The Milwaukee Brewers have an ace.
Although you might not know it from the narrative that surrounds pitching and this franchise, having an ace isn’t exactly uncharted territory for the Brewers. Ben Sheets was a fantastic pitcher for the entire past decade, even though his teams were awful and he was injury prone. CC Sabathia (along with Sheets) brought this team to the playoffs just two seasons ago. Yovani Gallardo has shown flashes of ace potential, and one could argue that he was among the top 10 pitchers in the National League last season. But this is different.
Sheets’s situation was largely hopeless. We knew he was good, even great at times. He reached the all-star game in his first season in the majors. He struck out 18 batters in a game against Atlanta. Maybe he could have even competed for Cy Young awards in this brave new world where a 13-12 Felix Hernandez can win the award. That was during a time where Brewers fans were few and far between, and those that existed were simply resigned to the next in the line of perennial 65 win seasons. By the time the young talent that spurred the 2008 playoff trip and composes much of today’s roster even began to surface, Sheets’s chronic injury issues reared their ugly heads. Even though die-hard Brewers fans were very happy to have Sheets, and even though he certainly had ace-level talent, Ben Sheets was never able to become a franchise changing ace.
CC Sabathia, on the other hand, created the most excitement surrounding the Milwaukee Brewers since the days of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Everybody knew that Sabathia was one of the top talents, and, unlike when Sheets joined the club in 2001, everybody knew that Sabathia’s addition meant that the playoffs were a legitimate possibility. CC lived up to the expectations and more, putting together the best stretch run by a pitcher in recent memory. Every five days – and four in September – we felt like a win was in the bank, even during the September tailspin that almost tragically derailed the team. Sabathia delivered like no other pitcher in Brewers history, but he was never somebody that Milwaukee fans could claim as their own. We loved CC, but we weren’t blind. We knew that the greener pastures of George Steinbrenner’s bank account were waiting.
With Sabathia entrenched in the Yankees rotation at an obscene salary, Yovani Gallardo was left to take the reins of the Brewers staff in 2009 (even though Jeff Suppan started opening day, which will remain one of the most embarrassing tidbits of Brewers trivia for many years). Gallardo, although an exciting young player, just simply wasn’t on the level of the departing aces. The steps forward that he made last year are impressive, and I think he was one of the league’s premiere pitchers last season and will be again next year. However, Gallardo is still largely “unproven,” and he requires yet another step forward to reach the elite class of pitchers like Sabathia or Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay – the kind of pitcher who changes the course of a franchise.
Looking back, each of these pitchers had talent to burn, and all had the pieces of the quintessential franchise pitcher. Ben Sheets was Milwaukee’s own. CC Sabathia brought Milwaukee to the promised land. Yovani Gallardo represents Milwaukee’s future. In Zack Greinke, the Brewers add a pitcher with the potential to become the transcendent ace who has eluded the franchise since its inception.
Zack Greinke did not have to come to Milwaukee. The Brewers were one of fifteen teams listed in the no-trade clause in his contract. Greinke could have said “No, I don’t want to pitch in Milwaukee,” but he waived the clause in order to become the newest member of the team. He did, in fact, block a trade that would have sent him to the Washington Nationals. Instead, Greinke comes in and says that Milwaukee is “obviously that place” where they’re trying to win games right away, and Greinke clearly believes that it can happen. Regardless of what he said, Greinke was going to be a quick and easy to sell to Milwaukee’s fanbase just because of his sheer ability. Throw in his personality and his desire to come to Milwaukee – yes, desire to come to Milwaukee – and Zack Greinke could become one of the most loved Wisconsin athletes this side of Aaron Rodgers and pre-Vikings era Brett Favre.
There’s that, too: the ability. Zack Greinke in 2009 was like CC Sabathia’s final two months in 2008, except for a whole season. Greinke’s ability hasn’t been and shouldn’t be questioned by anybody. If you need to actually see why he’s an elite pitcher, look no further than the stuff he flashes in this ho-hum seven inning, two run, nine strikeout outing against the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the league’s elite offensive teams last season. We don’t know if Greinke will ever truly replicate that fantastic 2009 season, but he doesn’t have to. His ability to anchor a staff with games like the above is enough; the fact that he’s capable of historically excellent seasons is gravy.
And the ride doesn’t end in 2011. Greinke will be around in 2012, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t at least be receptive to the idea of remaining in Milwaukee with a contract extension. The team is very young and can retain every major piece other than Prince Fielder. Greinke is only 27, and although pitchers are anything but reliable, he should have many years of fantastic pitching left. Greinke not only represents the excitement of a playoff run this coming summer, but the possibility of consistently competitive and contending teams in 2012 and beyond.
Ability and hope, this year, next year, and perhaps beyond. Brewers fans have had tastes of each over the past ten years, but never has it all come in the same package. Now, in Zack Greinke, the Milwaukee franchise has that special pitcher with the ability to take them over the top. Even before throwing a single pitch, Zack Greinke is already started down the path to becoming the preeminent starting pitcher in Milwaukee Brewers history. Now all he has to do is just live up to expectations.