Monday, July 30, 2012

Evaluating some exciting talent

We are three days removed from the Zack Greinke trade, but I would still like to chip in my two cents regarding the deal and what the Brewers received in return for Greinke, who is now a Los Angeles Angel. On Friday, the Brewers ceased to delay the inevitable and shipped Greinke off to L.A. in return for a star shortstop prospect and two minor league pitchers, all three players from Double-A. The shortstop, Jean (zzz-John) Segura, is one of the most highly touted prospects in all of baseball and has instantly become the best prospect in the Brewers organization. The other two involved in the deal, pitchers Ariel Pena and John Hellweg should also be considered top 10 prospects in the system.

Let's begin with Segura, who is only 22 years of age. He had actually just been called up to the big leagues by the Angels on July 24 as a result of an injury to their regular shortstop Erick Aybar. Segura played in just one game, going 0-for-3, but that's not something you should pay any attention. He has produced every year in the minor leagues since beginning his career in 2007, with his best season coming in '10 at High-A Cedar Rapids where he hit .313 with 10 HR and 79 RBI to go along with a remarkable 50 stolen bases. Along with his plus speed comes his glove, as Segura is regarded as a plus defender. This season, Segura was hitting .294 with 7 HR and 40 RBI before his call-up to the Majors and made his debut on July 29 with the Huntsville (AA) Stars.

What should be music to Segura's ears is the fact that the Brewers' weakest position at the moment is shortstop (unless you want to include "bullpen" as an entire position). Without a doubt, Segura is now the organization's best shortstop and should receive a call-up at some point later on in the season. He should be the team's every day SS beginning next season assuming the team decides to part ways with this year's opening day SS Alex Gonzalez, who is out for the season with a knee injury and due $4 million in 2013. Milwaukee won't want to keep Gonzo around and stunt Segura's growth. This season, however, is a different story, and they'll want to see what Segura can do in the minors before promoting him to Milwaukee.

Next up is Johnny Hellweg, a 23-year old right handed pitcher who stands at a towering 6-foot-8 inches tall. Hellweg is regarded as the better prospect between himself and Pena, and his numbers on the season at AA Arkansas were a 5-10 record with a 3.38 ERA. However, his strikeout-to-walk ratio leaves something to be desired (1.47) and his strikeout-per-9 innings ratio isn't the greatest either (6.62). Still, Hellweg is also considered to be close-to-big league ready and should also be expected to see some time in Milwaukee this season. Word on the street is that Hellweg has a high-90s fastball, and with his big frame, that's a nice asset to have in his arsenal along with a decent change-up. But Hellweg lacks a good breaking ball (slider), so until he develops a good third pitch, he may spend most of his time in the minors over the next season or two.

Last we have Ariel Pena, another 23-year old righty arm (6'3" 190 lbs). The fact that all three players the Brewers received in the trade for Greinke are in their early 20s is very promising for the team's future, not to mention close to the Majors. Despite Hellweg being ranked ahead of Pena prospect-wise, Pena has actually put up better numbers this year (6-6, 2.99 ERA, 111 K, 2.64 K/BB, 8.74 K/9 IP). Damn. That stat line has me wiping the drool off my face a little bit. Apparently, Pena was dealing with some control problems a few years back, but judging from his strikeout-to-walk ratio this season, he's ironed out that issue. His fastball is also blazing, topping out at 98 MPH to go along with a low-90s sinker and a strike-out slider. If he can control these three pitches, Pena might be a mainstay in the Bigs for many years to come.

Wow. Three Major League caliber players in return for Greinke. It's hard to be disappointed in what GM Doug Melvin was able to get in return for the former Brewers ace. After losing five highly touted prospects two off-seasons ago when Melvin dealt for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers system appears to be replenished and on the upswing. And there's always the chance the Brewers decide to bring back Marcum for at least another couple years with his dwindling value on the market due to his injury (Marcum was recently placed on the 60-day disabled list). It should also be noted that catcher George Kottaras, who was designated for assignment a few days ago, was traded to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for minor league pitcher Fautino de los Santos (1-3, 7.25 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento). The numbers aren't pretty, but de los Santos (26) began the year in the Majors and was sent down after beginning the season with a 3.00 ERA in six appearances out of the 'pen, so there's perhaps some upside there as well for a team with a...really, really pathetic bullpen. As for Kottaras, there simply wasn't room left for him with the Brewers and the team had no choice but to find a new home for him, but we wish George and the Zack Attack the best of luck moving forward.

