Thursday, April 29, 2010

View From the Brewers Bandwagon, Vol 1: Time to abandon ship?

I go to about 20 Brewers games a year, and watch nearly all the rest of them. Though I'm a casual fan, I do care enough about the team enough to write about them. I don't think I could be a full-time Brewer blogger -- I don't care that much -- but at the same time I think it would be fun to check in on them periodically and give my (mostly worthless) opinions.

Approximately one-eighth of the season has been completed and the Milwaukee Brewers sit at 9-12. With a supposedly bolstered starting rotation, a strong bullpen anchored by the heretofore ageless Trevor Hoffman, and promising youngsters Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gomez setting the table for the sluggers, this is not where fans want the team to be. Can you blame them?

Well, yes and no.

I am not Mr. Sunshine, but I still have hope that the Brewers can compete this season. I know it's not exactly fashionable to be positive on the internet -- and perhaps for sports fans in general -- where blog commenters more closely resemble 4chan (NSFW) than they do Cute Overload. I hate to repeat that tired old mantra "It's still early," but I will: It's still early. Get a grip.

The Brewers' woes pretty much begin and end where you would expect them to, which is with the pitching staff.

The big story on everyone's mind right now is obviously Trevor Hoffman. Is he washed up? Injured? Why isn't he throwing his changeup? Is he the second coming of Eric Gagne?

I'll answer the last question first: No. Gagne was mostly washed up before he even got here. In hindsight, it was easily a mistake to sign him for any amount of money. On the flip side, Hoffman had a ridiculously good year last year, and there was really no reason to think he wouldn't keep it up to some extent other than the fact that he is 42 years old. Unless there was a cheaper, guaranteed* option waiting in the wings, I don't think any GM in the league would pass up on the deal.

*(I say guaranteed because when you have a team that's expected to contend for a division or wild card, you don't hand over the closer's role to someone who has never pitched in the bigs. Do you?)

As for being washed up or injured it's entirely possible on both accounts. He's lost his control (answer to #3) as well, which doesn't bode well. But at the same time one must remember that in his blown saves, the team won one (and could've won yesterday's), lost one on a fluke home run that, given the chance, the guy wouldn't be able to recreate 99 out of 100 times, and finally the Hoff gave up two homers to some guys named Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The home runs are troubling to be sure. But I don't think it merits immediate demotion to mop-up guy along with the 12 million dollar mistake Jeff Suppan. Perhaps a few days to get his head straight will do him some good, though upon returning I would keep the leash short, to one the tune of one or two more games. As for options, you've got Villanueva, Coffey, Hawkins, and maybe even Parra**. The closer role isn't a lost cause quite yet.

**(Yes, I know he's a starter and a "mental midget" as some like to say, but he's been good out of the pen and is capable of having some nasty stuff. Imagine the confidence boost that could be to him.)

As for the starting staff, the conventional (in hindsight) wisdom is that if last year's staff was merely average, they would have at least contended for the Wild Card. This year's staff needs to do pretty much the same thing, and I see no reason why it can't. Of course, there is much room for improvement.

Yovani Gallardo needs to learn how to be more efficient with his pitches. If he's going the be the ace, he can't be going only 5 innings with 100 pitches. It isn't good for him, and it's even worse for the bullpen. Randy Wolf doesn't look half bad so far. As long as Bush doesn't get hit on the arm with another line drive (and keeps the starts like his last one to a minimum), he will be all right. Narveson overcame his first-start, first inning jitters to record four scoreless. That's something he can build on. (I hate sounding like a coach, but it's true.)

Doug Davis, on the other hand, is worrying. He did improve in his first start, but not being able to make it past the 5th inning in the other two is inexcusable. No one will confuse him Cy Young, but the man was brought in to eat up innings and get the ball to the bullpen with some semblance of winning. Davis has not really done that thus far.

* * * *

How about that offense? Can you really complain about an offense that leads the league in runs scored, averaging 6 per game? (That is, besides that there's no way they keep up that pace.) Braun is Braun, Prince is coming around from his slow start like he always does, McGehee is proving thus far that he is no fluke. Rickie Weeks is looking like the player everyone wishes he could've been the past few years. Even Corey Hart, whipping boy extraordinaire not just because he collapsed at the end of 2008 and was mediocre in 2009, but because -- and I say this because people at JSOnline can't fucking stop talking about it -- the man was being honest. (Funny, that: in this age of extreme openness, [cynically read: narcissism] an athlete responds in a way other than robotically and the fan base shits all over him for hurting their delicate sensibilities.) So far, so good, huh?

