Today, we have the Milwaukee Brewers team review, authored by Jeff Sackmann of Brew Crew Ball. Jeff knows his stuff, especially when it comes to the Brewers, so I hope you enjoy this.
The Milwaukee Brewers 2006 season opened with such hope. Even the offseason was an unusually optimistic one, and for good reason. The starting rotation would be the best in memory, with Ben Sheets returning healthy, Chris Capuano taking a step forward, and the back and fortified with new arrival Dave Bush. The offense was set to take a major step forward as well: Prince Fielder would take over at first for Lyle Overbay, Rickie Weeks would grow into his much-heralded tools, and Corey Koskie would provide another solid lefthanded bat.
In retrospect, that optimism was a little, well, optimistic. Even a cautious assessment of this year's team suggested they would solidify their status as a not-quite-contending, .500 team. But no amount of planning and circumspection would have prepared the Brewers for what was to come. During spring training, I could hardly contain my excitement over the depth Doug Melvin built into the roster at every corner: Corey Hart and Gabe Gross could step in for outfielders with little drop in production; the starting rotation looked 7 or 8 deep; and Bill Hall, still a super-sub, provided insurance for Weeks, Koskie, and JJ Hardy.
Bill Hall may be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, hit pink-batted home runs on Mothers Day, and turn Cincinnati Reds fans into raving lunatics, but unfortunately, replacing three infielders at the same time was slightly beyond his abilities. And even more unfortunately, if the Brewers were going to compete this year--even in the pathetic NL Central--that's just about what needed to happen.
The story of Milwaukee's season can be told by what didn't happen: the pitchers who didn't stay healthy, the batters who didn't produce, the shortstop who didn't steer clear of Sal Fasano's ankle. Injuries struck in bunches, quad-A players performed like single-A guys, and nobody can explain what the hell happened to Geoff Jenkins. In short, if the services of David Bell are required so desperately that you need to pull a deadline deal to get him on board, your problem is damn near insoluble.
Like most teams that are sunk by injuries, you can tell what went wrong just by the year's transactions list. Let's take a tour through some excerpts of that log, with a few other tidbits thrown in for good measure.
3/30/06 Placed RHP Ben Sheets on the 15-Day Disabled List, retroactive to March 24 (right posterior shoulder strain). The season hasn't even begun, and there's already a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Sheets missed much of 2005, and it's not clear whether this is something new and easy to fix, something new and tough to fix, or somehow related to the rare health issues he had the previous year. Whatever it is, it ain't what you want to have happen in the last week of Spring Training. Especially when "replacement level" might be synonymous with "Jared Fernandez."
4/16/06 Placed RHP Rick Helling on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to April 11, with a sprained right elbow. Helling's status was iffy throughout the spring, so this was just confirmation that the rotation wasn't as well fortified as it appeared. Helling wouldn't return until late June, and he wouldn't be very good then.
4/18/06 Recalled RHP Mike Adams and RHP Chris Demaria from Triple-A Nashville; Optioned RHP Jared Fernandez and OF Corey Hart to Triple-A Nashville. This set of moves looks innocent enough on its face: trade in a minor-league journeyman and a 5th OF for a couple of young arms. What the transactions register doesn't tell you is that Adams and Demaria became the 12th and 13th members of the Brewers staff, giving the Crew an 8-man bullpen in April. Milwaukee was favored with plenty of positional versatility for the entire season (thank you, Bill Hall and Jeff Cirillo), but should you take advantage of it by stocking your team with Triple-A pitchers? Demaria was bad, and frequently buried at the back of the pen; even before the Brewers discovered that Hart could hit Major League pitching, this was obviously a dreadful move. A stack of bad pitchers do not a good pitcher make.
5/3/06 Placed RHP Tomo Ohka on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 2, with a partial undersurface tear of the right rotator cuff. Partial or not, you don't want to hear about a rotator cuff. Ever. Unless you're a really nasty person and don't like the pitcher in question. Losing a back-rotation stalwart is bad enough, but other events of the previous week made it a disaster. The day before, Ben Sheets went 2.1 innings and gave up 7 runs. Sheets doesn't do things like that...unless he's injured. The Brewers might just be equipped to handle the losses--Ben Hendrickson pitched 4.2 innings of solid relief behind Sheets--but that vaunted rotation depth? Gone. Sheets wouldn't return until July 25th; Ohka would be out until July 18th.
5/11/06 Ben Hendrickson is awful. 2.1 innings, 7 runs. Just like what Sheets did, only Hendrickson didn't have an excuse. With no clear candidates for promotion in the minors, that outing didn't earn Little Ben a demotion: that would have to wait until he one-upped himself, allowing 6 runs and recording nary an out on May 20th.
5/13/06 Derrick Turnbow bobblehead night. It's made with real human hair! In other news, D-Bow loses the game. He would blow approximately seventy-eight games on the way to losing his job as closer and finishing with a 6.87 ERA.
