With pundits like ESPN's Peter Gammons picking Milwaukee over the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in the National League's Central Division, it might be time to start taking Brewers baseball seriously again. And after 25 years without so much as a whiff of the postseason, Brewers backers are enjoying an emotion that baseball fans in other markets often associate with April: optimism.
Thanks to decades of listless baseball mixed with moments of actual embarrassment, that optimism is tempered with a good deal of caution. A .500 finish two years ago was supposed to be a harbinger of success, but the Brewers finished 2006 with a disappointing 75-87 record. With shortstop J.J. Hardy and starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka out with injuries for most of the season and an uneven performance from the bullpen, Milwaukee never found a rhythm.
This year could be different, as underscored by the team's 7-1 opening game win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sheets pitched a complete game, giving up just two hits and earning a standing ovation from appreciative fans.
One of the bright spots from 2006 was the play of Bill Hall, who took over for Hardy at shortstop after Hardy went down in May with an ankle injury. Signed as a utility man to fill in at third base, shortstop or second base, Hall quickly became a fan favorite as an everyday player. He embraced Major League Baseball's pink bat promotion on Mother's Day, using his to hit a home run, while other players refused to participate in the benefit for breast cancer research.
Hall finished the season with 35 home runs, 85 RBIs and a .531 slugging percentage, presenting the Milwaukee front office with a quandary. They couldn't very well consign a talent like Hall to his utility-man role once Hardy returned, so they signed him to a four-year, $24 million contract after Hall agreed to move to center field.
It's worth noting that Hall was in an ideal position to test the waters after his breakout season, and he could have fetched a lot of money from teams seeking a quality shortstop. In the past, players with a good bargaining position have forced the team's hand, and Brewers fans have grown accustomed to watching players like Hall get away. But third-year owner Mark Attanasio has vowed to invest in payroll to keep his team's young nucleus intact, and Hall clearly feels he can contribute to a club on the rise.
'We've got a good thing going [in Milwaukee],' Hall said in February. 'Now I know I'll be there for a long time.'
One big concern for the Brewers going into the new season is the strength of their bullpen. Derrick Turnbow, the mercurial mop-topped closer, will try to shake off a miserable second half in 2006. After recording 23 saves and being named to the All-Star roster, he melted down in July and August, blowing eight saves and earning the nickname Turn Blow. (Milwaukee ended the year 8 games out of first in the Central).
The presence of hard-throwing Francisco Cordero, who picked up 22 saves after arriving in a trade with Texas last season, should take some of the pressure off. Setting up Cordero and Turnbow will be Elmer Dessens, a 10-year veteran who pitched over 100 innings in middle relief duty for Los Angeles and Kansas City last year.
Also easing the relief corps burden is the off-season addition of two 12-game winners ' Claudio Vargas and World Series MVP Jeff Suppan ' to the starting rotation. Along with the returning Sheets (6-7), Chris Capuano (11-12) and Dave Bush (12-11), that gives the Brewers a solid five-man rotation for the first time in recent memory.
That rotation plus the parity of the Central, where Pittsburgh is the only team that doesn't stand a chance, is prompting pundits to list Milwaukee as a contender. But the Chicago Cubs are sure to be energized under Lou Piniella, their new manager, and the St. Louis Cardinals are always formidable. Even Houston, without the services of Roger Clemens, has a shot. Indeed, the Major Leagues' worst division last year could be its most competitive in 2007.
We should know a lot more about the fate of this year's Brew Crew over the course of the next few weeks as it plays all four Central Division rivals.