"Off-season fixes will aid run prevention. Run generation won't be a problem."
Memo to the baseball blogosphere: Manager Ned Yost doesn't want your help. Same goes for radio jockeys, newspapermen and, for that matter, his mother. "I'm not trying to be Mr. Know-It-All," Yost says, recalling an off-season instance in which Lee Yost passed along an article that suggested some areas of improvement, "but I know where we're going, and I know exactly how to get there."
Where his team was throughout the first four months of last season was in first place in the NL Central. An August swoon (9-18), however, ultimately left Milwaukee two games behind the division-winning Cubs. How did they get there? In large part, according to Yost, because of ineptitude in the field. Despite ranking among the league's top five in runs, homers, slugging and RBIs, the Brewers had the fourth-most errors in the NL. Sabermetrically speaking, in fact, Milwaukee was 28th in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate at which a team converts balls in play into outs). Slipshod fielding cost the Brewers 44.7 runs -- or about 4.5 wins -- last season, the first since 1992 in which Milwaukee played meaningful games down the stretch.
To fix this, general manager Doug Melvin reshuffled the deck. In January he signed free agent Mike Cameron to a one-year deal to play centerfield, though the three-time Gold Glove winner was suspended for the season's first 25 games because of a positive test for a banned substance. Bill Hall was moved from center to third base, pushing Ryan Braun -- who had the alltime-best slugging percentage for a rookie but also the lowest fielding percentage of any major league player -- to leftfield. There, he'll enjoy the cushion of Cameron's still-considerable range and, Yost hopes, the benefits of simple maturation. Reminds the manager, "Young players develop quicker offensively than defensively."
Those changes will certainly aid Milwaukee's run prevention. Run generation won't be a problem, not only this season but also for years to come. Just ask Pirates lefthander Phil Dumatrait. Last Sept. 9 the first five batters in the Brewers' lineup -- second baseman Rickie Weeks (now 25), shortstop J.J. Hardy (25), Braun (24), first baseman Prince Fielder (23) and rightfielder Corey Hart (25) -- went homer, homer, homer, single, single off Dumatrait, then with the Reds. For the season that group combined for 150 home runs. Fielder blasted 50 homers, making him the youngest ever to hit that many. "We hang out all the time," Braun says of his teammates, "and I think that closeness is one of our biggest advantages as a team."
This year Yost will flip Braun and Fielder in the lineup. As eye-popping as Braun's numbers were, there is one that disturbed Yost: only 29 walks, in 492 plate appearances. "We're trying to get him to be more selective, especially behind Prince. We've talked about it, and he'll be moved out of that four spot if he can't adjust," says Yost, who also batted Braun second in spring training to get his young slugger more at bats.
Alas, the development of homegrown arms will have to catch up to that of the young mashers for the Brewers to take the next step. Only 22, righthander Yovani Gallardo, who had a 3.67 ERA after his June 14 call-up, is a keeper. However, after Gallardo, who will start the season on the DL (arthroscopic knee surgery), and perennially injured Ben Sheets, the most proven starters are the high-contact duo of Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush, both of whom were hit hard in the second half. Righty Carlos Villanueva, 24, and especially lefty Manny Parra, 25, who throws a mid-90s fastball and a big curve, could bolster the rotation. For now, though, they represent a small tweak to a roster that underwent several such improvements this winter, changes that won't be enough to offset the more dramatic moves of the Cubs and the Reds. -- Pablo S. Torre
Issue date: March 31, 2008