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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Can the Brewers Hang On?

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That was some three months the Brewers had. They ended June with an unexpected 51-33 record, a 6 1/2-game lead in the National League Central and visions of the fifth post-season appearance in franchise history.

Then their fortunes turned with the calendar page. July has seen a 2-10 record thanks to an offensive slump, untimely pitching lapses and maybe a little balancing-out of the breaks. Tragedy struck, too, when shortstop Jean Segura lost his young son to illness.

Sunday’s smackdown of the Cardinals preserved the division lead and allowed players and fans to breathe easier during the all-star break. But with lots of baseball to play and the division bunching up, the Fairly Detached Observers foresee tense times before October...

 

Frank: Two weeks ago I was thinking of how smugly I could mention that I’m the only person in Milwaukee’s print media—that is, us and the Journal Sentinel—who predicted the Brewers would make the playoffs.

Artie: You mean I didn’t?

F: You picked ’em third in the division; I said they’d be second and grab one of the wild cards. The best record from the seven JS predictors was Tom Haudricourt’s 84-78.

A: That’s certainly achievable, but they’re backing up toward it. I was getting scared they’d be looking up at the Cubs soon!

F: So you must have really enjoyed Sunday’s 11-2 plucking of the Redbirds.

A: Yeah, but we need that kind of all-around performance more often than one game in twelve! Why couldn’t they pack some of those runs to use in Washington this weekend?

F: Ever the worrier. Every team has down times, and after taking a 20-8 record into May the Brewers played around .500 for several weeks. But the big plunge followed a 10-4 spurt to end June.

A: There were no omens of bad things in bunches.

F: It helped last month that they went 9-2 against lowly Arizona and Colorado. The trip to Toronto and Cincinnati ended 1-4, but they came home to face a last-place Phillies team that had lost nine of its previous 10 games. Who saw that four-game disaster coming?

A: The big problem until Sunday was their hitting, or lack of it.

F: For the season they rank second in the NL in runs and homers, fifth in batting average and fourth in OPS, which combines on-base and slugging percentages.

A: But in July they’ve scored either one or two runs in eight of the twelve games. And until Sunday when they did score the pitching tanked.

F: I was at Miller Park for some of that. A blown 5-1 lead against Philly, then a blown 6-0 lead Friday night against the Cardinals. At least they got that 7-6 loss accomplished in under four hours—barely.

A: Without even going to penalty kicks. I think the Brew Crew watched too much World Cup soccer and figured, “Hey, one or two scores and any game’s in the bag.”

F: Remember what you said before I went to that Philly game?

A: “Let’s hope they score as much as Germany did against Brazil.”

F: And they did, with a seven-spot—and lost anyway. They’ve dropped to 11th in the NL in ERA but are still seventh in WHIP and opponents’ OBP. But a constant with Brewers’ pitching in recent years is giving up a lot of homers. They’re next-to-worst in the NL with 109 surrendered.

A: Shades of Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper! This year’s chief offender is Marco Estrada, who just left the rotation in favor of Triple-A star Jimmy Nelson.

F: The Cardinals arrived here dead-last in homers in the league. Then they hit four Friday night, three off Yovani Gallardo and the game-winner off Francisco Rodriguez, and everyone was crushed.

A: The Phillies sure “got well” too. Just dandy: Any team struggling to score, come to Milwaukee and it’s, “Let’s take a look under the hood. Oh, you’re not getting enough balls left out over the plate. We can fix that...”

F: Still, there’s no reason to think the Brewers can’t reverse the tailspin. There’s plenty of talent offensively, and if they can shore up the pitching...

A: Wily Peralta bounced back nicely Sunday after a mess against Philly. My biggest worry is a meltdown by “K-Rod,” like both he and John Axford had in 2012.

F: Although he’s 27 for 30 in save opportunities, K-Rod’s been roughed up in some outings when the score was tied, like Friday night.