With Greinke due to pitch on Sunday for the Brewers, guess who the Brewers called up to take his place? That's right. My main man Mark Rogers. As excited as I was to see Rogers pitch, I was more excited to go see The Dark Knight Rises and only caught the first few innings of his start (and with the way that game turned out, boy am I glad I made that decision). From what I can tell, Rogers was able to settle down nicely after surrendering a lead-off home run to the Washington Nationals' Stephen Lombardozzi (yes, that's a real name) and ended up with a line of 5.2 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 7 K, and 1 BB on 98 pitches. Not too shabby. Of course, the bullpen threw that beautiful start right out the window and blew their 19th lead of the season, but who cares (bullpen coach Stan Kyles was fired as a result). This season has not only been a joke, but is a lost cause. This blog post was meant to get us excited for what 2013 has in store for the Brewers, and I think it managed to do just that.

With the potential to see guys like Pena, Hellweg, Rogers, Tyler Thornburg (who was recently sent back down to AAA Nashville), Mike Fiers and Wily Peralta all in the starting rotation at some point next season (not to mention Segura starting at SS), it's hard not to already get excited for 2013. Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum are set to be free agents at year's end and Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson could help a struggling bullpen next season by becoming relief pitchers. I've always wanted to see Estrada in a bullpen role, and Narveson, who is arbitration eligible, simply won't be one of the top five starting pitchers in the Brewers organization when next season rolls around, at least in my opinion. However, I can see the Brewers trying to bring in a veteran starter to help anchor the rotation. They could also throw Narveson in anyway because he is a left-handed thrower, something none of the pitcher mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph have to their name, but I'd really prefer that not happen.

So there you have it. Excitement is back in Milwaukee...kind of. And if that's not enough for you, Green Bay Packer preseason football is just days away. I promise you I'll be talking more about football than baseball moving forward. Stay optimistic about your Brewers, and get ready for foozball. It still feels good to be a fan of Wisconsin sports.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Brewers bullpen

Did everyone get a good laugh from that title? I think it says it all, really. If you want to get another laugh, read my Twitter timeline on the right side of the page. You know, I would actually like to take a moment to thank a few people, including the group of fine young men that make up the bull (shit) pen, but I'll start with someone who really deserves a tip of the cap.

Zack Greinke. His performance last night against the Phillies (7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 5 K) was nothing short of immaculate. Considering the circumstances surrounding his start, like the uncertainty that he was 100 percent because of his 11 days off and the swirling trade rumors that had scouts watching Greinke's every move, there was a lot of pressure on Greinke to perform. And he did just that. His trade value certainly went up and he put to rest any rumors that he wasn't on top of his game or that he was worn down. For that Zack Greinke, I salute you for going out with a bang. Yes, that was his last start as a Brewer, folks...don't kid yourselves. I'll have more on Greinks later.

Now for the thank you I owe the bullpen. I know what you're thinking. This is going to be one of those quote, unquote thank yous. Well, you're partially right. But in all seriousness, for those of you who were clinging on to false hope that the Brewers still had a chance to make the postseason like me, we owe the Brewers bullpen a sincere thank you. I mean, did you watch the end of these last two games? First of all, I'm sorry if you did, because not even I could sit through the epic collapses that Manny Parra, Kameron Loe and Francisco Rodriguez have combined to perform over the last few nights (on a side note, Brewer games are much more fun to watch if you turn them off after the starting pitcher exits the game. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work if you're in attendance unless you plan on leaving early, which is a cardinal sin, by the way). Secondly, these collapses have erased all false hope from my body regarding the Brewers season. And for that, Brewers bullpen, we thank you.

So. Back to Greinke. One part of his stat line I forgot to mention other than his zero walks was his pitch count. I hate to get started on pitch counts because you may know by now I have a strong hatred for this, but did you know Greinke had only thrown 87 pitches through seven innings? Yes. With the roll Greinke was on, there was a distinct chance that Greinke could go the distance and save the bullpen from complete embarrassment. But nope. Greinke was yanked and I can only think of one legitimate reason this occurred: someone told Ron Roenicke to yank him. It's the only logical explanation. No manager in his right mind is going to pull Greinke in the situation unless a higher power took the reigns. If Roenicke's reasoning is that he didn't want to wear him out, here's a newsflash for you...he just had 11 days of rest! Am I missing something here? I really hope not. I'm guessing he was pulled because teams interested in acquiring Greinke are worried about his durability moving forward, and that's where I'm going to draw the line. I mean, c'mon...we're talking about Runnin' Ron Roenicke here!

