The Brew Crew is poised to make noise in the Central.
From Bambi’s Bombers to Harvey’s Wallbangers to the present-day collection of sluggers, the Brew Crew’s rich, foamy head at the plate has been equaled only by its watery, flat backwash on the mound. But after acquiring two top-of-the-rotation pitchers this offseason, the Brewers have assembled their most balanced roster in decades. Milwaukee faithful have reason to believe that first-year manager Ron Roenicke can lead the Brewers to the keg party that is the postseason for just the fourth time in franchise history.
Not since the days of Vuckovich, Caldwell, McClure and Haas could the Brewer starting rotation be considered anything remotely resembling a strength, but with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum joining former staff ace Yovani Gallardo and veteran lefty Randy Wolf, the Brewers appear to have one of the deepest rotations in the National League. The 2009 AL Cy Young winner, Greinke struggled through a subpar year in irrelevant Kansas City in 2010. But most observers figure the 27-year-old righthander will return to form pitching for a contender — with a high 90s fastball, a nasty slider, and a slow curve. Toronto’s Opening Day starter a year ago, Marcum has excellent control and posted impressive numbers pitching in the tough AL East (13–8, 3.64 ERA in 2010; 3.85 career ERA in five seasons). The newcomers figure to take a great deal of pressure off of the 25-year-old Gallardo, who has been the only consistently effective Brewer starter since his arrival in 2007. Wolf was counted on to deliver big results in his Milwaukee debut last season, but instead he was a big disappointment until the season’s final weeks. Now, as the team’s fourth starter, expectations have been dramatically lowered. If he can pitch anything like he did in his final 13 starts (2.67 ERA), all will be forgiven. Lefty Chris Narveson is the frontrunner for the fifth-starter spot, having produced fairly impressive numbers in his first full season last year.
The Brewers entered last season believing they could rely on proven veterans Trevor Hoffman and LaTroy Hawkins to stabilize the bullpen. Instead, the duo faltered so badly early in the year the Brewers were never able to recover. This year, the approach is just the opposite — second-year hurlers John Axford and Zach Braddock will be counted on to pick up where they left off in their surprising rookie seasons. The flame-throwing Axford began the season at Triple-A and was given the daunting task of taking over for MLB’s all-time saves leader after Hoffman blew five saves in April and May. Axford converted 24-of-27 save opportunities, held opponents to a .204 average, and didn’t mind entering the game in the eighth inning, recording nine saves of four or more outs. Hawkins is back from shoulder surgery and out for redemption, and optimists will point out that his 8.44 ERA was marred by four horrific outings — a 47.19 ERA in those four games; a 0.66 ERA in his other 14. Rounding out the bullpen are the likes of lefty Manny Parra (a former starter who excelled after demotion to the pen), Kameron Loe (a revelation after pitching a year in Japan), Takashi Saito (a 41-year old who pitched well for Atlanta last year before shoulder troubles) and Sean Green (acquired from the Mets).
Since cheering his full-time arrival in 2005, Brewer fans have wondered what kind of numbers Rickie Weeks could put together if only he could stay healthy for an entire season. Now they know. Arguably the league’s most potent leadoff hitter, Weeks played in 160 games and led the majors in home runs, runs and RBIs from the lead-off spot, while setting Brewer records for a second baseman in those same categories. The Brewers will begin the season with their third new starting shortstop in the last three years, having traded J.J. Hardy so Alcides Escobar could take over last year, and now having traded Escobar in the Greinke deal. Yuniesky Betancourt arrives from Kansas City known as a major defensive liability, but he’s potent at the plate, establishing career highs with 16 homers and 78 RBIs last year.
Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder becomes a free agent following the 2011 season, and many assumed he’d be traded away by now. But because the Brewers weren’t happy with any trade offers, and were able to acquire top-of-the-rotation pitching without moving him, Fielder is back in the clean-up spot, ironically needing to improve his offensive production in order to merit a big free agent payday. His batting average slipped to .261 (career-low), he collected only 83 RBIs (tied for fourth-best on his own team), and of his 32 homers (lowest total since 2006), 26 were just solo shots. Certainly a primary cause for Fielder’s lack of production was the simple fact that pitchers refused to give him anything good to hit. The beneficiary of that strategy was Casey McGehee, who, hitting behind Fielder, proved that he belonged as an everyday player by leading a lineup stocked with sluggers with 104 RBIs, a record for a Brewer third baseman.
In All-Stars Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, the Brewers possess two of the most productive young corner outfielders in the game. Entering his fifth season, Braun is on his way to becoming one of baseball’s most prolific hitters. Hart was on the verge of playing himself out of a job before rebounding with a stellar 2010 season that earned him a three-year contract extension. The free swinger produced career highs with 31 homers and 102 RBIs and led the team with a .525 slugging percentage. Carlos Gomez has good speed (18 steals), shows flashes of power and has a nice glove, but is a source of frustration by matching a propensity to strike out (72 whiffs in 291 at-bats last year) with an inability to get on base (career .293 on-base percentage).
In Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers believe they have discovered their catcher of the future. As a rookie, Lucroy impressed the Brewer brass with his work ethic, not to mention his ability to throw out would-be basestealers (31 percent) and a decent bat — he was hitting .274 before his average dropped 21 points as he tired in the final month.
Craig Counsell is back for a 14th season and provides versatility as a reserve infielder and a clutch bat as a pinch-hitter (.333 in 2010). Veteran Mark Kotsay and fill in at first and in the outfield. Chris Dickerson will battle Gomez for time in center field, and Brandon Boggs, acquired from Texas, provides a switch-hitting bat off the bench. Veteran catcher Wil Nieves was signed to spell the young Lucroy behind the plate. Counsell, Kotsay and Dickerson all bat lefthanded, which may prohibit keeping all three.
With such a supremely talented core of young position players, it would have been a crime if the Brewers’ perpetual lack of pitching had prevented them from ever regaining the form that led to their first playoff appearance in 26 years in 2008. It appears that GM Doug Melvin has eluded any arrest warrants by making two bold deals to land talented starters Marcum and Greinke, trading away most of the Brewers’ top prospects in the process. Roenicke, the new manager, has no excuses: The pieces are in place for the Brewers to win now.
The Brewers will rely on a young catcher, a closer with just a partial season under his belt and a manager whose next big league victory will be his first. Their speedy center fielder can’t get on base and their new shortstop has hands of stone. And yet, Brewer fans enter the 2011 season wildly optimistic. At the corner infield and outfield positions, the Crew boasts young sluggers as talented as any in the game. And, for perhaps the first time in franchise history, Milwaukee’s starting pitching is something to fear. This figures to be one of the most balanced teams in the league and a contender for the NL Central title.