Can Milwaukee Brew Trouble?

Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder, is congratulated by Kevin Mench after hitting a third-inning, two-run home run off St. Louis Friday night in St. Louis to lead the Brewers to a 4-3 win over the Cardinals, their eighth loss in a row.

Milwaukee is struggling to break through

When the year began, I and many other more qualified baseball scribes pegged the Brewers to make a leap forward from their push to .500 at last season's end. They finished with a strong September, and the core of the team was young and poised to show even more improvement. However, early August finds Milwaukee's best very much where they were a year ago – still hovering around .500, and still struggling to take that next step forward.

This is not the case of a team that has taken large risks, and seen them not pay off, such as Washington trading for Alfonso Soriano in the offseason. The highest risk addition the Brewers have made has been the addition of a fifth type of meat – Mexican Chorizo – to the daily sausage race at Miller Park. Perhaps in a symbol of the team's arrested progress, even this lowest of lowstakes move has apparently been curtailed for now by baseball's mascot police. (Believe me if you don't, but this is a top story in the Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel's sports section.)

Nor is this the case of a team seeing several top performers decline with age, such as the Giants and their 120-year-old outfield. Injuries, on the other hand, have played a factor – Brewers ace Ben Sheets has lost significant time to injury, and it has hurt the pitching staff's performance, but they are only six games behind where they were a year ago, which pales in comparison with the Cubs' run of injuries and their 10-game decline in the standings.

This is simply a team that has is showing the kind of growing pains that are common with a team dependent on a young talent core. However, with Sheets and fellow starting pitcher Tomo Okha back from the disabled list, and the Cardinals' 7.5 game division lead over the third-place Brew Crew looking shakier than ever, it's tough to count out another late-season push from this team.

A Tale of Two Cities

Perhaps the most interesting contrast for this year's Brewers is the team closest to them in the standings, the Houston Astros. The Astros' season has been beset by drama involving tens of millions of dollars and some of the biggest names in Texas baseball, while the buzz around the Brewers has been limited to the progress of Prince Fielder, the departure of Carlos Lee, and the aforementioned Running of the Chorizo. And yet, the two teams are separated by a mere half game in the NL Central.

In Houston, Jeff Bagwell's attempted comeback and eventual retirement in the Spring started out as a one- or two-hanky story, the tearful farewell to the city's best-ever first baseman, but has spiraled into a potential financial nightmare for the team, which may lose out on an insurance policy covering most of the salary still owed to the big man, simply because he tried the comeback in the first place rather than admit the career-ending nature of his shoulder deterioration. I'd try to explain the specifics, but I don't speak the morbid language of the Insurance industry, which even today is adjusting its actuarial tables on me based on how many keystrokes a typical self-employed, right-handed, thirty-three year old man can make before making a carpal tunnel claim on his health insurance.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the young son of rotund Cecil Fielder is enjoying a strong, well-rounded season with 20 HR bolstering a solid .287 average, and he's showing marked improvement in both plate discipline and consistent power. Pretty fine for an age-22 season. However, his progress has been upstaged by the astounding leap forward taken by St. Louis native Ryan Howard, who leads the NL with 36 homers, relegating Fielder to a substrata of baseball buzz.

In Houston, ESPN was given fodder for two months of broadcasts by the mid-season signing of Roger Clemens to the rotation, paying him roughly the gross domestic product of a small thirdworld country for his half-summer of work. The story took on such a life and spread so far that Clemens briefly considered declaring himself a sovereign nation and petitioning to join the U.N., before reconsidering. The Clemens reports continue on the sports-babble networks, as he has joined the major league team and has pitched well, but the Astros have won only two of his eight starts, sending him to four unlikely losses, already matching his entire 2004 total with the team. The untold story here continues to be his declining innings count – Clemens is averaging under six innings per start, leaving Brad Lidge and the embattled Houston bullpen with too much ground to cover effectively.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Ben Sheets has returned from a two-month layoff on the disabled list and immediately threw two sparkling games – seven and eight innings on 94 and 101 pitches, respectively – leading to two Brewer wins. Outside of cheese country, though, Sheets' return has made fewer ripples than a Chinese Olympic high diver.

And when it came down to the July trading deadline, Houston made out as buyers, acquiring Aubrey Huff from the Devil Rays and inquiring about many other players. The Brewers, by contrast, seemed to play the middle of the market, making one big "sell" of the team's leading slugger, Carlos Lee, that will color the general perception of the team's prospects. However, GM Doug Melvin got back two very useful major league players from the Texas Rangers – young run-producing outfielder Kevin Mench and reliever Francisco Cordero, who have already both contributed to a series winninggame over the Cincinnati Reds. Cordero in particular is positioned to have an immediate impact as the Brewers' new closer, replacing the suddenly erratic Derrick Turnbow. Unlike the Phillies' salary dump of Bobby Abreu to the Yankees, the Brewers got back players of value and addressed immediate needs with the trade of Lee, who was having a career year in his contract year.

Looking to the Long Term

New owner Mark Attanasio made two strong moves early by upping the team's payroll and committing longterm to Sheets and slugging outfielder Geoff Jenkins. This has stabilized the team, and helped bring fans back to the ballpark, as attendance has been up every year of Attanasio's ownership, and shown an increase of nearly 8,000 fans per game from a low point in 2003.

However, many of the trends that last year's Brewers displayed are still with them. Team defense, hardly a point of pride last year, is still a big problem as the Brewers are near the bottom of the majors in errors committed and unearned runs allowed. Another bugaboo has been their scuffling play on road trips. Last year's team played 11 games under .500 in away games, and this year's team has already hit a lower point, with a 19-34 record away from Miller Park.

By comparison, the Cardinals are a more road-hardy team than the Brewers this year, with an even 27-27 record. But this, for St. Louis, represents a huge step back from our dominant teams of 2004 and 2005 - last year's sterling 50-31 road mark equaled the home record, and 2004's 52-29 road record was unparalleled in the league. Closing this gap would put the Brewers on essentially equal ground with St. Louis this year, while recapturing the road mojo would provide a serious lift to the Cardinals, which desperately needs one.

Perhaps if the Brewers had made a big stride in the standings early this year, as the Reds have in shadowing the Cards for much of the season after their gloomy 2005, Carlos Lee would have been signed and not traded. Perhaps Melvin would have been operating in full "Buy" mode this July. Reportedly, the Brewers did make a handsome contract offer to their star outfielder at some point this year, but not quite enough to his (and his agent's) liking. Perhaps the lack of progress shown by the team helped sew up the pocketbook by that small amount of bargaining room that could have landed Lee for the long term. It's easy to speculate, but impossible to know. And with the ready-to-compete players they got in return from the Rangers, as well as the acquisitions of veterans David Bell and Tony Graffanino to shore up short-term holes on the infield, the Brewers are not looking into the rear-view mirror, but ahead still to possible contention this year, and in the years to come.


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