August 19, 2009
On the Beat
Ken Macha has a unique term to describe the Brewers' schedule for the final month and change of the season: "It's a full cheeseburger." Indeed, the Brewers' late-season slate is like more like a triple cheeseburger from Wendy's with every topping imaginable piled on than, say, a cheeseburger in paradise. The Brewers play 32 games over the final 34 days, and all but six will be against teams currently in contention for a playoff spot. They will play the National League Central-leading Cardinals nine times, the Cubs seven times, the Phillies four times, and the Giants and Rockies three times each.
However, chewing through that tough schedule represents the Brewers' only hope of getting back into the postseason a year after making their first playoff appearance since 1982 last October. They have a lot of ground to make up in both the NL Central and wild-card races, but they do play most of the teams in front of them. The Brewers are in third place in the division with a 58-61 record, nine games behind the Cardinals, and three in back of the Cubs. The Brewers are sixth in the wild-card standings, and eight games behind the leading Rockies.
"We control our own destiny and that's always a good thing, but we're obviously going to need a great finish," Macha said. "We're going to have to play our best baseball of the year from here on out. Really, though, it's pointless to look too far ahead. We just need to take care of business now."
The Brewers can make their monumental task seem a little less daunting if they can beat up on the some of the NL's weaker teams here at the end of August. They finish a three-game series against the Pirates in Pittsburgh tonight, then stay on the road for four games with the Nationals beginning Friday night before returning home next week for three-game series with first the Reds and then the Pirates again.
If there is at least a ray of hope for the Brewers, it is that they are close to getting two of their injured starting pitchers back from the disabled list. Dave Bush is tentatively scheduled to pitch the final game of the series against the National next Monday, and Jeff Suppan is expected to start the next night against the Reds. Bush (0.8 WXRL) and Suppan (0.6) have barely been above replacement this season. In terms of SNWP, Bush and Suppan have been terrible (.445 and .419, respectively), but they will certainly be improvements on what the Brewers are running out there in a season following the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets as free agents. Beyond emerging ace Yovani Gallardo (4.4 SNLVAR), Braden Looper (1.0) is the only other starter even a full victory above replacement level, but his .429 SNWP suggest he's another part of the problem in a weak unit. The bullpen has been a little bit better as closer Trevor Hoffman has 2.145 WXRL and has been set up ably by Todd Coffey (2.095) and left-hander Mitch Stetter (1.298). Still, the Brewers are 15th in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 5.1 a game, ahead of only the Nationals.
Responding to the staff-wide failures, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin fired pitching coach Bill Castro last Wednesday, replacing him with Triple-A Nashville's pitching coach, Chris Bosio, in an effort to shake things up. "In the end, your chances of success or failure depend on your pitching," Macha said. "With some of the injuries we've had, it's left us a little short in that area. We weren't getting innings from our starters for a while and it really put a lot of stress on the bullpen. We've seemed to get that straightened out, but our pitching just hasn't been up to par all season. We're hoping once we get Bush and Suppan back that maybe we can make a run at the end."
The Brewers' offense hasn't gotten as much production from everyone in the lineup as Macha hoped, but is nevertheless fourth in the league in runs scored with 4.8 a game, and second in the NL in team-level Equivalent Average. Unfortunately, second baseman Rickie Weeks (.290 EqA) suffered a season-ending torn wrist ligament in mid-May, and right fielder Corey Hart (.272) is out until sometime in September after having an appendectomy. Shortstop J.J. Hardy (.237) was sent to Nashville and utilityman Bill Hall (.212) was designated for assignment at the same time Castro was fired. The Brewers have still been able to score runs at a high rate in no small part because of first baseman Prince Fielder (.341) and left fielder Ryan Braun (.325). "Those guys have been awesome," Macha said. "There is no other way to describe it. They've carried us at times."
They will need to continue to play at that kind of level for the Brewers to have any shot at post-season play. Though the odds certainly seem very much stacked against the Brewers getting back to the playoffs, Melvin isn't giving up. That is why he fired Castro and made the moves with Hardy and Hall. "We need a jolt of energy from somewhere," Melvin said. "We're trying to get the ballclub jump-started. Everybody makes it sound like we're 20 games under .500. We could have an eight-game winning streak like the Washington Nationals just had. We've got a chance to get going. It's not all doom and gloom."
