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September 6, 2001

Brewing Up?

Analyzing Milwaukee's Needs

by Stuart Shea

"The Brewers, realizing they'd better get more pitching if they're going to contend in the future, nearly traded outfielder Jeromy Burnitz to the Mets for pitcher Glendon Rusch." -- Bob Nightengale, USA Today Baseball Weekly, August 8-14, 2000.

Thank God Dean Taylor doesn't go to Bob Nightengale for his baseball expertise.

Nightengale's musings aside, the Brewers' pitching isn't their problem. The problem is their lousy offense. Milwaukee ranks 11th in the NL in runs, and they deserve that lowly position. They really don't have more than one or two good players in the lineup. Jeromy Burnitz hits for power and gets on base, and Richie Sexson hits plenty of home runs.

Unfortunately for loyal Brewers fans--certainly a much smaller group than the legions of the tourists and the merely curious who will come this year and next to gawk at new Miller Park--that's about it. Ron Belliard and Mark Loretta don't get on base often enough at the top of the order. Loretta doesn't hit for power, either. Tyler Houston has pop against righties but doesn't walk. Jose Hernandez has terrible problems making contact and never gets on base. Raul Casanova has a .303 OBP. Even Geoff Jenkins, arguably the team's best player, has a mediocre OBP because of his aggressive approach at the plate.

See a pattern? The Brewers don't ever have anybody on base. As of September 4, they ranked 11th among the 16 NL clubs in walks, ahead of only Pittsburgh in team OBP. Clay Davenport's Equivalent Average, a mainstay statistical rating of this site (which is adjusted for park factors), ranks the Brewers' offense 13th in the NL.

Plainly speaking, it's been a disastrous season for the Brewers. A second-half tailspin dropped the club from a .500 record to fourth place in the NL Central. They have few position players who could be regulars for a really good club (Burnitz being one of them, no matter what your local batting-average-focused "expert" says).

Nevertheless, there's one thing that the Brewers can feel good about: their pitching.

Milwaukee entered the 2000 season with a rotation centered around Jeff D'Amico, Jamey Wright, and Jimmy Haynes. Other candidates to augment the big three included Allen Levrault, John Snyder, Paul Rigdon, Horacio Estrada, Kyle Peterson, Rafael Roque, Will Cunnane, and Olympic star Ben Sheets. Not so impressive. Lopes initially sent out D'Amico, Sheets, Haynes, Wright, and Rigdon as his rotation. By May, D'Amico had been knocked out for the year with a nerve problem in his right arm. Levrault, his replacement, was bombed back to the minors. Rigdon pitched well, then slumped, then went on the DL with an elbow problem that required surgery.

While these developments helped ruin the Brewers' season, they also gave opportunities to some guys who deserved them. Wright and Haynes have taken the ball each time out, and while they aren't great, at least they've stayed healthy. Each is durable and capable of filling out a rotation. The mid-season deal of David Weathers to the Cubs brought Ruben Quevedo on board, and the big boy has shown good pitches and far better command than he did last year. Mac Suzuki joined the Brewers in Julyvvia a waiver claim, and has pitched well intermittently. Nick Neugebauer, who really got it together this season in the high minors, joined the club and had one good start before being shut down for the year with a "tired shoulder.". Just 21, he has perhaps the highest ceiling of any young pitcher in the league.

The Brewers will probably go into 2002 with a rotation chosen from among Sheets, Neugebauer, Quevedo, Haynes, Wright, D'Amico, and Suzuki. That's not bad, and it's much better than what the club had going into this season. Of course, each of those seven comes loaded with questions. Will Sheets continue to develop? Is Neugebauer's arm OK, and if it is, does he have the control to pitch at this level at his tender age? Has Quevedo improved the location on his fastball enough to stick permanently? Will Haynes and Wright ever become more than #4 starters? Can D'Amico return? Will Suzuki find the consistency that has eluded him for so long?

By far the biggest question concerning the Brewers' young pitchers is whether they can stay healthy. Even this season, with all the talented new arrivals, there have been numerous injuries and a resulting parade of Indianapolis Indians to the mound in Beertown. Milwaukee has used 23 pitchers so far this year (plus Mark Loretta), including 13 starters, and now they're finding that they can't hide Rocky Coppinger, Mike Buddie, or Lance Painter in the back of the bullpen. Even retread Mark Leiter got three starts before his cauliflower arm went bad again.

It is likely that D'Amico, should he come back, will be troubled by arm ailments for the rest of his career. Kyle Peterson's ability to pitch is still in question following February 2000 shoulder surgery. Lefty reliever Valerio de los Santos, not so long ago rated the system's best pitching hope, underwent Tommy John surgery in April and won't be back at least until next summer. Ben Sheets has been sidelined since early August because of a sore shoulder.

Neugebauer is, of course, the most intriguing hurler of them all. He threw a lot of pitches in his first two pro seasons because of spotty command. To his credit, he's not afraid to throw the high fastball, and he struck out a number hitters in his major-league debut by using breaking balls up in the strike zone. He is clearly one of the few pitchers in the game with the gas and movement to throw the ball in the higher altitudes of the zone and, because of that, he should succeed. The Brewers have done a reasonably good job keeping his arm fresh; he threw just 81 innings in his professional debut in Class A, and 123 frames in 28 starts last year. Of course, one reason he didn't throw a lot of innings is because he threw so darn many pitches: in his first 209 pro innings, he walked a ghastly 214 hitters.

This season in Double-A and Triple-A, Neugebauer passed "only" 61 men in 131 innings. That's just average in the minors, but for a guy in his third pro season with a checkered control history, it's a tremendous improvement.

And here's the kicker. Neugebauer, despite his willingness to employ the the high hard one, allowed only 13 home runs in 339 minor-league innings. Surely big-league hitters can turn on his high stuff better than the bushers can, but that's still a hell of a performance. Of course, it's best not to get too excited about a guy who's made two major-league starts. There are plenty of things that could go wrong for Neugebauer, just as plenty of things have already gone wrong for D'Amico and for Sheets.

All things considered, though, having a young pitching staff littered with questions is a lot better than simply waiting around and hoping that Paul Rigdon, John Snyder, and Carlos Chantres can get it together. Even with the patchwork rotation and a bullpen centered around Chad Fox, Mike DeJean, and Curt Leskanic, the Brewers have the league's seventh-best ERA.

So as this disappointing season winds down, let's hear less about how crummy the pitching is and a lot more about why the Brewers can't develop good hitters like they can promising pitchers.

Related Content:  Jeromy Burnitz,  The Who,  Brewers

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