The Brewers now sit at 44-52, 6 million games out of 1st place, so it HAS to be time to wave the white flag...right? Other than Greinke, there doesn't appear to be any valuable trade commodities in the Brewers' possession unless you include the DL laden Shaun Marcum, but there hasn't been much buzz surrounding his name these days. Any rumors about L-Rod going anywhere have to be dead in the water after his complete choke-job Monday night, and if teams do still want him, the Brewers ain't getting much in return. That leaves a few other names I could see the Brewers dealing: Randy Wolf, who is in the final year of his deal as well, and George Kottaras, the Brewers backup catcher.

Wolf being left-handed makes him an intriguing piece for a contender, and he hasn't performed terribly as of late. For what it's worth, the bullpen has blown eight leads in games which Wolf has pitched, so despite is not-so-great ERA (5.46), this dude's win-loss record could be standing at 11-6, which is a lot more appealing than 3-6. Plus, Wolf is a veteran and he's been down the postseason road before, so that experience could also be compelling. Meanwhile, the lack of work Kottaras has received this season has hurt his numbers and production, but with Jonathan Lucroy set to return any day now, the Brewers will be stuck with three MLB-caliber catchers on their roster. One thing Kottaras has going for him is his on-base percentage (.409), which is .200 higher than his average. Remember guys, OBP is waaaaay more important than AVG, but I shouldn't have to tell you that. Anywho, if the Brewers could find a way to part ways with these two, I wouldn't be upset about it.

That leaves us with one other issue to tackle: the bullpen. Honestly, what do you do here? Just ship off the entire group and start from scratch? Even though my last blog post may suggest otherwise, I'd only keep two men in that bullpen right now, and those men are Tyler Thornburg and John Axford. Assuming Thornburg moves into a starting role once Greinke is dealt, that leaves us with one bullpen pitcher in Axford. By the way, Axford has only allowed one hit in his last 3.1 innings pitched, so clearly something has clicked there. When I went on my rant a little while ago, I suggested some pretty crazy alternatives for who should be pitching at the end of games for the Brewers. They don't seem so crazy anymore now, do they? Let's get Wily Peralta up here. Let's get Mark Rogers up here. Both guys have looked pretty good lately (their numbers don't look so hot, but don't let that fool you), so with the atrocious bullpen the Crew currently has, there's no better time to bring these dudes up. I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who will disagree with me on this one, so I'll leave it at that.

I mean, really...what do you do with this bullpen? I don't know. But pulling your starter after 87 pitches isn't going to solve any problems unless it results in the Brewers getting an entire bullpen in return for Greinke. Or at least some kick-ass prospects. Brewer fans need something to look forward to at this point, and once Greinke is gone, we can pick apart the trade and the players the Crew received in return, and get excited about SOMETHING. That's the one silver lining we can take away from this awful stretch for the Brewers...Greinke was dominant on Tuesday, perhaps as dominant as he's ever been in a Brewer uniform. For that, the Brewers should get some yummy treats in the coming days.

So again, thank you, Zack Greinke, for not only your time as a Milwaukee Brewer, but for your dazzling performance last night. You won't have to put up with Roenicke's bull shit anymore, so at least there's that. Good luck wherever you may land and for giving me something to talk about before WE GET TO FOOTBALL SEASON!!!! (oh, and of course, thank you to the bullpen) (the Packers training camp opened today, by the way)

One last note before I go...I recently landed a "job" as a writer for the Bleacher Report, a fairly popular sports blog site. How much that duty takes me away from this blog is unknown to me, but I managed to crank this post out in under an hour, so I think I'll still be able to manage at least a post a week. Anyway, I think this gig and the popularity of the Bleacher Report will help get my name out there and increase my visibility a touch (the number of views I got on my first published article was over half of what I've received writing this blog over the past two years - that's not a knock on you guys!). So I'm excited to begin that chapter of my life and continue my journalism career. I hope you can all come along for the ride as well.

