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.

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