I’m not great at analogies, except when they’re part of a joke. (You know, something something Clint Eastwood scolding a chair, something something Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. Seriously, imagine President Obama as Clint Eastwood’s imaginary bunny friend. Do it.) Even then, I’m not sure that those analogies are effective or correct, so much as they’re clever. Arguably.
I half-enjoyed the Brewers’ former irrelevance, because it let me take a step back, walk away from my deep, borderline silly emotional investment in the team, and appreciate the qualities that remain from a distance. In my last piece, “Rip It Up and Start Again, Pt. 1: Let ‘Er Rip,” I expressed -or at least implied- my wish that management would recognize the team’s solid foundation, and refrain from offering up the roster or the farm system to the highest bidder this offseason. For once. At the time, this seemed the best possible result: the season would end, and the Brewers wouldn’t do anything stupid or rash or stupidly rash. It was a little like watching a conductor narrowly avoid a train wreck. A little exciting, yes, but the only good result is that nothing horrible happens.
Now, things are… different? The team certainly looks reenergized, for whatever that’s worth (Yeah, I hate when sportswriters resort to this kind of vague, subjective analysis, but it’s hard to ignore the contrast.) Meaningful baseball in September is meaningful.
More importantly, the future-of-the-franchise arms look good, despite a few concerns. The Brewers sold their best pitcher and discovered three or four very good ones waiting in the wings.
Fiers is still delivering, and what seemed a fluke of a season has been revealed as the end product of a solid, subtle skillset. Fiers relies on good location, patience, a sparingly-used but effective cutter, and a scary good 12-6 curveball that surprises me almost every time I see it (so just imagine trying to hit it.) It’s easy to see why he was never taken seriously as a prospect: while most of his pitches are good, their effectiveness largely depends on Fiers’ unusual over-the-top delivery, and on smart location. We know what a 95 mile/hour fastball is worth in the bigs, but how many organizations clamor for a nice curveball with a somewhat sneaky delivery? There may be reason for concern if Fiers’ delivery drifts up more on his curve, and we can probably expect him to struggle a bit in hitters’ parks that aren’t Miller Park –given the hiccup in Colorado- but if there’s another glaring problem area, I haven’t picked up on it yet.
Speaking of 95 mile/hour fastballs, Mark Rogers reminded everyone that he exists, and looks a lot like the briefly awesome Rogers of 2010. 9.5 strikeouts per game and almost 3 strikeouts per walk is pretty impressive. (I still haven’t watched him pitch for more than a few innings, though, because watching him makes me very nervous, for some reason. This is my problem, not yours.)
Also, Wily Peralta, right? Wily Peralta! Has anyone bounced between hot prospect and flop more than Wily Peralta in the last few years? (Other than Mark Rogers, maybe.) I think most of us expected Peralta to be a lot more dynamic, and a lot less consistent. Peralta’s speedy fastball and historical control problems suggested a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks, and an inevitable bullpen role somewhere, if not in Milwaukee.
So far, Peralta’s turned that expectation on its head, then rubbed its face in the dirt. Okay, not quite, but I was a little shocked at how well Peralta hit the corners of the plate against Arizona even after it became clear that the strike zone was, um, unusually small. When Peralta got himself into trouble, he recovered nicely. A lack of panic is a fantastic sign, as if the results weren’t enough.
And hey, Marco Estrada is still Marco Estrada. He gives up a lot of home runs, but also strikes a lot of batters out. His awful record doesn’t reflect how well he’s pitched, as usual. People are actually asking “Fiers or Estrada” -as if that’s a problem the Brewers have- and the subtext is, both pitchers are good, but who’s better? (Marco doesn’t throw a cutter, so he isn’t cool or hip, and he loses. Sorry.)
In all, the Brewers have a lot of quality starting pitching, but no ace. Yovani Gallardo is the king of quality. He’s Mr. Quality, the worst nickname ever. The usual assumption, however, is that a team needs an ace to win a championship. We’ve seen this before: get an ace, make the postseason, and make him pitch until his arm falls off. Sheets, Sabathia, and… Fiers?
Just kidding, the Brewers aren’t going to make the postseason. That would be too much fun.
Here’s another strategy, instead: use the depth of quality to the team’s advantage. Let’s rely on this cheap, youngish rotation until it stops working, rather than overpaying for names. Let’s recognize that the Brewers have one of the best offenses in baseball, that Rickie Weeks continues to be an important part of that offense, that bad fielding is no longer a pressing concern, and that the team might even have enough talent right now to deal with future bullpen problems. Obviously, Melvin is going to go after proven relievers in the offseason, even if the Brewers do win a championship (which they won’t, seriously.) That’s his job. But in any case, there are a few big lessons to draw from this season:
- A team like the Brewers can’t stay in “win now” mode indefinitely.
- A team like the Brewers usually can’t fill a pressing need through the market without sacrificing quality in another area (2011: offense for defense. 2012: offense for relief pitching.)
- Sometimes a barren farm system yields surprising returns, and sometimes it takes a disaster to find out what you’ve got.
We probably wouldn’t have found out about Mike Fiers at all if Shaun Marcum wasn’t stuck on the DL for most of the year. We probably wouldn’t have seen Peralta and Rogers start for the Brewers this season if the team hadn’t taken a nosedive during the first half. These are good things in themselves, not silver linings.
What strikes me as particularly encouraging about Fiers, Peralta, Rogers and Estrada is the poise each has shown. We’ve all seen Manny Parra look rattled, but even when Rogers has given up a leadoff home run, or Peralta has fallen victim to a netbook-sized strike zone, each has recovered and succeeded.
There isn’t a neat, clean metaphor to describe this team or its future. Essentially, the Brewers started ripping things up, then stopped, and realized they were a lot deeper than anyone thought.
Also, let’s not trade Aramis, okay?