Expectations were high in Brew City coming off a 90-win season and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1982. Even the losses of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets didn’t dim the enthusiasm much with budding ace Yovani Gallardo, who’d missed nearly all of 2008, set to take over one of those spots. The Brewers stumbled out of the gates, dropping eight of their first 11 games before righting the ship and eventually entering July in first place in the NL Central. It would be all downhill from there, however, as injuries to a razor thin starting rotation wore down a stout bullpen and led to that unit tiring. Despite amazing individual efforts from Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Trevor Hoffman, the Brewers finished under .500 (80-82) for the second time in the past five seasons.
What Went Right
The combination of Braun and Fielder was the league’s most potent statistical one-two punch with that duo racking up 78 home runs, 255 RBI and 216 runs scored. However, it was Fielder’s growth that was even more pronounced as he displayed greatly improved plate discipline and set a franchise record with 110 walks. His power was incredible, winning the Home Run Derby, finishing second to NL MVP Albert Pujols with 46 home runs and trailing only Pujols and AL MVP Joe Mauer with an OPS of 1014.
Fielder was also the only player in the majors to play in (and start) all 162 games. The powerful slugger is a perfect fit for a blue collar city like Milwaukee with the kind of body that makes every recreational league softball star think he can play pro ball. He’s under team control through the 2011 season, and while some experts have championed the idea of dealing Fielder now for a package of prospects, it’s more likely the Brewers will hold on to him through at least the upcoming campaign.
Despite not getting as much attention as Fielder, Braun also put together his best season, pacing the National League with 203 hits and finishing with an eye popping .320-32-114 line that also included 113 runs and 20 steals. Few players in the league can match his combination of speed and power, and under a more aggressive manager he’d be a 30-30 guy. Having Fielder behind him all but ensures Braun will get good pitches to hit, and he kills mistakes. His defense may not be great, but he’s a good raw athlete and isn’t the game’s worst left fielder.
Other standouts offensively included Felipe Lopez (.320-3-32 in 66 games) and rookie Casey McGehee (.301-16-66). Lopez solidified the lead-off spot after Rickie Weeks was lost for the year with another wrist injury, while McGehee took over as the club’s primary third baseman despite lingering knee problems. Craig Counsell did a great job covering for Weeks before Lopez’s arrival, and even after that he spelled McGehee at third and J.J. Hardy at shortstop. Rookie Alcides Escobar looked major league ready in a late season promotion, which certainly helped set the front office’s minds at ease when it came time to ship Hardy to Minnesota.
Even on the wrong side of 40, Hoffman remains one of the game’s most effective closers. He mixes his mid-80s fastball with a deadly changeup to keep hitters off balance. Watching him work against younger hitters is amazing as they simply flail away. He closed the door on 37 of his 41 save chances and was immediately re-signed by the club. On top of his work on the bump, Hoffman was a respected leader and a tremendous clubhouse influence. With an even younger team set to take the field in 2010, his leadership will be more important than ever.
Gallardo may not have been ready to become a legitimate staff ace, but his stuff can be downright nasty and he ranked as the lone bright spot in the starting rotation. The young righty fanned 204 batters in 185 2/3 innings while limiting hitters to a .219 average. His biggest problem at this point is being too fine with his control instead of attacking. He racked up some seriously high pitch counts in limited innings and only two big league pitchers issued more walks than the 94 Gallardo handed out. If he can clean up his control he could be pitching at the 2010 All-Star Game.
GM Doug Melvin plucked Claudio Vargas off the scrap heap at the trade deadline for a song, and Vargas emerged as their most reliable reliever outside of Hoffman with only 18 hits and six earned runs allowed in over 30 innings of work. Todd Coffey also did a strong job, keeping his ERA below 3.00 despite being run out to the mound 78 times last year. If the Brewers can keep his workload in check, Mitch Stetter has the stuff to be a dominant left-handed specialist. His ERA sat at 2.25 before he began to fade in July. Keep an eye on Chris Narveson as well — he posted 19 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings as a starter.
What Went Wrong
A pair of former All-Stars, Hardy and Corey Hart, stumbled through poor seasons. Hardy, who averaged a .280-25-77 line over the 2007-08 campaigns, plummeted to a .229-11-47 mark and was even demoted before being traded to the Twins for speedy outfielder Carlos Gomez in the offseason. Hardy’s glove work was steady, but the always streaky shortstop could never get hot and the team missed his production in the middle of the lineup.
Although Hart’s decline wasn’t as steep as Hardy’s, his final totals (.260-12-48) weren’t what Fantasy owners had come to expect following consecutive 20-20 seasons. Injuries also played a role in his struggles, including an appendectomy that kept him sidelined for more than a month. Hart’s name is a sure bet to come up in trade rumours until Spring Training arrives, though it’s debatable what kind of pitching talent he would return coming off a down season.
Veterans Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall both played steady defensively, and Cameron pitched in with his usual 24 home runs, but neither man endeared themselves at the plate. Kendall is a Punch and Judy hitter at this point with his best asset offensively being his ability to put the ball in play. Cameron is always a threat to go deep, but struck out an absolute ton. Given their combined $15 million salary figure last year, it’s not surprising that neither man will be returning in 2010.