5/17/06 Placed SS J.J. Hardy on the 15-day disabled with a severe sprain of the distal ligament in his right ankle and recalled OF Corey Hart from Triple-A Nashville. Hardy's ankle met its unfortunate demise trying to slide through Sal Fasano. He would be out for the season. In a rare twist, this move had its share of good news: Hart was back for good--eventually he would even get some playing time. This also meant that Bill Hall was officially an everyday player. On the flip side, it meant that Jeff Cirillo would, for a time anyway, be the Brewers backup shortstop. And second baseman.
5/23/06 Purchased the contract of RHP Joe Winkelsas from Double-A Huntsville. How desperate were the Brewers for pitching? Winkelsas was retired, collecting garbage (literally) in upstate New York in the offseason. It made for a good story in the Jim Morris vein, but Ned Yost never really figured out how to use the sidearming righty. In truth, there may have been no right answer: Winky reached his ceiling in April, closing games in Double-A.
5/31/06 Geoff Jenkins is bad. Jenkins's line for the month of .234/.291/.383 is not only below replacement level, it's far below what one might reasonable expect from Corey Hart, who got a grand total of 9 ABs in the month. Making matters worse, Jenkins was especially bad against lefties (.133/.265/.214 on the season), indicating that a simple platoon with Hart (or, for that matter, any sentient right-handed being) would've improved the team.
7/6/06 Designated C Chad Moeller for assignment; Purchased the contract of C Mike Rivera from Nashville. At long last, relief! It took the Brewers three months to realize that a player hitting .184/.231/.276 might, just might make your team better by playing in Triple-A. Rivera proved them right; despite cooling off after a scorching April in Nashville, he provided more offense than did starter Damian Miller, and surprised a few people by actually catching balls thrown to him.
7/15/06 Placed 3B Corey Koskie on 15-day disabled list and recalled OF Tony Gwynn from Triple-A Nashville. Koskie, suffering from post-concussion trauma, would not return for the duration of the season. It's still unclear whether he'll ever return: he was unable to sit in the dugout through an entire game, or carry on conversations of longer than a few minutes. This was tragic for the Brewers, but much more horrible given the way a man's life has been affected.
7/19/06 There's no adequate title for this. Derrick Turnbow blows his fourth save in four chances en route to finishing the month with a 21.32 ERA.
7/26/06 Acquired INF Tony Graffanino from the Royals in exchange for LHP Jorge De La Rosa. Graffy turned out to be a nifty pickup, but this is not the first suggestion that Rickie Weeks may not be back anytime soon. Further, it's proof that De La Rosa would never emerge from Ned Yost's doghouse. JDLR flashed brilliance out of the bullpen and even put together a couple of solid starts before injury struck, but if he ever fulfills his potential, it won't be in Milwaukee.
7/28/06 Placed RHP Jose Capellan on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to July 25, with a right shoulder strain. Another one? Crap.
7/29/06 Placed 2B Rickie Weeks on the 15-day disabled list with a right wrist tendon injury; acquired 3B David Bell from the Phillies for nonroster RHP Wilfrido Laureano. Rickie's out for the year. Bell's acquisition proves that Koskie may well be out for the year. Is it possible to end a season with an entirely different 25-man roster than the one you started with?
8/19/06 Placed RHP Matt Wise on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Aug. 14, with ulnar neuritis. There are fewer injuries in some slasher movies. Forgive me for repeating myself, but: he would be out for the season.
8/29/06 Gabe Gross makes his last start. Anymore, it doesn't even matter what hurts: he proves his solidarity as a member of the 2006 Brewers by losing the rest of the season to injury.
9/4/06 Laynce Nix pinch-hits. This would be his last AB, as he fights with "turf toe." Sing it with me: out for the season.
Was it really this bad? Yep. Considering that, by the end of July, Milwaukee had lost 3/4 of its starting infield, 2/5 of its starting rotation, traded away its slugging leftfielder, and might as well have sent out Geoffrey the Giraffe in right field for the entire season, it's amazing that the team won 75 games. That "contributors" such as Ben Hendrickson and Dana Eveland so liberally redefined "replacement level" makes it even more astonishing.
Of course, there were good things. 2006 was a major step forward for Bill Hall, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart proved they could hit Major League pitching, Dave Bush and Chris Capuano established their durability, and Francisco Cordero suggested that the Brewers would have a top-tier closer for 2007. Even Ben Sheets pitched quite well once he finally returned from injury. But compared to the litany of negatives, it's a meager list.
As usual, it's much more pleasant to look forward to 2007. Weeks and Hardy will be ready; Koskie may be as well. Corey Hart should be written in to the starting lineup from Opening Day forward, and for the first time in recent memory, the team may sport two catchers who can hit above the Mendoza line. Like 2006, there will be a plethora of pitching options, with Sheets, Doug Davis, Capuano, Bush, and the emerging Carlos Villanueva, along with a slew of promising youngsters who will make up the Triple-A rotation.
2007 may well be the year that Milwaukee takes the step forward that was so universally predicted for it before the '06 season. But with the hard-won lessons learned this year, Doug Melvin will doubtless focus on insurance like he never has before, and Brewer fans will temper their enthusiasm just like...well, just like they every other season before this one.