Five questions: Milwaukee Brewers

It’s official: The Brewers can’t be a sleeper pick anymore. After a slow and unsteady climb from the basement to contention, Milwaukee finally put a team in the playoffs. The postseason appearance didn’t last long, but it does mean we can stop saying “1982” all the time.

It would be nice to look at the 2008 Wild Card winners and see the beginning of a dynasty. The cast has changed too much for that, with last year’s closer and top two starters off the team. All is not lost, as a full season of Yovani Gallardo and newcomer Trevor Hoffman will pick up some of the slack. Of all the teams that made the 2008 postseason, though, the Brewers might be the one that looks least likely to repeat.

1. Can Yovani Gallardo make 100 starts?

Last year, Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia combined for 48 starts, 329 innings, a 24-11 record, and an ERA around 2.50. With those two guys making up 30 percent of the team’s outings, it’s no surprise the rotation’s overall ERA was second-best in the league. This year, Sheets is injured and Sabathia’s a Yankee.

That puts a lot of pressure on de facto ace Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo had an excellent half-season as a 21-year-old in 2007, then lost most of 2008 to injury. The team has been careful not to appoint him ace, savior, or only hope, but if the Brewers are to come anywhere close to 90 wins again this year, he will have to be all of those things.

Gallardo will leave far too many starts for guys like Jeff Suppan to make, but 180 innings across 30 starts isn’t out of the question. He suffered a knee injury, so he doesn’t face nearly the same risk that other pitchers coming off of serious injuries do. He’s certainly capable of handling the full-season load, having thrown 188 innings in 2007 and 155 the year before.

How he’ll perform is a more difficult question. Brewers fans tend to take his top-of-the-rotation promise for granted (at least I do, anyway), but he has only seen 135 innings of MLB action. CHONE projects him for a 3.50 ERA based on that impressive ’07 line and a solid minor league track record. I’d take that.

2. If you have more fifth starters than any other team, do you get an automatic postseason berth?

While the marquee value (get it? fifth starter?) of the rotation has taken a major hit since October, it’s not as bad as it looks. Suppan is a really expensive fifth starter and Braden Looper is a less expensive fifth starter. But Dave Bush and Manny Parra are something else entirely.

Parra, like Gallardo, is a key to the Brewers 2009 hopes. He amassed 166 innings last year, more than any previous season in his injury-riddled pro career. Through July 25, he threw 113 innings with a 3.72 ERA. He only managed two quality starts from that point on, eventually pitching his way out of the rotation before the end of the year. His late fade is certainly understandable, and the Brewers have to hope that at age 26, he’ll have the durability to stay strong through August and September. If he accomplishes that, he’ll be a credible #2 behind Gallardo.

By contrast, durability is not the problem for Dave Bush. He gives off a back-rotation vibe, but for most of his career, he’s been better than that. Last year, despite a dreadful start (his ERA was still over 6.00 at the end of May, after nine starts), he recovered with a 3.43 ERA the rest of the way. Net result: above league-average performance. More than Gallardo or Parra, he’s a good bet to make 30+ starts and throw close to 200 innings.

Adding to the bona-fide “fifth starter” ranks are a small army of guys headed to Nashville or the bullpen. Seth McClung will undertake a swing role again this year, while former starter Carlos Villanueva appears slated for set-up duty. At Triple-A, the rotation will include the rehabbing Chris Capuano, recent pickups Nick Green and Chase Wright, and roster fodder Chris Narveson and Matt Ginter. Nobody there is going to threaten for a big-league rotation spot, but when injury strikes, they should be adequate to prevent disaster.

3. Who’s on third?

No, I Don’t Know is at third. Bill Hall is the presumptive starter, but as it did last year, a platoon may emerge. Hall is right-handed and has established that his team is best off starting him against as many lefties (and Reds) as possible.

