014

Brewers 2014: Year of Redemption

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Two years ago the Brewers were brimming with confidence after finishing 2011 two victories short of the World Series. Things fell apart in 2012, mainly in the bullpen, and last year injuries, individual struggles and a super-tough division put them in a hole so deep that it didn't matter when their top player got suspended for cheating in '11.

But optimism has returned heading into Monday's opener at Miller Park. Winter acquisition Matt Garza joins a starting rotation that looks strong; there's quality “up the middle” with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and centerfielder Carlos Gomez; and Ryan Braun is out to prove he can put up MVP numbers again—presumably without chemical assistance.

The National League Central sent three teams to the 2013 playoffs, and the Brewers don't stir enthusiasm in the national media. But the Observers offer this wisdom: Hey, you never know...

 

Artie: I'm amazed there aren't any season-ending injuries yet. The only problems have been K-Rod stepping on a cactus barefoot and Hank the Dog's eye infection.

Frank: How can Francisco Rodriguez be pitching when as of a few days ago he still had tiny cactus needles embedded in his left foot? As for the adorable Hank...

A: The less I hear about him the better.

F: Good luck with that. The Journal Sentinel is on the bandwagon, with daily updates about the former Arizona stray's thrilling activities—including, we were told Sunday, “daily walks.” Imagine that!

A: Anything to get people to punch up the paper's website, ain'a? And for the Brewers, anything to sell new merchandise.

F: And, perhaps, divert thoughts away from Braun's cheating, lying and stonewalling about the details. Jim Stingl of the Journal Sentinel noted that Hank T-shirts were going for a mere 32 bucks. One team official said, “I wish I was clever enough to have thought of this as a stunt,” but someone got clever pretty quick.

A: Remember the movie A Face in the Crowd, where Andy Griffith becomes a celebrity but goes batty with arrogance? I hope Hank doesn't succumb to the fame and take a bite out of Mark Attanasio at a photo shoot.

F: I'll say this: We know Hank is one hero who'll never lie to us. And we know Hank will never drive in a game-winning run, so let's get to the actual baseball prospects of this team.

A: They could go either way. We can't be sure the first-base issue is solved by Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds.

F: Nor is the third-base issue until we see Aramis Ramirez going out there and staying out there.

A: And the closer, Jim Henderson, has struggled in Arizona, which is a big worry. With a week of spring training left, in seven outings he had an ERA of 7.71, an opponents' batting average of .321 and a WHIP of 1.71.

F: As usual, K-Rod is the insurance. The pattern is in its fourth year: Get him, let him go at some point, get him back again.

A: Problem is, like almost any relief pitcher K-Rod goes hot and cold. He was part of the disaster in '12.

F: How he can pitch in the first place is startling. You'd think the first priority would be to get every dang needle out of his foot.

A: One more excuse for not going to Arizona, as if I needed more. Border patrol cops, gun nuts, 120-degree heat “but it only feels like 115, where's my sweater...”

F: We digress again. With a week of camp remaining Garza had a spring ERA of 10.03 and Kyle Lohse was at 6.14. But Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo were both under 3.00.

A: They need Gallardo to establish himself again after a so-so 2013. But what do exhibition stats really mean? A year ago Rickie Weeks was on fire in Arizona and collapsed in the real games.

F: Weeks has been hitting well this month too. In a more general sense, you can say, “OK, they're getting Braun back, Lucroy had a good 2013, Gomez had his best season, Segura a fine rookie year, Scooter Gennett hit over .300, Khris Davis showed some pop, Henderson was reliable...”

A: The assumption is that if they did it last year they'll do it again. But maybe they won't, and you can almost expect that someone won't.

F: Ramirez has to hold up physically, Overbay has to produce at age 37, Reynolds has to give them some homers to go with all the strikeouts.

A: Garza has to stay healthy, which has been a problem for him. And of course staying healthy is the key for everyone. You'd think they can't have all the injuries they did last year, but then again this is Wisconsin. It keeps happening with the Packers.

F: Don't forget the Bucks.

A: I'm optimistic, in the sense that there's no reason to count them out.

