Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part I, B - The Brewers
by Derek Smart
Yesterday, we looked at the Brewers still questionable, but improving offense. Today, we wrap up their preview with a look at the Crew's starting pitchers, bullpen and bench.
In yet another case of the damning with the fainting and the praising (glavin!), Ben Sheets entered the 2004 season as the unquestioned ace of a Brewer pitching staff that looked as flammable as a man sweating gasoline at a Zippo convention. In previous years, Sheets was simply a young pitcher with a lot of potential who would occasionally show you the goods, only to revert to being right around league average.
Last season changed that, and unfortunately for the rest of the division, the transformation looks permanent. I think it's nearly impossible to exaggerate the magnitude and totality of the improvements he made. Here's a little breakdown of his career just to prove the point.
The fun thing about this is that you can see the seed being planted in 2003 when he cut his walk rate by over 40%. He was then able to consolidate those gains, even improve on them a bit, and take the rest of his game up a notch as well. The only number in 2004 that isn't a career best is his home run rate, but as long as he gives up less than one per nine, who really cares?
Of course, I only saw Sheets when he threw against the Cubs, so with such a huge improvement it seemed like a good idea to ask Al Bethke of Al's Ramblings what he saw, and if he thinks it's a new level of performance or just a flash in the pan.
Ben finally broke through into the next level, probably a combination of consistency, intelligence, and confidence. Also, it's been several years since he had village idiot Dave Stewart telling him the best way to win was to give the other team free baserunners by pitching around them. If healthy, 2005 should be a very good year for Ben.
No doubt, Sheets was one of the game's elite pitchers last year, despite sporting a losing record, and there's no reason to think he'll be anything less in 2005. He's only 26, and while the realization of his potential was sudden, realized it is. All signs point to his being a staff anchor in Milwaukee, or somewhere else, for years to come.
The man assured of the second spot in the rotation is the ever unlikely, Doug Davis. Before joining the Brewers in the second half of 2003, there was nothing in his career to suggest that he should be a rotation regular, let alone a number two starter. However, upon going to Milwaukee, Davis threw 52.1 innings of 2.58 ball - easily his best stretch in a Major League uniform.
I guess there's something in the water up I-94, because there's a huge difference between what Davis did in and out of Beertown.
Same as with Ben Sheets, everything's better lately. It could be the preponderance of hops in the vicinity (I know hops do wonders for my outlook), but I wouldn't be surprised if a decent amount of credit deserved to be placed at the feet of pitching coach Mike Maddux. He came on board in November of 2002, which coincides nicely with Sheet's walk rate reduction, and conveniently places him in the position for all of Davis' tenure with the Crew. Perhaps that's reading too much into it, but it makes at least a modicum of sense.
In any case, whoever's responsible, be it Maddux, Davis himself, or some combination thereof, the fact is that Dougie D's been a different (read: valuable) pitcher for the Brewers, and while he might not be a prototypical top of the rotation guy, he'll certainly do for now.
Starter number three will be Victor Santos, a job handed to him based in large part on his very solid Pre All-Star performance - 8-3 with a 4.08 ERA over 81.2 IP. The problem, of course, is that after the All-Star break Santos got lit like a noir dame's smoke, sporting a 5.97 ERA over 72.1 IP - a figure which fails to account for the 10 unearned runs he coughed up.
The issue at it's root was that Santos was hit, not only more often, but significantly harder. Sure, he managed to slightly lower his walk rate, but a moderate decline in his strikeout rate cancelled that out, and all that we're left with is the rise in his opponent's batting average from .269 to .288, and worst of all, the huge increase in home runs surrendered.
His mere 5 jacks allowed in the first half were excellent, and project to just over 12 in 200 innings - numbers that any pitcher would be proud of. Too bad it didn't last, as the second half saw a whopping 13 balls leave the yard, which 200 innings would balloon to 36. Curt Schilling gave up 37 big flies in 2001 and still managed an ERA under 3.00, but he also threw over 250 innings, struck out more than a man per frame and only gave free passes at gunpoint. As Lloyd Bentson might have said, Mr. Santos, you're no Curt Schilling.
The Brewers feel that fatigue played a role in his poor showing late, and if a man like Santos who relies a lot on his curve balls gets tired, a logical result is a lot of hangers turning into long, slow trips around the basepaths. If he can stay strong all year, he has a shot at being helpful, but he simply doesn't have the skillset (few walks, many strikeouts) to be able to give up 25+ homers a year and still be effective.
The last two spots are more wide open, but there appear to be a couple of favorites. First is Chris Capuano, the young left-hander who should be one of the more permanent parts acquired by the Brewers in the Richie Sexson deal. Like Santos, he had a nice run of it in the first half of the year before getting hit pretty hard in July and getting positively shellacked in his four August starts.
Oddly enough, that August stint saw a nice K/BB of 20/6, his best in any month, but that doesn't do you much good if you give up 25 hits and 6 homers in 17 innings. He was shut down with a sore elbow the day after giving up 7 runs in an inning and a third against the Cubs in Wrigley, and while he appears to be healthy coming into this year, the elbow has to be a little troubling, especially considering that Capuano is a relatively recent Tommy John survivor. Still, if he shows no signs of continuing issues and is fairly effective this spring, he's likely to get the nod.
