Though it may be March Madness time (and even the Milwaukee Bucks are making a surprising late-season run at state sports fans' interest), when the snow melts and spring beckons my thoughts turn to baseball. The possibilities are endless for a baseball junkie's favorite team when the season record is 0-0, and I'm no different: My prediction for this year's Milwaukee Brewers season record is, as always, 162-0.
Is it likely that prognostication will ever come true? Well, probably not. But after keeping a close eye on many off-season player moves by general manager Doug Melvin, and making a visit to the Milwaukee Brewers' spring training camp in the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., I'm feeling a lot more confident than I was at the end of 2009 about the team's chances in what could be a tough National League Central race. Very few of the players Melvin brought to the team can be called can't-miss upgrades. But the sheer volume of new faces in camp has made for a competitive atmosphere in the hunt for the relatively few open slots on the team's opening day roster. That's hopefully sending a message to some underperforming holdovers that it's time to step up or prepare to watch from the dugout.
After visiting Phoenix, it's easy to see why teams have congregated in the area for preseason preparation. The weather during the trip was perfect for baseball -- mostly in the mid-60s and sunny -- and I can't imagine a better place to get reacquainted with picking fly balls out of the sky than in the intense sunshine of Arizona. I saw a pair of wins: a 12-3 bombing of a scrub-filled split squad lineup for the hated Chicago Cubs on March 12, and a 5-4 squeaker over the depleted Cleveland Indians on March 15. Both games featured early leads and strong starting performances, by Doug Davis and Yovanni Gallardo, respectively, with enough bullpen help to seal the victory.
That formula is what the Brewers are banking on for the 2010 regular season, and Melvin has done his best to upgrade what turned into one of the worst starting pitching staffs in the majors in 2009. The biggest pickup could turn out to be in the dugout, as new pitching coach Rick Peterson's ability to help turn the staff around will be a key to the team's success this year. Along with No. 1 Gallardo and the return of Davis after three seasons in Arizona, the only pitcher in the rotation for sure at this point is free agent signee Randy Wolf. Melvin inked the left-hander to a hefty three-year contract after the Dodgers declined to offer Wolf arbitration following one of his best seasons in the majors.
If Wolf remains healthy, he's another very solid third-starter sort of arm in a rotation likely to be full of them, depending who survives the competition for the fourth and fifth spots. If the team follows their pledge to go by spring performance, the final two slots will be filled by Dave Bush, coming off an injury-plagued 2009, and September star Chris Narveson. Manny Parra has also had a mostly-solid spring and would be an ok choice. Under no circumstances should they let Jeff Suppan remain in the rotation, or, really, anywhere near a mound. Caution will prevail, however, and Suppan will likely break camp with the team due to his bloated, un-tradeable contract and memories of being caught short of pitching last summer; Brewers fans statewide are hoping his presence is at least not as a starting pitcher. Manager Ken Macha has stated that he won't be likely to decide the fifth slot until the team needs one, which will be a few weeks into the season.
Complicating matters, none of the four competitors for the last rotation slots can be sent down (Bush and Suppan due to service time, and Parra and Narveson are out of minor-league options), so two potential starters will probably begin the season as part of the bullpen staff. With the team expected to keep seven men in the pen, some deserving arms will be forced to go to Triple-A due to the numbers crunch. The good news from the team's perspective is that creates much more depth than they started with last year, in case of inevitable injuries or ineffectiveness. Closer Trevor Hoffman and expensive, semi-inexplicable free agent signing LaTroy Hawkins are locks for the big club, along with reliable setup men Todd Coffey and Mitch Stetter. That probably leaves the final spot for Claudio Vargas, another former Brewer who was re-signed late last season and did a good job.
There were quite a few other pitchers in camp with a shot at the club who performed well and will be waiting in the wings for their next shot, including solid 2009 staff members Chris Smith and Carlos Villanueva; Tim Dillard, who is working on a change in his delivery; impressive rookie John Axford; and waiver claim Marco Estrada, who will join the AAA starting rotation. In the event of some sort of miracle Suppan-dumping or an injury before the season, one of these pitchers could begin the season with the big club. Another wild card is former All-Star Chris Capuano, who is in camp attempting a comeback from a second Tommy John surgery; however, he's currently in shutdown mode once again, and has been sent to the minor league camp. Not such a wild card is David Riske, who will begin the season on the disabled list. Otherwise, the most well-known names of the other pitchers in camp were now-released veterans John Halama (mostly ineffective) and Scott Schoeneweis, who pitched fairly well but became a victim of the numbers game.
While pitching is key, the Brewers offense also sputtered for extended periods in 2009, and there's plenty of new faces in the starting lineup for 2010. Like his pitching moves, Melvin's attempts to upgrade the lineup all come with an element of risk, but it seems likely the new players can't help but hit better than those they are replacing. One key is the return to the lineup of Rickie Weeks. If he can stay healthy and set the table for the sluggers, the Brewers offense could be a wrecking crew this year. Another key is the performance of three new starters holding down the middle of the diamond.
At catcher Melvin has replaced one of the league's premiere game-callers, Jason Kendall, with an even older player - career backup/platoon player Gregg Zaun. He seems an extremely unlikely signing as the team's new starting catchers, but Zaun has torn the cover off the ball in spring training and has been regarded as a solid all-around player during his career. The team also non-tendered backup Mike Rivera in the offseason, and it's looking like this year's second catcher will be waiver claim George Kottaras, who has also crushed the ball all spring. His primary competition, Matt Treanor, was traded to Texas for a minor-league infielder.
At shortstop, prospect Alcides Escobar will have to be ready to make the jump to the majors, and so far has looked good this spring. He replaces the underperforming J.J. Hardy, shipped off to Minnesota for new center fielder Carlos Gomez, who also underperformed and lost his starting job in 2009. The speedy Gomez covers a lot of ground in center, and should be more than able to replace departed Gold Glove winner Mike Cameron. Whether he can refrain from hitting lots of lazy fly balls and instead keep the ball on the ground and use his legs to beat out hits remains to be seen.
Other mysteries include whether the All-Star Corey Hart or his evil twin shows up; and if de facto third base starter Casey McGehee, who hasn't really gotten started yet this spring, can build on his impressive 2009 rookie season. Meanwhile McGehee's main competition, Mat Gamel, has been again derailed by injuries and probably won't even join Craig Counsell on the bench. It looks like Jim Edmonds will be with the team, as he's been added to the 40-man roster despite being out of baseball last season. Judging by who else is left in camp, returning outfielder Jody Gerut and waiver claim Joe Inglett will probably be the other bench players to start the season.
That leaves a total of two starting positions that are near-locks for big seasons - left fielder Ryan Braun and first basemen Prince Fielder. The one upside of lots of question marks, though, is the potential for everything to go right and create a magic season -- sort of like the Cardinals experienced last year. In March, all baseball fans can afford to believe the stars will align for his or her favorite team's season.