Brewers are likely to sell, so why wait?

April 29, 2015 Comments off

The best news for the Milwaukee Brewers this week? Adam Wainwright’s season-ending achilles injury. But not for the reason you might think.

No, the loss of Wainwright isn’t enough to get the Brewers back into contention. Not even close. Rather, the Cardinals’ ace going down for 9-12 months is good news for the Brewers, who undoubtedly will be looking to sell at some point in the next three months.

Teams like the Cardinals and Dodgers, on the other hand, are in the market for starting pitching following season-ending injuries to Wainwright and Dodgers right-hander Brandon McCarthy.

At 4-17 before Wednesday’s victory, the Brewers were off to the worst start by a National League team since the 1997 Chicago Cubs. That team finished 16 games out of first place at 68-94, back when the Brewers were still in the AL.

The Baltimore Orioles started 4-17 as recently as 2010. That team was 32-72 at the trade deadline, and actually improved from there to finish 30 games out of first place at 66-96. Recent history doesn’t offer much hope for the Brewers, even at 5-17.

The last team to win just five of its first 22 was last year’s Arizona Diamondbacks, who finished 64-97 for MLB’s worst record.

Oddly enough, the biggest thing holding the Brewers back from selling could be their own futility. Who wants to trade for a guy with a 7.28 ERA? How about a pair of all-stars on the disabled list?

Fortunately for Milwaukee, they still have quite a bit to offer, especially if teams bet on players like Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza continuing to bounce back after season-opening slumps. For a true rebuild, which such a poor start could merit, just about everyone should be on the trading block, even stars like Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, once healthy.

At this point, it looks like a question of “when” not “if” the Brewers will sell. The answer should be sooner rather than later, to maximize value.

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‘Quality’ pitching key for a Brewers turnaround

April 23, 2015 Comments off

Through 15 games, the average MLB team has seven quality starts and a 3.88 ERA. The Milwaukee Brewers, as you may have noticed, are not the average team.

Just four of the team’s starts this season have been deemed “quality,” and two of those came this week. They went nine games without one before Wednesday, the Brewers’ longest stretch since 2001.

As a staff, they now sport a National League-worst 4.89 ERA, which actually has improved by nearly half a run thanks to back-to-back gems from Jimmy Nelson and Kyle Lohse. For as bad as the team’s offense had been, the Brewers’ pitching was worse.

With a quality start requiring six innings pitched and three or fewer earned runs allowed, it’s hardly a spectacular achievement. Still, it’s deemed quality for its ability to give the offense a reasonable chance to win the game. The Brewers haven’t given their offense that chance too often this season.

Milwaukee has a first-inning ERA of 6.75, and a 7.31 mark in each of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. By the time the seventh rolls around, the offense often has been buried. The first-inning numbers — 12 earned runs on 20 hits — are particularly concerning, as the Brewers are 0-10 this season when playing from behind.

Tuesday night’s loss to the Reds epitomized how poorly things had been going.

After a third-inning bases-loaded situation predictably resulted in a grand slam, the Brewers’ offense surprised with four runs of its own in the bottom half of the frame. But the Reds killed any Brewers momentum with a Todd Frazier grand slam in the fourth and additional blasts in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

Even on a night when the offense matched its run total from the previous six games, the Brewers still lost 16-10.

Mike Fiers’ ugly outing inflated the young right-hander’s ERA to 6.75, putting him fourth in the rotation, ahead of Lohse at 7.94 and behind Matt Garza and Wily Peralta at 5.40 and 5.68, respectively. Only Nelson is under five, with a 1.35 ERA.

The offense is showing signs of breaking out, and the pitching staff is too. If the latter can keep it up, the Brewers still have some hope of turning around the worst start in franchise history.

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Mysterious case of Brewers’ missing power

April 16, 2015 Comments off

What happened to the Milwaukee Brewers being a power-hitting team?

Through nine games this season, they have just three home runs, which have driven in a combined six runs. It’s still a small sample size, but that puts the Brewers on pace for just 54 home runs this season. Last year they ranked fifth in the National League with 150.

Since finishing tied for last in the majors in 2004, the Brewers have finished in the top seven in the National League in home runs each of the last 10 seasons, including league-leading totals of 231 in 2007, 185 in 2011 and 202 in 2012. During that same stretch, the ’11 San Diego Padres posted the lowest single-season total with 91.

