Five Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

Before we begin, let’s dispense with our obligations. Bud Selig. Sausage races. Losing records since 1992. No playoffs since 1982. The Milwaukee franchise has spent the better part of the last decade taking its cues from Al Roberts in Detour.

In 2004, fate seemed finally to upturn its stern frown and cast hope upon our Milwaukee’s perennial losers. In January, Brewers ownership announced that the team was up for sale. A year later, the sale of the club to Mark Attanasio had been finalized, ending the reign of the Selig family.

In addition, the Brewers showed promise on the diamond. After finishing their sweep of the Rockies on July 1, the Brewers had won 14 of their last 21 and boasted a 41-34 record. This being the Brewers, mediocrity hit: the Brewers lost 60 games from July 2 onward, nearly matching Arizona’s 61 losses over that span, and finished with an unsightly 67-91 record.

With an oft-touted influx of young talent in the wings and with several high-profile moves over the winter, many Milwaukee fans may finally have valid reason for optimism. How optimistic should they be?

1. Was the improvement in the Brewers’ starting pitching last season for real?

Last season, Ben Sheets finally fulfilled his considerable promise. Sheets received only one third place in NL Cy Young voting despite besting winner Roger Clemens in ERA, K/9, BB/9, Innings Pitched, and FIP. That Sheets was set for a good year shouldn’t have been in question, as his mediocre ERA’s in his first three seasons masked his good peripherals and outstanding control, and his game showed clear yearly improvement.

Nonetheless, Sheets’ 2004 season exceeded any reasonable projection and was simply off the charts. Sheets struck out more than a batter per inning and issued fewer walks (32) than he had games started (34). Sheets’ only Achilles’ heel was the long ball, but even then Sheets posted better home run rates than the average NL pitcher, both on a per inning and per plate appearance basis, despite pitching in a somewhat home run friendly ballpark.

Sheets is not likely to match his phenomenal season, but his outlook is still extremely good. Sheets pitched through back spasms in 2004, and reports indicate that that problem is behind him, which has led some to speculate that he could be even better in 2005. That’s not a realistic expectation, as even matching his 2004 performance is an unrealistic expectation for any pitcher. But it’s pretty impressive that the only thing working against Sheets is that he was so good in 2004 that he’ll be hard-pressed to repeat that performance.

Meanwhile, journeyman Doug Davis experienced a breakthrough year in 2004. Davis spent much of his twenties shuttling between Texas and the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, and the unfavorable run environments he pitched in obscured that he was doing a decent job. In 2003, the Rangers put Davis on waivers and he was claimed by the Blue Jays. Davis made 12 starts for Toronto but walked more batters than he struck out, and he was released at midseason. The Brewers snatched him up, and the move paid off: in 8 major league starts for the Brewers in 2003, Davis put up a 2.58 ERA. That ERA was largely smoke and mirrors, though, as Davis’ peripherals were not too pretty. Davis’ Milwaukee performance showed promise, though, as it mirrored his performance in his solid 2001 season.

Entering 2004, Davis was given a regular job in Milwaukee’s rotation and had a very good season. In 34 starts, Davis threw 207.1 innings with a 3.39 ERA. Davis was helped out with a little luck on his way to putting up his impressive run average, but his peripherals didn’t lag too far behind so there’s no obvious sign of imminent collapse. As is the case with Sheets, a sizable chunk of his improvement is often attributed to the tutelage of pitching coach Mike Maddux, whose reputation is rapidly growing larger. If Maddux is truly responsible for Davis’ improvement, then Davis seems a good bet to repeat his solid performance. Even if that improvement proves illusory, he’ll still be a decent starting pitcher, as his inflated ERA’s in Texas don’t indicate his true talent.

A big part of the Brewers’ first half success was the pitching of Victor Santos. Through the end of July, Santos was pitching excellently, with a 3.66 ERA in 105.2 innings and a solid 81:35 K/BB ratio. Most importantly, Santos, despite being a heavy fly ball pitcher, had allowed only six home runs to that point. Over the season’s final two months, however, Santos couldn’t keep it together, allowing 22 walks and a whopping 12 home runs against only 34 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.

Part of the reason for Santos’ late season problems was lingering soreness in his middle finger from a blister and split nail, which also altered his throwing schedule. Additionally, his innings total crept up higher than the level he’d been accustomed to in recent seasons, and he also admitted that he developed several mechanical problems in the second half. Santos didn’t pitch in winter ball this season for the first time in years, so there’s reason for optimism that he can repeat his first half and not his second half.

The flip side of that, though, is that Santos hasn’t looked too sharp in spring training. In any event, Santos is not at all likely to match his microscopic home run rate in the first half. Still, if he can regain the command and control he showed in the first half, he should be a productive pitcher in flyball-pitcher-friendly Miller Stadium.

