Brewers Spring Beyond ‘Hope’

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By Trenni Kusnierek

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I just returned from four days in Arizona where I had the chance to take in some Brewers baseball.  In all honesty, the time was far too short for me to get a great grasp of what kind of team will take the field on March 31st against the Cubs, but I did walk away feeling cautiously optimistic that the season will finally stretch into October.  Here is a quick run down of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the intangible.

THE GOOD

I left the Phoenix area feeling pretty good about the depth of young pitching the Brewers have.  I had the chance to see Claudio Vargas, Manny Parra, and Carlos Villanueva take the hill and all of them looked solid.  Villanueva had the toughest outing of the group, giving up four earned runs, but it wasn’t terrible.  Parra was undoubtedly the most impressive.  He struck out seven batters in five innings and did not give up an earned run.  Parra has not given up an earned run since the first game; actually the first batter he faced this spring.  He also showed incredible control and poise on the mound with his off speed pitches showing a ton of improvement since last season. With the recent elbow soreness lefty Chris Capuano is suffering, Parra’s chances of making the rotation out of spring have improved.  The talk at camp is that Villanueva will be sent back to AAA Nashville despite his solid numbers.  This is because he still has a minor league option and the team wants to use him solely as a starter, not put him in the bullpen.  So, with Yovani Gallardo out until mid-April here is how I think the rotation battle will play out; Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, and Manny Parra.

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The other glaring positive of camp: the offense.  If you have watched, listened, or checked the box score at any point this spring you’ve noticed the Brewers are not at a loss for runs crossing the plate.  Mike Cameron, Tony Gwynn, Jason Kendall, and Ryan Braun have been hot wire to wire, but in the short time I was in Phoenix a few of the other guys came around as well.  Corey Hart was mired in one heck of a slump (at one point he had struck out nearly 15 times without a home run), but just before the team’s only off day this spring Hart began both hitting the ball out of the park and just making contact in general.  Ditto for JJ Hardy and Prince Fielder, both had been doing OK at the plate, but not where they would like to be.  Following his work on Sunday, Hardy told me that early in camp a lot of the guys are tinkering with mechanics and trying to improve situational hitting (ex: pulling the ball), but as the spring draws to a close hitters try to get in a regular season mindset.  Oh, and for those of you worried that Prince’s vegetation has zapped his power, no worries.  Fielder knocked a monster shot out of a very deep part of the park in Peoria against San Diego on Friday night.

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THE BAD

I was a little concerned with some of the defensive lapses I witnessed during our two televised games.  If there is one place the Brewers put a ton of emphasis in the off season, it was on improving in the field.  Ryan Braun looked pretty darn good in left field, but there was more than one occasion I cringed at the ball handling in the infield.  I personally witnessed errors from JJ Hardy, Rickie Weeks, and Prince Fielder over the long weekend.  According to Hardy, no one should panic.  The shortstop assured me the fields in Arizona are extremely challenging because of how dry they are and the way the ball can take a funny hop.    Another reason to not panic–the error I saw Hardy commit was his first of the spring and Fielder only has two.  Plus, Dale Sveum is putting in a lot of extra hours to help the young infielders and Ed Sedar is working just as hard in the outfield.  Both coaches are the first to greet their pupils as they exit the field to go over the little things.  Truth be told, I didn’t witness that many negatives in camp, and the few games I saw may have been an aberration. 

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THE UGLY

I am hoping to say the same thing in a few weeks about second baseman Rickie Weeks–spring was just an aberration.  To say Weeks is struggling all around this spring is an understatement.  Weeks is batting .125 with just five hits, two RBI, and TWENTY strike outs.  He is also struggling in the field where he has committed a team high five errors.  What worries me the most: even though it’s spring you can see the frustration on Weeks’ face.  He looks tense, worried, and beat down every time he comes to the dugout.  Weeks jammed his finger stealing a base over the weekend and will have a few days off to recuperate both physically and mentally.  I don’t want to get too down on Weeks for this reason.  Last spring, while covering Pirates camp, catcher Ronny Paulino was hitting anything and everything out of the ball park.  It was assumed he would be a great power hitting catcher for the Bucs.  Not quite…Paulino finished with 11 home runs in 2007 for the Pirates.  I’m not 100% sure, but he may have matched that total in March.

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THE INTANGIBLE

This team is made up of guys who are more than teammates.  After spending the last five years with a team that knew nothing but losing, it was a breath of fresh air to witness guys having fun from start to finish.  Yes, it is just spring training, but you can’t fake camaraderie.  I noticed it while working the Brewers Winter Warm Up in January and this group of players are friends as well as co-workers.  Why does that matter?  Because in August when the team or a player is in a slump, but still in the race, the last thing you need is finger pointing.  You need guys around that will pick each other up and do whatever they can to end the losing or the rough stretch at the plate.  Most importantly, you need a group of players who believe in the team and in each other.  Baseball is the most individual of all the team sports, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they still win and lose as a group.  The clear cut leaders on the Brewers are Prince Fielder and Mike Cameron.  Both of these guys have infectious personalities that clearly rub off on everyone around them.  Cameron, despite the fact that he has to sit for 25 games, has made an immediate impact on his teammates and it is obvious how much they like having him around.  It was fun to watch the dugout ‘shenanigans’ of Cameron, Prince, and the rest of the guys.  (Catcher Jason Kendall isn’t as vocal, but the guy is a work horse and that is not going unnoticed either.)

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Comments

  1. Great story Trenni. You guys will be good…but not as good as my Cubs I hope. : )

  2. paulmbanks says

    At the Trop in St. Pete, they have bottled water/fruit drink races that look pretty similar to the racing sausages. but nowhere near as cool. I attended a Devil Rays-Orioles game by myself about a year ago. It was the night I came into town for Sports Journalism Summitt II at the Poynter Institute. It my row was a high school girl who wanted to be a sports writer and had a crush on Around the Horn’s Woody Paige. I should have told him that after his seminar the next day.

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