15 days until the Packers preseason opener. Get pumped.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's time to ax the Ax Man

Monday night was one of those nights where I wish I was an early riser. It would have resulted in an earlier bed time, and therefore the likelihood that I missed the end of the opener of a 3-game series between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. For those of you that were smart enough to let your heads hit the pillow before about 10:15 PM and thought the Brewers would hold for a 2-0 victory (and make up a game in the standings on all three teams ahead of them in the Central Division), allow me to fill you in on what kept the Brewers seven games out of the playoffs.

Per usual, Ron Roenicke "stuck with his guy" and called on his "closer" John Axford to put away the Cardinals. I hope everyone got  a good laugh from that last sentence. I'll cut to the chase here: three base hits (two of which were seeing-eye singles) and two walks later, Kameron Loe was in the game, and the Brewers were down 3-2. Sure, the two hits that drove in runs weren't exactly crushed, but Axford got behind nearly every hitter, and the fact of the matter is that you can't walk the opponent when holding a 2-run lead. The Brewers offense failed to reach base in the bottom half and thus concludes the career of John Axford as the Milwaukee closer.

I'm too quick to draw that conclusion, you say? First of all, I doubt anyone is saying that, but for those of you who are sarcastically asking such a foolish question, let me throw some numbers at you. Axford has now converted 16 of 22 save opportunities (72.7% rate). That's good for 18th in the National League among closers with at least 12 save attempts. Yes, there are only 16 teams in the NL. His ERA has ballooned to 5.35, making him 17th among those same 18 closers with 12+ save attempts. Monday night, Axford was one strike away from saving the game against four different batters. And finally, Axford wears number 59, the same number - you guessed it - Derrick Turnbow wore.

Almost a month ago today, I didn't allow myself the necessary recovery time after a disappointing loss and went on a rant I only somewhat regret. To prove it was nothing short of a rant, I shamefully called out Ryan Braun for failing to come through in the clutch. One thing I will stand by in that rant was my bashing of the Brewer bullpen, specifically the combination of Francisco Rodriguez and Axford himself at the tail end of games. Who did I say should replace them? Tyler Thornburg and Mark Rogers. I'm sticking to it. Although the call-up of Rogers may realistically not happen until September, Thornburg is here, and as far as I'm concerned, it's a "why not" situation when it comes to putting Thorny in the closer's role.

Here are a few reasons that support my case for both being placed in late inning situations. First of all...why not? The Brewers are 42-47, have lost 20 games in which they've held a lead, and the bullpen has BLOWN 16 SAVES THIS SEASON (19 BS all of last season). So there's that. There's also the fact that both are extremely talented and have the stuff needed to perform at the big league level. Rogers has had his share of injuries and plenty more was expected of him by this point in his career, but the fact of the matter is that he's still only 26-years old. Mike Fiers? He's 27. Rogers has also pitched well as of late down at AAA Nashville. And other than the four long balls Thorny has allowed (I know...not good), he simply just needs to make adjustments and better mix his pitches to avoid these home run problems.

I know I've forgotten to address one problem - both of these guys are starting pitchers. But last time I checked, there still isn't room in the starting rotation (for now). Sure, we would all like to see Randy Wolf take a hike, but he's the team's only left-handed starter and he's in the final year of his deal, so the suffering will only last so long. Thornburg is making a spot start on Wednesday in place of a supposedly fatigued Zack Greinke (something smells there), but as far as we know, he'll just return to the bullpen immediately following his start. So who do the Brewers send down to make room for Rogers?

How about John Axford? Seriously, what's the worst that could happen? Best case scenario is Axford works out his control issues and eventually works his way back into the closer's role. I know that his career path is taking almost the same exact course as He Who Must Not Be Named (Turnbow for those who didn't follow), but the least the Brewers can do is give him a chance to regain his bearings. Let's not forget this dude went 46/48 in save ops last season with a sub-2.00 ERA. He's got good stuff, and although the problem could just be that the rest of the league has figured him out, I wouldn't consider such an extreme idea as parting ways with Axford.

Monday night's loss hurt a lot - not any worse than some of the other tough defeats the Brewers have suffered through this season, but certainly not any better. With that being said, not all hope is lost, but last night was kind of the Brewers' season in a microcosm. It would probably be best for the Brewers to start making some trades that benefit the team for the future and make things easier on the organization and it's fans when it comes to everyone's "hope factor." As much as I don't want to care, this team isn't losing enough for me to quit on them, but boy does it sting when they lose in such heart-breaking fashion time and time again. Thanks to the extra Wild Card slot, less teams are going to be "sellers" as the trade deadline approaches, and more teams are going to be caught in no-man's land.

