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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008

Brewers: Spring Ahead, Fall Back?

The Fairly Detached Observers

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The Milwaukee Brewers took their fans on a wild ride this season, from the heights of confidence to the depths of despair. But it was worth it as the Brewers reached the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

A core of young stars—Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart—made the Brewers contenders from opening day. The July 7 trade for pitcher CC Sabathia, who carried the team, seemed to ensure a playoff spot. But a September slump almost doomed the Brewers, and manager Ned Yost was replaced by coach Dale Sveum with 12 games to play. The Brewers staged a 6-1 finish, beating the Chicago Cubs in the season finale at Miller Park to reach the postseason.

The playoff run lasted only four games against Philadelphia, leaving the Brewers and their fans hungering for more. But nothing is guaranteed for 2009; the National League Central may be baseball’s toughest division and the Brewers’ 90 victories couldn’t hide their flaws. Now general manager Doug Melvin, with a contract extension through 2012, must find the manager and players who can get the Brewers back to the playoffs.

The Fairly Detached Observers, of course, can help. Armed with stat sheets, baseball reference books and their firsthand judgments from dozens of Brewer games, they met to discuss the team’s future.

The Next Skipper

Frank: First things first: Can’t have a team without a manager.

Artie: Not necessarily. Don’t forget that rotating “College of Coaches” the Cubs had.

Frank: Oh yeah, the system in 1961 and ‘62 that produced a record of, let’s look it up… 123-193.

Artie: I didn’t say it was a good idea.

Frank: Still, the Observers are ready to participate if the Brewers go in that direction.

Artie: I’d subject myself to the vetting process, you betcha.

Frank: But seriously, folks... Doug Melvin said Dale Sveum had “the advantage of familiarity,” but a few days later told Sveum he was out.

Artie: Someone must have reminded him, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Frank: More like “content.” They got to the playoffs under Sveum, but overall he was 8-8 and the Brewers can’t be satisfied with this year. Sveum was a little calmer than Ned Yost, and he got some support from players. But neither of us liked his choice of Mike Cameron as the leadoff hitter.

Artie: Or Jeff Suppan as the starting pitcher in Game 4 against the Phillies. So how about the other candidates?

Frank: Willie Randolph interviewed here before Yost was chosen six years ago. He got the Mets to the NLCS in ‘06, but presided over a historic flop the next year and was fired this year as they floundered again.

Artie: Doesn’t sound good when you remember that over the last few years the Brewers have had problems in the second half of the season.

Frank: There’s Buck Showalter, who would not be an upgrade in terms of people skills. No Mr. Charm there.

Artie: It seemed that at his last two stops, Arizona and Texas, the players eventually, shall we say, wished him ill.

Frank: He wears out his welcome, I think. He got the Yankees to the playoffs in ‘95, but the next year it was Joe Torre getting them to the World Series.

Artie: How about another former Texas manager, Bobby Valentine?

Frank: Hire him and it’s “The Bobby Valentine Show” every day. It’s all about him. The New York press loved it when he was with the Mets, but I doubt it’s what this organization wants.

Artie: Does Melvin have a history with Showalter or Valentine from his days as Texas GM?

Frank: Nope. Valentine was there before him and Showalter after he left in 2001. Jerry Narron managed Texas in Melvin’s last year there, and Melvin also knows Ken Macha, whom he wanted to hire here before Macha decided on Oakland.

Artie: Other “usual suspects” are Bob Brenly, Buck Martinez, Mike Hargrove, Jim Tracy, Davey Johnson. But here’s one name I’d like to add: former Twins manager Tom Kelly.

Frank: Interesting. He won two World Series up there.

Artie: Hasn’t managed since he retired in 2001, but he’s only 58. You always heard good things about his calm style and players said they loved “TK.”

Frank: He’s a special assistant to the Twins GM and hasn’t said anything about wanting to manage again. But who knows, perhaps he could be lured. Whomever they choose, going outside is the right way to add some oomph. The Brewers took a big step this year, but they have to take another one in ‘09.

Artie: The players were comfortable with Sveum, but comfort isn’t what you want now. Bring in a different voice, someone with more experience. And someone who might tell the hitters, “Hey, take a pitch once in a while.”