F: Last year I boldly said, “Brewers win the division.” This year I suppose if I say they can't get higher than second, the Cardinals will implode. I do think St. Louis is just too strong, but I'll predict second place and a post-season berth for Milwaukee.

A: I'd been thinking of second but this Henderson thing worries me enough that I'll put Cincinnati there and the Brew Crew third, with no playoffs.

 

THE NL CENTRAL

F: The Brewers aren't getting much love from national prognosticators. USA Today writer Paul White actually has them finishing a game BEHIND the Cubs to grab last place in the NL Central.

A: Couldn't be worse than that, unless the Astros were still in the division. The only thing I can safely say is that there will be no World Series games played in Houston this year.

F: Or in Chicago, no matter which venue you're talking about.

A: Jonah Keri of grantland.com has the Brewers 20th out of 30 teams in his power rankings, with St. Louis first, Cincinnati 12th and Pittsburgh 17th.

F: Sports Illustrated has them 21st, with the Cardinals fourth, the Pirates ninth and Cincy 15th.

A: Reading about the Pirates here and there, it's like they had the perfect season last year. No big injuries, the bullpen was outstanding, Andrew McCutcheon was the ultimate leader. But that doesn't mean it will all happen again.

F: The third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, hit a ton of home runs last year, but man, does he strike out a lot! When he wasn't hitting homers he wasn't hitting much of anything.

A: He hit .233.

F: I always cringe when I say the name of A.J. Burnett because of how ineffective he was for the Yankees, but he WAS effective for Pittsburgh and now he's cashed in with Philadelphia. So that could hurt the Pirates a lot.

A: There's no reason to think they're going to collapse, but also no particular reason to think they'll roll back to the playoffs, unless McCutcheon gets more help. They're just not a big offensive force.

F: Last year Jason Grilli was terrific, and then when he got hurt Mark Melancon kept things going. But you see time after time that relief pitchers ride a roller-coaster.

A: Just look at 2012 right here. John Axford AND K-Rod both had meltdowns. And it happened to Axford again last year, which is why he now gets his mail in the Indians' clubhouse.

F: The most fearsome closer in the division, Aroldis Chapman, won't be pitching for Cincinnati for several weeks. He got nailed in the head by a line drive, and you never know how a guy is going to come back after that.

A: So there's a potential huge problem for the Reds. But you don't know whether they have somebody who's ready to step up and fill the void.

F: The Reds still have good starting pitching, and of course the Cardinals do too. They always seem to come up with people from nowhere.

A: But it's not from nowhere, it's from their very good farm system. Meanwhile, the Brewers last week released right-hander Eric Arnett, their 2009 top draft choice, who never got out of Class A ball.

F: The Reds certainly have a couple of top hitters in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, and they're counting on this speedster, Billy Hamilton, to steal a million bases and score a million runs.

A: But he's got to get on base first, and maybe he won't be so good at that. Votto and Bruce can't drive 'em in unless they're out there to be driven in.

F: As for the Cardinals, they did lose Carlos Beltran and David Freese.

A: But they added shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who will not get booed in St. Louis even though he did a 50-game penance for his Biogenesis connection.

F: And they don't even need a dog to distract people.

A: Whereas there's a guy who did 65 games for his drug sins who will get booed in St. Louis. A little hypocrisy there, and from the alleged “best fans in the world, the most knowledgeable.”

F: Well, of course the booing and the hypocrisy will be reversed at Miller Park when Peralta and the Redbirds arrive in mid-April.

 

REST OF THE NL

A: Washington, I'm sure, is gonna bounce back. They had a lot of injuries and still won 86 games last year. And the Dodgers are so loaded, especially with pitching.

F: The Giants, hey, it's an even-numbered year again, so is there a World Series ahead for them? But their pitching had troubles last year. Matt Cain struggled, Tim Lincecum disappeared and seemed destined to be a bullpen guy.

A: Sure it's possible they could rebound, but with that fall-off...

F: The Braves had big expectations coming off their NL East title last year, but they've lost two of their young pitching stars, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, to elbow problems. Medlen is definitely headed for Tommy John surgery and Beachy might be.

