Season Preview: The Milwaukee Brewers

We're officially over the hump in the NL Central with this preview of the Milwaukee Brewers' upcoming season.

The Brewers' starting five appears to be set, beginning with ace and rather good looking young man, Chris Capuano. The left-hander struggled a bit last season, going 11-12 with a 4.03 ERA in 34 starts, but struck out 174 batters. He went 10-4 in the first half and earned a trip to the All-Star Game, but slumped to 1-8 after the break. Second in the rotation is righty Ben Sheets, coming off a season plagued by shoulder tendinitis that was caused by a torn upper back muscle he suffered in August 2005. Former NL Central nemesis, veteran Jeff Suppan, committed to a $42 million, 4-year deal with the Brew Crew on Christmas Eve. The NLCS MVP has a 5-0 record with a 1.76 ERA in seven career starts at Miller Park. Dave Bush 27, and Claudio Vargas, 28, both finished 2006 with 12 wins and room to grow. The club acquired Vargas along with catcher Johnny Estrada and reliever Greg Aquino from Arizona, parting with reliable left-hander Doug Davis.

The bullpen, highlighted by closer Francisco Cordero, is chock-full of right-handers. Jose Capellan, Derrick Turnbow, Dennis Sarfate and Matt Wise each throw from the right side, with Brian Shouse being the only left-hander in the bunch. Suppan's arrival to the rotation means the Brewers will now have an opportunity to send their prospects back for more Minor League seasoning. At the top of that list is 23-year-old righty Carlos Villanueva, who made the jump from AA to the big leagues last season, posting a 3.69 ERA in 10 appearances. Fellow 40-man roster members Grant Balfour and Ben Hendrickson will also compete, as will ten more non-roster invitees.

It's gonna be a knockdown, drag-out Spring Training battle between outfielders vying for roster spots, with much of the focus on Geoff Jenkins, a former first-round Brewers' draft pick and everyday player since 1999, who is coming off some sort of winter "soul searching" and will be looking to hold onto his job as the team's starting right fielder. There are eight other outfielders on the 40-man roster, all with Major League experience: Drew Anderson, Brady Clark, Gabe Gross, Tony Gwynn Jr., Corey Hart, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix. There's also Bill Hall, the reigning club MVP, who will make the transition from the infield to outfield this season.

Second baseman Rickie Weeks and shortstop J.J. Hardy are both ready for the start of the season, anxious to prove what they're capable of with a full season as a young middle-infield duo. Both players needed season-ending surgery in 2006 to repair tendon problems - Hardy's in his right ankle and Weeks' in his right wrist. Craig Counsell, 36, was re-signed for a second season, mostly to serve as a backup to Hardy at short. Also returning is Tony Graffanino, 34, who was acquired from Kansas City last July to replace the injured Weeks at second. Both Counsell and Graffanino are 11-year veterans, and both have experience at all four infield positions, should injury arise.

Coming off a solid rookie season, first baseman Prince Fielder will be back for his sophomore season looking to build on a 28-homer, 81-RBI effort. Across the diamond though, the third base spot remains in limbo with Corey Koskie's status still uncertain for 2007, considering his battle with post-concussion syndrome. One possibility for Opening Day other than Koskie, Counsell or Graffanino, is top prospect Ryan Braun.

Trading for the switch-hitting Estrada, Milwaukee now has a new face to crouch behind home plate in front of last year's starter Damian Miller, who become a backup for the first time since 1998. At first, the 37-year-old Miller was angry about the trade. But as he put it, he began to "dwell on the positives. Maybe it's time for the kids to play." Miller suffered at least two concussions, and by the end of the season, was hurting in both Achilles tendons, right hamstring and lower back. Adding insult to injury, he strained a ribcage muscle during the final week of the season while holding open a door for a woman at the team hotel in Chicago. Mike Rivera, third on the backstop list, started the team's final 10 games behind the plate.

The Crew finished 75-87 last season, fourth in the division and 8.5 games back. They've made the offseason moves and seem to have a grip on their rotation. All that's left is to win some games. A big spot for improvement would be intradivisional work, as the club went 37-45 against teams in the NL Central. They also sucked on the road - away from Miller Park, the Brewers went 27-54 in 2006. If they want to have anything to do with a division title, besides not having one, they must start winning more away games.

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Al said...

Hey show a little love for the BrewCrew.

Your Transplanted Brother-In-Law.

Sooze said...

Oh, I got some love for the Brew Crew! I grew up waiting for homers at the old park, just to see balloons, fireworks and a man go down the biggest slide in the world. What more could a kid want?


Nice preview. This is talented young team but I think they are still a year or two away from really contending.

Also, one of my favorite place to see a game... beautiful ballpark.