Frank: Good transition, as we now consider…

The Offense

Frank: It’s been feast or famine for the Brewers, who relied on the home run. They were third in the National League in homers (198) but 12th in batting average (.253) and 10th in on-base percentage (.325). Unless they hit two- and three-run dingers, they weren’t scoring.

Artie: But they didn’t have trouble striking out.

Frank: Fifth-most in the league, at 1,203, but they were only ninth-best in drawing walks. They had six players with at least 100 strikeouts.

Artie: There were games this year where, I swear, they had more strikeouts than times at bat.

Frank: They have to find a consistent leadoff hitter. A lot of people tout Corey Hart for that role, but his on-base percentage for the year was a dismal .300.

Artie: If he were locked into that leadoff role, maybe his approach at the plate would change. But he was totally lost for the last month of the season. Too bad Gabe Kapler was hurt in the final weeks, because Hart could really have used a rest. It’s imperative they re-sign Kapler, ain’a?

Frank: Yup. He hit .301, pinch-hit .323, played good defense in center and right and was a good veteran presence. But back to leadoff hitting: Rickie Weeks’ OBP was pretty good (.342), especially considering his low batting average (.234). He did score 89 runs.

Artie: But imagine if he got on base more often, how many more runs could he score?

Frank: They just have to do better in “small ball,” because there’ll always be slumps for the power hitters. Prince Fielder’s numbers look good but they’re down from 2007, and except for the last month he didn’t get a lot of big hits.

Artie: There’s the theory that he was a tad ticked-off at not getting the long-term contract offer he wanted. He’ll get big money in arbitration this winter, but what if it still doesn’t match what he thinks he’s worth?

Frank: He has three seasons left before free agency, and I don’t think he’s in the Brewers’ plans beyond 2011. So he’s marking time until he seeks his designated-hitter destiny. The Brewers have to hope he marks the time effectively.

The Defense

Frank: Outfield good, infield bad.

Artie: That tells the story.

Frank: Cameron was fine in center field, better than Hart or Bill Hall would have been. Hart was OK in right and Ryan Braun was good in left, learning a new position.

Artie: But that right side of the infield! Weeks and Fielder cost them a lot of runs and put more strain on the pitching staff.

Frank: Fielder seemed to have trouble just catching throws. And Weeks, who seemed to improve last year, regressed—especially on those flip throws trying to make double plays.

Artie: You’ve got to ask, can they even improve to the point of being adequate?

Frank: Left side of the infield, definitely better.

Artie: Though I don’t think Hall demonstrated he could be an everyday third baseman.

Frank: I don’t agree totally. He had 17 errors in 113 games there, but you could live with that if he had been doing anything at the plate. At shortstop, I’ve never thought of J.J. Hardy as having great range, but he had the third-most chances in the league so he must have been getting to balls.

Artie: The big question involves this kid Alcides Escobar, who’s supposedly ready to play big-league shortstop now. Do you throw him in full-time and move Hardy, and if so, which way, to second or third?

Frank: Hall has played second, too, so maybe Hardy goes to third and Hall to second—a third straight year of changing positions for him. But maybe they decide Hall is comfortable now at third, so Hardy at second is a better idea. And this all assumes they keep Hall instead of trading him.

Artie: No problem at catcher, with Jason Kendall and Mike Rivera.

Frank: The only concern is that Kendall played 151 games and will be 34 next season.

Starting Pitchers

Frank: The Brewers were second in the league in earned run average at 3.85, and a lot of that was the Sabathia factor. He was 1.65 in 17 starts. Ben Sheets was 3.09 over 31 starts, although his performance kind of faded after the Sabathia trade.

Artie: But those guys are gone for ‘09. How can they afford to give Sabathia a five- or six-year deal? Mark Attanasio bought the team for $220 million, and a Sabathia contract would probably be more than half that total.

Frank: As for Sheets, his latest injury, a torn muscle near the elbow, just makes him too iffy.

Artie: They can find better ways to spend their money.

Frank: Speaking of which, for each of the next two years they’ll have $10 million going to Jeff Suppan, who in his first two years is 22-22 with an ERA pretty close to 5.