A: And one of their bullpen keys, Jonny Venters, won't be available until mid-season because of his elbow.

 

AMERICAN LEAGUE

F: I certainly can't predict anything good for the Red Sox; it just isn't in a Yankee fan to do that. I'm gonna say Tampa Bay takes the division. It's tough to see anyone but Detroit winning the AL Central, but I'm gonna cast a vote for my old pal Ned Yost to finally manage in the post-season.

A: The Royals might make the playoffs, but will Ned? He came up 12 games short here in 2008.

F: And Dale Sveum once again is his bench coach, presumably the first candidate if Ned were to get the boot in September. But I'll say Ned will make it all the way to the playoffs this time.

A: In the West I'll say Oakland again. Somehow they just do it. Jeez, they won 96 games last year!

F: Billy Beane is in one of his genius periods. In Texas, Prince Fielder will hit a lot of homers...

A: I think he's done. I can see him trying to move around at first base in that 95 degrees and 100% humidity. By the end of the season he'll look like a black Don Knotts.

F: Now we're coming up on the third year where we say, “Oh, Albert Pujols will really come back to his old self with the Angels.”

A: Nah, he's done too, along with Josh Hamilton. I think all the Angels have is Mike Trout.

F: So readers, consult our chart for 2014 predictions but don't make any bets based on them.

A: Watch, it'll be a San Diego-Cleveland World Series. And we'll rely on our readers having short memories.

F: And we definitely rely on our short memories because by the end of the season we won't remember who we picked.

A: I don't remember now!

 

AND BACK TO HANK

F: Back to those $32 T-shirts featuring Hank. Jim Stingl said 20% of the profits would go to the Wisconsin Humane Society, but that still puts a hefty chunk of dough in the team's pockets. And since a lot of the appeal is to little kids...

A: Actually, Hankmania seems to be ageless.

F: But certainly there'd be a special thing with kids. So does the team really need those shirts to cost so much? Why not give kids—make that their parents—a little “ain't this heartwarming” price break?

A: Well, Hank better watch out if they give him the run of the stadium. He could be running loose in the players' parking lot and... well, we know what an attentive driver Mr. Gallardo is.

 

CHANGES IN THE GAME

F: There are two big changes in the way baseball will be officiated: A policy designed to prevent major injuries in collisions at home plate and an expansion of the replay system for reviewing certain umpiring calls.

A: That collision rule has me stumped. I can't figure out exactly who is forbidden to do what and when.

F: It has some of the players wondering to. A runner heading home cannot go out of a "direct line" to make contact with whoever is covering the plate. But the guy who's covering, usually the catcher, cannot block the plate unless he has the ball. Runners who slide and catchers who leave a lane to the plate won't be ruled in violation.

A: Sounds like it all makes sense, but how will all that work out at game speed? I'm still not all that clear on it, but when it comes to violations I guess I'm like Potter Stewart: "I'll know it when I see it."

F: Excellent reference! For our younger readers, Mr. Justice Stewart made that statement in a 1964 Supreme Court case involving obscenity. Now for the expanded replay system: I still think they made it more complicated than it has to be.

A: It's like the NFL deal with the managers having challenges, ain'a?

F: Each manager will have one challenge per game, and if he's right he gets another. After the seventh inning the umpiring crew chief can start a review on his own, similar to the "booth reviews" in the last two minutes of NFL halves.

A: I know balls and strikes can't be challenged. What else?

F: "Neighborhood plays" at second base, because of safety concerns for middle infielders. Also check swings and foul tips, obstruction and interference rulings. But tag plays, trap/catch calls and hit-by-pitch can be subject to review.

A: HBP? Watch out, Derek Jeter! That acting job from a few years back won't work now.

F: Fine and dandy, but as we've said before, why put the onus on the managers and limit their challenges, and then have all the decisions made at some "central command" in New York? Everyone in the press box and watching at home sees replays within what, 30 seconds of a close play? So why not just have five-man umpiring crews, taking turns as the "eye in the sky" who can alert the home-plate guy when a replay looks funky?