Dusty Baker became the scourge of Cubs fans during his final two seasons as the manager in Chicago in 2005 and 2006. Now Lou Piniella, despite leading the Cubs to NL Central titles in his first two seasons as manager in 2007 and 2008, is feeling heat from a fan base that has been waiting 101 years for its next World Series title. "I haven't seen the abuse Dusty took yet, but I'm sure if we don't win, it's around the corner," Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan.
Piniella's temper is legendary, but he has kept his cool throughout what has been a disappointing season. The Cubs are 60-57 and trail the Cardinals by six games in the NL Central and the Rockies by five games in the race for the wild card. "I'm sure he's frustrated," Lee said. "No one is happy at the moment but he has been around the game a long time and I'm sure he knows how to deal with it."
Piniella has also been criticized during Cubs telecasts for not being prepared, something that always reflects poorly on the manager. Bob Brenly is the color analyst on Cubs television games, and he was the manager for the Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series title. However, Brenly insists he is not angling for Piniella's job with his critical remarks. "If any analyst decided he wanted the manager's job, it wouldn't be very hard to make him look bad," Brenly told the Chicago Sun-Times' Neil Hayes. "'You could point out everything you feel was a breach on the part of any manager-good, bad, or indifferent-and make him look as bad as you want on a daily basis. But because I've been down there in that seat, I know how hard that job is and how hard this game is. That has never been and never will be my intention or my goal as an analyst, to embarrass the players or to embarrass the coaches or the manager or to make myself look better than the manager."
Disenchantment also stretches to the South Side of Chicago, as White Sox GM Ken Williams is disappointed that his team has been unable to overtake the Tigers in the American League Central. At 61-59, the White Sox are in second place, three games back. "We've thrown away a dozen games, which (has cost) us where I thought we would be, in first place and in a good position," Williams said. "But we deserve what we've got. I'm not happy with a lot of what I see. We're underachievers. We can be a dangerous playoff team, but you first have to play well enough, play smart enough, play intense enough, to where you show you want to be in the playoffs. It can't just be lip service. I don't want to hear it anymore. Get the job done."
However, Williams also pointed out that he likes his club the way it is currently constructed and does not regret any moves he has or hasn't made in assembling the current roster. "We've got a good group of guys here," he said. "Nobody would be here if I didn't feel that we had a good group that wanted it but it's mid-August, it's time to turn it up a notch. If you're going to show you're a playoff team, now is about as good a time as any. We have a lot of talent out on that field. The fact of the matter is we are simply not executing to the degree we need to execute to call ourselves playoff-worthy. Period."
White Sox manger Ozzie Guillen always has plenty to say. This time, though, he had little to add to Williams' comments. "It's up to the players to go out and perform," Guillen said.
Since Moneyball told the story of the Athletics' Billy Beane, few books have been written about current general managers. Thus, it piqued my curiosity when I received Theo-Logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land by John Frascella. I've often thought Red Sox GM Theo Epstein would a fascinating subject for a book. He became the youngest GM in baseball history when he got the job in 2003, and has two World Series titles to his credit in his first seven years on the job. He will also forever be a folk hero in his hometown of Boston for being the GM of the 2004 team that broke the Red Sox's 86-year title drought.
However, the biggest problem with Theo-Logy is that Epstein refused to talk with Frascella, claiming he is a private person and feared his family might be put in danger if a book was written about him. Epstein also asked his family and Red Sox officials to refrain from speaking to the author. Frascella does get some inside dope from former Red Sox special assistant to the GM Bill Lajoie, who is extremely complimentary of Epstein, and goes so far as to say that believes Epstein could one day become President of the United States. Yet, the only fresh material from anyone inside the Red Sox's organization is a few remarks from Craig Shipley, senior vice president in charge of international scouting.
Frascella tries his best to paint a portrait of Epstein and his analysis of the GM's best and worst moves is interesting. However, without the lack of cooperation on so many fronts, Theo-Logy is primarily a recap of material written about Epstein by other sources.
Scouts' views on various major league players:
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Giants at Rockies, Friday-Monday (August 21-24)