Also in the rotation this season will be Chris Capuano, who had a miserable stint in the big leagues last season. Capuano’s prospects look good, though, as he put up a very good strikeout rate coupled with decent control. The only thing holding Capuano back was an obscene number of home runs; if Capuano can keep the ball in the park and improve his control a bit, he’ll be a solid starter.

The last spot in the Brewers rotation is reportedly a toss up, with Wes Obermueller, Gary Glover, Jorge de la Rosa, and Ben Hendrickson reportedly in the running. Obermueller is an underwhelming and undesirable possibility, a groundballer who elects not to strike out anyone without displaying particularly good control or ability to keep the ball in the yard. Glover demonstrates no ostensible ability to be within spitting distance of an average major league pitcher. De la Rosa has more potential than Glover or Obermueller, but he’s struggled enough that it’s hard to see him having a successful season at this point. The best option is likely Hendrickson, a groundballer whose future depends on his ability to improve his control.

2. Who’s the next Danny Kolb?

The Brewers’ two best relievers last season were Danny Kolb and Luis Vizcaino; the former was acquired for free after having been cut in spring training and the latter was acquired for Jesus Pena. The two combined to pitch 129.1 innings with a 3.41 ERA. Picking up good relief pitching on the cheap has not been a problem for the Brewers.

This past offseason, both Kolb and Vizcaino were traded. Kolb was exchanged for Atlanta’s flamethrowing Jose Capellan. It’s hard not to grow weary of any trade involving Atlanta and pitchers. Their excellent reputation in finding solid pitching talent and maximizing its potential by way of Leo Mazzone should make any team think twice about whatever talent the Braves may be seeking in trade. Conversely, it also casts doubt upon any pitcher the Braves would be willing to part with.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Mazzone helping Kolb even more than Maddux already did. Moreover, the Braves’ decision doesn’t necessarily reflect the talent of the pitcher but rather the type of the pitcher; it’s pretty reasonable to expect Atlanta to think it can utilize Kolb’s solid control better than Capellan’s raw talent. The reason the Braves were willing to give up on Capellan was perfectly clear to all sides: he’s got a fantastic fastball, but lacks outstanding control and a decent second pitch. That’s just not Atlanta’s kind of pitcher, but he’s the kind of high-yield bond the Brewers can benefit from investing in.

The Brewers’ biggest weakness figures to be their bullpen, apparently entrusted to luminaries like Derrick Turnbow, Ricky Botallico, Justin Lehr, Mike Adams, and Matt Wise, in addition to whomsoever loses out on the final spot in the rotation. The Brewers might need to keep some dental records handy, because there’s not much to distinguish any of these pitchers. Adams was good last season, and if that’s attributable to the influence of the Brewers’ staff he looks solid moving forward, but he didn’t have a good history prior to 2004. If some of these guys turn out to be diamonds in the rough in the Kolb mold, then this may not be the weakness it appears to be. And of course, Brooks Kieschnick could always break out as a dominant relief ace.

3. How much will the acquisitions of Carlos Lee and Damian Miller help?

The Brewers made two moves this offseason that clearly signaled the team was willing to add payroll. Catcher Damian Miller was signed to a notably inexpensive contract, and left fielder Carlos Lee was acquired from the White Sox for Vizcaino and Scott Podsednik.

Miller is a major upgrade over the catchers the Brewers played last season. Gary Bennett and Chad Moeller hit for a combined .215/.276/.313 last season. While Miller is no offensive force, he has a long track record of being within spitting distance of league average, which is pretty good production for a catcher. On top of that, Miller is an excellent defensive catcher, and replacing most of the Moeller/Bennett playing time with Miller should add something in the neighborhood of an extra three of four wins. The long-term prospects of this acquisition aren’t stellar since Miller is already 35 years old, but even with a moderate decline Miller still figures to be an average major league catcher. Ideally, Lou Palmisano will develop well enough to be a viable replacement when Miller’s contract is up.

Lee is a slugger coming off a career year. Lee is no superstar, but he’s an above average corner outfielder whose defensive improvement last season made him one of the best left fielders in the AL. Acquiring Lee came at a fairly stiff price for Milwaukee. Podsednik is almost certain to not repeat his stellar rookie season, but he’s also unlikely to be as unproductive as he was in 2004. Between his speed and ability to draw walks, Podsednik should probably be a close to average centerfielder over the next couple of years while earning very little. While adding Lee certainly is an upgrade, the upgrade likely improves the team only by two wins or so, a fairly marginal upgrade for taking on an extra $7.5 million in salary and losing a valuable reliever in Vizcaino.

