Brewers: Winning Week, But Questions Mounting

Author’s note: This post was added to Channel 3000 last Sunday, but I stupidly forgot to copy it over to my blog. Here it is, although it only discusses the Brewer games through last Saturday, April 20. May I say, though, that many concerns I address here have become even more glaring in the last few days.

The Milwaukee Brewers completed a 4-2 week on Saturday that ended with a three-game winning streak, including two thrilling extra-inning victories. The team is 11-6, tied with the Chicago Cubs and just a half-game back of the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals. They’re a full game ahead of last year’s record after 17 games when they were the darlings of the National League, and they’re on pace to win 105 games.

Should fans be happy with the record so far? Sure. Should fans be worried about the long-term strength of this team? You bet.

Let’s start with the starting pitching, which is to any baseball team what Michael J. Fox was to Family Ties: the lifeblood. A week ago, it seemed obvious that when Yovani Gallardo was ready to join the rotation after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee early in spring training, he would take Dave Bush’s spot. Bush had struggled mightily in his first two starts, giving up ten runs and racking up a massive 8.44 ERA.

Now, Gallardo will probably still replace Bush (as of this writing no decision had been announced), but the choice has become decidedly murkier thanks to the general awfulness of Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra. Villanueva (1-2) has allowed 14 hits and nine runs in his last two starts, earning himself a whopping 6.19 ERA, while Parra (also 1-2) has only been able to go four innings in each of his last two starts. In contrast, Bush had a decent outing (six innings, three earned runs) last week against St. Louis in a losing effort. Next to Bush, Villanueva, and Parra, Jeff Suppan, with an ERA of only 4.12 and coming off a solid start on Saturday, looks like Steve Carlton.

Of course, the struggles of the second through fifth starters will pale in comparison to the loss of Ben Sheets if Sheets has to miss any starts after being taken out early in Friday’s game because of tightness in his triceps. The loss of Sheets, who has been brilliant this season, for an extended stretch would be crippling to the rotation. Unfortunately, the tightness has been a problem for Sheets now in two consecutive starts and, given that it is near the torn muscle he suffered in 2005, it is definitely cause for concern. The Sheets Injury Watch, second only in recent years to the Favre Retirement Watch as sources of stress for Wisconsin sports fans, has sadly returned.

The Brewers’ pitching woes would be less troublesome if hits and runs were piling up, but most of Milwaukee’s starting lineup is about as cold as Joe Piscopo’s acting career. Rickie Weeks is batting .188 and has seen his playing time lessened. J.J. Hardy is batting .200. Bill Hall, despite late game heroics and clutch hitting — he’s leading the club with 16 RBIs — is still only hitting .224 and he’s second in the majors in strikeouts.

Elsewhere, Ryan Braun is not only hitting the ball poorly with a .235 average, but he’s swinging at everything — his on-base percentage is only .243, and that’s only up after he took his first walk of the season on Friday night. In contrast, Prince Fielder is not only showing signs of emerging from his slump (check his game-winning home run on Thursday), but he’s taking his walks and getting on base to the tune of an on-base percentage of .365. You know you’re in trouble when you’re calling on the likes of Gabe Gross and Craig Counsell to provide some offense. Counsell has delivered, but Gross, with four hits in 33 at-bats, has not.

The bright spots in the lineup include Corey Hart and Jason Kendall, as well as Gabe Kapler, although Kapler’s productivity has been slowed by a bruised right shoulder that caused him to miss two games last week and now he hasn’t had a hit since last Sunday’s three-hit, three RBI performance against the Mets. If Kapler’s already played his best games of the season, who in the lineup will step it up to compensate for the loss of that unexpected production?

So with batting and pitching woes evident, what’s helping Milwaukee get out to this 11-6 start? Well, they’ve been playing solid defense, committing only seven errors, which gives them the third-fewest in the majors, behind Houston and Kansas City.

The bullpen, after having some struggles earlier in the season, has been largely impressive, going for a stretch of 12-2/3 consecutive shutout innings this week. Unfortunately, Brian Shouse did blow a save opportunity by giving up a two-run home run on Saturday.

Of course, the best news out of the bullpen is the play of Eric Gagne, who has now converted five straight save opportunities, including three in a row from Thursday-Saturday. Gagne hasn’t allowed a run since April 8 and has seen his ERA steadily drop from a whopping 27.00 (after his failed first outing of the season) to 4.70.

Gagne is quickly going from biggest question mark on the team to one of the Brewers’ most reliable performers. But as Milwaukee begins a seven-game home stand on Monday night against St. Louis, the list of reliable performers on the Brewers seems to be getting shorter every day.

Joe Dillon has been sent to the minors to make way for Yovani Gallardo, meaning that the Brewers are keeping an amazing 14 pitchers on their 25-man roster. Clearly Ned Yost wouldn’t have made this move if the health of Ben Sheets wasn’t in question, but keeping only eleven day-to-day players can’t last long.
 

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