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April 13, 2011

On the Beat

Under Pressure

by John Perrotto

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It would hard to envision a much tougher scenario for a rookie manager than the one Ron Roenicke faced just over a week ago. By the time his first spring training ended, the Brewers skipper was without ace right-hander Zack Greinke, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, and right fielder Corey Hart, as all were injured. On Opening Day, the Brewers took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the Reds at Great American Ball Park, but closer John Axford gave up four runs, including Ramon Hernandez's game-winning three-run home run. The Brewers wound up being swept by the Reds in the three-game series, then lost their home opener to the Braves.

Roenicke found himself with an 0-4 record and a depleted roster. Yet he did not panic, and the players took that cue from their new manager. The Brewers have since won five of their next six games to even their record at 5-5. They are playing like the team that was the trendy pick to win the National League Central following an offseason in which general manager Doug Melvin not only hired Roenicke to replace Ken Macha but traded for Greinke and Shaun Marcum to combine with Yovani Gallardo for what he hopes is one of the game's best rotation threesomes.

"These guys know they're good," Roenicke said Tuesday before the Brewers' scheduled game in Pittsburgh was rained out. "There's a lot of confidence with them. The start wasn't what we wanted, but it wasn't like we played badly. After the first game, we really played well, but Cincinnati didn't make any mistakes. Our guys never got down because they think we can win, and, obviously, myself and our coaches believe the same thing. We've seen the possibilities with the core group of guys and the pieces Doug added in the offseason. There was no need to feel any differently just because we lost a few games to start the season."

Greinke (broken rib), the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner, has been the Brewers' biggest loss. There is hope he could be back by the end of the month after he threw 25 pitches in a simulated game on Tuesday in the indoor batting cages at PNC Park, the move inside necessitated by heavy rain. It was the first time Greinke had faced batters since being acquired from the Royals last December. Greinke said he felt fine after Tuesday's outing, and Roenicke reported that his presumptive ace "threw the ball really well." He is scheduled for another simulated game Friday.

Lucroy (broken pinkie) was activated from the disabled list on Monday's off day and is scheduled to make his season debut tonight after missing the entire Cactus League season. The 24-year-old struggled offensively as a rookie last season with a .226 TAv and just 3.7 VORP in 297 plate appearances. However, the Brewers are encouraged by the way Lucroy handles the pitching staff; they also believe he will hit better this season, based on his 78 walks against 66 strikeouts at Double-A in 2009.

Hart (strained oblique) took batting practice in the indoor cages Tuesday for the first time since being hurt early in Cactus League play. While Nyjer Morgan, acquired in a late-spring trade from the Nationals, has filled in admirably, the Brewers are anxious to get Hart back after he had a .301 TAv and 2.9 WARP last season while hitting a career-high 31 home runs. He is likely to go on a brief injury rehabilitation assignment early next week then be activated from the disabled list on April 22.

"It was hard to lose that many players in one spring, but it happens so often now with guys getting hurt that you look at what the depth is in your organization and how to cover for guys until they get back," Roenicke said. "In our case, it was fortunate that we didn't lose anybody long-term. You're going to get hit with injuries at some point during the season. We just happened to have them early on."

First baseman Prince Fielder said that while he knows it's a cliché, it has been a team effort for the Brewers to overcome their sluggish start.

"Guys who are healthy are doing a great job," he said. "That's the sign of a good team when you can lose key guys and have some of the other guys step up. It's a good team this year in a lot of ways. Everybody gets along. There is a lot of camaraderie in the clubhouse. We have a lot of fun. All of us are really excited to be here every day. The guys are great, the manager is great and we all just really want to win."

Fielder is always one of the Brewers' focal points as one of the top sluggers in the game. He is even more so this season, as the Brewers decided against trading him over the winter before he reaches free agency this November. Instead, they are trying to win now before Fielder almost certainly moves on to a bigger market in 2011.

"I'm glad I'm here and all I'm thinking about is this year," Fielder said, brushing aside any talk that his pending free agency could be a distraction. "I want to win. That's all I'm concerned about, and I think we have a team that can win."

That, of course, puts pressure on their rookie manager. Roenicke, happy to have the opportunity to manage after spending the previous 11 seasons on Mike Scioscia's coaching staff with the Angels, doesn't mind.