But back to the team's most pressing issue besides the trade deadline - the bullpen, and more specifically the end-of-game situation. What we are realistically looking at is Francisco Rodriguez being inserted into the closer's role and John Axford being used in less-stressful situations to help him get his mojo back. I'd love for Axford to hit the minors and Rogers to get his shot, but Roenicke will likely do with Axford what I mentioned just before. In my opinion, I believe Axford's confidence could receive a jolt in AAA, but there's also the risk of him struggling, leading to his career going down the shitter. Sure, his 2011 success is still reason for the Brewers - and other teams for that matter - not to give up on him quite yet, but in the meantime, give some guys who haven't received an opportunity.

Okay. I'm going to try and combine the extreme with the real. I'll accept the fact that Rodriguez will now take over the closer's role. At least this gives the Brewers a chance to showcase him at the end of games, which could make him a more enticing asset for teams in need of bullpen help. Axford...fine, you can stay in the Bigs, but in no way can you pitch in a meaningful situation until you figure things out. That leaves the eighth inning role open for Thornburg to enter. After his Wednesday start, it appears as though Thornburg will return to the 'pen (at least until Greinke is dealt). Why not put him in the setup role? There isn't anyone else worthy of such a job (Kameron Loe 4 BS, Manny Parra 4.20 ERA, Jose Veras...just no, Livan Hernandez already in the long relief need for two LRPs). He could pitch in the eighth, potentially move into the closer's role should Rodriguez be dealt, and if all else fails, throw him in the starting rotation when Greinke is dealt. I'd be hard pressed to believe both Rodriguez and Greinke will still be in a Brewers' uniform come August.

I still believe Rogers' time will come at the big league level, and I haven't even discussed how dominant Wily Peralta has been lately (only 1 ER allowed in his last 22.1 IP). I strongly believe pitching remains at a premium for the they just need to learn how to use it. The closer's role is the most delicate role in baseball, no questions asked, and that's what makes it so valuable. There are only so many guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. I've gone as far as saying bullpens - or at least specific bullpen roles - shouldn't exist, but again, that's me being a little too extreme. If it weren't for starting pitchers having to be in their cute little "routines," I believe the best plan of action would be to pitch whoever gives you the best chance to win on any given day, given that such a pitcher is healthy/not fatigued. We can still monitor pitch counts for the sake of taking care of arms, but everyone pitching at the big league level should have the ability and the arsenal of pitches necessary to go at least 100 pitches/five innings in a game.

Whatever. Not going to get into that argument right now. As it currently stands, the Brewers are 42-47, seven games out of the playoffs, and once again not doing a whole lot in yet another important stretch in the schedule. C'mon, Brewers. Mix it up a little, hold on to your leads and get some good, young talent for the years to follow instead of completely wasting away another season of baseball. You owe it to the fans that have stuck with you this long, and they need something to root for this season and look forward to in future years. Should such things occur, I'll be back to discuss them. In the meantime, we're 27 days away from Aug. 9, also known the day the Packers open up their pre-season slate, and I can't wait to talk about a team with its head on straight. Until then, we're stuck with baseball, so here's to hoping you - and the Brewers - make the most of it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brewers' first half season review

The Milwaukee Brewers have made the playoffs two times in my lifetime out of 22 potential chances. Compare that to some of the other Wisconsin sports teams. The Green Bay Packers have made it 14 times, including two Super Bowl victories in three appearances (that's more "finals" appearances for the Packers than total playoff appearances for the Crew). The Milwaukee Bucks have made it nine times (wait, what??). Marquette and Wisconsin men's basketball have made numerous trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Wisconsin football team has won three Rose Bowls and played in five overall. All things considered, the Brewers have been the most disappointing team for Wisconsin fans to root for. This season is proving to be no different, with the Crew standing at 40-45 heading into the All-Star break, eight games out of first place in the Central Division and six games out of a Wild Card position. And yet baseball remains my favorite sport, with the Brewers being my favorite team to root for. I'm as helpless as they come. Within the past couple of weeks, I've conceded the season for various reasons, one of the most prevalent being that Milwaukee is a small market....and being a small market team doesn't hurt any professional sports franchise in Wisconsin more than the Milwaukee Brewers. Why? A lack of a salary cap.

