And now, after a month, I finally get to my beloved Milwaukee Brewers.
It's been a long time since expectations have been this high in Milwaukee. Last year the Brewers ended a long stretch of terrible play, finally getting over the .500 mark for the first time in many years. And there's a lot of reason for optimism -- there's a lot of good young talent taking the field for the True Blue Brew Crew. But I still remember the sage words of my college friend John Ed Kelley, who said "you need two things. You need pitching, and you need management." And those are the two things I worry about in thinking about my Brewers.
The everyday lineup should score a lot of runs. You would be hard pressed to find a better offensive infield than the one the Brewers will send out this year. Prince Fielder had a monster year last year and is poised for another. In one of the most interesting moves of the offseason, the portly Fielder announced that he has become a vegetarian. Around the same time, worldwide commodity prices spiked. Coincidence? I think not. The guy can flat hit, though, and he's better than you think defensively. He hit 50 homers last year and could easily do it again. At second, Rickie Weeks is coming off an iffy year but it's worth remembering that of all the young stars that have come through the Brewers system, he was the most highly regarded not that long ago. The guess here is that he'll hit at least .280 and will pop 20-25 homers, which are outstanding numbers for a second basemen. Shortstop J.J. Hardy became a star last season and there's little reason to believe that he'll fall off much this year. At third, the Ryan Braun experiment is over and steady Bill Hall takes over. Hall hit 35 homers in 2006 but fell off last season as he attempted to learn the outfield. He may not hit 35 this time, but 25-30 is quite possible. The reserves are steady veteran Craig Counsell and Joe Dillon, who is poised to take over at second should Weeks falter.
In the outfield, talent abounds as well. Braun will move to left field, which is probably the best position for him on a National League team. Braun demonstrated awesome power in his rookie season, hitting over 30 homers. He should be able to duplicate that. In right, Corey "Sunglasses At Night" Hart is a budding star as well. He's a guy who could easily hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases. In center, the eventual starter will be veteran Mike Cameron, who will begin the season serving a 25 game suspension. In the interim, look for the promising Tony Gwynn Jr. to start. In reserve the Brewers have two reliable guys named Gabe - Gross and Kapler, respectively. Both are experienced professionals and Gross has been a reliable pinch hitter.
Catching is in the hands of offseason acquisition Jason Kendall, who has been one of the better catchers in baseball for the past decade. It's not clear how much Kendall has left in his tank, but he should be serviceable or better.
So far, so good. But that's not pitching or management. And here's where I get concerned.
The starting rotation has a chance to be very good. Ben Sheets is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball, but he appears to be made of porcelain. He has broken down nearly every season in his career. When he's on, he's dominant. But he needs to stay healthy if the Brewers are going to contend. Jeff Suppan is a very good #4 pitcher in a rotation. The problem in Milwaukee is that he's the #2. He's a solid, wily veteran who was a huge part of the the championship team in St. Louis in 2006. Last year he was adequate. He'll have to be better. Dave Bush is a marginal guy whom you'd like to replace, but in this rotation he's currently #3. Like Suppan, he gets by primarily on guile. That may work but you always wonder. Three younger pitchers wait in the wings. Lefthander Manny Parra showed flashes of brilliance last year and may turn out to be especially important, while righthander Carlos Villanueva also pitched well down the stretch. These two will fill the final spots in the rotation for now, while the talented Yovanni Gallardo gets healthy. If Gallardo comes back soon and pitches up to his ability, things could get a lot better for the Brew Crew.
Then there's the bullpen, whose two key performers were prominently mentioned in the Mitchell Report. Prospective closer Eric Gagne was a dominant pitcher for the Dodgers earlier in the decade, but was injured a few years ago and has only shown flashes of his former brilliance. If he can manage to be even 85% of what he once was, the Brewers will be fine. But you wonder if he was a product of pharmaceuticals. Turnbow has been great at times and awful other times. He's probably best suited for the setup role, where he'll be able to pump 98 mile-an-hour fastballs without the game being on the line. He too was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. The rest of the pen consists of veterans who have been through all this before, with varying levels of success. The aptly named David Riske was a contributor in Cleveland but was available for a reason. Salomon Torres comes over from the Pirates and is a fairly reliable guy, while Guillermo Mota has had his moments as well, but has never been a great pitcher. Seth McClung is nothing special and lefty Brian Shouse is adequate.
Then there's the manager. Ned Yost seemed to melt down at the end of last season. I've heard widely varying opinions about Yost, but he has to be viewed with suspicion until he coaches a winner.
The primary rival for the Brew Crew in the Central should be this guy's beloved Chicago Cubs, who are defending their title and look to have a pretty good team again this year. I think the Brewers have more overall talent, but the Cubs have a proven winner in manager Lou Piniella. That may be the difference. No matter what the result turns out to be, this season will be a lot of fun.