"I'm very fortunate to be able to join an organization that not only has a good bunch of guys but has a good team," Roenicke said. "That's rare for a first-time manager. That just doesn't happy much. Usually, you're going to walk into a rebuilding-type situation. People ask me if I feel more pressure to win. Well, there is more pressure to win, whether or not I feel it. Expectations are high for us this season, and justifiably so."

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Rumors and Rumblings: David Murphy figures to get the majority of starts in left field for the Rangers after Josh Hamilton suffered a non-displaced fracture of a bone in his upper right arm Tuesday, putting him out the next 6-8 weeks. … Shortstop Rafael Furcal's comments that he could possibly retire after finding out that his latest injury, a broken thumb, will sideline him 4-6 weeks are considered by the Dodgers as more of an emotional reaction than an actual threat. Jamey Carroll will see the majority of starts at short in Furcal's action, though Ivan DeJesus Jr. was also recalled from Triple-A. … Though the Cubs have right-handers Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner on the disabled list, don't expect left-hander Doug Davis to fill either of those holes anytime soon after being signed to a minor-league contract as a free agent on Tuesday. Davis has not pitched competitively since last July 9 and will need at least a few weeks to get into pitching shape at extended spring training.

The Tigers are privately concerned that right fielder Magglio Ordonez's sore right ankle, which he broke last season, could be an issue all season. The Tigers do have some outfield depth, with Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn, Casper Wells, and Don Kelly. … Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr. are expected to see the majority of time at third base for the Nationals with Ryan Zimmerman (abdomen) on the disabled list. … Giants right fielder Cody Ross (calf) is scheduled to play in extended spring training games this weekend and is on course to be activated from the disabled list late next week. … Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who has lost 15 pounds due to a mysterious stomach ailment, is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment at Triple-A this weekend, but there is no timetable for when he will be activated. … The Royals have scrapped their plan to have right-hander Vin Mazzaro join the club on Friday from Triple-A to become the fifth starter, and will instead go with right-hander Sean O'Sullivan. Mazzaro was pounded for five runs in 2 1/3 innings in his first start with Omaha.

The White Sox are kicking around the idea of a six-man rotation when Jake Peavy (shoulder) is activated from the DL later this month instead of moving right-hander Phil Humber to the bullpen. … Closer Andrew Bailey (forearm) is on course to return to the Athletics' active roster by the end of the month, but there is no timetable for the activation of right-hander Rich Harden (shoulder) after he felt pain while throwing on Monday. … Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens (oblique) is scheduled to come off the disabled list and start Saturday. … Mercurial right-hander Ian Snell is set to "unretire" less than a month after retiring, and the Cardinals have released him from his minor-league contract so he can pursue opportunities with other clubs.

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Scouts' views:

Twins shortstop Alexi Casilla: "He's not a major-league shortstop, at least not on a championship team. He's too erratic in all phases of the game, especially defense. If the Twins are going to contend again this season, then they are going to have to address the position at some point. They can't win the division with this guy playing a key position."

Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka: "It was one of the worst displays I've ever seen by a major-league pitcher [Monday night when he gave up seven runs in two innings to the Rays]. He was throwing everything right down the middle of the plate. Sometimes you don't even see batting practice pitchers throw as many hittable pitches as he threw. At some point, the Red Sox are going to have to admit they wasted $103 million on this cat and release him."

Cardinals right-hander Kyle McClellan: "It would be foolish to say the Cardinals aren't going to miss Adam Wainwright, but McClellan is going to help ease that sting. I always liked him as a reliever because he had different ways he could get you out. That has translated well into a starting role. He's going to be a good starting pitcher."

Yankees designated hitter Jorge Posada: "He really looked bad over the weekend [going 0-for-7 with three strikeouts against the Red Sox]. His timing was way off. He was behind on the fastball and ahead on the breaking ball. I don't want to rush to judgment off a few games, but he is 39, and the reflexes usually start to go at that age."

Rockies right-hander Esmil Rogers: "He has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation starter once he gets a little more experience. He throws 95, he has pretty good command of both a curveball and slider, and a changeup that kind of disappears when it gets to the plate. He's also a great athlete, which is going to help him repeat his delivery. I love this kid's upside."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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