Since the Green Bay Packers season begins in earnest tomorrow, I thought it would be fitting to take one last not so loving look at the Milwaukee Brewers. I know that the season isn’t “officially” over (in fact, I have tickets to games the next two Saturdays), but looking back I believe it’s fair to say that the Brewers have essentially been playing out the string since mid-season.
Before I sat down to write this opus, I went back and reviewed what I had written about the team in spring training (“Spring Hopes Attorney”). While many people at that time expected the Brewers to contend for a playoff spot, I cautioned about the pitching and predicted that they would struggle to reach .500. Though the Brewers teased us with some success in the early portion of the season, their flaws were bound to be exposed over the course of a 162 game schedule. It must say something about the depth (no pun intended) of their pitching problems that even I was able to foresee them back in February. But who could have predicted that the loss of Dave Bush, along with that of second baseman Rickie Weeks, would be the key to their unraveling?
Of course pitching, while being the predominant factor, wasn’t the Brewers only problem this year; the lack of it just magnified their other shortcomings. Once again, they were overly reliant on the home run at the plate leading to long stretches of offensive inefficiency. And baserunning took a major step back from the previous year. But they did maintain their marginal defense.
One thing that I didn’t anticipate was the continuing struggle of shortstop J.J. Hardy. Hardy had suffered through batting slumps in the past only to battle his way out of them and become an effective run producer. Lamentably that never happened this year, ultimately ending in a trip to the minors and some unsavory whining on his part. In the process, Hardy went from being one of the Brewers mainstays to likely playing himself off the team in favor of phenom Alcides Escobar. Likewise, outfielder Cory Hart’s year roughly mirrored Hardy’s to the point that it’s questionable whether either of them fits in Milwaukee’s future.
Not that there weren’t some bright spots here and there.
Prince Fielder got closer to reaching his considerable potential by going back to the form he showed in the minor leagues. Fielder exhibited a lot more patience at the plate this year and the results showed with an increased batting average and leading the team in walks and runs batted in. He even displayed a notable improvement around the bag at first base. Naturally, he’ll once again be the subject of trade rumors in the offseason.
Trevor Hoffman came over from San Diego and provided some excitement in the 9th inning on those rare occasions when the Brewers provided him with a save opportunity. One had to wonder at the beginning of the season how much “gas” the all time saves leader had left in his tank but his performance has to leave the Brewers and their fans open to another year of “Trevor Time”.
Casey McGehee came out of nowhere to solidify third base at least for the short term and Craig Counsell was the ultimate utility guy all season.
For the most part, staff ace Yovani Gallardo and left fielder Ryan Braun also put up good numbers over the course of the year.
Unfortunately, the contributions of these players didn’t translate to winning baseball. The question now is where do the Brewers go from here. What looked so promising only a couple of years ago is now seriously in doubt. Back then, Milwaukee looked to be set with one of the league’s better infields for years to come. Now, 3rd baseman Braun has been moved to left field, shortstop Hardy will probably be playing elsewhere next year, 2nd baseman Week’s injury history makes him unreliable, and Fielder’s long term future with the franchise is debatable.
There is also the matter of catcher and center field. Veterans Jason Kendall and Mike Cameron are both on record as saying they’d like to stay in Milwaukee but, unless they’re willing to take a ‘home town discount’, it’s unlikely that either will be back next year. While the Brewers currently have no viable candidates in the organization to replace them, it’s hard to justify paying them the money they’re currently making in the future given what they can provide for this team as it stands.
General Manager Doug Melvin says his priority for next year is to secure more pitching and rightly so. But his options will be severely limited. Given the dearth of pitching, the Brewers will have to endure another year of Manny Parra and almost certainly will pick up the option on righthander Braden Looper who, despite his inconsistency, managed to win 12 games so far this year. Packer fans may want to take note as Melvin will be forced to do what many want GM Ted Thompson to do for Green Bay: take a chance on some risky free agent acquisitions and hope they pay off.
As noted earlier, there has already been some speculation that Fielder will be moved for a pitcher. This, too, is problematic. Melvin would need to get a proven top of the rotation starter, or else a couple of very good ones, in return. I don’t believe that deal is out there and anything short of that doesn’t make sense. Fielder is that rare hitter who seems to come up big in key moments and his presence makes Braun a much better hitter than he otherwise would be. To move him for a mediocre starter wouldn’t make the team better even at the risk of losing him to free agency.
One thing for certain is that this team will look much different on opening day 2010 than it did last April. Owner Mark Attanasio knows he needs to keep people moving through the turnstiles for the Brewers to be a successful franchise. That puts the pressure on Melvin to make moves that, regardless of their effectiveness, at least present the appearance of a team trying to compete for the playoffs.