Brewer fans worry about starting rotation
MILWAUKEE After winning 90 games in 2008 and snapping their 26-year playoff drought, the Milwaukee Brewers don’t have as many questions to answer in spring training as in past years.
In fact, the starting lineup is all but set for new manager Ken Macha and his reconfigured coaching staff. And with new closer Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, the Brewers hope the ninth inning will be routine.
But every team enters camp with issues, and the Brewers are no exception. With the loss of free agents CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, there has been considerable angst among the club’s fans about the state of the starting rotation.
With the first spring workout a week away, here is a look at 10 questions they’d love to see answered in Arizona before opening the season April 7 in San Francisco:
1. Is there enough starting pitching?
Nothing troubles the team’s fans more than the fact the Brewers are carrying only five starting pitchers to camp—Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Seth McClung. Last year, that group combined to go 33-32 with a 4.38 earned-run average in 105 starts.
The top two starters at the end of the ‘08 season, Sabathia and Sheets, were lost to free agency, leaving a massive void. Not excited by the available arms on the market, the Brewers passed, biding time until something comes along that intrigues them.
There is hope that left-hander Chris Capuano will return from his second “Tommy John” surgery a month or so into the season. There are no guarantees, however, and the remaining in-house candidates are dubious, to say the least.
2. How will life change under Macha?
Not only do the Brewers have a new manager in Macha, the coaching staff has been significantly altered. A stickler for fundamentals and preparedness, Macha said he wanted to make judgments on players from what he sees in camp, with no preconceived notions or solicited critiques.
The hitters will have a new voice in Dale Sveum, who has served as bench coach, third base coach and interim manager in past years. The pitchers also have a new leader in Bill Castro, promoted after 17 years as bullpen coach.
Willie Randolph, interviewed for the manager’s job that went to Macha, provides a wealth of baseball experience as bench coach. Brad Fischer was hired to coach third base and Stan Kyles was promoted from within the system to take over in the bullpen. Only first base coach Ed Sedar’s role remains unchanged.
3. Will the real Rickie Weeks step forward?
There is no bigger lightning rod on the team than Weeks, who has frustrated fans with his defensive hiccups at second base and erratic production atop the lineup. And it’s difficult to believe the team’s decision-makers will commit to him beyond 2009 if he doesn’t fulfill the potential of being the second player taken in the ’03 draft.
Randolph played second base with aplomb for years in the majors, so he should be of some assistance with Weeks’ defense. To his credit, the hardworking Weeks has improved considerably since being rushed to the big leagues in ’05.
As general manager Doug Melvin often notes, Weeks scores a lot of runs (89 in ’08) for a hitter with a low batting average (.245 for his career). His .342 on-base percentage last season wasn’t awful, but Weeks does seem to struggle with the concept of being a leadoff hitter, sometimes losing aggressiveness by taking good pitches.
4. Will Bill Hall have an eye-opening spring?
The No. 2 lightning rod is Hall, who raised expectations by socking 35 home runs in 2006, only to backtrack over the next two seasons. Hall fared so miserably against right-handed pitchers last season (.174) that he was relegated to platoon duty.
The strikeout-prone Hall hopes to literally have a better eye at the plate this year after undergoing off-season Lasik surgery. Whether he is able to re-establish himself as an everyday player remains to be seen.
Veteran Mike Lamb is on hand as a left-handed option. The Brewers also expect to give minor-leaguers Mat Gamel and Casey McGehee as much action as possible at third base during camp.
5. Who will back up in the outfield?
We know the starting outfielders—Ryan Braun in left, Mike Cameron in center and Corey Hart in right—will see the majority of the action. All three are right-handed hitters, not exactly the optimum situation for a balanced lineup.
The top candidates for the one or two backup spots are all left-handed hitters—Tony Gwynn Jr., Trot Nixon and Chris Duffy. Nixon’s best days obviously are behind him at age 34, but Melvin hopes he will be this year’s Gabe Kapler, a veteran who rebounds to provide production off the bench.
Gwynn is out of minor-league options, so it’s a make-or-break camp for him. Duffy, who is coming off shoulder surgery, has a similar skill set to Gwynn, especially as a fly-chaser in center, but with a bit more pop in his bat.
6. Filling out the bullpen
Carlos Villanueva, who emerged as a bullpen force last season (2.12 ERA in 38 relief appearances), figures to be the primary setup man for Hoffman. And David Riske, Todd Coffey and Jorge Julio can expect to see the bulk of their action in the late innings as well.
Mitch Stetter appears to have a foot in the door as the left-handed specialist, but newcomer R.J. Swindle wants to have his say. The Brewers must keep Rule 5 pick Eduardo Morlan or offer him back to Tampa Bay, so it’s do-or-die for him.
Others who hope to make their presence known include Tim Dillard and Mark DiFelice.
7. Can Sveum make it a contact sport?
It’s not exactly a state secret that the Brewers whiff too much. They struck out 1,203 times in 2008, fifth-most in the National League, and compiled a woeful .325 team on-base percentage (10th).
So, Sveum has taken on quite a challenge in his first assignment as a big-league hitting coach. Can Sveum help this leopard change its spots? At the very least, he wants to improve on getting runners over and getting them in from third.
That’s when strikeouts really hurt—when you have a runner on third with less than two outs.
8. Will gloves be golden or iron?
The Brewers were middle-of-the-pack defensively last season (.984 fielding percentage), which sadly enough was a significant improvement. But there is still work to be done, especially in the infield.
The starting infield of first baseman Prince Fielder (17 errors), Weeks (15), shortstop J.J. Hardy (15) and Hall (17) combined for 64 errors in ’08, most in the majors. Hardy actually is dependable for the most part in the field but made an uncharacteristically high number of errors.
Everyone’s error total would go down if Fielder did a better job of scooping low throws. Look for an emphasis to be placed there.
9. How close are the prospects?
One of the interesting aspects of camp is seeing how the team’s minor-league prospects perform. Last spring, shortstop Alcides Escobar opened everyone’s eyes with his sensational play in the field during Cactus League play.
Gamel, who insists he’ll play third base in the majors despite a ton of errors in the minors, should see plenty of action in the Brewers’ camp. Angel Salome also will get his chance to prove he has what it takes to be a big-league catcher one day.
Right-hander Alex Periard and reliever Omar Aguilar also will be in their first big-league camp.
10. Will Braun be an international star?
Brewers fans are well aware of the offensive prowess of Braun, whose first two seasons in the majors have been eye-opening. Now, an international audience will get a chance to see Braun in action as he plays for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
If Team USA advances deep into the tournament, Braun will be missing from the Brewers’ camp for some time. That club plays the first round in Toronto, and then would advance to Miami for the second round.