Five Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

In 2005, the constant mentions of the future finally became discussions of the present, as the Brewers finished the season with 81 wins, 14 more than 2004. The season also ended a decade-plus string of sub-.500 results. Many key components expected to lead the Brewers to the next level, including all-world prospects Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder, assisted in the improvement. In 2006, they will be asked to take the Crew to the next level: playoff contention.

1. How good can these kids, Weeks and Fielder, be?

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being a guest on David Pinto’s Baseball Musings radio show. Dave asked me if I felt Fielder could be as good as his father, noted Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder. I answered honestly that I’d be disappointed if Fielder “only” had the career of his dad. Dave chuckled softly, then realized I was serious, that I felt this 21-year-old kid had the potential to be as good as any power hitter to ever play the game, never mind his father, Cecil, a fine slugger in his day.

Meanwhile, Weeks’ quick hands and compact swing have been compared to former BrewersPaul Molitor and Gary Sheffield; Molitor’s in the Hall of Fame, and Sheffield likely will be. Weeks is thought to be a 30/30 candidate when he reaches his prime, and many forecasts have Fielder hitting 30-35 home runs this season.

Of course, neither is a top defender right now. Fielder is surprisingly agile for a man of his size, but he will never be confused with Keith Hernandez. Weeks has all the physical tools to be a defensive wizard, but despite many fine plays made possible by his range and strong arm, he was weak in his rookie campaign, bobbling grounders and often taking odd routes to the ball. Weeks is mentioned as a candidate to move to the outfield, but he will be given every chance to make it as a middle infielder, where his offensive contributions would be even more above the norm.

2. The everyday lineup seems to lack a superstar run producer, don’t you think?

I agree, though not many teams have a Pujols, ARod, or Bonds. What they lack in excellence, however, they would seem to make up for in the lack of easy outs. Fans have been debating the merits of their preferred batting orders this month on message boards, and the many possibilities seem to show the depth this team has in every spot of the lineup.

Neither Fielder nor Weeks appears ready to break out, but neither should be anywhere near below average at the plate. J.J. Hardy enters his second year at shortstop healthy, and he looks ready to blossom. After an abysmal start in 2005, Hardy returned to his former batting stance and style in late May, and the results were instantaneous, as he put up a .343 OBP/.432 SLG the rest of the way. Corey Koskie was injury-plagued in his north-of-the-border debut, but it seems likely that he’ll return to near his career norms, especially considering he won’t have to face many southpaws. That will be left to Bill Hall, who had a huge offensive year, .342 OBP/.495 SLG, and looks to platoon with Koskie at third base, while also backing up Weeks and Hardy.

The outfield of Carlos Lee, Brady Clark, and Geoff Jenkins was solid and sturdy last season. Lee played all 162 games, and he faded as the game count got higher, the reverse of his career pattern. Clark, finally getting a chance to play everyday for the first time at 32, took advantage of the opportunity, hitting .306 and getting on base at a .372 clip. Jenkins got off to a slow start, but he warmed with the weather, ending with a .375 OBP/.513 SLG, and he played through the pain as well, as he finished out the season playing with a fractured pelvis. They should get a bit more rest in 2006, as youngster Corey Hart is primed to be the fourth outfielder. Hart has shown fine power and speed in the minors, and he is finally filling out his 6’6″ frame.

Damian Miller returned to his home state and produced just as hoped, while remaining steady behind the plate.

3. But, you know, 90% of the game is pitching, so how does the mound corps look?

First of all, I challenge your mathematical skills, but we’ll save that for another time.

Any discussion of Brewers pitching begins with the right arm of Ben Sheets. Sheets has been plagued by a strained muscle in his back, both in 2005 and again in Arizona this month. Early rehab results have been good, though he may not be ready for the opener. The rest of the rotation is surprisingly deep: Doug Davis, Chris Capuano (bar-bet alert, possibly the least-known 18-game winner of the past couple decades), Tomo Ohka, and David Bush (picked up as part of the trade that sent Lyle Overbay to Toronto and opened first base for Fielder). This is exactly the opposite of previous rotations, assembled based on decent performances in the month of March versus opposing minor leaguers, whose success, not surprisingly, failed to carry over to the regular season.

The bullpen is loaded with Doug Melvin reclamation projects, which has become a consistent pattern of the general manager, since taking over the reigns late in 2002. Closer Derrick Turnbow (waiver claim) was almost perfect in 2005, with a 1.74 ERA and 39 saves. Set-up man Matt Wise (minor league free agent) will be joined by Dan Kolb, re-signed after a year with the Braves, after being traded last offseason for Jose Capellan. The rest of the bullpen will come from lefty Jorge de la Rosa, who despite 95-plus mph velocity and a dynamic breaking ball has been inconsistent, and veteran Rick Helling, who was spectacular in 2005.

4. No offense, but how do you expect this team of youngsters and castoffs to contend in 2006?

Doug Melvin stated on a radio show that the stat guy the team uses has this team winning 88 games in 2006, so if they stay healthy, contention is certainly within reach. That said, this is a team that can lose any position player (except Miller) and not suffer a dramatic falloff, as both Hall (2B/SS/3B) and Corey Hart (1B/OF) are young players capable of outproducing the injured players they’d replace.

The rotation had six serious contenders, and the bullpen is so deep that de la Rosa, who would be thrust into many rebuilding starting staffs on potential alone, may not earn a spot on the 25-man roster. Despite success in partial seasons in Milwaukee last year, the same can be said of both Justin Lehr and Kane Davis, two right-handed relievers who are not guaranteed a job. The 2006 team may have the most depth of any in 35 years of team history, and that’s not even mentioning the fine minor league system.

Also, owner Mark Attanasio is as much a fan as he is an owner, and he has repeatedly said there is no limit on payroll if a move is needed to take that next step. I have to believe he is being truthful, and if the team is within five games of a playoff spot in late July, they have the mid-level prospects that might actually allow the Beermakers to be buyers at the trading deadline for the first time in a couple decades.

5. What’s that? They still have kids in the minors, despite all who have made the jump? Who might help out this year?

Yep. While the only one who can be compared to Weeks or Fielder is Ryan Braun, a third baseman drafted just last June, whose earliest arrival date is probably July 2007, the farm system is still loaded, ranked fifth in MLB by the gurus at Baseball America. (Though, in fairness, they still include Fielder and Hart.) The Triple-A rotation will include a minimum of three true prospects, left-handers Zach Jackson and Dana Eveland and right-hander Dennis Sarfate, any of whom might be given a chance in 2006.

Outfielder Nelson Cruz will be tried in center field in Triple-A Nashville, and Tony Gwynn, Jr. is unlikely to ever hit like his dad, but his speed and defense translate well to the bigs in a reserve role at minimum. First baseman and outfielder Brad Nelson is still young, but he could help out if he’s able to make the transition to Triple-A. Reliever Mike Adams is a safe bet to return to 2004 form as well, after suffering through an inconsistent, injury-plagued 2005.

In conclusion, it would seem to be a fine time to be a Brewers fan. While you may doubt whether or not they have what it takes to contend in 2006, they have a nucleus of young talent that should continue to improve over the next few seasons. Not only do they have a nice mix of proven talent and soon-to-be-contributing prospects, they have a loaded and deep minor league system. With GM Doug Melvin and Manager Ned Yost both recently signed to multi-year extensions, the leadership is in place. Good health and a couple players performing at levels above what you’d expect might be just enough to keep the 2006 version in the mix through the final weekend.

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