Of course, baseball is about as traditional as it gets. It likely won't make any strides towards implementing a salary cap any time soon. Obviously, this puts the Brewers at a disadvantage despite spending more than they ever have lately thanks to Mark Attanasio. They are forced to make a decision every season: are we in contention and therefore going to be "buyers" as the trade deadline nears, or are we out of contention and "sellers?" This season, even though many of you would disagree, the Brewers are caught in a tough position. Being six games out of the playoffs with 77 games remaining doesn't seem insurmountable. It's been done time and time again. But for reasons I've stated previously (can't risk going "all-in," constant bullpen struggles, the inability to string wins together), the Brewers need to sell. I don't like giving up hope. Even though I'm trying to part ways with hope, deep down, I can't help but remain hopeful. As Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, "hope is a good thing...maybe the best of things." I couldn't agree more, although the one glaring problem with hope is the disappointment that can come along with it. But hey, I'm done preaching now. Let's take a look back at the Brewers' first 85 games of the season, and look forward to what might happen during the last 77.

Milwaukee Brewers: 40-45, 4th in Central, 8 GB

Let me begin by saying this: I've been relatively good at predictions since I've started this blog as far as records and overall team success goes. However, my 2012 Brewers' record prediction might be one of my worst ever. For the Crew to finish 91-71 and win the division, they would have to make up eight games on the Pittsburgh Pirates (hmmm...) and go 51-26 to close out the season. Essentially, the Brewers would have to win two of three games, or basically win every series they play for the remainder of the year. It ain't gonna happen. Not with this bullpen. Not with the injuries they've sustained.

Speaking of the bullpen and injuries, those are easily the two most glaring issues with this club. I know I promised I wouldn't complain about injuries for the rest of the season (and I promise I won't), but they have to be addressed since we're going back in time here and I'll try and get them out of the way ASAP. Losing so many players was bad enough, but the kicker was how it occurred in such a small time frame. The Brewers were forced to scramble to replace guys like Mat Gamel (1B), Alex Gonzalez (SS) and Jonathan Lucroy (C) while also dealing with some other slight aches and pains. A depleted farm system didn't help their cause. It took awhile, but they found a full-time replacement for Gamel by bringing Corey Hart in from right field. The move made sense...with the talent the Brewers already have in the outfield (see: Ryan Braun and Norichika Aoki), moving Hart to first almost left the team better off without Gamel because Aoki was able to move into a full-time role in right, allowing Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan...who have both had their platoon in center. Even at the catcher position the Brewers managed to tread water. Martin Maldonado (.303 OBP, 5 HR, 17 RBI) filled Lucroy's role while George Kottaras (.430 OBP, 3 HR, 12 RBI) has still mainly served as Randy Wolf's personal catcher (ugh). I'd like to see George get more than just one start a week, but he's a valuable bat to have coming off the bench and judging by his on-base percentage you can see why. So there's certainly been a drop off at catcher, but not as much as originally thought. Lucroy's projected return date is July 20 for those of you wondering how long a suitcase can keep a professional baseball player from the sport.

But then there's Alex Gonzalez. Shortstop, no matter which way you cut it, is always going to be one of the hardest positions to replace. It's where team's place their best infield defender and good shortstops are few and far between. Is Alex Gonzalez "good?" I certainly think so. He isn't a top five shortstop by any stretch of the imagination, but his defense and pop were two of his most valuable assets and he was an upgrade over Yuniesky Betancourt. Gonzalez was performing better at the plate (.326 OBP, 4 HR, 15 RBI through 24 games) than many expected coming into the season and brought some stability towards the bottom of the lineup. I'll tell you a few things the Brewers DON'T have right now...stability at the bottom of the lineup, and a mainstay at shortstop. The platoon of Cody Ransom and Cezar Izturus is, well, painful to watch. Sure, Ransom brings some power to the plate (pun intended) and both are pretty steady with the glove, but neither is hitting above .214, and that's a problem. The Brewers were able to do a nice job replacing Gamel, a decent job at replacing Lucroy, and a not-so-good job replacing Gonzalez. If the Brewers were in a buying position right now, they would certainly be looking for a shortstop to help them for the stretch run. You know what else they would be looking for?

