Like a lot of fans, I tend to place parameters on my hopes for an upcoming season. This season’s boundaries look something like this: the Brewers will probably not end up in last place because Cubs gonna Cub, but the Brewers will probably not win the division because the Reds are very good, the Cardinals are blessed by the snob gods of baseball, and Pittsburgh is starting to look a bit scary. Setting parameters like this makes me comfortable, and it frames the way I watch games. Once you shuffle aside the active hope for a pennant, it’s easier to find joy in smaller, unexpected things. The focus shifts to individual performances, beautiful moments, and away from winning.
Thus, after the mostly awful first ten games, I was fully prepared to focus exclusively on the positive Brewers-related things — Jean Segura’s breakout success, Carlos Gomez’ continuing success, Kyle Lohse’s more-than-adequate pitching. But then they go and rattle off nine wins in a row, and now I’m not sure how to feel about anything. My sports-watching world has been shaken and turned upside down.
To paraphrase Cream City Cables’ Nate Petrashek, the Brewers are not 2-8 bad, but they are also not 9-0 good. Injuries have thrown the lineup into disarray, and the threshold for adequacy has been lowered considerably; for example, fans are actually starting to think of Yuni Betancourt as an everyday player again (despite the fact that he hasn’t really changed his plate approach.) The ceiling for the starting pitching is probably league average – and the same goes for the bullpen — so the team’s success will depend on consistent, strong output from the offense. None of this has changed simply because the team had a nice streak.
I wrote a piece a few weeks ago – 2013-14, Tim? What? — outlining what I believed to be the Brewers’ offseason strategy: spend as little as possible to overhaul the bullpen, stay out of the big name free agency market, evaluate the system’s young (Jean Segura, Hiram Burgos) and youngish (Mike Fiers, Jim Henderson) talent, and quit the whole “WIN NOW” strategy that’s typified the past few offseasons. Hold tight, stop spending money Mark Attanasio doesn’t have, be conservative, be cautious, etc. This made sense: the Brewers’ offense was terrific last year, but staying competitive with a Gallardo-as-ace rotation would require a similar performance AND a complete turnaround from the bullpen. Unlikely.
I was obviously proven wrong. Within hours, actually. (Apparently, I have no special insight into either Attanasio or Melvin’s thought process.) While the Brewers didn’t make any blockbuster trades, the Lohse signing showed that management still believes the Brewers can compete for a championship for a few more seasons. Otherwise, the signing makes little sense.
What are the Brewers, exactly?
It’s still difficult to tell which way the team is going to go, but it doesn’t bode well that Yuniesky Betancourt was given the chance to hit in the cleanup spot on Saturday. In fairness, he did pretty well, going 2-for-5 with an RBI. And a fielding error, because it’s still Yuni. (He hit seventh on Sunday, probably because Roenicke doesn’t want baseball to collapse upon itself.) So the team has suffered through platoons at third and first, but there’s no guarantee that either Hart or Ramirez will lift the team out of its offensive funk when both players finally return.
So the Brewers’ mostly successful start to the season feels fragile, almost illusory. Their Pythagorean record still stinks, for one: they would be dead last in the NL Central according to Baseball Prospectus’ Third Order Win Percentage calculations (adjusted for quality of opponents.) Runs have come at a premium so far, but not for opponents: Brewers pitchers have given up the most home runs per nine innings so far, and the team’s ERA is fifth worst in the NL. Granted, this takes the awful start to the season into account – and ERA is a pretty poor measure of actual value. But the team’s ERA- (108) and xFIP- (99) both back me up: the ceiling for Brewers pitching is probably league average (even during the last 14 days, the team’s xFIP- is 100.) The Brewers’ offense needs to be very good — better than it’s been so far — for the Brewers to remain competitive.
Maybe there’s hope?
Ramirez’ return (this week, supposedly) is well-timed, assuming he can avoid his usual early season struggles. Although teams thus far aren’t pitching around Braun, having a consistent, quality cleanup hitter makes him that much more dangerous, especially if/when Braun starts to get on base regularly. I don’t put too much stock in batting order, but some amount of consistency probably helps. Right? (This seems to be one of those baseball questions where everyone has a different take, and where there isn’t a clear, evidence-based answer. I suppose if the players complain, that’s bad for team morale, and blah blah blah.)
The Brewers surely have potential if the bottom of the order keeps hitting well, but it’s safe to assume that Gomez and Betancourt are due for at least some regression (Gomez’ BABIP of .387 is .091 higher than last season’s. He’s fast, but not that fast. Yuni’s BABIP is .267, which is comparable to his career numbers. But he’s still Yuni, and he’s still swinging early, often, and at a lot of pitches outside the zone. Opposing pitchers will likely adjust accordingly.) They’ll certainly need consistent production from Ramirez — and Hart, of course, once he’s off the 60 day DL — to compensate for Braun and Lucroy’s (.233/.278/.398) slow starts in the short run.
What if things go south?
Obviously, the team still has a few valuable trade chips in Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez (assuming they put up decent numbers when they’re off the DL). It seems unlikely that they’ll part with Hart this season, though, unless the team completely collapses; the insane utility man platoon at first does the Brewers no favors, and is probably making Alex Gonzalez very sad.
Part of me wonders if Lohse is shaping up to be trade fodder too. Sunday’s game mostly highlighted my concerns with the team: Lohse pitched very well, held the Dodgers to two runs, and still got the loss. There’s little point in paying $11 million or so a year for quality starts if the offense can’t capitalize on them. As Nicholas Zettel pointed out on Monday, the Brewers have mostly wasted Lohse’s fine start to the season. What good are quality starts if the offense is dead? Answer: they are no good. None. The Brewers are 2-3 in Lohse’s starts; maybe those two wins would be losses if Fiers was still tossing easy home run fodder in the majors. If they don’t make the postseason soon, what do those wins matter?
One good starting pitcher doesn’t transform a slightly above average team into a contender, and the signing hurt the Brewers’ chances at rebuilding their still cleaned out farm system. So I’ve got a new hypothesis now, after the old one was proven wrong: Attanasio is afraid that a very bad season — or a few mediocre seasons in a row — will scare the fans away forever. He’s afraid to go the way of the Nationals or the, um, Royals: draft well, be patient, and reap the returns on the trade market when your system has a surplus of talent (I guess I’m saying that the Royals were reaping the returns when they traded for Shields. I guess.)
Maybe I’m being a bit pessimistic after a decent 3-3 road trip. Part of my reaction is based purely on aesthetics: Lohse is the only Brewers pitcher I’ve consistently enjoyed watching so far this season, and I really have trouble watching bad pitching. On the other hand, Jean Segura does something exciting and impressive at least once a game and Gomez is still playing like an All Star. The small reasons to watch are still there, and the team has an outside chance to compete once it’s healthy. I’ll take it, I guess.