Spring Hopes Attorney?
The Milwaukee Brewers prospects for the upcoming season appear to be as confounding as that malapropism from departed Brewers radio announcer Jim Powell. A poll on this morning’s JS Online asked readers whether the Brewers would make the playoffs this season. The results, not surprisingly, were evenly divided between the positive and the negative.
I know spring is supposed to be the time for optimism, but I’m afraid that I’m firmly on the “no” side of this question. Spring training has barely begun and the bad news is already coming Milwaukee’s way with reports that starting 3rd baseman Billy Hall is out for at least a month with a torn calf muscle. I guess that means that, for now, the Brewers will have to find someone else to strike out while trying to pull an outside pitch. Unfortunately, they have no shortage of candidates there.
The way I see it, the Brewers are going to struggle to reach .500 much less challenge for the post-season. The National League looks to be pretty much the same as last year, with only the Cubs and Mets making significant moves to improve themselves. (The jury remains out on how effective those moves will be, but that’s a subject for another post.) As it stands right now, though, like last year the Cubs are positioned to win the NL Central division leaving the Brewers to battle for the Wild Card once again with the likes of New York, Philadelphia, Florida, Los Angeles, Arizona, St. Louis, Houston, and maybe even Cincinnati. While all of those teams have their flaws, the Brewers own may be more glaring.
In baseball, success is almost always predicated on pitching. Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin correctly points out that the team is pretty much the same as the start of last year, with the exception of Ben Sheets. But, despite Sheets frustrating bouts with injury, that’s a major exception. Sheets pitched at an all-star level for the team in the first half of last season, going 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA. And this year, there’s no CC Sabathia on the horizon to bail out the Brewers in the second half. Without Sheets, the starting rotation is expected to consist of Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, and newly signed Braden Looper. That lineup doesn’t figure to strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters.
The career stats of Bush, Suppan and Looper suggest that they will be just about even in wins and losses with an ERA well over 4 runs a game. Using that as a starting point, that means the Brewers will have to depend on youngsters Gallardo and Parra to pitch very well in order to make a run at the post-season. While both have demonstated great promise, that’s a big if. Neither has pitched a full season in the majors. Gallardo has the potential to be a top of the line starter but is still young and missed most of last season with a knee injury. And Parra has been inconsistent, pitching well before the break last year before falling apart in the second half.
Another factor to be considered is the bullpen. The relief corps might be as good, if not even a little better, than last season. But they also figure to be used much more. The collective average start of the projected rotation was under 6 innings last year, with Bush being the highest at 6 1/3. And the only complete game among them was registered by Looper with St. Louis. So unless Gallardo immediately fulfills his considerable potential, there will likely be no one to pitch deep into games, leaving the bullpen to be overworked.
So what does a team do to overcome shaky pitching? The hope is that new manager Ken Macha will get the Brewers to focus more on the fundamentals, shoring up their questionable defense and on-base percentage and situational hitting. Here he has his work cut out for him. The Brewers everyday lineup has the ability to play some exciting baseball but too often has been an all or nothing proposition. And I don’t believe this is by accident. If you look back at the teams Melvin built in his previous stint as a GM in Texas, you will find a similar type of approach. To expect a vast change in that department is probably unrealistic. The same could be said for Macha’s prospects at improving the defense. The components simply don’t seem to be there for much of an upgrade.
Once all these elements are considered, it’s difficult to foresee Milwaukee’s return to the playoffs. In my estimation, 81 wins looks like a more than reasonable expectation.