This season, Adam Lind, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura are the three Brewers who have gone deep. That leaves Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Khris Davis among those that have yet to hit one over the fence. The four sluggers have combined for 691 career home runs, with a combined 162-game average of 105.

With those names in the lineup, there’s no doubt this team will get its home runs. But it does make their nine-game season-opening stretch puzzling.

So what’s going on with the 2015 Brewers?

They’re not hitting many fly balls, and the ones they do are staying in the park. That sounds obvious, but stay with me here.

The Brewers’ 30.8 percent fly ball rate is 23rd in MLB, while their 4.7 percent HR/FB rate is 29th. Conversely, they have the seventh-highest ground ball rate at 49 percent and their 1.59 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is seventh-highest in MLB. Milwaukee’s 20.2 percent line-drive rate is in the middle of the pack at 19th.

Thanks in part to the low home run and fly ball rates, the Brewers have struggled to score runs. They have tallied just 23 through nine games, including two games in which they have been shut out. Milwaukee has topped two runs in a game just three times

They went homerless in three games at St. Louis, the team’s seventh streak of three games or more without a home run since last May. The longest such streak was five games from June 6-11.

It’s hard to put much stock in a “2014 hangover” even with the way the Brewers finished last season. But how else do you explain a power-filled lineup struggling so much out of the gate?

A lack of power is far from the Brewers’ only problem. But fixing it would go a long way toward getting this team back on track.

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Adam Lind finally fills Brewers’ hole at 1B

April 9, 2015 Comments off

It’s been 3½ years since Prince Fielder last put on a Milwaukee Brewers uniform. After a search that took nearly as long, they look to finally have found a suitable replacement.

Adam Lind, the 17th player to start at first base since Fielder’s departure following the 2011 season, is that replacement. Through three games, he’s batting .667 (6-for-9) with a pair of doubles and a two-run home run, the Brewers’ first of the season.

“It’s been nice to see him swinging the bat,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said during Wednesday night’s broadcast. “He looks like a very professional hitter and is going to really help this ballclub in the middle of that order.”

The 16 starting first basemen between Lind and Fielder? Only a handful are household names.

RELATED: 5 bold Brewers predictions for this season

Mat Gamel, Travis Ishikawa, Taylor Green, Brooks Conrad and Corey Hart split time there in 2012. Juan Francisco, Yuniesky Betancourt, Sean Halton, Alex Gonzalez, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado and Blake Lalli were over there in 2013. Last season, Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Matt Clark and Jason Rogers joined the mix.

That first group put together a slash line of .258/.322/.452 with 25 home runs, 88 RBIs and 150 strikeouts against 49 walks. The 2013 crew, they were historically bad at .206/.259/.370 with 21 home runs, 86 RBIs, 171 strikeouts and just 38 walks. Finally, in 2014, they slashed .207/.287/.356 with 19 homers, 61 RBIs, 149 strikeouts and 63 walks.

By comparison, Lind batted .287/.351/.467 with 40 home runs, 152 RBIs, 212 strikeouts and 108 walks over 332 games the last three seasons.

“I think he’s going to be a really big addition,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “(He’s) a really true major league hitter that can hit third, fourth, fifth in your lineup.”

With right fielder Ryan Braun out of the Brewers’ lineup Tuesday and Wednesday night, Lind batted third between catcher Jonathan Lucroy and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. He batted fifth on opening day, behind Ramirez.

Lind’s career numbers — .212/.257/.331 vs. lefties and .293/.349/.510 against right-handers — suggest he could be a good fit for a platoon, but Roenicke does plan to give him a chance to face left-handed pitching.

RELATED: Milwaukee still a special place for John Axford

Even with those splits, Lind looks like a significant offensive upgrade a crucial offensive position.

Lind even has flashed some defensive potential at first base, making a diving stop to start a double play on opening day.

The only real question with Lind is one of health.

While he played 143 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013, Lind managed just 189 games combined in 2012 and 2014 due mostly to back issues that date to 2011. Lind also played through a broken foot last year, which in turn caused his back problems to flare up.

