Five Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

After years of waiting, good times are ahead for the Milwaukee Brewers. The city has not seen a winning team since 1992, or a playoff team since 1982. Dean Taylor ran the team into the ground, save the farm system. Despite all the economic problems the team has run itself into, Taylor and new GM Doug Melvin have some great prospects beneath the minor league level, namely Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, and Rickie Weeks.

In the Majors, last year brought great change. Ned Yost, a former third base coach for the Atlanta Braves, took over the reins of the team. Melvin had to put a dirt cheap team on the field, leading to lesser known acquisitions like Matt Kinney, Wes Helms, Dan Kolb, and Scott Podsednik getting their chance. The latter, a 27-year-old centerfielder from the Mariners system allowed the team to trade Alex Sanchez, and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Kolb kept an ERA below 2.00 in more than forty innings, and while inconsistent, both Kinney and Helms helped at various times.

This offseason has brought on more deconstructing, starting with the Brewers best player, Richie Sexson. Melvin was forced to deal the powerful first basemen to the Diamondbacks, landing three infielders and two pitching prospects. Some of the veterans on last year’s team (Perez, Young, Clayton, Vander Wal, and Mike DeJean) won’t be back this year. Melvin will have to spend more time looking for diamonds in the rough, waiting for his slew of youngsters to make his voice heard.

1) First of all, who the hell is this Podsednik kid?

Yes, Brandon Webb deserved to win the National League Rookie of the Year. Dontrelle rode his marketable delivery to the first place crown, when he should have been in third. Scott Podsednik came out of the depths of the Seattle Mariners system to finish 11th in the National League batting race.

Podsednik was a third-round choice taken by his hometown Texas Rangers, led by then-GM Doug Melvin. The centerfielder was then traded to the Florida Marlins in a deal for right-handed pitcher Bobby Witt. But Melvin saw the opportunity to reacquire Podsednik through the Rule V draft, bringing him back to Texas after only two seasons away. When Podsednik was given free agency, he signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, a team he would see only twenty-six at-bats with. Instead, Podesednik was sent to Tacoma, where he hit .283 in two seasons. The Mariners then waived the left-handed outfielder, and Melvin acquired him once again, only now with the Milwaukee Brewers.

To Ned Yost, there was no real comparison between Podsednik and Alex Sanchez. Sanchez was a player blessed with natural skills, mainly that of speed. Yet he had a problem: utilizing that talent. Sanchez had been unspectacular both in the field and on the bases with Milwaukee, frustrating coaches and fans alike. Podsednik was a player less naturally blessed, but much more intelligent. He was a good centerfielder, efficient on the bases, and took his pitches at the Major League level. His arrival allowed the team to deal Sanchez to the Detroit Tigers, giving Podsednik the full-time job. He ran with it.

In June, Podsednik hit .373, and got on base at a .453 clip. After struggling through July, Scott was dominant the rest of the year, including a .956 August OPS. On the bases he was caught only three times in the final two months, swiping 21 bases in the process. The Brewers found a throw-back leadoff man on the waiver wire, and should ride on his coattails as long as possible. Podsednik was better than even Ichiro last season, although it’s smart to expect modest decline this year. His plate discipline should keep the OBP above .350, enough to fend off Dave Kryznel from the minor leagues.

2) What went so well in a 13-2 August run last year?

Like I said earlier, Milwaukee doesn’t win often, so excuse their jubilation about winning thirteen of fifteen last August. This included a ten-game winning streak, and series wins over the Phillies, Pirates, Reds, and Cubs. One tenth of the season isn’t a lot, but it gives some promise for future success. Examining what went right during this stretch may give us insight on what the Brewers need to turn their bad fortune around.

During these fifteen games, the Brewers had fifteen players take an at-bat. Eric Young was traded early into the streak, Brooks Kieschnick only amassed one at-bat, and Jason Conti only had seven. The other twelve had a batting average of .297 during this time period, and mixed in more than 50 walks. Podsednik had only one game without a hit, scored 18 runs, knocked in 16, and stole ten bases cleanly. Geoff Jenkins had an astounding .458/.527/.979 line to be team MVP over the two weeks. Brady Clark was fantastic in the outfield, and Bill Hall did well up the middle. Here was the lineup over this time span, with H/AB in parentheses:

C - Eddie Perez (6/32)
1B- Richie Sexson (13/54)
2B- Bill Hall (14/43)
SS- Royce Clayton (14/45)
3B- Wes Helms (10/41)
LF- Geoff Jenkins (22/48)
CF- Scott Podsednik (27/63)
RF- Brady Clark (13/38)

And for the bench:

C - Keith Osik (4/22)
OF- John Vander Wal (4/28)
IF- Keith Ginter (6/36)
PH- Mark Smith (4/12)

Of those hitters, Perez, Sexson, Clayton, Osik, Vander Wal, and Smith will not be back this year. While Sexson didn’t appear to have a lot to do with this run, he led the team with twelve walks. Keith Ginter had a similar problem off the bench, with ten walks. Smith was a good pinch hitter, as all four of his hits went for extra bases.

