Brewers' Melvin sick of team's slow starts

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, October 2, 2013

In the event anyone thought the Milwaukee Brewers’ decision-makers have patted themselves on the back for turning a horrid start to the 2013 season into an encouraging finish, general manager Doug Melvin made it clear Tuesday that was not the case.

“I can’t stand here every year and say we had a great second half. That doesn’t work,” Melvin said at his season-ending media session at Miller Park.

“We’ve done that two years in a row, gotten off to bad starts….For the past two years we’ve relied on younger players, but for us to get better, for us to perform, our star players have to perform. They have to come to the forefront.

“Our star power wasn’t there this year to help us. I’m not going to be pointing fingers, but it’s just the facts. For us to perform better, we have to get more out of our veteran players from a performance standpoint and a health standpoint, too. That was an issue.”

Injuries seriously dimmed the Brewers’ star power, beginning with first baseman Corey Hart missing the entire year because of two knee injuries. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez missed two months with a recurring knee injury and wasn’t the same when he did play. And left fielder Ryan Braun was limited by a thumb injury before being suspended for the final 65 games for his PED connection to Biogenesis.

With the projected middle of the lineup missing for big chunks or all of the season, manager Ron Roenicke was forced to scramble on many days to put together a representative lineup. But Melvin was making no excuses for the Brewers’ 74-88 finish, far off the pace set by St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the National League Central.

“We can’t be saying every year that all our young players bailed us out the second half of the year,” said Melvin. “We can’t be saying that year after year. It doesn’t win championships. It doesn’t get us to the postseason. But it’s encouraging.

“There’s still work to be done from our point of view.”

Even in a bleak, injury-ravaged season, there are positives on which to build. Melvin pointed to the big years of center fielder Carlos Gomez, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, as well as the impressive debut of second baseman Scooter Gennett. The Brewers will try this winter to tie up Segura with a longterm contract.

“If we look at our club up the middle, you’ve got Jonathan Lucroy at 27 years of age and how he took a big step this year; Scooter Gennett, 23; Jean Segura, 23; and Carlos Gomez, 27,” said Melvin.

“There’s reason to be optimistic up the middle because that’s one of the toughest things, building a ballclub up the middle. Having guys at that age and performing the way that they have, (including) the encouraging performance that Scooter gave us, also.

“I look back on our season, and whenever you’re not in postseason there’s disappointment, but we did have some positive things that took place that we look forward to for the following year.”

Almost always, pitching determines a team’s fate. The Brewers’ bullpen went from last in the NL to third but the starting rotation failed in the early going before finally stabilizing in the second half. The early rotation struggles knocked the Brewers from the race early, and Melvin noted that all areas need to be in better sync from the outset.

“Our pitching improved, and that was an area we did have to improve on,” he said. “We counted on our pitching early in the year, and it didn’t happen early in the year. Again, it happened more in the second half of the year with (Tyler) Thornburg’s and (Wily) Peralta’s development.

“Now, like I told the coaches, the thing is we have to maintain that and (make it) stable. We can’t be having the setbacks.”

In addressing specific personnel decisions, Melvin covered the following topics:

First base: Melvin said he would contact the agent for Corey Hart at some point to see if there’s a fit for the sides, assuming the Brewers are satisfied with the veteran’s health after ongoing knee issues. Internally, Melvin said Juan Francisco and prospect Hunter Morris also were in the mix, and Mat Gamel could be as well if he rebounds from two knee surgeries that have put him on the shelf since May 2012.

“We had seven, eight, nine first basemen, and none of them were first basemen,” said Melvin. “We never had a true first baseman all year, when you basically look at it.”

Second base: Based on the way Gennett played over the final two months, Melvin conceded, “He probably has an edge right now.” But veteran Rickie Weeks is expected back from a hamstring tear and has an $11 million salary for 2014, so the Brewers are not counting him out just yet.

“Rickie’s got to come back from his injury,” said Melvin. “Rickie will be in spring training and will be out there to try to get back playing time. Any athlete doesn’t want to give up his position. Rickie won’t want to give it up.

“That decision will be made in spring training. There’s nothing in the offseason for us to determine that. It’ll be in spring training when they’re both out there and can play.”

Left field: Melvin said there have been internal discussions about moving Braun to right field to open left for Khris Davis, who showed tremendous power potential with 11 home runs during his 56 games in the majors. He said that subject has not been broached with Braun yet.

What such a move would mean for Norichika Aoki, whose club option will be exercised, remains to be seen. Understandably, Melvin wasn’t prepared to say exactly how the outfield might shake out.

“That’s an area we’ll have to discuss and talk about,” he said. “I don’t have that answer now. If we need to add offense—I think we were 130 or 140 runs less this year (than in 2012)—Khris Davis can be a part of helping that offense. He’s had some injuries, too, so he needs to stay healthy.

“Just keeping the outfield depth is important. It’s not an area we have to go out and look for someone. I do believe the pieces are there to give us a productive outfield. Probably, outfield is where we have a trade piece if we want to trade to maybe fill another hole.”

Starting rotation: Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Peralta figure to fill the top three spots, and Marco Estrada stuck his foot in the door with a strong finish to 2013. Thornburg also forced his way into the picture by making quality starts in all seven of his outings.

“You like to go to the ballpark and say, ‘We have a chance to win tonight.’ You’d like to have that with all five starters,” said Melvin. “If you’re going to be a championship club, you better have it with four of your starters. It’s important for starting pitchers to give you 32-33 starts. Those three guys (Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta) are quite capable of doing it.”

Melvin said he didn’t consider it a necessity to have a left-hander in the rotation but added, “We still may go out and look to find a pitcher. If there’s someone out there, we may do that.”

The closer’s role: Melvin said he was comfortable moving forward with Jim Henderson, who became the primary closer by midseason and converted 28 of 32 save opportunities. He also noted that bullpens usually are a work in progress, with changes made throughout the season.

“I think you are going to put your bullpen together, and then in June and July you are going to put it together again because a guy blows three saves and everybody will be panicking and jumping off balconies,” said Melvin. “There’s teams that are in the postseason that are worried about their bullpens.”

Asked how he envisioned Braun’s return from suspension, Melvin said, “I think, internally, he’ll come back, he’ll be accepted. I think he just needs to continue to go out there and do all the things every other player does on the 25-man roster. I think once he’s back in uniform and everybody puts a uniform on together, you’re accepted by your teammates.

“Teammates are going to be different. There’s different personnel but I think he’ll be accepted when he comes back from that standpoint because I think everybody knows we need Ryan to come back and perform. He was punished for what he did. I don’t know the details and there’s no need in getting into them. He served his penalty, so beyond that I don’t think there’s anything else to discuss from that standpoint.

“(It’s important) just to be able to have him come back and perform at the level that he needs to perform at, and for us to get back to where we are as a ballclub and as an organization.

“I think it’s going to be a fun offseason, and I look forward to the challenge to try to get this team back into postseason. There is a lot of work to be done amongst our baseball staff, but I think we can do it.”

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