Five Questions: Milwaukee Brewers

Last year started out as an optimistic one for the Brewers. This year, the happy thoughts are little more guarded, but they are all the more appropriate.

None of Milwaukee’s offseason moves—signing Jeff Suppan, trading for Claudio Vargas and Johnny Estrada—is a difference-maker by itself, but combined with the growth of a studly young core, the Brewers are ready to make a move.

But, as last year’s team proved, every team has its weak points. There are plenty of changes afoot for the Crew, and fans are left with quite a few questions. Here are five of the most pressing.

1. Can Bill Hall play center field?

Sure he can. After an offseason that included an unfortunate flirtation with Dave Roberts, the Brewers handed Billy the starting job at a new position. He’s taken to it so far. To use a larger sample, Hall was a solid defensive shortstop in 2006, and has always been fast and athletic. Maybe I’m biased, but if I had to take one infielder in baseball and make him my center fielder, I’d pick Hall.

2. Will Ben Sheets stay healthy?

Fingers crossed, knock on wood: He hasn’t missed a spring training start yet. More importantly, the Milwaukee brass hasn’t used the words “precautionary measures” in relation to their ace starter. For all the ups and downs of the last two seasons, Sheets can be a horse: He made 34 starts every year from 2002 to 2004, and he’s still only 28.

Just as meaningful, he’s coming off a very successful partial season. After coming off the DL last year, he made 13 starts, racking up a 3.15 ERA along with 88 Ks and 10 walks in 85 innings. It’ll take another year before Sheets sheds his “injury-prone” label, but the early signs are all positive.

3. Will someone catch a g–d— ball?

The Brewers will be a better defensive team this season, if not exactly stacked with Gold Glovers. J.J. Hardy has a good defensive reputation, and as long as Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino alternate at third base, the left side of the infield will be solid.

The right side is not so rosy: Prince Fielder is merely adequate, and the best you can say about Rickie Weeks is that he’s young and improving. That isn’t great news for the groundball-generating Jeff Suppan, but it is a step in the right direction.

4. What’s going on in left field?

At the moment, Ned Yost appears set on a Geoff Jenkins/Kevin Mench platoon. In the past, Yost has played the hot hand (or at least the hand he perceives as hot), so it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the Menchkins duo get 500 ABs.

The best outcome, though, is a strict platoon. While either Mench or Jenkins could turn in league average performance, both are much stronger against opposite-side pitching. So long as Ned Yost can manage the egos involved, the whole could turn out to be much more productive than the best of its parts.

5. Is Ryan Braun ready?

Like Alex Gordon‘s, his bat would probably play in the majors right now. His glove is another story. He’s made an error for every home run he’s hit this spring, so it’s likely he’ll go back to Triple-A until he tears up the PCL, or until Yost gets tired of having a couple of backup middle infielders manning the hot corner.

Braun may not be the all-around talent that Gordon (or fellow 2005 first-rounder Ryan Zimmerman) is, but his arrival will complete a fearsome young offense, most of which is under the team’s control through 2010. Together with Hall, Fielder, Weeks and Corey Hart, Braun fills out a dream team that will likely withstand its share of E-5s.

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