The other favorite looks to be Ben Hendrickson, a right-hander who bears a resemblance to the Cubs' Jason Dubois in that he has nothing left to prove in the minors, yet has his case for a job this season hurt by relative youth and a lack of production in the Majors. Of course, the difference is that Hendrickson can earn a job with a solid spring, where Dubois would likely have to hit a home run each time at bat, with every blast leaving a trail of magical gold coins behind it - a situation which has more to do with who makes the decisions than it does with what they have to choose from.
There are four other pitchers likely fighting for a starting spot. Jorge De La Rosa made five starts last season, and it looks like he still needs some time in AAA; Jose Capellan came over in the Dan Kolb deal, and while he's probably the most talented pitcher likely to throw for the Brewers in 2005 outside of Ben Sheets, there are also questions about whether he'd be better suited for the bullpen; Wes Obermueller will be 28 this year and has yet to have anything you could refer to as success above AA, so if he's starting, something's wrong; finally, Rick Helling was brought in on an NRI, and if the Brewers know what's good for them, they'll make sure that in Helling's case, NRI stands for Never Really Interested.
With Dan Kolb being shipped to the Braves before he got a) expensive and b) pumpkinesque, the closer's "position" is an open question, with the most likely answer being Mike Adams. Last year was his first in The Show, and he acquitted himself well, sporting a 3.40 ERA in 53 IP, while giving up only 50 hits with a respectable 39/14 K/BB ratio. He's exactly the sort of option a team with limited financial resources like the Brewers should be entertaining for a role that is consistently overpriced in the marketplace.
Also in the hunt is Ricky Bottalico, which just goes to show you how long a label like "closer" can stick. The bad news here is that he hasn't had a good season as the last man in the pen since 1997 with the Phillies, and he's the survivor of a torn labrum sustained in 2002. The good news is, he had a nice little season with the Mets last year, posting his lowest ERA - 3.38 - since he first became the Phillies closer in 1996.
He struck out nearly a man an inning and had low hit and home run rates, which is great, but if there's something that will torpedo his bid it's the control issues which have been a part of his game since the beginning of his career. However, even if he doesn't close, he should be able to fill the void left by the inclusion of Luis Vizcaino in the deal for Carlos Lee, and at $500K less, to boot.
A part of the Keith Ginter deal, Justin Lehr will be getting a look as well. Lehr did a nice job closing in Sacramento for a time last year, only to fall on his face a bit when called up to Oakland. He gets a decent but not huge number of strikeouts and has decent but not great control, but the thing he looks to do very well indeed, especially since being moved to the pen in 2002, is keep the ball in the park. That's a nice skill in a reliever, especially if he sees a lot of other people's baserunners. He looks like a longshot to finish games, but if he throws well, could find himself doing some setup work before the year's out.
There's some slipshod mixed with some solid among the rest of the pen denizens, and the former is abundantly clear when looking at who on the Brewer roster might be tasked with facing port-siders. Options range from the unready (Sam Narron and Jeff Housman), to the unpleasant (NRIs Rigo Beltran and Tommy Phelps), to the unthinkable (Andy Pratt). Remarkably, the Brewers did not have a single left-handed pitcher appear in relief last season, and it looks like that may be their best option for 2005.
The rest of the likely pen-men are Matt Wise, former Rule 5er Jeff Bennett, Gary Glover, and the man who is fast becoming my favorite non-Cub player, two-way phenomenon, Brooks Kieschnick. Wise and Kieschnick are locks, while a bad spring could send Bennett to Indianapolis now that his Rule 5 obligation is done, and a good spring could theoretically send Glover to the rotation, although it would probably take disastrous starts from Capuano and Hendrickson to make that come about.
This is where things get muddy because of nebulous situations with some starting positions, and simple lack of options at others. Most of the infield bench is already accounted for, with whomever doesn't start out of Russ Branyan, Wes Helms, and maybe even NRI Jeff Cirillo playing more sporadically, or possibly in a platoon.
Bill Hall is nearly a lock for more pine time, mainly because it would take a complete horror show to keep J.J. Hardy from getting the bulk of the innings, and there aren't any other viable options at shortstop to be found.
While he started last year, all Chad Moeller did was prove how terribly unsuited he was to playing the majority of the time anywhere for anyone. He's been better than he was last year, but always in more limited duty, and that's what he has to look forward to now that Damian Miller is in the fold.
The area of true uncertainty is among the backup outfielders. Looking at the roster and the NRIs, there are only three reasonable options available: Corey Hart, Dave Krynzel, and NRI Chris Magruder. Hart and Krynzel are young, and while Hart probably has the least to prove, he's also the best candidate to be a regular down the road, so the Brewers might not want him wasting away on the bench. Krynzel is also a better option than either Hart or Magruder as a backup in center, so it looks to me like Krynzel will get the nod, and a good spring will land a spot for Magruder as well.
The addition of Carlos Lee, and even of Damian Miller, should make the offense less of an issue in 2005, but it won't be good enough to make up the difference if some of the questions in the Milwaukee rotation aren't answered in a useful manner. There's some potential in the bullpen, even if it is a bit thin, and the bench looks to be fairly solid on the infield, but downright uncertain in the outfield. Still, it would be shocking if the team didn't improve on their 67-94 record last year.
The Brewers aren't ready to break out yet, but they'll take another step forward this season, perhaps even nudging into the top half of the division. Granted, a lot would have to go right for that to happen, but the Crew looks like they're in a better position for the long term than a lot of the NL Central, and that's something to which all Milwaukeeans can drink a toast.