Just forget those 75 games
Though last-place finishes are nothing new for the Brewers, they didn’t accomplish the feat in any ordinary way last season. After posting a surprising 45–41 record at the All-Star break, the Brewers recorded the worst second-half record ever for a team that was over .500 at the break (22–53).
Hitting coach Butch Wynegar will earn his paycheck this year trying to reverse an ugly trend; Brewer hitters tied for last in the Major Leagues with just 135 homers while striking out 1,312 times, the second-most in the bigs.
Gluttons for punishment
Despite posting the club’s 12th straight losing season, trading away one of the team’s most popular players and completely tanking in the second half of the season for another last-place finish, the Brewers still managed to draw just over two million fans to Miller Park, the third-highest season attendance in club history.
Big League town?
The Brewers moved their AAA affiliate to Nashville, Tenn., over the offseason. Funny, because Nashville’s NHL Predators have their minor league team in Milwaukee. While Preds owner Craig Leipold hails from Wisconsin, there’s no truth to the rumor that new Brewers owner Mark Attanasio once played steel guitar for the Dixie Chicks.
If the Brewers are to improve their punchless offense, they must hit better with runners in scoring position. Milwaukee hit just .221 with runners in scoring position in 2004, worst since the 1988 Orioles hit .217.
Three wins to the Sheets
The Brewers’ lack of run production in the second half of the season created some statistical oddities for ace Ben Sheets. Despite throwing four complete games after the break and ranking eighth in the NL in post-All Star break ERA and second in second-half strikeouts, Sheets compiled just a 3–9 record.
Geoff Jenkins batted .328 (64 points higher than his season average) and hit 16 of his 27 home runs last year while leading off an inning.
The Brewers aren’t likely to contend for anything other than an exit from last place, but this team should be fun to watch. With a little more power, an underappreciated starting rotation and a host of prospects knocking on the door, this could be the year the Brewers finally start to turn things around.
It’s hard to believe a ballclub that posted 94 losses in ’04 returns one of the best right-lefty starting pitcher combinations in the bigs, but that’s the case for the Brewers with Ben Sheets and Doug Davis. Don’t be fooled by Sheets’ 12–14 record; the big righthander got less support than a ban on sausage in Milwaukee as Brewer bats produced a grand total of 19 runs in his 14 losses. Sheets finished third in the NL with a 2.70 ERA and set a franchise record with 264 strikeouts, and he could be even better this year after offseason back surgery. Tabbed as “untouchable” by GM Doug Melvin over the winter, Sheets is the man this franchise is building around. Davis, meanwhile, can look equally good at times. The crafty lefty won 12 games in ’04 and will be looking to become the first Brewer lefty to post consecutive 10-win seasons since Scott Karl (1996-99). The best that can be said for the rest of the rotation is that at least highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux has plenty of options. Victor Santos (11 wins), Chris Capuano (injury-slowed), Jorge De La Rosa, Wes Obermueller and Ben Hendrickson (minor-league terror, big-league terrible) are the most likely candidates. Fireballing can’t-miss prospect Jose Capellan, acquired from Atlanta for Dan Kolb, may also crack the big league rotation this season.
The Brewers are starting over in the bullpen after trading away Kolb and Luis Vizcaino. Then again, as good as those guys were, all they did was help the Brewers lose 94 games. Kolb set a franchise record with 39 saves a year ago and his heir is not apparent, as no returning Brewer notched a big-league save a year ago. Second-year righthander Mike Adams and former Oakland Athletic Justin Lehr will have a shot to earn the closer job in spring training. Lehr throws in the mid-90s and began last season as the closer for Oakland’s Triple-A club. Jeff Bennett, he of the flat-brimmed cap, will compete for the setup man role, while Brooks Kieschnick continues to transform himself from a hitter who can pitch into a pitcher who can hit.
As much as Brewer fans will not miss Craig Counsell’s so-called bat (.241, 23 RBIs in 140 games), they might not miss his defense either (career-high nine errors). Now a pair of youngsters will compete for his job. Bill Hall showed some pop in his bat with the big league club (his 53 RBIs were fourth on the team in part-time duty), and rookie J.J. Hardy returns to action after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury that limited him to 26 minor league games. At second base, the Brewers count on a return to form from veteran Junior Spivey, a potential offensive catalyst who missed most of last season after injuring himself sliding into first base.
Lyle Overbay justified the Richie Sexson trade all by himself last season, leading the Brewers in hitting and setting a club record for doubles. The Brewers will need the smooth-swinging lefty to convert a few of those doubles into home runs this season, as the Brewers accounted for just 37 homers from the corner infield spots a year ago. At third base, Wes Helms (weak glove) and Russell Branyan (strikeout-prone) will battle to prove they have strengths that outweigh their obvious deficiencies.
One of the weakest hitting units in the big leagues a year ago, the Brewers’ outfield could be fairly potent in 2005 thanks to the addition of slugging leftfielder Carlos Lee. Lee’s arrival means Geoff Jenkins will move to right field, and also gives the Brew Crew their first slugging right-handed outfield bat since Greg Vaughn. While the Brewers had to part with speedy center fielder Scott Podsednik to land Lee, it was a trade well worth making, not only because it adds punch to an outfield that accounted for just 53 homers last season, but also because it gives manager Ned Yost a much-needed righty with pop to slide between Overbay and Jenkins in the lineup. Jenkins is expected to make the transition to right field with ease. His strong arm makes him a natural for the position. Jenkins led the team in homers and RBIs a year ago, and he stayed healthy enough to play in a career-high 157 games. With fan-favorite Podsednik gone, the battle in center will likely come down to the versatile Brady Clark (team-high .385 on base percentage in ’04) and fleet-footed rookie Dave Krynzel.
Was ever a big leaguer more destined to play in Miller Park for the Milwaukee Brewers than Wisconsin native Damian Miller? Miller signed a free agent contract with the Brewers and will take the starting job away from Chad Moeller. Hailed by Brewer pitchers as a masterful game-caller, Moeller struggled at the plate. At age 35, Miller’s best days are likely behind him, but he’s just three years removed from an All-Star season and four years past a World Series championship. He has the makings of the typical veteran catcher who will work well with a young pitching staff.
This was a real strength of the team a year ago with the likes of Hall, Clark, and Keith Ginter, but most of the Brewers’ former role players are now either starting or playing in other cities. This is likely the year that some of Milwaukee’s highly touted prospects, most notably second baseman Rickie Weeks, earn their first real taste of the big leagues by spending some time on the Brewer bench. Losers in the battles for third base, shortstop, and center field are also likely candidates for Miller Park splinters.
Here’s something you haven’t heard much in the past 22 years — Brewers management has this team headed in the right direction. New owner Mark Attanasio has pumped a few extra dollars into the team payroll, and Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash are proving why they’re considered two of the best in the business through some shrewd trades and free agent signings. Yost piloted one of the worst second-half collapses in big league history last year but still has the support of players, management and fans alike. For the first time in decades, one gets the feeling the Brewers have a plan and might have brighter days ahead.
After a schizophrenic season that saw the Brewers go 45–41 before the All-Star break and 22–53 after, some may wonder in which direction this team is heading. Make no mistake, this is a franchise on the way up. Rising from the depths of 12 straight losing seasons, there’s a long way for the Brewers to go, but Melvin has made the kind of moves that can make a small market team competitive; better yet, a bevy of prospects are nearly ready.