Milwaukee Brewers boast strength up middle
One thing will never change in baseball. You must have solid pitching to win.
But it doesn’t hurt to be strong up the middle.
“It’s kind of the backbone of the team,” Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “If you think about the team as a body, it’s the backbone. For me, the strongest teams are the teams that are strongest up the middle.”
Slowly but surely, the Brewers have solidified that backbone. It began with Lucroy, who the Brewers threw into the fire during the 2010 season and worked hard to become one of the better two-way players in the National League at his position.
The next piece to the puzzle was not as easy to see coming. When the Brewers acquired underachieving Carlos Gomez from Minnesota for shortstop J.J. Hardy after the 2009 season, there was little reason to expect Gomez would eventually seize control in center field.
Gomez spun his wheels in 2010 as he had earlier with the Twins, and newcomer Nyjer Morgan eventually wrested the position from him the next season as the Brewers rolled to their first National League Central Division crown. But Morgan slipped the following year and Gomez became No. 1 in center again, showing enough promise for the Brewers to give him a three-year, $24 million contract extension.
Some thought the team brain trust overreached with that commitment, but Gomez broke through in 2013 to make the NL all-star team and show what all of the original fuss was about regarding his multi-tool potential. Gomez put the icing on his cake by winning the first Gold Glove by a Brewer since shortstop Robin Yount in 1982.
At the same time Gomez was making his mark, the future arrived at shortstop for the Brewers in young, dynamic Jean Segura. General manager Doug Melvin knew it was a gamble to give up Alcides Escobar, then considered the team’s shortstop of the future, in the blockbuster Zack Greinke trade with Kansas City before the 2011 season.
After filling the position with veteran journeymen Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez, the Brewers restocked by trading Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels in late July 2012. Melvin and his staff insisted Segura be included in that deal, figuring he might fill the shortstop void despite the projections of some that he eventually would land at second base.
Segura made his new bosses look like geniuses, putting together an all-star season at age 23 with a strong offensive showing while handling himself in the field better than anyone could have imagined.
The future has not fully arrived for the Brewers at second base but could be on the horizon. After veteran Rickie Weeks tore a hamstring with two months remaining in the 2013 season, prospect Scooter Gennett was installed at second and opened eyes by batting .324 while playing better-than-advertised defense.
In the final year of his contract, Weeks had a strong spring and is still around. Manager Ron Roenicke said he would allow the players to determine who should play more with their performances, but there is every reason to expect the Brewers will move forward with Gennett as their everyday second baseman after this season.
“We have some really good young guys and pretty good athletes,” said Gomez, who made highlight reels on a regular basis by robbing hitters of five home runs with leaping catches last season.
“That’s good for the team. The key is going out there and winning. The Brewers have put together a good team with some good players. Those are important positions to play. We just want to continue to improve and be better each season.”
It doesn’t hurt to have a star in right field in Ryan Braun or a budding slugger in left in Khris Davis. How it shakes out on the infield corners in future seasons remains to be seen. In the meantime, Roenicke likes what he sees up the middle.
“We’re good up the middle,” he said. “I think for both now and the future, that’s a great start, to make sure you are strong up the middle. Then you fill in where you need to.”
Being strong up the middle means getting the job done offensively and defensively. Lucroy has become a better hitter each year, and Roenicke believes he can be a consistent .300 hitter. The Louisiana resident has developed a reputation for hitting in the clutch, as evidenced by his team-leading 82 RBI in 147 games last year after a horrible start at the plate (he batted .303 over his last 111 games).
Lucroy, 27, has worked just as hard on improving as a catcher, and is generally regarded as one of the best in the league at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. He had an uncharacteristically poor season throwing out runners in 2013 (20.8 percent) but realized he had been gripping the ball improperly and figures to do much better this time around.
The Brewers get even stronger behind the plate on the nights that backup Martin Maldonado plays. He had a tough year offensively (.169) in 2013 but has a strong, accurate arm when given a chance to throw out runners and is a talented receiver.
No one ever questioned the defensive skills of Gomez, who has the speed to close ground on drives in the gaps even when taking a suspect route. Gomez has an exceptional arm for a center fielder—he was originally signed as a shortstop—and he shows no fear of crashing into walls, sometimes at risk to his health.
The light bulb finally clicked on at the plate last season as Gomez became more patient and stopped getting himself out so often. He still is prone to taking some wild swings at times, but his across-the-board numbers—27 doubles, 10 triples, 24 home runs, 73 RBI, .506 slugging percentage and 40 stolen bases—earned Gomez team most valuable player honors.
Gomez, 28, was the only player in the majors with at least 20 home runs and 35 steals and was the first Brewer to combine 20-plus homers with 40 stolen bases.
“You have to make adjustments to stay in the major leagues,” said Gomez. “But the important thing is to win. It doesn’t matter if you have all the talent in the world if you don’t win.
“We hope to stay together as players for the Brewers and do well and win a lot of games. We just have to keep working hard and concentrating on our job.”
Segura showed he could match Gomez in energy and two-way impact during his first full season in the majors. Despite a late-season fade, he batted .294 with 20 doubles, 10 triples, 12 homers, 49 RBI and 44 steals, most of those numbers coming while batting second in the lineup.
Segura led the majors with a franchise-record 44 infield hits, putting pressure on opposing infielders every time he hit a ground ball. He also displayed amazing range and a strong, accurate arm, making those look silly who predicted he wouldn’t be able to play everyday shortstop in the major leagues.
Because Segura played nonstop for a couple of years, the Brewers exercised their right to prohibit him from playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic after last season. Roenicke thought he looked tired down the stretch, both mentally and physically, while experiencing the grind of a 162-game season for the first time (he made 143 starts).
“The mental (part) can wear you down,” said Roenicke. “Last year, I don’t think it was just the physical (part). It was also the mental (part), first year playing every day in the big leagues, trying to deal with all of the stuff. He was an all-star. Then scuffling in the second half. That probably wore him down also.”
Roenicke says he will play the hot hand at second base, but the 23-year-old Gennett has hit at every level of the system in putting himself in position to be the Brewers’ regular at some point. At 5-10, 170 pounds, he has been told since Little League that he was too small to make it, which only served to fuel his desire.
“I know Doug has tried to build a strong core for the team,” said Lucroy. “We have one of the best in center and one of the best at short. We have good players at second.
“We’re still pretty young. That’s good. Hopefully, we can keep everybody together for a long time. It’s nice to see for the future.”