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"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.

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