Lee’s acquisition and Podsednik’s departure push Brady Clark into the centerfield job. While Clark had a fine season last year, driven by a .385 OBP, it’s not clear he can repeat it. Clark’s improvement was due almost entirely to a huge increase in his walk rate. While Clark drew a lot of walks in the minor leagues, he did so at a very advanced age against much younger competition, so there was reason to expect the skill to dissipate once he reached the majors. In his brief time with the Reds in 2001, his walk rate stayed high. But in his limited playing time in 2002 and 2003, his walk rate fell off a cliff before returning to previous levels in 2004. If Clark simply altered his approach in ’02-’03 and is capable of being an on-base machine, then the Brewers won’t miss Podsednik. Though there’s reason to doubt that Clark will be an excellent defender at centerfield, he should at least be helped out by having two defenders (in Lee and Geoff Jenkins) who were excellent in 2004.

4. What’s the haps with Fielder, Weeks, and Hardy?

One of the best hitting prospects in baseball is Prince Fielder, who has managed to show an outstanding ability to smack the ball combined with phenomenal command of the strike zone. Fielder was one of the best hitters in the Southern League last season at age 20 and figures to start 2005 in Triple-A. While no one doubts that Fielder will soon be one of the better hitters in baseball, there are concerns over his rough defense at first base and alleged lack of athleticism.

Fielder’s major league counterpart is Lyle Overbay, a solid but thoroughly unspectacular hitter with a track record of solid batting averages and on-base ability but generally lacking power. Overbay flashed outstanding doubles power in 2004, but isn’t a solid bet to sustain what the performance from what looks to be his career year. Factoring in his apparently exceptional defense, Overbay is a decent placeholder until Fielder is ready, and is good enough that the Brewers have no reason to start Fielder’s service time clock in 2005. However, Overbay’s advanced age and lack of power as a first baseman will make him difficult to get a good return on in trade when the day comes to hand over the keys to Fielder.

Rickie Weeks was the acclaimed second pick in the 2003 draft after a dominant college career at Southern University. On the basis of an outstanding but very brief professional debut in A-ball, Weeks charted near the top of numerous prospect lists last season. His stint in Double-A last season dropped his stock considerably, as the only gaudy number he put up was his HBP total, a skill that many doubt will translate well up the ladder. Still, even if the HBP are expunged from his record he would have put up an on-base percentage and slugging percentage that were both above league average. While Weeks no longer has the sheen of a future Hall of Famer, 22-year-old second basemen who put up above average seasons in Double-A are relatively few and far between. If he can improve his defense, his offense should be sufficient to make him a very good player.

Weeks’ major league doppelganger is Junior Spivey. While Weeks is good enough that he could eventually be the much better player, Spivey is an oft-underrated player whose offense has typically exceeded that of the average second baseman. While Spivey is no all-star, the Brewers have no reason to hasten Weeks in order to displace him.

J.J. Hardy is the most likely of the three to make an impact in the major leagues this season. Hardy held had an excellent offensive season in Double-A while only 21, and was hitting well in Triple-A last season before suffering a labrum injury in retribution for the Richie Sexson trade. While there’s no reason to doubt Hardy’s ability to make contact, his success will depend on whether he can import his outstanding walk from 2003 and whether the solid power he’s displayed in the minor leagues will carry over despite his shoulder problems. If Hardy shows no lingering effects from the injury, his offensive projection is comfortably above average for a major league shortstop. On top of that, Hardy has drawn rave reviews for his defense, so his margin for error with the bat is a little greater.

5. Will the NL Central be soft enough for the Brewers to contend??

Overcoming the Cardinals, Cubs, and Astros will be a formidable task. While it could be said that all three have taken a step back, none of them are hemorrhaging talent as of yet. Each has major injury concerns in the rotation, the Cardinals are unlucky to be as dominant offensively as they were last season, the Astros have probably downgraded in the outfield and at second base, and the Cubs have major OBP issues. That having been said, each team has a pretty clear advantage over the Brewers in talent, and outside a lot of fortuity in the way the division’s injuries shake down it’s very unlikely that the Brewers will make a serious run.

But if everyone lives up to expectations, Brady Clark manages to repeat his 2004, Geoff Jenkins stays healthy, Russ Branyan reaches base often enough to be productive, the Brewers aren’t affected by their lack of depth, and the bullpen finds itself performing capably, they’ve got a reasonable if distant shot at making the playoffs. In any event, they’ve got a good chance of breaking the elusive .500 threshold.

In Conclusion

The Brewers have what it takes and are finally moving in the right direction, but they’re going to need a lot more hard work and at least a little luck to become a perennial contender. Their strategy of developing outstanding young talent, finding decent fill-ins at the major league level, and stocking the organization with quality coaching and managerial staff should soon pay dividends, if it isn’t already.

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