A: The Crew needs to find an eighth-inning guy who’d be some insurance for the closer spot.

F: And there’s a lot of buzz about whether Doug Melvin should try to repeat his CC Sabathia master stroke of 2008 by trading for Tampa Bay’s David Price, the best pitcher who’s up for bidding.

 

THE OFFENSIVE WOES

F: As we said, the Brewers will always remember how to score. But one thing they could improve on is drawing walks. They’re 12th in the league in that department.

A: It’s the Brewers’ way, ain’a? Lots of free swingers.

F: But in a “who cares about strikeouts?” period of baseball history, they’re not doing too badly—fourth-lowest in K’s in the league. As for individual hitters, Jean Segura is having a pretty pronounced sophomore slump. And who knows how much the tragedy of losing his son will affect him on the field.

A: Back in the day most teams could get by, and did, with a shortstop who hit .230 but played primo defense. But nowadays there are more shortstops who are expected to do significant run producing.

F: Like St. Louis’ Jhonny Peralta, who did some producing over the weekend.

A: But you always want good sluggers at first and third base. And with the Brewers, Aramis Ramirez is playing well but you’re always holding your breath about whether he’ll be out for two weeks with some new leg problem.

F: He’s certainly more durable than he was last year (just 92 games) but he’s not likely to approach the numbers he had in 2012 (27 homers, 105 RBI). As for first base, you get what you pay for, and Mark Reynolds is doing exactly what you’d expect—some big homers but low batting average and lots of strikeouts.

A: His defense, though, has been a really pleasant surprise—at both first and third.

F: And Lyle Overbay is doing about what was expected—some occasional big hits with solid defense, but nothing like he was in his first stint here.

A: When he was a decade younger.

F: Jonathan Lucroy hasn’t been immune from the July troubles, but he sure earned his spot in the All-Star Game. Second base has been quite productive, with Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks both contributing. Khris Davis is well on his way to perhaps 25 homers, and Sunday he showed some great defense in left field.

A: Ryan Braun seems to have all sorts of nagging aches but chances are he’ll get to 20-plus homers and 100-ish RBI.

F: As for the renewed devotion local fans have showered on the admitted drug cheat and liar—well, let’s just say I think the team let Braun get off easy in terms of doing penance. I’d just as soon have someone else be the big hero in any Brewers win.

A: And then there’s Carlos Gomez. A delight to watch, in terms of his enthusiasm, total effort and emergence as a pretty consistent hitter.

F: But I don’t think his all-or-nothing swings make him the best possible leadoff hitter for this team.

A: But if not him, who?

F: A buddy of mine at Paddy’s Pub says it should be Gennett.

A: That’s fine as far as the platoon goes, but Gennett hasn’t had a chance to prove he can hit left-handers yet.

F: He went into the break at 4 for 34 against lefties.

A: I’d sure be in favor of trying him at leadoff, but maybe after he works on handling lefties during the off-season and spring training. But really, once you go through the lineup once, how often does a leadoff hitter really lead off multiple innings? It’s all a crapshoot.

F: But you do figure to get more at-bats than the other spots, maybe several dozen over the course of a season.

A: That’s the idea behind the Reds batting Joey Votto second, and when Roenicke tried it with Braun it seemed to work pretty well.

F: So why was Braun down to hitting fifth for most of last week? Is that really something that can help with his injuries? Seems to me like Ron Roenicke tinkers too much with the batting order.

 

SABATHIA REDUX?

F: As for the starting rotation, Gallardo is back to his so-so ways, with the only certainty being that he’ll throw a ton of pitches, and take a long time to do it. He’s just not inspiring great confidence.

A: As I said earlier, Peralta had a nice rebound from a couple of poor outings.

F: Matt Garza keeps pitching well but not getting a lot of support or a lot of luck, or both. Kyle Lohse has been fine. Estrada had decent games in his last couple of starts but they really had to find out what Jimmy Nelson can do. And though Nelson got roughed up by St. Louis, he also was the victim of some bad defense.

