Brewers Have Playoff-Caliber Team

Considering the crucial loss of No. 2 starter Yovani Gallardo and Bill Hall, Mike Cameron and Rickie Weeks still hitting below .235, Milwaukee is in position and has talent to make postseason run.

I'm sure Milwaukee's brass will sign their first-half report cards, but several players and areas need improving for the Brewers to receive passing marks and graduate to the postseason for the first time since 1982.

Milwaukee overcame a sluggish start that saw it sitting at 20-24 and in last place in the National League's Central Division, hitting the break on a 32-19 sprint that included a closing 6-4 home stand that should have been much better.

Still, the Brewers (52-43) are within striking distance, trailing Chicago (57-38) by five games and St. Louis by a half-game (53-43).

General manager Doug Melvin scratched his itchy trigger finger, netting the Brewers reigning American League Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia, infusing the team and its fans with a shot of enthusiasm not seen around these parts for a while.

However, methinks that CC fever and the hullabaloo surrounding Ryan Braun, Ben Sheets and Corey Hart going to the All-star game contributed to four duds against Colorado and Cincinnati that Milwaukee obviously must make up down the stretch.

Offense and pitching depth were supposed to be this team's strengths, but both have suffered deficiencies that must be shored up.

Offense

Run production has been sporadic, with the 9-1 home stand against Atlanta, Houston and Arizona from May 27-June 4 and a homer explosion at Houston on June 11-12 the only times that at least several players were hitting simultaneously. Otherwise, hot streaks from Jason Kendall early, Braun and Prince Fielder during home interleague play and J.J. Hardy's torrid final two weeks have carried the brunt of the load, while Hart has been the lone constant throughout.

Braun leads the team with 23 homers and 66 RBIs but remains far too undisciplined with a team-high 78 strikeouts and subpar on-base percentage of .324 considering his .286 average. More patience and walks in front of Fielder and Hart would be helpful.

No one should have expected Fielder to meet or exceed his 50-homer season, but he has struggled finding his extra-base stroke. Maybe it's the pressure of playing for a big payday or not being handed a bigger one before the season, but not consistently adjusting to pitchers' adjustments has resulted in far too many pop-ups and groundballs to second base. The Brewers need a big finish from him, physically and emotionally.

Hart has consistently produced, for a short time in the lead-off spot but mostly in the No. 5 hole, hovering between .285 and .300 nearly all season and knocking in 58 runs despite the often mediocre results in front of him.

Hardy really carried the team into the break and has sparkled in the field. Something in-between his slow start and wonderful finish would suffice.

Meanwhile, Rickie Weeks (.217), miscast or unable to adapt to the lead-off spot; Bill Hall (.234), who didn't handle a platoon situation well but has responded at the plate lately; and Mike Cameron (.231), who's already struck out 71 times in only 216 at-bats, must make more contact to at least create potential opportunities for runners to advance and/or make the opposition play defense.

Kendall hasn't hit for as high of an average as I thought he would but usually makes contact.

The bench has been above average, especially Gabe Kapler offensively and Craig Counsell defensively. Joe Dillon has been serviceable but not hitting like after last year's call-up, while Russell Branyan provided a big boost for about a three-week span but returned to his all-or-nothing past of late, although the platoon at third base makes it difficult on him and Hall if they don't see action for several days.

Pitching

The starting rotation has surpassed most expectations considering the loss of young sensation Yovani Gallardo for all but three starts this season and $42 million man Jeff Suppan, converted reliever Seth McClung and Dave Bush having displayed Jekyll and Hyde tendencies.

Sheets has stayed healthy and has been excellent most of the time with free agency approaching. The addition of Sabathia was a huge acquisition and should help the team avoid losing streaks and gives the Brewers another southpaw against the league's best left-hitting lineups that they'll face. Manny Parra fits that bill, too, and was hot until his last outing after eight days between starts because of fitting Sabathia into the mix. If Parra can avoid high early pitch counts and go deeper into games, that could be a key factor in how well the bullpen gets rested.

The Suppan of pre-June 20 must return, while Milwaukee needs reasonable results from the double-headed monster of Bush and McClung at the back end, and a platoon there might be the best answer.

The bullpen was mostly a shambles until Salomon Torres became a godsend, converting his first 14 save chances since Eric Gagne went on the disabled list after blowing five saves. Gagne and David Riske spent lengthy stints on the DL and haven't produced nearly enough before or since, and Guillermo Mota has imploded ala Derrick Turnbow the past several weeks.

Brian Shouse hasn't been as reliable as left-handed hitters have found his 70-80 mph offerings pretty tasty of late, while the question with fellow southpaw Mitch Stetter is whether he can hold up to the pressure of a pennant race.

Melvin has to be checking the market for relief arms, although it's doubtful that he will unload many more prospects, unless a quality arm such as Colorado's Brian Fuentes or a serviceable alternative presented itself.

Defense

Yost and company say it's much better, but improving from a tie for 12th to 10th isn't exactly enough to make fans comfortable and isn't good enough to win tight games in September. Kendall has been arguably the league's best defensive catcher.

Schedule

The team only faces one more three-city jaunt, and that will be key as it's the final and only road trip in September, but it takes the Brewers to Philadelphia for four games, to Wrigley for three and Cincinnati for three.

The Brewers face Chicago 10 times, including seven at Miller Park. They face St. Louis six times, all in Missouri, including a four-game stay next week that could give them momentum or send them reeling. They also must travel to Atlanta a second time, and despite their struggles this year, a six-game swing to San Diego and Los Angeles has never been easy for Milwaukee.

The team has 33 home contests and 34 away games, so hopefully the less taxing road trips will lead to better results on both fronts.

Chicago faces its only real three-city tour in September, including a middle stop in St. Louis, and ends the season with four contests at Shea against the Mets and three games at Miller Park.

St. Louis should get off to a good second-half start with an eight-game stay at Busch against San Diego and Milwaukee before a seven-game swing through New York and Atlanta. The Cards then host Philly and face an 11-game road trip that starts with the Cubs and four games at Florida. Their September slate features seven games against Arizona and six each with the Cubs and Reds.

So, where does that leave the Brewers? Despite many of the aforementioned negatives, Milwaukee has everything to gain within reach. Considering the injuries and inconsistencies, the Brewers absolutely have a good enough team to put it all together and end their playoff drought.


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