As for the pitching staff, the rotation was Doug Davis (1.31 ERA in 20.2 IP), Wes Obermueller (2.20 in 16.1), Wayne Franklin (2.95 in 18.1), Matt Kinney (3.54 in 20.1), and Ben Sheets (4.61 in 13.2). Davis, a waiver claim from the Toronto Blue Jays, pitched great as a Brewer, including a complete game shutout of the Cubs. Of the bullpen, only Dan Kolb was very good. Glendon Rusch didn’t allow a run in more than four innings, and he’ll be a part of the Texas Ranger staff this year. Luis Vizcaino and Leo Estrella were very unimpressive, and are fighting for spots currently.

All in all, it was good hitting that led the Brewers to a fantastic run in August. The performance of Podsednik, Jenkins, and a few role players, could help Milwaukee win a lot of games. It’s possible the Brewer rotation won’t change, and they will lose the filth from the bullpen. By taking their walks, driving the ball, and getting good work from their starters, Milwaukee won a lot of ballgames. It is Ned Yost’s job to start preaching this philosophy,

3) Who should be playing second base this year?

Not everyday does a second basemen walk up on your doorstop with home run power and patience. But for the Milwaukee Brewers, this has happened, now the problem is identifying it. Keith Ginter was a throw-in for a midseason trade of Mark Loretta in August of 2002, and should have made quite the splash last season. Yet his season went largely unnoticed, as Ned Yost often overlooked his .352 OBP and a 25.1 AB/HR ratio when filling out the lineup card.

Junior Spivey, on the other hand, was big with first impressions. After a 163 AB stint with the 2001 championship team, Spivey became the everyday 2B in 2002. Spivey had a sensational first half that year, hitting .328/.414/.552, and making the All-Star team. But since then, things haven’t been so positive:

Year (Half)    AVG      OBP      SLG
2002 (2nd)    .274     .363     .400
2003 (1st)    .255     .323     .441
2003 (2nd)    .255     .330     .422

The overall impression amongst average baseball fans would be Junior Spivey is a much better option than Keith Ginter, but Spivey will struggle to match the .257/.352/.427 line that Ginter posted a year ago. Ginter was even better in the second half, hitting nine of his 14 HR after the All-Star break, and increasing his OBP to .363. Ginter’s best comparison is Marcus Giles, a short, 2B/3B patience type that waited to get his chance. Upon doing so, Giles had a fantastic 2003, batting .316 with 72 extra-base hits.

Whomever plays second base in 2004 will just be holding the position for top prospect Rickie Weeks, but it’s still important for the Brewers to be developing players. Keith Ginter is younger than Spivey, and unlike Junior, has yet to meet his peak. The Brewers recently signed Ginter to a three-year deal for under two million dollars, possibly clearing the way for a Spivey trade.

4) Will Ben Sheets ever live up to expectations?

In the 1999 draft, the Oakland Athletics had a tough decision in the ninth spot. Barry Zito or Ben Sheets. Zito was the big southpaw from a big school with a big curve. Sheets was on the small side, went to the tiny Northeast-Louisiana, but a great fastball/curve combination. Billy Beane ended up going with Zito, and for the A’s, the rest is history. But the Brewers, who chose Sheets with the next pick, have been left unfulfilled, as Sheets has a career 4.43 ERA.

As a rookie in 2001, Sheets fell to the same pitfalls that many young pitchers do: too many walks and not enough strikeouts. The stuff that had made Sheets an Olympic legend did not impress Major League hitters, who took Sheets deep 23 times in 151.1 innings. Sheets improved in nearly all areas his Sophomore season, except his hit rates. The ERA fell to a career low 4.15, and he struck out 170 batters. Sheets was a prime breakout candidate for the 2003 season, and Brewer brass was licking their lips.

But needless to say, Ben Sheets did not drop jaws last season. His H/9 and K/BB were a career best, but his ERA rose back up to 4.45. I attribute this to a rising HR total, as Sheets simply hangs too many curveballs. This is a chart of Sheets peripherals thus far in the Majors:

Year     H/9    HR/9     K/9    K/BB
2001    9.57    1.37    5.59    1.96
2002    9.84    0.87    7.06    2.43
2003    9.46    1.18    6.40    3.65

There has been legitimate improvement from Sheets each season, leaving hope for the future. Sheets is under the tutelage of Mike Maddux, one of the league’s up and coming pitching coaches. If Ben could lower his hit rates a little further than he could become a very good pitcher, though it’s doubtful he’ll ever reach what Baseball America called, “a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher the Brewers will build around.”

5) What should we expect from the infield of the future?

