Virtually every offseason move the Milwaukee Brewers made was accompanied by this justification from general manager Doug Melvin: “We did this based on what we saw the last two months of the season.”
Indeed, the final two months of last season, when the Brewers rallied from 12 games under .500 to make a run at the National League’s second wild card spot, were the guiding force behind the construction of the team that will open its season today at Miller Park.
On July 30, the Brewers were 11 games under .500 and had just traded away their best pitcher, Zack Greinke. But behind a potent offense and a cadre of promising yet raw starting pitchers, the Brewers went 38-23 the rest of the way. From Aug. 20 on, they were 29-13 — the best record in baseball over that time.
Of course, late-season success in baseball is often fool’s gold since some teams throw in the towel and check out their young players. However, that didn’t stop the Brewers from putting major stock in their furious finish, which helped them stay in the playoff chase until the final three games.
As exciting as that finish was, there is one problem with reading too much into it: It ignores the four months that preceded it. Milwaukee’s slow start might have been a perfect storm of injuries, slumps and bullpen meltdowns, but it buried the team so deep that even the remarkable late surge couldn’t get it into the playoffs.
The Brewers must avoid another slow start this season or face a similar fate. Unfortunately, many signs are pointing to another sluggish getaway.
In 2012, early injuries sidelined starter Chris Narveson, first baseman Mat Gamel and shortstop Alex Gonzalez for the season and cost catcher Jonathan Lucroy and starters Shaun Marcum and Marco Estrada about two months apiece. Injuries are unpredictable, but they already have affected this year’s team.
Corey Hart was so good as Gamel’s replacement at first that he’s been moved there permanently, but he will miss at least a month following knee surgery. Gamel just had a second knee surgery in as many seasons and Taylor Green will start the season on the disabled list, forcing the Brewers to open with Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt, two career shortstops, as their first basemen.
A year ago, the starting rotation sputtered even before the injuries to Narveson, Marcum and Estrada. Randy Wolf never did get right and eventually was released. That forced Milwaukee to go with prospects from the farm system, who showed enough promise that the Brewers decided four unproven pitchers — Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers — would fill out the rotation behind ace Yovani Gallardo this season.
A team has to give its prospects a chance at some point, but young starters tend to experience ups and downs and to depend on so many at one time was a gamble of major proportions. After Fiers, Peralta and Rogers were knocked around during spring training, Melvin signed veteran free agent Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract at the 11th hour. But even Lohse’s presence doesn’t guarantee the bottom of the rotation will be consistent from the get-go.
Plus, no one knows how long it will take Lohse to regain the form that made him 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA with St. Louis last season. He threw to college teams all spring and manager Ron Roenicke pronounced him “Major League ready” after one 54-pitch outing, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to hit the ground running.
Then there is the matter of the hitters who slumped last season. Second baseman Rickie Weeks hit .158 through 60 games and didn’t get his average above .200 until July 26 before catching fire the last two months. Was his season a byproduct of his severe late-season ankle injury the year before or is he prone to extended slumps?
Meanwhile, third baseman Aramis Ramirez wound up with superior numbers, but his first two months — he hit .218 with two home runs in the first quarter of the season — weren’t what the Brewers needed. A notoriously slow starter, Ramirez hoped to get more at-bats than usual in spring training but was hampered by a knee injury.
In addition to injuries, slumps and young pitchers, the Brewers could be impacted by the World Baseball Classic that took a dozen players (including four minor leaguers) for several weeks this spring. Most important, Milwaukee went a lengthy stretch without catchers Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, which certainly didn’t help the young pitchers.
Finally, outfielder Ryan Braun will enter his second consecutive season dogged by suspicions regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Such pressure didn’t affect his performance last year, but some insiders think Major League Baseball is on the verge of suspending players, including Braun, who have been linked to the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. Milwaukee would be lost without Braun’s bat in the lineup for an extended period of time.
Like so many things with the Brewers, Braun’s status is uncertain. They could contend for a wild card playoff spot with Lohse onboard, but first the Brewers must avoid a second consecutive crippling start.