Artie: A Yugo with a Cadillac price tag. Ouch! Some might suggest you bury him in the bullpen, but does he really have what that takes? The book on Suppan says to get to him early, and in the bullpen his “early” would be late in the game, with less chance for the team to recover if he stinks. So, what, you can only use him if the team’s down 11 runs by the third inning?

Frank: His salary keeps him in the rotation, I think. So you’ve got him and Dave Bush, another .500 record, along with Manny Parra and Yovani Gallardo. And there’s Seth McClung, who had some good games as a starter this year.

Artie: You’ve got to give him a shot at the rotation.

Frank: And there’s one more name: Chris Capuano, who missed this season with “Tommy John” elbow surgery. Maybe he has a great training camp and puts himself in the picture.

Artie: They don’t have much in the minors, as far as starters. The one big prospect is Jeremy Jeffress, but he’s more than a year away. They’ll look at free agents or trades, but the free agents, except for Sabathia, look like another big batch of Suppans.

Relief Pitching

Artie: We can’t hold off any longer. We have to talk about the 2008 bullpen— although who were those guys in the last few weeks, who pitched so well?

Frank: You’ve got to figure Eric Gagne, whom they paid $10 million this year, and Guillermo Mota won’t be re-signed.

Artie: Unless Gagne says, “I’ll pitch for free,” or even, “I’ll pay you.” Two other bullpen guys are free agents, Brian Shouse and Salomon Torres, and those two you keep.

Frank: Even though Torres hit the wall in the last weeks after replacing Gagne as the closer. For the second straight year a guy they thought would be a solid setup man didn’t work out. In ‘07 they traded for Scott Linebrink, who failed, and this year they signed David Riske, who was hurt and inconsistent.

Artie: Not the best combination.

Frank: So they’re back at Square One in terms of setup men. Carlos Villanueva might be a guy they’d try.

Artie: After they bounced him from the rotation, he pitched pretty well as more of a “long reliever.” But he also could be a contender for the rotation.

Frank: Bush and McClung could wind up in the bullpen, too.

Moves to Make?

Artie: They won 90 games this year. It won’t be easy to match that in ‘09.

Frank: Especially in their division.

Artie: Houston and St. Louis both won 86 games. You can bet they’re going to make moves, so the Brewers better, too.

Frank: Let’s start with the outfield, and whether to re-sign Cameron, who’s 36 in January. You’ll get lots of strikeouts but maybe 25 to 30 homers, plus good defense and a good presence in the clubhouse. Other options are moving Hart to center or trying Tony Gwynn Jr., whom they don’t seem to have much confidence in.

Artie: You don’t want to be moving Hart, I think, especially if you’re thinking of moving guys around in the infield.

Frank: Speaking of the infield, do you try to trade Weeks or Hall, or both? Hall has a big price tag, about $7 million a year for the next two years.

Artie: But Hall’s versatile, and there are probably clubs that would be interested. And Weeks, do you hold off dealing him because he might finally have that breakthrough season?

Frank: So you look for a deal, especially if it gets you an established starting pitcher.

Artie: A name that comes up often is the Giants’ Matt Cain, or Zack Greinke in Kansas City. If you get a shot at guys like that, I say pull the trigger.

Frank: And what about Fielder? Do you start thinking about moving him now for a big-name pitcher or two?

Artie: If it’s a blockbuster deal where you’d get a No. 1 or 2 starter, plus a leadoff type or a good reliever, go for it. Melvin’s no stranger to mega-deals, as in “Hello, CC.”

Frank: And Attanasio isn’t gun-shy, either, as in “Goodbye, Ned.”

Artie: To spring ahead, or even equal the 90 wins, there’s no standing pat.

Frank: Circumstances have already moved you off “pat.” You need starting pitchers, better run production and bullpen help.

Artie: Is that all? Well sir, it’s less than four months until “pitchers and catchers report.” I can’t help but think of this song from State Fair:

I’m starry-eyed and vaguely discontented Like a nightingale without a song to sing Oh, why should I have spring fever When it isn’t even spring?

Frank: Kumbalek the starry-eyed nightingale? It’s the magic of baseball.

Frank Clines labored almost 20 years in the sports department at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and covered the Brewers part-time for most of those years. Art Kumbalek is a candidate for the presidency of the United States.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Photos by Kevin Deval and Michael Smith