Don’t count Brewers out just yet

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Michael Hunt,Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, February 13, 2012
— Only a fool would say the Brewers will not miss Prince Fielder. He is a freak-of-nature hitter, one of about two of his kind at the moment in the major leagues.

Only a fool would say the Brewers could have done something to re-sign him. Even with Miller Park and revenue sharing and top-10 attendance, the Brewers will never be able to do anything about their standing as MLB’s smallest media market.

Consequently, the Brewers’ local radio/TV money, which always will separate them from the outrageous spenders, always will be relative sofa-cushion change. It is a wonder they can afford one $100 million contract with Ryan Braun. Another $200 million contract? Let’s just say the Wharton School of Business might advise against financial suicide.

Moving on, a rational person could conclude that the Brewers will be fine as they prepare this week for their first spring training in a long time without Fielder.

Projecting the Brewers as a contender without Fielder’s bat in the middle of the lineup will require some leaps of faith.

Such as: Mat Gamel becoming a reliable big-league player at 26. But we also know that Corey Hart could play first base if called upon, and that general manager Doug Melvin was his usual proactive self by protecting the outfield’s integrity with the Norichika Aoki signing not just for the Hart contingency, but also for the Sword of Damocles that hangs over the Brewers’ head with the threat of Braun’s 50-game suspension.

But it requires no wishful thinking to know that the division has been weakened with Albert Pujols’ departure. In fact, the division the Brewers won last season is one of the weakest in baseball.

The Central is such that the Brewers are not in danger of losing much ground even in the event of Braun’s suspension, though I still have the against-all-odds suspicion that he is going to walk. Even if he doesn’t, the Brewers will receive the equivalent of an all-star free-agent signing just when things are about to get interesting.

No one in the Central has pitching like the Brewers. Only select pitching staffs in all of the game are better on paper. It is the reason, as Zack Greinke mentioned about this time last year, that 2011

wasn’t an all-in season for the Brewers. Like most everyone else, Greinke knew Fielder wasn’t coming back in 2012. And like everyone else who thought about it, he was more interested in the fact everyone who mattered would return.

But no one knew at the time how strong the Brewers would be at the back end of their bullpen. They didn’t have Frankie Rodriguez to begin the season. John Axford began the year by blowing a save at Cincinnati. By the time the regular season was finished, almost no one had a better eighth/ninth-inning combo. Presumably, almost no one has it better back there still.

And to me, Melvin didn’t receive enough credit for getting the most out of the Brewers’ budget while letting someone else take a long-term risk with Fielder. Aramis Ramirez was the best power hitter available for the money, and the Brewers got him at the expense of none of their players or prospects for a home park tailored to Ramirez’s wheelhouse.

That’s not to mention the upgrade on defense. The Brewers won the division last year in spite of having liabilities on the left side of the infield. Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez will be so much better than what they had to the point that it will be a pleasure to finally see the Brewers win the usual major-league allotment of games in the conventional way, with defense and pitching.

Now there’s a concept.

No matter what, the Brewers weren’t going to stop the Cardinals last season. No one was going to stop St. Louis, who, like the New York Giants, got hot at the right time.

Similarly, there always will be the question of whether the Brewers can ever get back to the World Series. It bears repeating that market size could always keep them a player or two short, like they will be from now on without Fielder.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be quite competitive without him in 2012. For the short term, they will be competitive.

Last updated: 7:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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