Retooled Brewers expect big things
Deeper staff, return to health may lift franchise to contention
PHOENIX -- Is this the year in which the Milwaukee Brewers finally break through to not only a winning, but a contending season?
Well, the reasons on their side of the argument are more numerous than at any time since their last winning season, which was in 1992.
There has been widespread agreement in baseball circles for some time that the Brewers have been headed in the right direction. The Brewers became a .500 team in 2005, but they were then sidetracked by a wave of injuries to a 75-87 record last year. Now, the rotation has been bolstered, the bullpen seems to be deeper and the vast majority of the injured players are back at their posts.
"There's no question that we are absolutely better than at any time since I've been here," said manager Ned Yost, who is entering his fifth season. "Our team is better."
"Injuries took a toll on us last year, and [general manager] Doug Melvin and [assistant GM] Gord Ash did a great job of going out and increasing our depth with quality players, all the way around in every area of our game. We feel like we're pretty protected. The depth is very important.
"And we like the fact that our young guys are really maturing at a really fast level. These guys aren't wide-eyed and bushy-tailed anymore. These guys come here, and you can tell that they know that they belong here, they know that they can compete here. They absolutely know that they can. There's a huge difference in that. You look at the chemistry we have in the clubhouse -- it's really good. And the guys are really focused on learning how to play the game to win. It's not like in years past, where we went out and practiced hitting and ran through the fundamentals of the game. These guys are working on the little nuances of the game that are going to make us better as a team. In years past, I've always been getting them ready to play. This year, our focus is on getting them ready to win."
The Brewers, for the first time in the new millennium, appear to have more capable pitchers than available pitching spots. In the rotation, there are two leading reasons for improvement -- Ben Sheets' health and the acquisition of Jeff Suppan. Due to injuries, Sheets has not pitched a full season since 2004, but in 2004, he was terrific. With Suppan, the Brewers stepped out of small-market character and acquired the veteran with a four-year, $42 million deal.
How can the Brewers be assured that Sheets' health does not have to be a major issue this season?
"There's a lot of things -- extra bunting, extra pitchers' fielding practice, extra batting practice -- things he's never been able to do before," Yost said. "Benny's never been able to go out in the cage early. He's never really been able to bunt, because he's always been in the training room doing everything that he can do just to get ready to pitch. His focus now is on becoming a complete baseball player. He wants to be better at the little things that are going to enable him to win 20, 22 games."
Suppan not only solidifies the rotation, he's a personable fellow, a positive clubhouse presence. This sort of thing is of prime importance to the Brewers, an operation that cannot afford a drain on team chemistry.
"I had never really met Jeff Suppan before, but, man, I was shocked at how neat a guy this guy really is," Yost said. "We had just seen him wearing a Cardinals uniform, sticking it to us every time he was on that mound. You knew he was a great competitor. You knew he was a consistent, complete player who could do everything out there and who just gave us fits. But I had no idea that he was a top-notch person, too."
The Brewers had shortcomings in center field, which they believed they have fixed with the move of Bill Hall from the infield. Hall had to play somewhere; in 2006, he moved from a super-sub role to shortstop after J.J. Hardy was injured. Hall took advantage of the work, hitting 35 home runs and 39 doubles. He has gone from part-timer to centerpiece.
"Bill Hall, this spring, has all of a sudden grown up and taken a leadership role on this club," Yost said.
The Brewers have further reasons for optimism. For instance, the acquisition of Johnny Estrada will provide more offense at catcher. The young talent, widely admired in baseball, should improve. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks lost developmental time to injuries last year, but their potential is indisputable. First baseman Prince Fielder is on his way toward becoming an impact hitter.
Unlike many Brewers teams between 1992 and the present, you cannot look at this group and identify an area or a position that is in desperate need of an upgrade.
Does that translate automatically into success? No. But it does indicate that this group has a better chance than in any recent season.
"I can't put a number on it," Yost said of his goals for this season. "Let me just say that we've got high expectations as an organization and as a group of guys.
"This is a bit of a different group. We're protected a little more than we have been in years past. We've got a real solid five-man rotation. We like our bullpen, stocked with strong arms. Our defense is improved both in the infield and the outfield. We have more experience. A lot of things are going for us right now."
"I've got a real sense about this. The air around this Spring Training has been a lot different than it has been in years past. There's a confident feeling that runs through all of us, and it's not forced."
This organization has been building toward something better for several years. The next step is the logical one, but not necessarily the easy one. That would be actually winning.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.