F: Still, does this July slump make it imperative, or at least quite likely, that they’ll try to make a deal for David Price?

A: I heard a long radio interview with Doug Melvin recently, and he talked about making that kind of deal in terms of what the Brewers would have to give up. Melvin said you’d have to think about how many games are left, how many starts you might get from a new guy...

F: Starts that are almost sure to include losses, no matter how good the new guy is.

A: Melvin emphasized that no one player can really turn a team around, especially if he’s a starting pitcher. And I agree with him.

F: Except that Melvin went through just such an experience in ’08 with Sabathia.

A: But Melvin said that was highly unusual, and of course he’s right.

F: For one thing, by this time in July of ’08 the Brewers already had Sabathia and he’d won his first two Milwaukee starts. He arrived on July 7 and made 17 starts, going 11-2. At this point, if they landed Price he’d probably get a maximum of 14 starts. And remember, Sabathia pitched on short rest several times down the stretch. Is Price the kind of horse who you’d expect to duplicate that?

A: Not really.

F: I was thinking that Rickie Weeks could be pretty attractive to some contending team. He’s played pretty well in limited time while platooning with Gennett, and with the season more than half-gone he’s not carrying an $11 million price tag. And the Brewers presumably could agree to kick in some money as part of a deal.

A: But it’s almost certain that Tampa Bay would want to get Jimmy Nelson as part of any deal for Price. And would it be worth it for Melvin to get rid of a guy who’s under the Brewers’ financial “control” for six years—a guy who could come in and prove to be an effective starter? Nelson’s numbers at Triple-A weren’t just good, they were outstanding.

F: His loss Saturday notwithstanding, he could be like Cal Eldred, who arrived in mid-season of 1992 and went 11-2 in 14 starts.

A: Also, it’s one thing to “rent” someone for a few months, as they did with Sabathia, kind of figuring that they wouldn’t be able to afford him after ’08. Now, Price isn’t a free agent until the fall of 2015, but he’ll be arbitration-eligible this coming winter, and he’s already making $14 million.

F: That sure won’t get any lower for 2015, no matter who has to pay him.

A; So a deal for him would be more like a Zack Greinke thing, where the next year you might have to be thinking of trading him away...

F: To get some return on him before he departs in free agency.

A: To me, that’s not really a good trade.

F: If you could have a guarantee that adding Price or someone else would get the Brew Crew to the World Series, well... But there are no guarantees. Sabathia got them to the playoffs but he didn’t win his start against Philly and they were done in four games.

A: Doggone baseball... Too many uncertainties.

F: Something else that Melvin and Mark Attanasio have to consider is the business end of things looking toward 2015. They have to make sure this thing doesn’t completely collapse...

A: Which would really hurt future attendance.

F: Even this year we’re seeing, I think, that the reduced expectations after 2012 and ’13 have cut into the attendance. Yeah, they’ll top 2 million easily, but the Philly series didn’t draw big crowds except for the daytime finale, and none of the Cardinals games sold out, with two drawing “only” about 35,000—not what I’d have expected for the main division rivals.

 

THE RIVALS ARE HURTING

F: The Brewers caught a couple of breaks from the ill fortune of the Cardinals and Reds. Yadier Molina is out for at least two months after thumb surgery, and so is Cincy’s Brandon Phillips. And the Reds are still having trouble keeping Votto on the field with a variety of nagging things.

A: The Cards will really miss Molina, not just on offense but in what he adds behind the plate in terms of his throwing and handling of the pitching staff. I read St. Louis writers sometimes on the Web, and this year they’re stressing how the Cards have struggled on offense. Usually we think of St. Lou as a scoring machine, but not this year—so far.

 

WHAT LIES AHEAD

F: Their remaining schedule looks pretty formidable. Of the 66 games, 42 are against teams that went into the break with winning records.

