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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Quick, Somebody Arrest This Malaise

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The Milwaukee Brewers hit the all-star break stumbling, if not staggering. A listless 3-7 stretch against Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles left the Brew Crew two-and-a-half games behind the Cardinals in their division and four behind San Francisco in the wild-card playoff race. There was controversy, too, as Ryan Braun ripped the team’s pitching in the Chicago series and said general manager Doug Melvin had to make a deal to get help. Melvin called Braun’s comments “irresponsible” and added, “I’ll give him a badge and he can be my deputy.”

The Observers deputized themselves Sunday to evaluate things at Miller Park. They would have had more fun at the Circus Parade.

Artie: Our young lions were mightily tamed by the Dodgers under the open big top, ain’a? And the new deputy arrested a potential ninth-inning rally by popping out with two men on.

Frank: Mr. Braun has done a lot of popping up since he popped off in Chicago. In the six-game homestand against the Cardinals and Dodgers, he went 3 for 25 and didn’t drive in a single run. In fact, he went into the all-star break with exactly one RBI for July.

Artie: Timing is everything, and Braun’s mouth didn’t have it.

Frank: Not this time, anyway. Remember when he called out the team last year?

Artie: After the Boston series.

Frank: Exactly. The Red Sox swept them in May and Braun said, “We never really expected to win any of these games… We were just content to be there and compete.”

Artie: And as I recall, after that the team got hot.

Frank: True. This time, though, Braun’s comments had very specific targets. He said the Cubs pitched “a lot better than our starters did” and semi-ordered Melvin to make a trade “to show everybody we’re for real.” But he wasn’t accurate about the starters because they were out-pitched in only two of the four Chicago games.

Artie: It was probably a buildup of frustration for Braun about how the team didn’t break away in the first half.

Frank: It’s also more evidence that Braun wants to be “the man” for this team—and that he has some swagger to him. If he’s on your team, it’s confidence; if he’s an opponent, it’s cockiness.

Artie: I wonder how this went over with his teammates.

Frank: There are 24 other guys, and chances are there were a couple who didn’t appreciate it.

Artie: Especially since Braun basically disappeared on the homestand. Which shows that if you’re doing double duty, as a player and a front-office deputy, it’s too much.

Frank: Friday night when Braun came up in the ninth with the winning run at second and two out, I thought, “Hey, if he sends the crowd home he can say anything he wants.” But he struck out.

Artie: And two days later he did send everyone home with that last pop-up against the Dodgers.

Frank: That’s the real double duty that’s unacceptable—being outspoken and underachieving.

Artie: Should Melvin have refrained from going public himself?

Frank: It was unusual, and I’ve heard some people say it shows Melvin is feeling pressure from the owner.

Artie: I have a feeling Melvin may have told Braun in the past to “Keep it in the clubhouse,” and this was the last straw.

Frank: That might explain the rather pointed way Melvin slapped Braun down, with the “deputy” comment. Like all squabbles, it’ll blow over if the team starts winning again.

Artie: So where does all this leave the Brewers at the break?

Frank: Still in decent shape, even at 45-43. Last year they’d played more games and were 52-43, but they were five games behind the Cubs.

Artie: But this year the wild-card race is looking very tough. The good news is that the division looks pretty winnable; the bad news is that it’s winnable for five teams.

Frank: The Astros, a big second-half team in recent years, hit the break only one game behind the Brewers. And the Reds aren’t that far back either.

Artie: The second half opens with four games in Cincinnati, and that worries me.

Frank: I don’t think the Brewers’ starting pitching has been surprising, except for Manny Parra’s big troubles. We thought Yovani Gallardo would be good and he has been. As for Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper and Dave Bush, they are what they’ve always been. A combined record of 15-14 with the lowest ERA among them at 4.70.

Artie: Parra looked good in his first start since returning from the minors. Maybe Bush will do the same when he comes back next week from his arm injury.

Frank: After the break they’ll have their original rotation back for almost three turns before the trading deadline. If things stabilize, they might not have to make a deal for pitching.

Artie: But that assumes the offense will start scoring the way we thought it would.

Frank: They’re scratching for a leadoff hitter since Rickie Weeks was lost for the season. They tried Jason Kendall in the Dodger series with not much success.

Artie: At least when Kendall leads off the game it’s one less chance he’ll hit into a double play.

Frank: He’s done that 10 times this year, tying him with Bill Hall just behind the team leader, J.J. Hardy with 11. Craig Counsell has led off the most recently and he’s been OK, but he doesn’t have the power or speed that Weeks gave them.

Artie: That’s why, if they make a deal with Arizona for, say, Doug Davis, it may also include second baseman Felipe Lopez, who’s a leadoff hitter.

Frank: Prince Fielder is hitting fine— let’s hope winning the Home Run Derby didn’t mess up his stroke—and I think Braun will rebound. But will Hardy, Kendall and Corey Hart show some consistency? Will Casey McGehee be able to play through knee tendinitis? Will Mat Gamel keep improving?

Artie: I repeat, they better win the division. The way San Francisco is playing with not much offense, if they add a bat or two they’ll lock up the wild card—or even pass the Dodgers.

Frank: I still think the Brewers will win the division. Braun will have a big second half, the pitching will regroup...

Artie: With the addition of Davis, perhaps?

Frank: Even if they don’t make a move, I think they’ll get back to the playoffs.

Artie: They do have nine games left with the Cardinals and seven with the Cubs, all in September.

Frank: To say nothing of the nine games left against the Pirates, whom they’ve owned, and eight against the hopeless Nationals.

Artie: Those are the games that worry me. At some point, you’d think the law of averages would send our mastery of the Pirates back the other way; and, of course, the Brew Crew could play down to Washington’s level.

Frank: Do you think the Brewers can get to the playoffs with the bunch they have now?

Artie: It’s possible, but it could only help to make a move. The Cubs’ pitching has been good and getting Aramis Ramirez back helps their offense. The Cardinals might make a move yet, too, and their pitching has been better than ours.

Frank: Last year Melvin hit the jackpot by pulling off the trade for CC Sabathia. I doubt there’s another deal like that out there.

Artie: How about trading Fielder and a couple of minor-leaguers to Toronto for Roy Halladay and Lyle Overbay?

Frank: It would cost Prince, at least, to get Halladay. If they got Overbay back, he’d be a proven hitter but they’d be losing a lot of homers.

Artie: Best of all, they’d have an Old West marketing theme—”Doc” Halladay to go with “Deputy” Braun. And if they got Joe Dillon back from Tampa Bay, he could be “Marshal” Dillon.

Frank: Saddle up, fellas!

Photo: Actually, deputy, what we really need from you is an RBI or two.