He also opened spring training with lower back stiffness this season. Still, the Brewers remain optimistic that Lind’s back is manageable and will not cause them too much trouble.

“It’s not necessarily an issue if he’s playing too much,” Roenicke said. “It’s one play that he’ll be in an odd, awkward position trying to field a ball or catch a throw from the infielders and then something will tweak the back.”

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5 bold Brewers predictions for the 2015 season

April 7, 2015 Comments off

With the regular season underway, here are five bold predictions for the 2015 Milwaukee Brewers:

1. Ryan Braun will hit 25 home runs for the first time since 2012.

I’m not as confident on this as I was as recently as Monday morning, but a full season with relatively good health should get Braun to the 25 to 30 home run range.

Before a strained ribcage muscle knocked Braun out in the fifth inning on opening day, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke spoke of Braun having his swing back. A look at his spring training performance backs that up.

So long as his thumb remains a non-issue, Braun will overcome this early setback and return to form. By season’s end, he may blow right by 25 home runs and hit the 30 mark.

2. Jimmy Nelson will not spend the entire season in the Brewers’ rotation.

He’s not replacing Yovani Gallardo, nor should he be expected to. Still, Nelson’s struggles last season and this spring are major cause for concern going forward.

Nelson disappointed in his 2014 call-up and got hit hard throughout spring training. There’s nothing about a switch to the regular season that would indicate a sudden change in fortune.

After a rough start to the season, Nelson eventually will be sent to either the bullpen or Class AAA to sort things out. Whether he does remains to be seen.

3. The Brewers will be the best team not to make the playoffs.

There’s a lot of talent on this team.

In fact, with good health, the Brewers could have one of the best offenses in the league, a strong bullpen and an average starting rotation. Unfortunately, that level of health is unlikely.

Instead, injuries will hit Milwaukee at some point over the course of the season. If those hit the starting rotation, this team does not have the depth to sustain a long absence by one of its starting five.

With that in mind, and the National League Central’s status as the “new AL East” and potentially the toughest division in baseball, the Brewers ultimately will fall short of the postseason once again. But they’ll be the best team watching from home in October.

4. Lefty reliever Will Smith will be an All-Star.

Much like he did a year ago, Smith will open the season in dominant fashion. This year, that hot start will earn him a trip to Cincinnati to represent the Brewers in the Midsummer Classic.

Smith struck out 36 batters with just 11 walks over 251/3 innings in his first 28 appearances of 2014. With two strikeouts in a scoreless inning Monday, Smith showed his nasty slider is ready to put opposing batters away once again.

The lefty will be the strongest arm in the Brewers’ pen, at least for the first half of the season. If his usage rate remains as high as last season, Smith undoubtedly will drop off again in the second half.

5. Jeremy Jeffress will finish the season as the team’s closer.

Another thing that could derail the Brewers this season is trusting Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Broxton to anchor the back end of the bullpen.

There’s no question K-Rod was dominant over his first 21 games last season, but the other 48 were a different story. After posting a 0.43 ERA through May 13, Rodriguez had a 4.21 ERA while giving up 13 home runs and blowing four saves the rest of the way.

Rodriguez and Broxton ultimately will struggle at some point. When that time comes, Jeffress has the opportunity and the stuff to step up and fill the closer’s role.

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Braun sits with strained ribcage muscle

April 7, 2015 Comments off

MILWAUKEE — Ryan Braun was out of the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup Tuesday night, but the right fielder hopes to be back within a day or two.

Braun strained a ribcage muscle on his right side while making a catch near the outfield fence in Monday night’s game. He left the game after the fifth inning with the Brewers down 10-0 to the Colorado Rockies.

An MRI provided some good news Tuesday.

“I woke up today feeling better than I did yesterday, got an MRI and am very encouraged by the results,” Braun said. “Hopefully it’s something that’s only a day or two instead of what the alternative could have been. It’s something I’m happy about.”

With Braun suffering an injury so early in the season, the Brewers were encouraged by the good news.

Fourth outfielder Gerardo Parra started in Braun’s place in right field, batting sixth. First baseman Adam Lind slid into the No. 3 spot in the Brewers’ lineup.

Braun did hit in the cage before the game and said he might be available off the bench if needed.

