“Our job is to provide hope and faith – hope and faith that your team can win.”
These aren’t Bud Selig’s Brewers. Selig may have brought baseball back to Beer City, maybe swindled a big freaky stadium out of the state, and he may be a peachy commissioner, but the Seligs didn’t do much for the actual baseball club since Robin Yount‘s peak. The club was left hobbling along like Harvey Kuenn on the way to the mound, more valuable to Selig as a symbol of small-market wretchedness than as a winning and vital team.
There’s no such malaise under the multi-paneled roof of Miller Park in 2007. Instead, we’re given large, heaping spoonfuls of the sweetest ingredient of hope: youth. Bill Hall is 27, which is old for this team. If Ryan Braun forces his way into the lineup, the entire starting infield will be 24 or under. Aside from Jeff Suppan, the starting rotation is all 28 or younger. And although this is a young team, it’s not green; Hall, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy are all entering their third full seasons as major leaguers.
In fact, this infield is almost historically youthful, in a group with the 1972 Padres and 1975 Angels. The 1978 Tigers featured the 20- and 21-year-old keystone of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. While it’s tough to compare anyone to that pair, it’s not outrageous to think that, say, Weeks and Fielder could have that type of long-term connection and success in Milwaukee.
It’s no secret that this infield is a bit defensively challenged. Few scouts think that Weeks or Braun have long-term futures with dirt under their feet rather than grass. Does this mean that a groundball pitcher like Jeff Suppan will be hurt by a defense that projects to be a bit below average? Not unless Braun is an absolute butcher, and even that would be a short-term problem since there are options behind him. The bats, assuming that they’re all healthy and hitting just to career norms, make it possible to suffer the defensive deficiencies.
Outside of the infield, the team remains young, as the “old guys” on the team aren’t actually that old. Veteran Geoff Jenkins, locked in a battle for playing time with Corey Hart and Kevin Mench, is 32. Jeff Suppan, signed away from the Cardinals, is also 32. The youth movement is hardly over. With Braun and Hart expected to win their spots this spring, the next couple additions to the lineup should be coming later in the year. Yovanni Gallardo–Kevin Goldstein‘s #14 prospect in the game, and the best pitching prospect Milwaukee has developed since Ben Sheets–is likely to get a half-season in Nashville before strengthening the big-league rotation. Behind him, the Brewers expect no fewer than five players to be ready by 2008: Angel Salome, a much-needed catcher; Brendon Katin, a slugging OF who will push Corey Hart; Alcides Escobar, a slick-fielding shortstop who only needs to hit somewhere north of the Mendoza line to have value; Charlie Fermaint, a solid center fielder who figures to be the long-term answer at that position; and Darren Ford, another center fielder who makes you wonder why you need all three outfielders with amazing range.
While the future is all well and good, you might ask what that means for this year. The fact is, some of those players may never see Miller Park, at least in Brewer uniforms. Doug Melvin and his front office have been patient, allowing Jack Zduriencik and Reid Nichols to build a solid farm system where, even just a few years ago, there was nothing. Now that it’s not just producing, but producing in abundance, there’s the chance that Melvin will make a big deal at the deadline. His willingness to deal Carlos Lee suggests that he’s unafraid to make moves. With a surplus of talent, both in the “ready now” and “cheap prospect” categories, Melvin can fill any gaps his team shows.
But aside from what might be, the what is looks solid. In a division that appears to be redefining medioparity, the Brewers as currently constructed have the fewest things that need to go right in order to reach the top of the standings. The Cardinals have to be carried by a shaky pitching staff and three creaky stars. The Cubs are already feeling the weight of renewed (and expensive) expectations. The Astros are still looking for an identity at the end of the Bagwell/Biggio era. The Reds are relying on Ken Griffey, Jr. to stay healthy and on Adam Dunn to be a bit more than Russell Branyan.
All the Brewers have to do is what all winning teams do: stay within themselves and stay healthy. It’s that last part that’s hard. Up the middle, J.J. Hardy has spent four of the last five years dealing with major injuries. Rickie Weeks has a history of wrist problems. Ben Sheets has spent the better part of two years fighting to overcome a muscle tear, something he’s just now coming to mechanical terms with. The team doesn’t need career years from anyone, just solid and reasonable production. They don’t even need someone to “step it up” or “take it to the next level,” two clichés you’ll hear about virtually every team. Improvement would be welcomed, a peak year would be accepted, but it’s not one of the necessary ingredients for a World Series run. Bill Hall doesn’t have to be the next Robin Yount and Ned Yost doesn’t need a wooden leg to bring this team back to October.
It’s a team of depth and options, of possibilities and probabilities. The Brewers are the only team in the league which could take an injury at almost every position and still have a solid replacement there the next day (aside from Sheets going down again). There’s no team in the division with the bench depth and versatility. There’s no bullpen in the NL with the combination of role players, power arms, and potential. With all that, the team simply has to do what’s expected. For once in Milwaukee, that’s enough.
In the state where “Hope and Faith” was coined, it isn’t just an empty phrase; these Brewers are a team with real expectations. The World Series isn’t an empty hope, it’s the goal that an organization has been working towards for the last five years. There will be no irony when Bud Selig hands over the trophy.
Brad talks with Will about the Brewers’ chances in this edition of Hope and Faith Radio:
Click to download mp3 (4.2 MB)