A: They keep talking about not wanting to disrupt "the pace of the game." But the glacial pace of the game is what makes a press-box alert system workable in the first place!

F: There's plenty of time-dragging between outs as it is.

A: Hey, how are the managers going to alert the umps to a challenge? Throw a red flag? A wad of tobacco?

F: They'll be alerted by someone watching the replays in the clubhouse, but after that it'll be a personal decision, I think.

A: Hey, there's a job for Hank the Dog! When Ron Roenicke wants to make a challenge, he can send Hank out to nip an ump's leg. And the legend grows: Hank the Challenge Dog!

 

SWEET SUCCESS FOR UW

F: I'm guessing you were pretty emotional about Wisconsin's big rally to beat Oregon and reach the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. I was at the Bradley Center and getting stirred up too, but not in the same way, I suspect.

A: You mean you were pulling for a different result?

F: I guess my latent Marquette passions reacted badly with the blatant passions of the UW fans who packed the place.

A: What, the Badgers are like your basketball version of the Red Sox?

F: Must be the color; I reacted viscerally to all that red. But it was more than that; I was reacting negatively toward the depth of outrage and venom the fans displayed when things weren't going UW's way.

A: Like when Bo Ryan got called for the technical.

F: Yeah. I have no idea what was said, and maybe the referee had a short fuse, but the place got SO nasty! And I'm not saying Marquette fans or any others would be any different, but the depth of the emotional energy—obviously, I'm getting too old to appreciate this stuff, but so often the enthusiasm for a certain team gets ratcheted up to where people aren't just thinking in terms of good play vs. poor play, it's literal good vs. evil, "the refs have it in for us," that guy on the other team isn't just aggressive, he's dirty...

A: There's a reason the word "fan" comes from "fanatic."

F: Jeepers, after booing the refs off the court at halftime, the crowd even booed the Oregon dance team when it came out to perform. Let's just say I much preferred watching Michigan-Texas, where there was less crowd passion.

A: Like it or not, though, the Badgers are only two wins away from the Final Four.

F: And good for them, although I can't summon up the same enthusiasm as you. I was pretty sure they'd come on strong after being down 12 points at halftime.

A: And they sure did, by pounding the ball inside to turn the momentum. I thought Oregon would be tough for the Badgers because their guards are really good in penetrating off the dribble, and that's something UW had trouble with during its bad stretch in late January.

F: And to give the Ducks their due, they fell behind but then battled back and had a one-point lead with less than two minutes left.

A: Well, that's what the tournament is all about. Not very much comes easy.

F: On the deciding possession UW had three offensive rebounds before Ben Brust's three-pointer. But on the first two misses the rebound stayed alive because two Oregon guys kind of nullified each other, and after Brust's shot the Ducks had the same thing happen at the other end and lost possession. So while it's great to praise the Badgers' hustle, it's also true that Oregon had some bad fortune that came out of hustle.

A: So many little things can decide any game between two good teams.

F: So now the Badgers face Baylor out in Anaheim. What do you know about the Bears?

A: They absolutely destroyed a really good Creighton team. They're very athletic like Oregon but with more height, and they like to play a zone defense. It won't be an easy task for the Badgers.

F: If UW gets past Baylor, they might well face the No. 1 seed, Arizona.

A: This year the Wildcats are more methodical, play a style that's similar to UW's. But as we've said all season, this time the Badgers have an extra dimension. They can run if the opportunity is there.

F: Unlike the totally grind-it-out Badgers whom Dick Bennett got to the Final Four in 2000.

A: But the image of a plodding team has stuck with UW. The other day Louisville and Saint Louis combined for something like 41 points in the first half, but nobody in the CBS studio said, "How boring." But if the Badgers had been involved...

F: Anyone who sees 'em play knows different.

A: And I want to say this: Leading up to the tournament I was hearing so much on talk radio about whether Bo is really that good a coach, he's never been to a Final Four and only one Elite Eight. But when I watch these amazingly tough NCAA games I say, "What do these people expect?" It's so difficult for any team just to get to the Sweet Sixteen. These Badgers exceeded expectations in the Big Ten, and even if they lose the next game I'll call it a successful season.

