Spring Postcard: Youthful Brewers forced to learn on the job
Seven of the Brewers eight everyday players are 28 years old or younger
New pitching coach Rick Peterson wants his staff to get the ball down
Rickie Weeks is back from a wrist injury and looking impressive at the plate
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. Young and still learning.
Even by their usual standards, the Brewers are young. Seven of their eight projected everyday position players are 28 or younger, including likely new starters Carlos Gomez and Alcides Escobar. Thus, this has been a camp heavy on fundamentals and teaching, and Brewers brass knows they'll have to live with some growing pains. "We might not play real well in April or May but we should get better and be fresh," says manager Ken Macha. The Brewers can take advantage of their youth and athleticism to be a good baserunning team, but that too may have to develop over time. GM Doug Melvin says, "Guys with speed come around later because [people] have a tendency to say 'There's not enough offense there'" and don't give them playing time. That could mean Gomez, a fleet center fielder whose average dropped from .258 in 2008 to .229 and took some of his playing time with it. It also affected his ability to utilize his speed; he stole 33 bases for the Twins in 2008 but attempted just 21 steals all year in 2009 in Minnesota before being traded to the Brewers in the offseason. For now, Gomez's most memorable baserunning play remains the critical gaffe he committed during last year's ALDS against the Yankees, when he overran second base and was tagged out, preventing a critical run from scoring. It's an error he made again during spring training, but for now the Brewers are willing to live with his occasionally overzealous nature early as long as he learns from it so it doesn't cost them later.
2. How much of an impact can Rick Peterson make?
The Brewers finished next-to-last in the National League in ERA in 2009, and Peterson, formerly the pitching coach of the A's and Mets, was brought in to help get their staff back to a point where they can compete for a playoff spot in a division headlined by the Cardinals and their co-aces, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The Brewers can't compete with those riches, though they do have some talented arms. This spring, Peterson has been incorporating what he calls his "atypical" and "complete" pitching system. He begins by stressing the mantra "preparation equals performance," tutors his new players on incorporating scouting and player development and stresses keeping the ball down in the zone. "The major league average on balls at the bottom of the strike zone is .220," he says. "The only issue is that pitchers don't give enough pitches there."
While the Brewers don't boast the young nucleus Peterson was able to work with in Oakland -- the "Big Three" of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito -- he does have a budding young ace in Yovani Gallardo, whom his catcher last year, Jason Kendall, predicted could win multiple Cy Young awards. Milwaukee signed free-agent Randy Wolf in the offseason to a three-year deal to add some much-needed quality innings. In 2008, the Brewers got the most innings from their starters of any team in baseball but last year they had the second-fewest. For the Brewers to have any chance at the postseason, the rest of the staff will have to show vast improvement, particularly the inconsistent Manny Parra, who finished with a 6.36 ERA.
3. Last go-around for Prince Fielder?
Hard as it may be to believe, the Brewers' All-Star first baseman is still only 25. What may be even harder to believe for Brewers fans is that he could be nearing the end of his tenure in Milwaukee. Though Fielder won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, the Brewers have already begun discussing signing their cornerstone slugger to a long-term deal. But if the talks -- and the team -- fall apart, it isn't an impossibility that he could be moved during this season. No matter how long he stays, the Brewers had best capitalize on having a hitter like Fielder in their lineup. In 2009, he finished first in the National League in RBIs, second in home runs and OPS and fourth in walks.
Not Done Yet
Edmonds didn't play anywhere in the major leagues in 2009, sitting out the season after playing for the Cubs and Padres in 2008. The Brewers were familiar with him from his many years in the National League Central, mostly with the Cardinals, and were intrigued by his ability to balance their lineup and give them a left-handed bat off the bench, but they've found that he brought his gold glove, or what's left of it, with him, too. "He hasn't lost a step defensively," said Macha. "It's nice to have a guy with his experience and the intelligence with which he plays." It doesn't hurt to have a guy who brings his wealth of knowledge, either, which he has been sharing with his fellow outfielders, particularly the newly-acquired Gomez. Brewers people have raved this spring about Edmonds' still-noteworthy speed and his ability to compensate for any lack of quickness by getting excellent jumps and taking the proper routes to balls.
Prospect To Watch
The love affair Brewers fans once had with J.J. Hardy turned sour long before Hardy was shipped out of town in the Gomez trade during the offseason. Even before that deal, attention had turned to Escobar, a highly-regarded prospect who impressed at the plate, batting .304 after his August call-up to replace the demoted Hardy. Escobar's real value will be living up to his reputation as one of the organization's best fielders at any position. The Brewers have been stressing up-the-middle defense, what Melvin termed an "old profile" approach, and Escobar's work at shortstop will be essential to improving their defensive efficiency, which last year ranked a very pedestrian 19th in the majors.
Perhaps never has a check-swing been as anticipated as it was this spring, but when Weeks started to go around and held up during a game this spring, the Brewers brass breathed a sigh of relief. "That's always a good sign for how your wrist is healing," said Macha. "His is fine." It wasn't last year, when Weeks played only 37 games after tearing his wrist. When he was hurt on May 17, the Brewers were eight games over .500 and in first place in the NL Central. Though they remained competitive in the division for the rest of the first half, they couldn't sustain their impressive play when he was out and their hopes of returning to the postseason for a second straight year were never realized. Weeks has been better than ever this spring, batting .306 with a .424 on-base percentage, numbers which would easily be a career-high for the former No. 2 overall pick from the 2003 draft.
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