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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

A Few Practice Swings

The Fairly Detached Observers

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Forget what groundhogs or weathermen say. Winter is gone thanks to the magic words of baseball: “Pitchers and catchers report.” The Brewers’ spring flingin’ starts this weekend. The Observers never stop flinging it.

Artie: The Brew Crew was mighty thin in starting pitching before adding Braden Looper this week. In two years as a St. Louis starter he was 24-26 with a 4.52 ERA. Just what they need: a clone of Jeff Suppan (22-22, 4.78 in two Milwaukee seasons) and Dave Bush (33-31, 4.57 in three).

Frank: The Brewers also signed a former Yankee left-hander, Chase Wright. The highlight of his brief time in the majors is giving up four straight homers to Boston in 2007.

Artie: Tailor-made for the Brewers, ain’a? He can join a long list of Milwaukee hurlers who turn out to be “tweeners”—they’d be great in an imaginary league between Triple-A and the majors. Count ‘em off from the last few years: Ben Hendrickson, Jose Capellan, Jorge de los Santos, Dana Eveland, Zach Jackson.

Frank: The Brewers have a solid closer, Trevor Hoffman, and question marks for the other eight innings. The rotation is two youngsters, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra, and three .500-types in Looper, Suppan and Bush. Now Seth McClung goes to the bullpen, which may be a better role for him.

Artie: One question mark is gone now that Ben Sheets is having elbow surgery. Even in January there was a chance he’d be back here.

Frank: His injuries annoyed Brewer fans, but he had a fine season before he tore a tendon in September. Now he’s living a free agent’s nightmare: no contract with Texas because he flunked the physical, and the prospect of having to sell himself again next winter.

Artie: The Brewers could wind up paying for the surgery because Sheets was here when he got hurt. But what took everyone so long to opt for surgery? If he aggravated the original injury by off-season throwing, the Brewers should squawk about paying. After all, Sheets turned down their arbitration offer.

Frank: Ben and his agent gambled and lost. A lot of clubs clearly doubted his health.

Artie: How could he think he’d skate by? Oh yeah, he’s from Louisiana.

Frank: Ouch. Well, the Brewers are lucky he didn’t take the $11 million they reportedly offered in January.

Artie: And didn’t go for arbitration, which would have cost them more like $12 million. It’s all so... Sheetsian.

Frank: Ben’s a nice kid, but kind of goofy.

Artie: Maybe not the sharpest curveball in the pitcher’s toolbox.

Frank: Can’t fault him for that. Having athletic talent doesn’t necessarily make someone smart. Take Michael Phelps.

Artie: Photographed smoking from a bong. When you’ve got Athens gold and Beijing gold, why not go for Acapulco gold?

Frank: USA Swimming slapped his wrist with a virtually meaningless three-month suspension.

Artie: But Kellogg’s hit him where it hurts, saying it’s dropping his endorsement deal. What Phelps was filling his bowl with wasn’t what they had in mind.

Big Money, Big Issues

Frank: Besides getting Wright, the Brewers signed another former Yankee pitcher, Ramiro Mendoza, who hasn’t been in the majors in three years. See? Everyone says the Yankees have too much, but they share.

Artie: They give and give, and what thanks do they get?

Frank: They give money in the luxury tax, they give retread pitchers...

Artie: They give blatherers something to blather about...

Frank: And everyone across the country something to hate. And now that they’ve spent more than $400 million on three players, they’ve given some rival owners, including the Brewers’ Mark Attanasio, reason to call for a salary cap.

Artie: Just last week the commish himself, Milwaukee’s Bud Selig, said that “the system will need tinkering.” If he wants to redistribute some revenue, he could start by giving back some of his salary, which was a whopping $18 million as of late 2007.

Frank: I got to know Bud a little when I worked at the Journal. He’s a good guy, and he’s done a lot for baseball. But $18 million? Ryan Howard just got to that level, and he’s hit a lot more homers than Bud.

Artie: It comes to $600,000 per team. Do they handle it like The Godfather? Each owner tiptoes to his office with a fat envelope?

Frank: Considering the focus on executive salaries these days, a baseball fan might question the $18 million on these grounds: Before baseball got religion about drug use, weren’t we sold a tainted product for two decades or so?

Artie: A good question, now that Barry Bonds’ perjury trial is close. Plus things are heating up around Roger Clemens. And now Alex Rodriguez, the best hope to pass Bonds with a “clean” home-run record, has confessed to being a steroid user a few years ago—after Sports Illustrated outed him as a 2003 drug-test flunker.

Frank: The tests that year were done with no threat of penalties, so “A-Roid” can keep building his career numbers. But what will they be worth?

Artie: At least he’s not in line for an orange jumpsuit, like Bonds.

Frank: The prosecutors just released a bunch of evidence, and it’s mighty compelling, especially what relates to the BALCO lab. So far everything that’s been alleged about BALCO has proved true. Just ask Marion Jones.

Artie: If Bonds doesn’t play again, he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame in four more years, ain’a?

Frank: Right, and I don’t think Bud will be able to ignore it, no matter how the trial ends. For three years Bud has pretended that Mark McGwire doesn’t exist, but that won’t work as Bonds and Clemens and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro approach the Hall ballot.

Artie: He might earn some of that $18 million.

Frank: Well, his job involves more than making sure the money keeps rolling in. It involves showing leadership and making some judgments.

Artie: As in, “These guys were dirty and don’t deserve to be honored”?

Frank: That’s one option. Or does he decide that only those convicted of something in court should be banned?

Artie: Or does he order a big asterisk on the plaque for any Hall of Famer whose name was connected to drugs?

Frank: Or does he just say, “Folks, all those homers were tainted but they sure were entertaining, right? Let’s just move on.” All I’m saying is that the fans will expect Bud to take a stand. Nothing he says will please everyone, but he owes it to the folks who buy his product—and pay his salary—to say something.

Use the Weeks Well

Artie: “Pitchers and catchers report.” Can we make it pitchers, catchers and Rickie Weeks? Put him in center field and hit him 300 fly balls a day. Mike Cameron is here for only one more season, if they don’t trade him by the All-Star break. Shouldn’t they see if Weeks can play the outfield, since he’s a liability at second base?

Frank: Always thinking ahead!

Artie: Rickie to center, Bill Hall to second, J.J. Hardy to third and put the kid, Alcides Escobar, at short. A recipe for success!

Frank: They could trade Weeks for pitching, especially if one of the five starters gets hurt.

Artie: One of the five? Hell, think of what happened to the Bucks. THREE of their starting five are gone!

Frank: Your pessimism is in midseason form.

Artie: Luke Ridnour joins Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut on the shelf even as they’re trading one of his backups, Tyronn Lue. Hey, how old is Scott Skiles?

Frank: He’s almost 45. But he holds the NBA records for assists in a game, with 30.

Artie: Do I hear “player-coach,” anyone?

The Observers reporting for duty | Photo by Jill Trapp

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