After failing to build on a breakthrough campaign from the previous year in 2009, the Milwaukee Brewers are banking on a little fine-tuning to a roster featuring a strong core of young talent will enable the team to once again take steps forward in this coming season.
The 2008 Brewers rode the burly left arm of mid-year acquisition CC Sabathia and a power-laden offense to 90 victories and a National League Wild Card berth, but the offseason departure of both the ace hurler and four-time All- Star Ben Sheets left two gaping holes in the rotation that were never adequately filled last year. Milwaukee starting pitchers combined for an major league-worst 5.37 earned run average in 2009, and the club in turn stumbled to an 80-82 record and never became a serious factor in the playoff race.
General manager Doug Melvin dipped into the free-agent market over the winter in an attempt to bolster the Brewers' most glaring weakness, signing veteran left-handers Randy Wolf and Doug Davis to provide steady complements to No. 1 starter Yovani Gallardo. Hard-throwing reliever LaTroy Hawkins was also brought in to fix another sore spot from last season, the lack of a reliable late-inning bridge to ageless closer Trevor Hoffman.
Milwaukee also made a few modifications to the everyday lineup, trading shortstop J.J. Hardy to Minnesota for speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez in November and allowing power-hitting outfielder Mike Cameron to leave via free agency. The Brewers still possess two of the NL's premier middle-of-the-order hitters in left fielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder, and the dangerous duo will once more be asked to anchor an offense that finished third in the Senior Circuit in both home runs and runs scored a year ago.
Fielder, Braun and Gallardo, whose 209 strikeouts in 2009 were the fifth-most in the NL, give Milwaukee three players under 27 years of age who rank among the best at their respective positions. But it's how other young cast members such as Gomez, starting pitcher Manny Parra and rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar handle important roles that may ultimately determine whether the Brewers will be able to make a second postseason trip in 28 years.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Milwaukee Brewers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(80-82) - Third Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
C Gregg Zaun, CF Carlos Gomez, SP Randy Wolf, SP Doug Davis, C George Kottaras, IF Joe Inglett, OF Jim Edmonds, RP LaTroy Hawkins
Key Offseason subtractions
C Jason Kendall, 2B Felipe Lopez, SS J.J. Hardy, CF Mike Cameron, SP Braden Looper, C Mike Rivera, OF Frank Catalanotto, RP David Weathers, RP Seth McClung
Milwaukee's 2009 regression had little to do with the performance of Fielder, as the stocky cleanup hitter led the majors with 141 runs batted in and belted 46 homers while batting a career-best .299 hitting behind Braun. He received surprisingly good protection from third baseman Casey McGehee (16 HR, 66 RBI), a castoff from the Chicago Cubs' system who hit an impressive .301 in his first full season in the big leagues. As the projected No. 5 hitter in the order, the Brewers seem convinced that last year's numbers were no fluke.
The team also has plenty of faith in Escobar, a leading preseason candidate for NL Rookie of the Year honors after batting .304 in a 38-game audition with Milwaukee late last season. The talented Venezuelan is also regarded as a plus-defender and has plenty of speed as well, having stolen 42 bases in Triple-A prior to an August callup to the majors.
Escobar's double-play partner will be Rickie Weeks (.272, 9 HR, 40 RBI), the Brewers' leadoff hitter who's returning from a wrist injury that ended his 2009 season in mid-May. The former first-round draft choice appeared on the way to a long-anticipated breakout year before getting hurt, although he still needs to cut down on his strikeouts and can be error-prone in the field.
After parting ways with regular catcher Jason Kendall during the offseason, Milwaukee signed journeyman Gregg Zaun (.260, 8 HR, 27 RBI with Baltimore/Tampa Bay) to serve as the primary backstop. Although the switch- hitting 39-year-old has only started over 100 games one time in a well- traveled 15-year career, he's a serviceable hitter who gets high marks for his leadership skills and ability to handle a staff.
Braun (.320, 32 HR, 114 RBI) is the unquestioned headliner of this three-man group and earned a second consecutive Silver Slugger Award in 2009. In his three major-league seasons, the converted third baseman has averaged 34 homers, 106 RBI while hitting at a .308 clip, extraordinary numbers for a guy about to enter the prime of his career.
The Brewers are a bit more unsettled at the other two outfield spots, where both Gomez (3 HR, 28 RBI, 14 SB) and right fielder Corey Hart (.260, 12 HR, 48 RBI) will try to bounce back from disappointing years. Hart slugged 24 homers in 2007 and was an All-Star the following season after an excellent first half, but his production has steadily declined since obtaining that honor. He was fitted with corrective lenses in the spring in an effort to regain his prior form.
