During a game this spring, new Brewers catcher Damian Miller was standing in the on-deck circle when a fan seated behind him offered what he thought were appropriate words of encouragement. "Help the team build, Damian!" the fan shouted. Miller glared back. "I'm not here to help them build," he yelled. "I'm here to help them win."
Pardon the fan, who unlike Miller has endured 12 straight losing seasons by Milwaukee, including four 90-loss campaigns in a row. No franchise in the majors is stuck in a deeper rut. "I was feeling pretty good that the streak would come to an end last year," says general manager Doug Melvin, whose team was four games over .500 at the All-Star break. Then came a second-half meltdown during which the Brewers went 22--53. "Maybe we weren't really as good as our start indicated, but we feel like we're turning this thing around. We think this is the year the streak ends."
The main reason for his optimism is the addition of power-hitting leftfielder Carlos Lee, who was acquired from the White Sox in a December trade for popular centerfielder Scott Podsednik and reliever Luis Vizcaino. The 28-year-old Lee, who has hit at least .290 with 31 home runs in each of the last two seasons, will bat cleanup behind first baseman Lyle Overbay, who last year hit .301 with a major-league-leading 53 doubles in his first full season, and in front of rightfielder Geoff Jenkins, who socked 27 homers. "Our top priority this off-season was to get a big-time hitter," says Melvin. "Lee as our cleanup hitter gives us the best middle of the order this team has had in years."
In Chicago the knock on Lee was that he was a moody clubhouse presence and a lackadaisical player on the field. During a White Sox fanfest after the trade was made, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen criticized Lee for the way he slid into second base during a midseason game against the Twins, saying it was "as if his wife were turning the double play." Lee shrugs it off. "None of that talk bothers me," he says. "I know I go out there and play as hard as I can. Chicago's in the past now, and the situation in Milwaukee couldn't be better for me."
The main culprit in the Brewers' second-half collapse was an offense that lacked the pop that Lee is expected to provide. Milwaukee finished last in the league in batting (.248) and home runs (135), next to last in runs (634) and 13th in on-base percentage (.321). "Our hitters started pressing down the stretch, namely Lyle and Geoff," says manager Ned Yost. "The success we had in the first half of the season, the excitement of the city and the fans, put a lot of pressure on them. You saw them swinging at bad pitches and getting tight in big situations. Carlos is going to take a lot of that weight off their shoulders, and as a result we're going to score more runs."
No one would appreciate that more than righthander Ben Sheets, for whom the Brewers scored a total of 19 runs in his 14 losses. The 26-year-old Sheets, who ranked second in the league in strikeouts (264) and third in ERA (2.70), bloomed into one of the NL's best pitchers last year. His strikeout rate jumped from 6.4 per nine innings in 2003 to 10.0 last season, while opponents batted only .226 against him, down from .268 the previous year. "Ben came in with a focused game plan in each of his starts," says catcher Chad Moeller. "He's made that jump because he better understands how to set up hitters, how each pitch can accent the next one. When you mix that understanding with his talent, he's unstoppable."
Another reason for optimism in Milwaukee is the abundance of promising prospects. J.J. Hardy, 22, has been penciled in as the Opening Day shortstop. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, winner of the 2003 Golden Spikes Award as the nation's best amateur player, and slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, 20, will start the season at Triple A Nashville but could be regulars by next summer. "We don't want to rush any of them, but they are very close to being ready," says Melvin. "We're excitedly waiting for their time." --A.C.
Carlos Lee was the only every-day outfielder in the majors to finish with a 1.000 fielding percentage last season. Lee's last error came on Sept. 13, 2003.