Greg Peck: Is anything brewing at Milwaukee's spring training camp?
Now that the Badger men's basketball team has done the expected, wrapping up an undisputed Big 10 title, and meteorologists say we really can expect spring-like weather starting this weekend, it's time to consider the prospects of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The team lost its first “real” spring training game, 3-2, Thursday to the Los Angeles Angels. But that's not what's making me pessimistic.
Instead, this is largely the same bunch that surprised skeptics and fans alike and led the Central Division for most of last summer, only to implode in the final weeks and fail to even make the playoffs.
Management vowed to clean house of anyone not committed to win, but, over the winter, found that, hey, the same players who stumbled around in September really are dedicated to playing winning baseball!
Go figure. Sure, the team made changes. It picked up Adam Lind, who, if he can stay healthy, might finally anchor first base. But to get him, the Brewers traded starting pitcher Marco Estrada. They also traded Yovani Gallardo, a starting pitcher who soaked up lots of innings. They got three prospects in return.
The team has so many question marks that I don't know if you can consider it a contender.
You want to be strong “up the middle” and talented centerfielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jonathan Lucroy—now the face of the franchise—make up a strong half of that four-man equation. Will Lucroy, however, start slow as he spends most of spring training recovering from injury?
Will shortstop Jean Segura recover from last year's professional and personal challenges and produce all season like he did in the final weeks? If he doesn't, is one of the talented young challengers ready to start in his place? Is Scooter Gennett ready for solid, full-time duty at second? Without being platooned with the departed Rickie Weeks, can Scooter hit reasonably well from both sides of the plate?
Will rightfielder Khris Davis hit more consistently? Is Ryan's Braun's thumb problem behind him? Can Aramis Ramirez last one final season without hitting the disabled list, and if he can't, do the Brewers have a reasonable replacement at third base? Does the recently re-signed Francisco Rodriguez still have enough left in the tank to be a dependable closer? After all, every pitch from “K-Rod” seems to be an adventure, especially when he's prone to giving up homers in a home stadium that favors power hitters.
Having the imposing Jonathan Broxton, who arrived late last season, as part of the mix for a full year in a retooled bullpen might be great. And it's comforting to have a Gold Glove outfielder in Gerardo Parra for a full season and ready to step in if any of the club's three starting outfielders falters.
The health of Braun and Ramirez might be the biggest keys to success for the Brewers this season. Here's one more, however. Can the starting pitching match up with starters in the Central Division and other National League teams? Aside from Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse, the other expected starters are young in Willy Peralta, Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson. They must be consistent. Those five also must enjoy good health because, after them, the team's backup starters have about as much Major League experience as you and me.
I expect the Reds and Pirates to again be tough opponents, and the Cardinals are always the Cardinals. The Cubs accelerated their rebuilding program over the winter, though their Wrigley rebuilding project is lagging and I heard on the radio yesterday that the team might need to borrow Milwaukee's Miller Park for early-season home games. That made me chuckle.
But back to the Brewers' prospects. If I don't sound optimistic, perhaps it's because I'm not. Maybe I'm pessimistic by nature. Maybe instead I'm just a realist. And maybe, when it comes to the Brewers, I'm a marginal and long-suffering fan who still has a bad taste in his mouth from Milwaukee's historic collapse last season.
But, hey, it's spring, so let's play ball!