“You never want to see that opening day and all of a sudden you’re thinking, ‘Uh oh, already?'” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “So, this isn’t too bad.”

With the injury occurring after the Brewers already trailed the Rockies 10-0, it was unclear whether Braun would have stayed in during a more competitive game.

Having 160 games remaining after Tuesday night, Braun and the Brewers played it safe with a day of rest.

“It’s good,” Braun said. “I’ll get treatment all day today and just continue to do what they tell me to do and hope that I get back in there as soon as possible.

“It’s something between sore and tight, but it’s not something that’s a significant injury.”

The best news for the Brewers is that it’s not Braun’s thumb keeping him out of the lineup.

Braun has been sidelined by similar injuries in the past, but there’s no indication that the latest injury is related to those.

“Any time you’re talking about obliques or intercostals or whatever, it’s easy to redo those things,” Roenicke said.

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Milwaukee still a special place for John Axford

April 7, 2015 Comments off

 — If John Axford was wondering what kind of reception he would get at Miller Park this week, he didn’t get to find out on opening day.

It’s not just that the Colorado Rockies reliever didn’t pitch in the game. Axford’s name wasn’t even called during the pregame introduction ceremony.

“I’m pretty sure I got skipped over,” Axford said. “They had Rafael Betancourt, who’s No. 63 — I’m No. 66 — and they stopped at 63. They didn’t carry on from there; I didn’t hear my name.”

It was an unassuming start to a series that holds extra significance for the former Brewers closer.

Axford returned to Milwaukee this week with the Rockies for his fourth opening day at Miller Park. It was his first in the visitor’s clubhouse.

“It was definitely different, but it was similar at the same time,” Axford said. “No matter what the reception is, I still love the city and the community here, I’m always back and I’ve still been a part of it even though I haven’t been here.

“I still have my ties here, and my wife and I still come back when the baseball season’s all done.”

A return to something so familiar may have been just what Axford needed after his 2-year-old son, Jameson, was bitten by a rattlesnake late last month in Scottsdale. Jameson remains in the hospital, but is recovering quicker than the doctors anticipated, considering the severity of the bite.

Axford credited the hospital staff along with family and friends for keeping him informed on his son’s progress while he has to be away with the Rockies.

“He went into surgery yesterday and my wife told me they started singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ to him when he was going in,” Axford said. “It’s a great group of people there.”

After spending last season with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, Axford signed a minor league contract with Colorado in early February. He’s now part of a bullpen that features another former Brewers reliever, LaTroy Hawkins, as its closer.

Opening the season in Milwaukee was one of the first things Axford said he noticed after signing with the club. The Brewers were happy to see him back in town as well.

“Ax was one of those guys, he didn’t just perform well — especially the first year that I was here — he’s a great guy,” Roenicke said. “He’s a guy everybody likes.

“It’s always nice seeing these guys come back. You hope they don’t beat you too much, but it’s great to have him back.”

While the Brewers don’t want to see him beat them, Axford is looking for better results than his last opening day in Milwaukee.

Coming off a strong 2012 season, Axford entered with a 4-3 lead on April 1, 2013. He blew that opening day save opportunity after giving up a solo home run to Dexter Fowler. The Brewers went on to win, but it was the beginning of the end for his time in the closer’s role.

Axford pitched again two days later and turned a 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 hole, as Michael Cuddyer connected for a two-run homer and Fowler added another solo shot. All told, Axford surrendered nine runs on nine hits — including four home runs — over 3 1/3 innings in his first four games of the season.

“Those things stick with you,” Axford said. “You remember and understand it. Obviously it’s the past and you don’t want to dwell on it, but at the same time I utilize it as a reminder of some perseverance and overcoming those things and making sure that they don’t happen again.”

Axford pitched in 75 games in 2013, a career high, but did not record a save. It remains the only season since he came up in 2009 that Axford did not convert at least one save opportunity.

Last season, he again opened the year in the closer’s role with the Indians, saving 10 games before giving up the job in early May. Having adjusted to a new role in each of the last two seasons, Axford knows now he just has to be ready when called upon.

“Looking at the sixth, seventh, eighth — wherever they feel that I’ll be utilized best,” Axford said. “I’ll be ready to go.”

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