Finally, a few words about the True Blue Brew Crew.
It's been 15 years since the Brewers have had a winning record and 25 since they made their only appearance in the World Series. That's a long stretch of futility. Plenty of fine players have come and gone through Milwaukee during the long drought, but the Brewers have always seemed to be short of something - a power bat, defensive acumen, starting pitching. The current braintrust in Milwaukee has been slowly adding talent for years. Last year it looked like things were going to change, but somehow there was yet another epic mid-season collapse. So should we have any expectations in 2007?
Sure. Why not. They are playing baseball in Florida and Arizona right now. This is the time of optimism. And there are reasons for optimism in Milwaukee.
The Brewers should have a good overall lineup. Prince Fielder appears ready to assert himself as a star at first base, showing the tremendous power from that is a family trademark. He is also surprisingly nimble at first base. Rickie Weeks has tremendous talent, but the 2nd baseman has had a difficult time staying healthy. If he can do it, he's a guy who could/should hit 25-30 homers a year. Shortstop J. J. Hardy is another talented fellow, but he's also had a lot of trouble staying healthy. If he can, he could be a lot like the Twins' Jason Bartlett, except with more power. Third base is where things start to look dicey - Corey Koskie is really struggling with post-concussion syndrome and he may not be able to answer the bell this year, which would mean a platoon of Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino at the hot corner. Both Counsell and Graffanino are well-established major leaguers and utter professionals, but both are also the kind of guy you'd prefer to replace in your lineup.
In the outfield, it appears that the Brew Crew will be sorting through some combination of Geoff Jenkins, Kevin Mench, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Corey Hart around centerfielder Bill Hall. Hall moves to the outfield after a spectacular, nomadic year in the Brewer infield. Hall has a big time bat and should be a good fit in center. Jenkins has served the Brewers long and well for many years, but it looks like he may be running out of gas, just as the team may turn the corner. He may hold a place in Brewer history similar to that of Brian Noble, the fine Packer linebacker whose career ended just as the winning began. Hart is a talented guy and looks like a ballplayer, but he was pretty inconsistent last year. If he is ready to take the next step, he could be a 20-25 homer guy who makes the big plays. Mench is an American League player (read: a DH) but he can hit well enough to get some steady at-bats. At catcher, the Brewers picked up Johnny Estrada from the Diamondbacks. Estrada is a better hitter than the Miller/Moeller combo that has been behind the backstop in recent years, but he's not a long-term solution.
The key, as always, will be pitching. In theory the Brewers should have an excellent rotation. Ben Sheets is a big-time talent who has had his last two seasons wrecked by injuries. The question is whether he will rebound, or is he Kerry Wood North? Chris Capuano had a pretty good year given the lack of support he had last season, and Dave Bush is just fine as a number four or number five starter. New acquisition Jeff Suppan was a key to the Cardinals winning the World Series this year, but he's not a top line starter. If he can give the Brewers 12-13 wins and 200 innings, he'll have accomplished a lot. Claudio Vargas pitched well for the D-backs last season, winning 12 games. The Brewers hope he can duplicate that.
Where things went south last season was in the bullpen. Derrick Turnbow is a massively talented guy who developed a bad case of Steve Blass Disease last year. He became completely ineffective after spending the previous year and one-half blowing away the National League. Turnbow still has great stuff; if he gets his head on straight, he could rebound. Meanwhile, Francisco Cordero did well as Turnbow's replacement and projects as a potentially dominant set up man. The Brewers have other relievers who have pitched fairly well in stretches in the recent past, including Matt Wise, Brian Shouse and Jose Capellan. If these guys hold up, the Brewers may be able to close the door after the sixth inning a lot this year.
So how will the Brewers do? Excellent question. The defending world champions are in their division, but the Cardinals had a puzzling off-season where they let key players like Suppan go. You have to assume they will remain tough, but you wonder. The Astros are rebuilding on the fly and remain a dangerous team, but they don't scare you. The Cubs spent a lot of money in the off-season and I suspect that Alfonso Soriano will be an absolute monster in Wrigley Field. But I've seen Ted Lilly pitch and I don't see him making much of a difference; and, at this point, Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor are more likely to appear on a milk carton than in the Cubs dugout. The Reds are hard to read, too - I suspect they will be hanging around at the end, while the Pirates seem mired in the basement. I do love their ballpark, though. Given their neighors, you could make a credible argument for the Brewers winning the division. You could also make an argument that they will finish fifth. So I'll compromise and predict that they come in third.