In terms of wins and losses—which really is what baseball is all about—the Milwaukee Brewers have been going backward since 2008, when they claimed the National League wild-card berth with a 90-72 record.
Last year, the Brewers were in first place in the NL Central until the beginning of July, when their starting pitching fell apart. They finished 80-82, in third place, 11 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
This season, there has been no contending stretch for the Brewers. By May 1, they were six games out of first. By June 1, they were 10 games under .500, already 9½ games in arrears in the division.
If the Brewers fail to get back in the race, they will have gone from the playoffs to a half-year of contention to a lost season, in a mere two years.
“One year and three months ago, we were pouring champagne on each other,” said general manager Doug Melvin, who has lost the confidence of many in Brewer Nation. “Sometimes, you think that was five years ago.
“Things can turn around. Some teams that weren’t winning back then are winning now. We haven’t been able to sustain that success like we hoped. You still continue to work at it.”
Which raises the question: What direction should that work take?
Whether the Brewers buck the odds and get back in contention, personnel decisions must be made that will affect the organization for years to come. Three core players, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie
Weeks and rightfielder Corey Hart, are free agents after next season.
Will any of those three players be wearing a Brewers uniform on opening day 2011? For that matter, will all three still be on the team on Aug. 1 this season, a day after the trade deadline?
“Every team has decisions like that,” Melvin said. “When you have free agency staring at you, you’ve got to be prepared. There’s a lot of thinking going on. It doesn’t have to be done this week. It can be done in the off-season.
“I don’t know if there will be any changes. It could happen at any time. Guys whose names are mentioned, like Prince and Corey, I hope they don’t lose their focus. There will be a lot of rumors. When you’re in the situation we’re in, that’s inevitable.”
Whatever moves Melvin makes, he says they will be for both the remainder of this season and beyond. He’s not ready to wave the white flag on 2010, though the Brewers don’t appear to have enough pitching to reach the victory level necessary to play in October, especially with ace Yovani Gallardo injured.
Not that pitching is the Brewers’ only shortcoming. While the offense ranks statistically among the top clubs in the NL, those numbers are skewed by a handful of high-scoring games.
The team’s biggest stars, Fielder and Ryan Braun, had first halves below their standards. Fielder picked up the home run pace but he has only 39 RBI, mainly because he batted .167 with runners in scoring position. Braun was on a downward slide for more than a month before finally rediscovering his stroke last weekend against Pittsburgh, the Brewers’ perennial whipping boys.
“When you win, you usually get a couple of surprises out of guys,” Melvin said. “We haven’t really had that. Nobody’s stepped up unexpectedly like Casey McGehee did last year.
“Rickie and Corey have been very good. They’ve been outstanding. Hopefully, Braunie can get back on track at home after breaking out against Pittsburgh.”
But what about the starting pitching? Even when Gallardo returns, is the rest of the rotation really good enough to produce a winning record?
Left-hander Randy Wolf, the club’s big off-season acquisition, has been a disappointment with a 6-8 record and 4.56 earned run average. Worse yet, as a fly-ball pitcher he appears ill-suited for Miller Park with 14 home runs allowed in 10 starts there.
No wonder Melvin is demanding a starting pitcher in return from any club inquiring about a trade for Hart, whose value never has been higher.
“You’ve got to hope they make adjustments and get better,” Melvin said. “We’ve got to play more consistently. In June, our pitching was much better but our hitting went down 20 points. We’ve been inconsistent in all aspects of the game at different times.
“You can get back in it, but you’ve got to win games when you play those teams head-to-head. That’s the most important thing. We play the (first-place Cincinnati) Reds a lot (12 times) in the second half.
“And we’ve got to play better at home (20-26). That’s been as big a disappointment as anything the way we’ve played at home.”
One thing the Brewers haven’t done is quit, though a four-game sweep by San Francisco in the final week of the first half came close. Had the team lost its fighting spirit at any point, Melvin would have been forced to replace manager Ken Macha.
“Nobody’s giving up by any means,” said Braun, who must figure out a way to hit at home (.229, 6 HRs, 19 RBI) the way he does on the road ( .352, 7, 35).
“Obviously, it hasn’t gone as well as everybody would have liked to. But it’s not for a lack of effort or preparation. We fight for each other and support each other. It’s part of being a team. We take pride in that.
“A lot of us have been together for a few years. We’ve been part of some pretty good teams, and we want to get back to that. We want to be a winning team, not be part of a team that takes a step backward.”