Mostly, yeah. Some question marks rise with the players up the middle, namely Escobar and and Gomez. The knock on this team the last few years has been that they rely far too much on the home run, and this is probably true. These guys have the potential to change all that with their speed, but first Escobar needs to stop swinging at everything he sees and Gomez has to stop hitting the ball in the air. Easier said than done, I know.

Considering those two flash some serious leather in the field, it doesn't make sense to bench them for any long period of time. However, if there is going to be any serious change in playing time, I wouldn't have a problem with an Edmonds/Gomez platoon in center. If a small-ball type player isn't producing, and there aren't many other of those type of guys on the team, then you need some pop in the lineup and Edmonds is perfectly capable of providing that.

At the catcher spot, I'm not particularly enamored of Zaun or Kottaras' performance thus far, nor do I think that by changing catchers is the big change this team needs to turn it around. Zaun has been a backup most of his career, and Kottaras isn't starting material either, so in this case I'd have no problem with them splitting time evenly behind the plate.

There really isn't much more to say about the offense. If they keep on keepin' on, they'll be just fine.

* * * *

You'll notice that I didn't really use any numbers to back up any of my opinions. I know I'd get ripped to shreds on any respectable comment board, but I did it for a reason: I just don't care. I think these stats have their time and place -- namely when trying to win an argument on the internet/showing off your e-peen -- but to a casual fan such as myself, they are mostly irrelevant. Don't get me wrong, I don't think we should go back evaluating players based solely on AVG/HR/RBI and W-L/ERA. It's just that, aside from winning an argument for the sake of winning it, advanced stats are most useful to the front office of a baseball team. They are the ones spending millions of dollars on players, thus they should have the most advanced ways possible to attempt to predict what they're getting for their investment.

As for me, stats aren't the end all be-all of anything. If that we're the case, they would play the game on paper and I could save the $400 I spent on my 20-game pack. Of course, they don't. And as a fan -- casual and somewhat detached as I may be -- I think watching a game is much more fun than endlessly debating statistics, actions that already took place. Needless to say, I won't be writing about Craig Counsell's VORP or Doug Davis' FIP any time soon.

However, there is one number I am concerned with, and this is the amount of money it will take to sign Prince Fielder.

At their current payroll, I don't think it is possible to sign him. It just isn't financially feasible. The only way it could possibly work is if the Brewers' payroll expanded. If it takes $25 mil per year to get the big man, and Milwaukee's payroll is pushing $90 million as we speak, then that amount must be pushed to $115 million. Probably a hard pill to swallow for Mark Attanasio and company.

With the team's subpar start, some of the early ledge-jumpers are already bleating about trading Fielder for pitching. This, along with some article/blurb I read (don't remember where) that crunched some numbers saying that Fielder couldn't possibly live up to the contract that he'll be given, adds up to me thinking: "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Now is not the time to trade Fielder. Neither was this off season. I know great pitching is what the team needs, but the truth of the matter is part of the reason the Brewers have been competitive the past three years is because they've been able to put 3 million asses in the seats. Make no bones about it, Prince is the heart and soul of this team and to trade him now would be to say "we're giving up." Now some people might say "Hey, smart fans would know that by trading Fielder, the Brewers would be even more competitive for years to come even if they got some good pitching -- and they would be right. Except that "smart" fans aren't buying the majority of the tickets. Casual ones are. And you know what? An affable, intense, hardworking guy that can hit the ball a mile is going to sell a hell of a lot more tickets than a low ERA can. Besides, who's to say that The Crew would get Tim Lincecum or something back, anyway? I wouldn't be surprised to learn that top prospects is all they could get. Good for the future, bad for right now.

As for living up to the contract, that's all fine and good, but if he were to re-sign and the Brewers were to win the World Series, even if he got hurt and was never the same, would you really care all that much if he put the team in the hole for seven years? I wouldn't. I think the nucleus of Braun, Fielder, and Gallardo give us the best chance to win. It might take one more big move (or perhaps a small one) to put the team over the top, but I don't believe they make that leap without those three.

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