Gomez stole 33 bases and scored 79 runs as a rookie with the Twins in 2008, but fell out of favor after hitting an anemic .209 and losing his starting job last season. Still, he's only 24 and brings a very good glove to the center field position, while his speed should also be an asset to a team that had the third-fewest steals in the NL last year.
The Brewers have an intriguing fallback option if either Gomez or Hart falters in 40-year-old Jim Edmonds. The four-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner has put together a strong spring after a one-year hiatus from the game and could lend a proven left-handed bat to a lineup that's predominantly skewed to the right side.
Melvin made this area the primary focus of the offseason and was able to land a pair of reliable arms in the former Dodger Wolf (11-7, 3.23, 160 K) and the ex-Diamondback Davis (9-14, 4.12). Though neither is blessed with frontline stuff, both pitchers are savvy competitors that should provide a significant upgrade to the No. 2 and 3 spots in the rotation from last season.
Gallardo (13-12, 3.73, 204 K), on the other hand, clearly has the arsenal of a potential ace and showed flashes of becoming one during a solid 2009 season. The right-hander held opposing hitters to a .219 average, even after wearing down late in the year after working over 185 innings.
Four pitchers were battling for the remaining two starting positions during spring training, with no clear winner having emerged entering the final weeks of camp. Holdover Jeff Suppan (7-12, 5.29) seems to have the inside track on one of those slots, mainly because he's owed a guaranteed $12.5 million for this season, but will have to improve upon an atrocious 2009 to keep the job.
Parra (11-11, 6.36) entered spring as the favorite for the final rotation spot and like Suppan, is coming off a subpar season. The 27-year-old lefty is out of minor league options, however, and his considerable upside will likely prevent the Brewers from exposing him to the waiver wire. He's being pushed hard by Chris Narveson (2-0, 3.83), though, with the longtime minor-leaguer having stated his case with a strong showing in Cactus League games.
Suppan has not been pitching well this spring, but it's hard to envision Milwaukee eating the soft-tossing veteran's sizeable contract. A more likely scenario is the team cutting ties with fellow candidate Dave Bush (5-9, 6.38), due $4.2 million if he makes the Opening Day roster, prior to the start of the season.
While the Brewers still have questions to answer regarding the rotation, the bullpen appears to have the makings of a team strength. Hoffman (3-2, 1.83, 37 SV), baseball's all-time leader in saves, showed he's still got what it takes to finish out games after converting 37-of-41 save opportunities and limiting enemy hitters to a .183 average at age 41 last year. Right-handers Todd Coffey (4-4, 2.90, 2 SV) and Claudio Vargas (1-0, 1.74) both excelled when brought into set-up roles late in the season, and further depth was added when Melvin lured Hawkins (1-4, 2.13, 11 SV) away from the division-rival Astros with a two-year contract in December. The 37-year-old has previous experience as a closer as well and is capable of handling ninth-inning duties if Hoffman needs a day off or misses any time due to injury.
The relief corps also welcomes back lefty specialist Mitch Stetter (4-1, 3.60), who's held southpaws to a .172 average over the past two years, and versatile right-hander Carlos Villanueva (4-10, 5.34, 3 SV) to work in middle relief. Narveson, who made 17 appearances in relief with the big club last season, stands a decent chance of sticking as a second left-hander and long man if he doesn't break camp as one of the five starters.
Manager Ken Macha won't lack for experienced alternatives from the reserve corps, with Edmonds and veteran Jody Gerut (.230, 9 HR, 35 RBI) penciled in as the backup outfielders and 39-year-old Craig Counsell (.285, 4 HR, 39 RBI) brought back as the primary fill-in along the infield. Joe Inglett (.281, 0 HR, 6 RBI with Toronto), claimed off waivers from Texas over the winter, has a good chance to win a spot as a utility player, with the left-handed hitter capable of playing the outfield as well as second or third base.
George Kottaras (.237, 1 HR, 10 RBI with Boston), another offseason waiver claim, is the top candidate for the backup catcher position after making an impression on the coaching staff with his bat this spring.
With a power-packed lineup full of gifted young players and having taken steps to shore up their greatest liability from the previous year, it's not out of the question that the Brewers could emerge as defending NL Central champion St. Louis' chief competition for the division crown. The additions of Wolf and Davis along with new pitching coach Rick Peterson, who had a successful stint with Macha in Oakland some years back, should make Milwaukee better in that department, and the bullpen could potentially wind up being the division's best. Still, the rotation as a whole remains an uninspiring group, and the Brewers will be counting heavily on a number of regulars who are either unproven or have shown to be inconsistent. All that uncertainty may leave Milwaukee a bit short of becoming a serious postseason threat in 2010.