I haven’t written anything about the Brewers in months, and not because there isn’t anything to write, but because I only have so much to say about a mediocre, post-fire sale team with only a handful of new faces to get excited about. Look, the Brewers have a Shortstop of The Future now (Jean Segura)! They also have a Surprisingly Good Starting Pitcher of The Future now (Mike Fiers)! Oh, they’re probably going to shut both of them down in a few weeks. Cue the sound/image of something deflating.
At least Aoki is awesome, and not going anywhere. So I was right about one damn thing this season.
I feel a little bad about being an albeit very minor part of the trendy nature of sportswriting (does this count as sportswriting? Am I invited to the convention next year?) When the Brewers were 20+ games over .500 this time last year, I never ran out of enough things to say. Braun was having an unblemished, arguably MVP-caliber season! Nyjer Morgan was tickling the ball into the outfield and saying weird things! Zack Greinke was still shiny new and plausibly extendible!
So there’s a lot less being written about the Brewers this year, because they’re in a small market and because writing about failure isn’t fun, unless you’re a jerk. (Note: I guess I’m a jerk.)
That said, it’s a lot easier to explain why a team isn’t working than why it is. This season has been largely defined –in my mind, and most people’s minds- by a couple of things: anemic offense, freak injuries, terrible relief pitching, and Braun Is A Cheater. (I really can’t sum up my response to the continuing anger/skepticism/snideness towards Braun any better than Nicholas did yesterday, so I’m just gonna link to that. Please read it, or read it again. It is great.) The first three of those things are more-or-less objectively true, in the philosophically unrigorous sense. We all saw what happened to Gonzalez and Gamel, and unless Lucroy is making up the story about the suitcase -and I have no idea why he would- “freak injury” seems about right.
(I can think of about a hundred less ridiculous ways to break your hand, anyway, if you’re trying to make up a backstory. One of them involves a helicopter, a parachute, and punching Skip Bayless in the face.)
There have been very good explanations for John Axford and K-Rod’s struggles elsewhere, but the simple explanation seems to be that Axford has temporarily lost his stuff, and K-Rod is probably losing it for good. Anyone can see that both pitchers are struggling with their control, getting behind in the count, then hanging easy-to-hit pitches over the plate. I have faith that Axford can correct this, because he was so consistently good at not doing it only a short time ago. K-Rod, on the other hand, is locked into his patented get-yourself-into-trouble-then-power-your-way-out-of-it strategy. It’s not surprising that no one bought when the Brewers tried to sell him at the deadline, because that’s both ineffective and painful to watch.
(A confession: I haven’t watched Jim Henderson pitch yet, and all I know about him is that he throws hard, he’s Canadian, and he’s older than me. He has a few saves and a few blown saves, his ERA stinks, but his FIP looks really good. I should probably watch him pitch, right?)
I’m not too concerned with the state of the Brewers, though, for a few reasons. 23 blown saves by one team is almost certainly something of a fluke; it’s the most in the majors, too, and I didn’t even have to check to know that. The Brewers bet that their current relief squad -minus Saito and Hawkins and plus Veras- would be effective, and it was much, much less effective than anyone would have guessed. Veras’ WHIP is 1.680 this year, by far the worst mark of his career. Did anyone see that coming?
Still, that’s clearly not a lot of insurance, especially given that Marco Estrada was expected to fill both the long relief and spot starter roles for the team. It seems, in retrospect, that there simply weren’t enough pieces to move around in case something went wrong. The Brewers are a top-loaded team that rapidly imploded when a few key pieces didn’t fit. Last year, the team benefitted from career years from guys like Morgan and Narveson. For about half this year, we saw Axford, Weeks, and Ramirez at something like their worst. But when Weeks and Ramirez are essential offensive replacements for the void left by Fielder’s absence, and the farm is a void of big league-ready bats, what can be done to fix things in the short term?
Management had to prioritize certain aspects of the team in the offseason, because that’s what any team that isn’t the Yankees has to do pretty much every offseason. Arguably, the Brewers spread their priorities a little thin: Gonzalez is a clear defensive improvement over Yuni, and Ramirez is good enough with the bat to make up for subpar defense (although he’s done a pretty great job this year, considering he was worth around -4 wins on defense over the last four seasons.) This was almost certainly a shift in strategy from last year, when management bet that a high powered offense and above average pitching would make up for a slow, sieve-like infield. They were right last season, until the playoffs, and then they were very wrong.
Perhaps, then, this team was built to win postseason series, but not to actually make it to the postseason. Management gambled again, and this time lost badly.
But there is still reason for optimism, and it’s possible to re-define this season based on the things that went well and surprised us. Mike Fiers is probably for real, even with the hiccup in Colorado. Aoki transitioned about as well as anyone could possibly have expected. Corey Hart is a potentially permanent solution at first base. Carlos Gomez is showing occasional signs of maturity, if not the kind of consistency we’d like to see from a 26-year-old. Randy Wolf is almost certainly history, and the Brewers have a shot at re-signing Marcum if that’s the kind of thing they’re into. Also, Mark Rogers actually looks okay, doesn’t he?
We all want a different narrative next season, but the question is: what can we reasonably expect? My hope is that the team continues to develop its somewhat shallow well of talent, doesn’t overspend, and focuses on balancing the entire roster, rather than bolstering one part at the expense of the rest. If that involves trading Ramirez and letting Marcum go, fine. Let’s make Mike Fiers and Jose Segura the faces of the 2012 season, and maybe the 2013 one too. Because why not?