Who’s the best first base prospect in baseball? Prince Fielder. The best second base prospect? Rickie Weeks. It’s this right side the Brewers will look to build around, a pair ranked 1 and 1a on any Brewer list. But the Brewers also have a pair of prospects, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart, that are expected to man the left side. Are these prospects for real, and more importantly, what can we expect of them as Brewers?

Only eight first basemen in the last twenty-five years have a career slugging percentage above .500 while batting from the left side. Four of them were college baseball players, not playing professional ball when they were nineteen. The other half were playing baseball at 19: Jim Thome, Carlos Delgado, Ryan Klesko, and Fred McGriff. The latter three played in low-A during this point of their life, just like Prince Fielder.

Surprisingly, it was Carlos Delgado who showed the least amount of power in low-A, only managing a .458SLG that year. Prince Fielder was the next lowest at .526, sitting right behind McGriff (.529) and Ryan Klesko (.571). Both Klesko and McGriff finished the year in high-A, but the Brewers did not choose that route, letting Fielder stay to win the Midwest League MVP. It’s thought that Fielder will jump to AA next year, jumping back on the Klesko-McGriff route. Klesko did fairly well at AA (.291-14-67 in 419), while McGriff struggled horribly. Though Delgado only played in the high-A Florida State League, it was his age 20 season in which he broke out, smacking both thirty home runs and doubles.

Klesko, fittingly the heaviest of the Major Leaguers, seems to be the best comp for Fielder. I expect Fielder to outhit Klesko though, as Ryan could not have been helped from the injuries he received from playing the outfield. Fielder is one of the best prospects in the game, and nearly a lock for a 30HR per year player.

Only nine second basemen have ever coupled twenty home runs with twenty stolen bases, and only five have done this multiple times. Rickie Weeks, the Brewer #2 overall choice last June, projects to do this in the big leagues after a .500/.619/.987 season at Southern University. Craig Burley, our in-house college statistician here at The Hardball Times, ranked Weeks as having the third best hitting season last year, trailing only Jeremy Cleveland and Michael Aubrey.

So who does Weeks profile to be similar to? Six right-handed second basemen had a 20/20 season, with Ryne Sandberg and Craig Biggio leading the pack with three. Alfonso Soriano (twice), Juan Samuel, Davey Lopes, and Damion Easley also accomplished the feat. In my opinion, Weeks will fall somewhere in between Sandberg and Biggio, either smacking more than thirty home runs annually or becoming a sensational leadoff hitter. Believe it or not, things could be worse in Milwaukee.

Next is J.J. Hardy. “There is nothing spectacular about J.J. Hardy’s numbers,” said our own Aaron Gleeman, resounding the thoughts of most prospect mavens who all can’t seem to keep Hardy out of the top 30. Gleeman goes on to say, “Hardy doesn’t look like a future superstar to me, but he should be a very solid all-around player.” This seems to be the consensus opinion on Hardy, a man no one can seem to talk down.

Last year J.J. Hardy hit .279 at AA, smacking 38 extra-base hits, and showing his patience with a 1.074 BB/K ratio. Player B, Jay Bell, hit .277 in his AA season, hitting 39 extra-base hits and walking to the tune of a 1.338 BB/K. These are extremely telling numbers, and not particularly damaging to Hardy’s reputation. Bell was always a solid player, and the Brewers will be lucky to have his second coming in their lineup.

Finally, let me close by saying that the Brewers overrate 3B prospect Corey Hart. Wes Helms showed similar contact and power skills at Hart’s age and level, but didn’t even struggle to Hart’s extent with walks and strikeouts. Maybe the Brewers shouldn’t be in such a hurry to replace Helms, they’re just replacing him with himself.

Klesko, Sandberg, Bell, and Helms? Hey, it beats Overbay, Spivey, Counsell, and Helms for sure.

In Closing…

Milwaukee will continue to be bad in 2004, but may not finish in last place. If Doug Davis, Ben Sheets, Dan Kolb, Scott Podsednik, and Geoff Jenkins continue on their success, the Brewers should overtake the Cincinnati Reds for fifth place. Doug Melvin should consider trading Junior Spivey, and also explore the possibility of trading Craig Counsell. My lineup choice would be:

C - Chad Moeller
1B- Lyle Overbay
2B- Keith Ginter
SS- Bill Hall
3B- Wes Helms
LF- Ben Grieve/Brady Clark
CF- Scott Podsednik
RF- Geoff Jenkins

Any team with players like Fielder and Weeks coming up the system have a positive future. Melvin is also building a considerable amount of depth, and possesses the fifth selection in this year’s draft. This organization is about to add one more top-notch player, and will be heard from soon.

Having the Chicago Cubs in this division will likely prevent the Brewers from winning any division titles down the road, unless Milwaukee can find management willing to spend big money. The Brewers should be competing for the Wild Card in five years, but Milwaukee fans are used to waiting.

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