A: How about the schedule within the NL Central?

F: They have 35 games within division rivals, including 10 more with St. Louis (six on the road) and nine more with Cincinnati (six at Miller Park). They’re 3-7 against the Reds so far and 4-5 against the Cardinals.

A: They’ve handled the Pirates real well so far.

F: Going 10-3 to be exact. But that means they have only six games left with Pittsburgh. The good news, I guess, is that they have 10 games left with the Cubs, although seven are at Wrigley Field. And they’re only 5-4 against them so far.

A: And the Cubs aren’t as bad as one would suspect, even after waving two “white flags” by sending their two best pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to Oakland.

F: Now, the Reds and Cardinals play each other 10 more times, and each has six more games against Pittsburgh. But none of the NL Central teams has more than 26 games within the division, so there’s less chance for the ol’ scenario of “fatten up while the division rivals beat each other up.”

A: How about games outside the division?

F: The Brewers also haven’t played either the Dodgers or the Giants yet, so that will be 12 games evenly divided by location.

A: They’ll definitely see some good pitching there. And in Washington when they come out of the break. And they still have two against Toronto here.

F: Pittsburgh has the toughest out-of-division schedule, in terms of teams with winning records. The Pirates play the Dodgers and Giants three times each, Detroit four times, Washington three times and Atlanta seven times. St. Louis plays the Dodgers three times and Baltimore three times. Cincinnati plays Baltimore and Washington three times and Atlanta four times.

A: OK, there must be some supposedly easier teams on the Crew’s calendar besides the Cubs.

F: The Brewers also play three at San Diego and three at Tampa Bay. They get both the Mets and Marlins for four games at home. But then, the four games against Philly looked pretty good, too.

A: They absolutely did.

F: Then again, the first month’s schedule wasn’t supposed to be easy, and the Brewers went into May at 20-8.

 

NEW KIDD ON THE BLOCK

F: Given the strange transition in Bucks coaches—Jason Kidd suddenly brought in a couple of days after Larry Drew welcomed Jabari Parker to town—I see some potential trust issues involving co-owner Marc Lasry.

A: As in what other things might go on behind the scenes, hidden even from the general manager?

F: I really wonder whether Lasry and his buddy Jason cooked up this whole “I want total control” thing in Brooklyn, knowing that it wouldn’t fly and the Nets would be just as happy to let Kidd go. So as we get more and more into the “yes or no” stuff about a new arena, can we be sure we’re getting straight talk all the time?

A: But really, the whole uproar over the coaching change died down pretty quickly. Now that the summer league is on and Parker is showing his stuff, I think people are happy to just focus on what we can hope for on the court. And it’s not like Larry Drew did anything awfully good to merit another chance, especially with new bosses coming in.

F: I’ll say this about Kidd: he doesn’t seem to be a Mr. Personality. To me, wherever he is he looks like he ain’t very happy to be there.

A: He doesn’t have the scowl of the “Junior G-Man,” Scott Skiles. But he’s in that arena, so to speak. I sure don’t see him going out to the State Fair for a cream puff and an ear of corn, chatting up the fans.

F: He could be the Davey Lopes of the Bucks. Davey, God bless him, was never much fun to be around.

A: One time I saw Lopes at a local bagel shop and was thinking, for a second, of asking him, “Hey, Davey, do you think 60 wins is a possibility this year?” Maybe I’ll spot Kidd somewhere so I can ask him, “Jason, do you think 20 wins is doable?”

F: If it was 2002 when you saw Lopes, it turned out that 60 wins was four more than the Brewers achieved that year. And of course Davey wasn’t around after a few weeks.

A: But the thing is, if the Brewers had won for Lopes no one would have cared about his personality. And if Kidd’s team is successful, no one will care about him either.

F: Provided his off-court behavior doesn’t return to the realm of legal complications.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek knows all about slumps.