The Brewers also got next to no production off their bench, which included a cringe-inducing 37-for-212 (.175) from their pinch hitters. If you take out usual starters Counsell and McGehee’s work, you’re left with an even more abysmal 26-for-173 (.150) with zero home runs. Pathetic.
The complete collapse of the starting rotation started a domino effect that derailed Milwaukee’s season, highlighted by injuries to Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan. As marginally effective as that pair may have been, they were still better than fill-ins Mike Burns (3-4, 6.86 in eight starts), Carlos Villanueva (1-3, 6.52 in six) and Seth McClung (0-1, 12.27 in two).
Bush is actually a solid back-of-the-rotation starter when healthy, going 3-1 with a 4.38 ERA before being struck on the elbow by a line drive. He was miserable after that outside of back-to-back starts in early September, and one has to wonder if the team would’ve shut him down if the pitching situation hadn’t been so dire at that point. There was some thought he’d be non-tendered, but that didn’t happen and he should be the team’s fourth or fifth starter this season.
Little needs to be said about Suppan, whose egregious contract has become an albatross around the necks of the mid-market Brewers. For the third straight year, his wins, innings pitched and strikeouts went down while his ERA, WHIP and opponents’ batting average went up. Just to rub a little salt in the wound, a recent ESPN article listed Suppan’s fastball as the worst pitch in all of baseball last year with 571 heaters inducing 247 swings and 11 misses (yep, 11) with batters hitting .429 against that pitch. He’s so reviled in Brew City that the team might bring him out of the bullpen in long relief lest a spot for him in the rotation dissuade ticket sales. Despite all that, he’s a wonderful pitcher…for me to SupPAN.
Amazingly enough, Manny Parra actually pitched worse than either Bush or Suppan, posting a 6.36 ERA and an inhuman 1.83 WHIP. The southpaw has really good stuff, but he gets into trouble on the mound when he becomes too passive and nibbles at the corners. He went 8-3 after the break, including 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA in September, so the team is hoping he’s finally figuring it out. Parra is young, inexpensive and loaded with potential. He’ll get every chance to earn a turn in the rotation.
Free-agent addition Braden Looper paced the team with 14 wins and 194 2/3 innings pitched. That was the good news. The bad news was he got pounded for a major league worst 39 home runs. Only incredible run support saved his record. Milwaukee declined Looper’s option, so he won’t be back.
Others that should be recognized for the walk of shame include the wildly inconsistent Villanueva along with free-agent bust Jorge Julio. Late-season addition David Weathers did little and also had his team option declined. In fact, the only thing I remember about “Stormy” from last season was his hideous performance on Fielder’s walk-off celebration against the Giants. I mean honestly, how difficult is it to fall down? (If you’re not too hung over and can handle some shakes, here’s the video evidence.)
The Brewers have already begun remaking their club, waving goodbye to high-priced veterans Cameron, Looper, Weathers and Kendall. The Hardy trade provides them with a new centerfielder in Gomez, who has excellent speed and defensive range. They’ll take a hit in the power department by swapping out Cameron/Hardy for Escobar/Gomez, but both young players are already considered strong defensively and bring an added element of speed to the equation. Kendall was replaced by Gregg Zaun, who is better offensively and should help groom young backstops Jonathan Lucroy or Angel Salome.
Despite it being only December, there doesn’t appear to be many spots up for grabs this spring, at least not starting jobs. Zaun will catch, with Lucroy, Salome or George Kottaras backing him up. Fielder will be joined on one side of the infield by the returning Weeks (Lopez was allowed to walk in free agency) and Rookie of the Year contender Escobar is the shortstop. An outfield of Braun, Gomez and Hart is also a near certainty barring a trade. That only leaves third base where second-year players Mat Gamel and McGehee will compete for playing time. McGehee was the better player last season and is superior defensively, but Gamel’s bat is well regarded within the system. Veterans Counsell and Jody Gerut are pretty much guaranteed bench slots.
Milwaukee’s pitching staff got a boost with the signing of Randy Wolf, who figures to drop into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Gallardo. Parra and Bush have the inside track on two spots while Suppan, Narveson and possibly even Chris Capuano or John Halama should fight it out for the last position. The team could still add another starter or two to the mix — rumours persist the signing of Mark Mulder is little more than a formality and Seattle’s Brandon Morrow has been mentioned recently — but another big name acquisition probably isn’t in the cards.
The bullpen is pretty much set and should be even stronger following the signing of LaTroy Hawkins, who gives them a reliable eighth inning option and allows Coffey/Vargas/Stetter to work in the sixth and seventh. Villanueva will work long relief. The final spot should come down to Narveson, Chris Smith, John Axford, David Riske (coming off Tommy John surgery) and Rule V pick Chuck Lofgren. Of that group, Narveson and Lofgren are southpaws, which could give them an edge with Stetter the only lefty that’s guaranteed a role. Prospect Zach Braddock, another left hander, is one to watch.
Look for the Brewers to be a different club in 2010, led by a more aggressive approach on the bases with Gomez/Escobar capable of stealing 40-plus bags and Braun/Hart/Weeks over 20. The power numbers will surely dip with Cameron/Hardy and their 45-to-55 potential homers gone. Less offense means more accountability from the Brewers’ pitching staff as an improved effort from their starters is critical if they want to stay in the Wild Card hunt this upcoming season.