 

BUZZING OUT OF OUR LIVES

F: Now for the real post-season shocker—Buzz Williams bolting from Marquette to Virginia Tech, of all places.

A: Bolting indeed! He barely got back from the Golden Eagles' loss in the Big East tournament before he was out the door for good.

A: And without a good explanation—or any real explanation, even when he was asked about it on national TV.

F: So they had a mediocre season, his first in six years here. So what? The basketball coach is always the king of the MU campus, and he was among the highest-paid college coaches in the country at well over $2 million a year.

A: But in the aftermath of his exit we're reading stuff about "friction" between him and... who? The university? The athletic department? The fan base? So far I haven't seen it explained.

F: It seems clear there WAS friction between him and former athletic director Larry Williams, who resigned in December. At the time there were indications that some of that came from disagreement over how to handle Todd Mayo, who'd been suspended a couple of times for academic trouble. And Buzz was the Williams left standing.

A: And I know the university president, Father Scott Pilarz, left the school after the fall semester. But what problems could Buzz have had with Father Robert Wild, the former and now-interim president, who hired him in the first place? Or the former and now-interim athletic director, Bill Cords?

F: That word "interim" may be a big factor. I have no inside information, but it seems that MU is in a state of... maybe not disarray, but uncertainty, with Wild, Cords and several other administrators in "temp" capacities. Added to the context is that the university announced the firing of 25 employees—though not faculty members—a few weeks ago. And all of that against the background of Williams' big salary and the fact that MU spends about $260,000 per basketball player each year, second only to Duke in the whole country.

A: So maybe Buzz got the feeling that he was gonna be reined in a bit?

F: It's a pretty good theory. I'd guess that behind closed doors there's some battling for the "soul" of the university, in terms of priorities.

A: And who knows who might be coming in to run things?

F: TV analyst Dan Dakich had an interesting comment Saturday about Williams: "Apparently there is something there that made him leave. Whatever it was, if you can get out ahead of the posse, get out ahead of the posse."

A: That word "posse" could mean something else. Namely, the NCAA coming in to investigate something in your program.

F: There's no solid evidence of something like that, but the abruptness of Williams' exit sure doesn't discourage speculation.

A: With a contract reported at $18 million over seven years, Buzz won't have to change his lifestyle. And maybe Virginia Tech has promised him a huge budget, even though hoops takes a distant back seat to football there.

F: But that raises a theory that Michael Hunt wrote about in the Journal Sentinel: That Williams didn't feel appreciated enough after this disappointing season. He wrote, "A terrific coach, Williams is a peculiar man who needs constant love and attention."

A: What, like Hank the Dog, he needs someone to take him for his daily walk?

F: Well, a daily something, I guess. Except, as Hunt also wrote, Marquette "gave Williams everything he needed to be successful, and even that was not enough in the end."

A: So a little criticism from the alumni and chat-room gasbags was enough to drive him away? What the hell's gonna happen when he has a couple of bad seasons competing in the ACC against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and the newbies of Syracuse and Louisville?

F: It does seem odd. Williams started out at MU just thankful for the job after Tom Crean bolted for Indiana. After his first two seasons, when he was starting to get courted by other schools, his comments were along the lines of "I'll stay here as long as they'll have me." But in 2011, after his first Sweet Sixteen appearance, his comments changed to, basically, "I'm confident we can get a new deal done here." Except, as we noted then, he already had a deal in place, with yearly raises. And a year later the Journal Sentinel disclosed, from the university's tax filings, that Williams had received a $1 million bonus "for retention purposes."

A: Buzz always liked to portray the image of "I just fell off the turnip truck." But he didn't; this is a sharp guy.

F: I'm not saying Williams is a bad guy. But regardless of what he said, he wasn't different from other coaches. He used outside offers to get as much as he could out of MU, the same way Crean did.

A: Another thing I've heard is that Buzz, a Texas guy, may have thought he had the Longhorns job in his sights—but then Rick Barnes got an extension recently.

F: And maybe Williams had started burning his bridges here.

A: They're sure burned now.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek hates the Cardinals.