While it’s still not clear who will end up on the 25-man roster, new manager Ken Macha has options if he decides to platoon Hall. In camp are lefties Craig Counsell, Mike Lamb, and Brad Nelson, none of whom are good at both hitting and fielding, but any of whom might be a better option against right-handed pitching than Hall. Depending on how much Counsell is needed at second base and shortstop, he may end up with the most playing time at third base, while a hot streak from Lamb could put the former Astro more heavily in the mix.

The highest-upside option is top prospect Mat Gamel, another lefty bat. Like with Ryan Braun two years ago, there are few questions about his offense. The usual question about his fielding, though, is, “Where will he play when he’s moved off third?” As with Braun, the Brewers are giving Gamel every chance to prove he can man the hot corner, and he’ll continue to make that effort when he opens the 2009 season in Nashville.

4. Speaking of defense, aren’t the Brewers awful in the field?

They were. Now they’re pretty darn good. One of Doug Melvin’s top priorities in the 2007-08 offseason was to improve the defense, and by the handy measure of defensive efficiency, he was remarkably successful. In ’07, 31.2% of opponents’ batted balls went for hits (4th worst in the NL), while in ’08, that number dropped to 28.9% (2nd best).

At least some of the reasons for that are obvious. When the Crew signed Mike Cameron, the dominoes started falling, moving Hall back to the infield and Braun to left. J.J. Hardy has long provided solid glovework at shortstop, and even Rickie Weeks may be improving. Prince Fielder is the sole regular with little hope of turning in an average-or-better season in the field.

Since, with the possible exception of third base, the defensive alignment is unchanged, it’s reasonable to expect that the Crew will once again turn batted balls into outs at a better-than-average rate. Up-and-coming defensive stud shortstop Alcides Escobar is knocking at the door, and while his emergence may make things complicated from a roster- and ego-management perspective, his glove could make the defense even better.

5. What, another new bullpen?

This was Melvin’s other top priority a year ago. Unlike his results with the defense, he wasn’t successful. The Brewers had the most expensive bullpen in the league last year, and with the exception of a few million bucks for Salomon Torres, it was money poorly spent. The relievers as a whole weren’t bad, but some of the strongest contributions came from the guys making a measly six figures.

This year, there’s no Torres, no Eric Gagne, no Guillermo Mota, not even Brian Shouse. Filling the “guy with a lot of career saves” roster spot is Trevor Hoffman, and David Riske will return to try to look more like the elite set-up man Melvin thought he signed last year. After that, it’s scrap heap-o-rama.

While he has struggled in the rotation, Carlos Villanueva has typically had success in the ‘pen, and he’ll pitch in the late innings. Taking over the LOOGY role from Shouse, at least in April, will be homegrown Mitch Stetter. Filling out the ‘pen will be some combination of Todd Coffey, Mark DiFelice, Jorge Julio, and, if he’s not needed in the rotation, Seth McClung.

In short, it looks like Melvin learned a lesson or two from trying to solve last offseason’s problem with briefcases full of cash. Cash is a great way to ensure the loyalty of team bloggers, but not always the best way to handle the 7th inning. $6 million for Hoffman is, at least in part, a nod to conventional wisdom, but the rest of the bullpen reflects a recognition of reliever volatility and his own ability to find diamonds in the roughs of the waiver wire and indy leagues.

Bonus question: This is more question marks than last year, isn’t it?

It’s tough to see the 2009 Brewers squad winning 90 games again. Then again, looking at the April ’08 roster knowing what we know now about some of those players ($10MM closer Eric Gagne, ladies and gentlemen!), it’s tough to believe that team won 90 games, either.

With Fielder, Hardy, Hart, and others moving closer to free agency, Gallardo and Parra still developing, and Escobar, Gamel, and perhaps Jeremy Jeffress forcing their way into the team’s plans, history may see this as a transitional year for the Crew. The current roster looks for all the world like an 85-win team, which makes some of that uncertainty a little more desirable. Plenty could go wrong, but if luck is in Milwaukee’s corner, it could mean a second consecutive playoff appearance.

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