A new left fielder. And by a new left fielder, I mean an entire bullpen. Take a stab at how many blown saves the Brewer bullpen has this year....give up? 14! Four-freaking-teen! That's about 16 percent of their games. Let's just be realistic and assume the bullpen only blows half that number. The Crew's record is now 47-38, a game out of first place with a spot in the postseason. In 2011, the Brewers had a total of 19 blown saves. What the 14 blown saves fail to show is how many late leads have been given up by the starting rotation as well, a product of Ron Roenicke both not knowing when to pull the string and having absolutely no faith in his bullpen. Kind of puts him in a tough spot, don't you think? I'm not going to take the time to calculate the bullpen's ERA this season, but I'll give you a hint: it's somewhere between "NOT GOOD" and "PATHETIC." John Axford simply hasn't been the same guy this season and already has five blown saves to go along with a 4.86 ERA (last season: 1.95 ERA, two BS). His setup man hasn't been the same guy, either. Francisco Rodriguez has blown four games of his own with an ERA surfacing above 4.00 as well. This doesn't exactly bode well for his trade value and what the Brewers could get in return. Not having a viable shortstop and bullpen are easily the two things holding back the Brewers the most from being contenders.

Now we know why the Brewers aren't doing well. But why are they doing as "well" as they are? On Wednesday, I traveled to Miller Park with my head held high because the Crew had a four game winning streak going, which I'm pretty sure was their longest of the season to date. They were up 5-1 in the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins and I had finally stopped sweating to an extent (it was 95 degrees out), but there was one glaring issue: Randy Wolf was on the mound. As you probably know by now, the Brewers would not win that game...believe it or not, Axford had something to do with that. It was kind of a culmination of the Brewers' season. Oh, sorry...this paragraph was supposed to have a positive vibe to it. Well, as I mentioned before, the Brewers took a little while to adjust after their slew of injuries, and in the process they found out a few things:

A lead-off hitter (Norichika Aoki)
An MVP candidate (Ryan Braun)
A stellar run producer (Aramis Ramirez)
A new best pitcher (Michael Fiers)

These are some nice things to find out, no? Looking at the Brewer offense, the first six hitters in the lineup should make you feel good. Lately, it has gone Aoki, Morgan, Braun, Ramirez, Hart, Weeks. Aoki currently has a 15-game hitting streak and has a .369 OBP. No complaints here. Braun is once again putting up HUGE numbers and Ramirez has been swinging a red-hot, and most notably clutch, bat. Hart doesn't really hit for average but we know what we get out of him by now. And then there's Rickie Weeks. Weeks started the season unbelievably slow for reasons unknown. I'm not quite sure how long it takes to recover from a sprained ankle, but the guy played at the end of last season (rather poorly), and the fact that he was playing on it gave me the idea that he would be 100 percent heading into 2012. Whether he was 100 percent is unknown to me, but the fact of the matter is that Weeks is finally heating up. A career .250 hitter, Weeks has climbed back up to .199 (try not to laugh, please), but his on-base percentage is what we should really be looking at, people! It's at .314. Not bad for a guy hitting below the Mendoza line. It reminds me a lot of a former teammate of mine my junior year during varsity baseball. His average was roughly where Weeks' was, but his OBP was over .400. Our head coach, whose hatred I have towards is indescribable, clearly does not value one's ability to get on base (sounds kind of important to me, but what do I know), sent him down to junior varsity. Bull spit, I know. So what I'm trying to say here is Weeks, who strikes out an absurd amount, also walks an absurd amount, and I guess I'm willing to accept this despite how bizarre and frustrating it can be. He's on the upswing, and that's undoubtedly a good thing for the Brewers.

How about we dish out some mid-season awards?

MVP (Offense): Ryan Braun (.990 OPS, 24 HR, 61 RBI)

Duh. No surprise here. It might be a surprise to the rest of the league that Braun can continue to have success despite now being off of the PEDs (allegedly), but Brewer fans knew what they'd be getting from the slugger. Braun has been incredible, being among league leaders in all the major offensive categories while being steady in the field, arguably making him a five-tool player to go along with his 15 stolen bases. The Brewers inability to stay in contention may hurt Braun's chances at winning back-to-back MVPs, but he's starting in his fifth All-Star Game on Tuesday and is the second Brewer in franchise history to be elected to at least five All-Star games (Cecil Cooper...Robin Yount only made 3?) He's well on his way to solidifying his place as the best player in franchise history, and I couldn't be happier to be along for the ride.

MVP (Pitching): Zack Greinke (9-3, 3.32 ERA, 111 SO)

Greinke has All-Star caliber numbers, but was one of the most notable snubs this season. That, combined with the lingering trade talks, have in my opinion taken a toll on Greinke lately, but this won't stop me from giving him the honor of pitcher of the season thus far for the Brewers (sure as hell ain't giving it to a bullpen member). He's been a reliable "ace" and never loses at Miller Park, which makes me wonder why he would ever want to leave Milwaukee. There are various factors that go into this that I've gone over previously, but Greinke is highly unlikely to return to Milwaukee and for all intensive purposes may have made his last start in a Brewer uniform on Sunday. All-in-all, his stint in Milwaukee was a successful one, and the decision to bring Greinke in prior to the 2011 season was the right one.

Newcomer of the Year: Aramis Ramirez (.346 OBP, 10 HR, 52 RBI)

As far as guys who were brought in from outside the organization, Ramirez has to be the best newcomer this season for the Brewers. He almost always seems to come through with runners on base and this shows in his 52 RBIs, only second to Braun on the team. He's filled in nicely as the cleanup hitter for Prince Fielder, whose numbers aren't all that better than Ramirez (.380 OBP, 15 HR, 63 RBI). Ramirez is doing pretty much what's expected of him and it's helping me slowly overcome my hatred for him when he was a Chicago Cub.

Rookie of the Year (Offense): Nori Aoki (.301 AVG, 5 HR, 20 RBI)

Hard to argue this selection. Aoki has quickly replaced Morgan in the fan favorite department (with the exception of Braun) and having "Right Round" by Flo Rida as his at-bat music doesn't hurt. As I mentioned before, Aoki is in the midst of a 15-game hitting streak, the longest current streak in the Bigs. He's also taken on the difficult role of lead-off hitter and thrived in it while becoming the every day right fielder for the Crew. I'd like to think he has an outside shot at NL ROY, but the popularity factor surrounding Bryce Harper will probably shut down that dream (see: Dontrelle Willis over Scott Podsednik in '03). Still, Aoki has been a pleasant surprise and is one of the reasons we should continue watching the Brewers this season.

Rookie of the Year (Pitching): Michael Fiers (3-3, 2.31 ERA)

Speaking of guys not getting enough publicity, how about the job Michael Fiers has done? Since being called up from Nashville, Fiers has arguably been the Brewers' best pitcher. His story is one to behold. Fiers is 27-years old and this is his first true chance at the Major League level. When in college, Fiers fell asleep behind the wheel and was forced to sit out an entire season because of the injuries he sustained from the crash. Now, Fiers has fought all the way back and should be a mainstay in the Brewers' rotation this season and moving into next season. It'll bring up an interesting proposition when Shaun Marcum is ready to return from the DL, but perhaps by that time the Brewers will have dealt Greinke or another starter to resolve that issue.

There you have it. My first half review of the Brewers is complete. In the next couple weeks, we could be looking at a totally different baseball team depending on how the Crew acts with the trade deadline approaching. We'll continue to keep an eye on the following things: where Greinke will be traded and what the Brewers receive in return, whether or not the Brewers will make any other news worthy moves, Ryan Braun's MVP bid, and how rookies Nori Aoki and Michael Fiers perform moving forward. It would be ideal to receive several prospects in return for Greinke along with a bullpen arm or two, and in my mind, the more trades the Brewers can make, the better. They need to turn their depleted farm system into a nourished one in order for there to be hope in the coming years. I can't think of a bigger travesty than wasting Ryan Braun's prime years. To deal Greinke, Marcum, Wolf, Rodriguez and Kottaras would satisfy my desires and likely refresh the Brewers' organization, but if the Brewers can get three of those guys off the books, I'd take it. Don't get me wrong...I'm still cautiously optimistic about the Crew's chances to make a late-season push, but with the bullpen this team has, I'm not getting my hopes up. Hope. There's that word again...

Some news and notes. Ersan Ilyasova has reportedly signed a 5 year/$45 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks (like). I'm still currently unemployed (like/dislike). I threw out my back on Saturday cleaning because I'm an old man (dislike). Well, I think we're all caught up on the world of Wisconsin sports. I'll catch you guys on the flip side.