NL Central Report: Milwaukee’s Chance To Make A Move

At the start of the week the Milwaukee Brewers were left for dead by most baseball observers, including me and including pretty much every Brewer fan I see—and given that I live thirty miles from Miller Park that’s a fair number. Then catcher Jonathan Lucroy, swinging a red-hot bat, broke his hand in a freak accident and joined Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel as starters on the disabled list. And this week began with a four-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, merely the team with the best record in baseball. As far as the good people of Wisconsin were concerned, the time had come to shift the conversation to fishing, summer vacations and early talk on the Green Bay Packers. But then the Brewers delivered a shocking four-game sweep of the Dodgers and put themselves back on the radar. Can the good times last long enough for Milwaukee to really get back into the hunt?

For all the talk of injuries—and there’s been a lot. Not only are the three Opening Day starters above all out, the latter two for the season, but Cesar Itzuris and Travis Ishikawa, the replacements at short and first are also on the list of walking wounded. But in spite of all that, Milwaukee’s biggest problem is that, to borrow a phrase from former NFL analyst John Madden, “stars aren’t playing like stars.” Consider the following…

*While Zack Greinke has had some brilliant starts this season, including last night’s 6-2 win that punctuated the sweep, his 3.46 ERA isn’t Cy Young-caliber and it was presumed at the start of the season that he needed to be more than just pretty good.

*Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with a 4.22 ERA in eleven starts, with the worst outings saved for the biggest games against division rivals.

*Randy Wolf didn’t have great things expected of him, but the #3 starter is usually a reliable innings-eater with a tolerable ERA. But 5.73 is not tolerable.

*John Axford has been erratic at closer. While a blown save, something he didn’t have last year, was inevitable, he’s also lost two games and with a 3.26 ERA has been less than reliable. He’s part of a bullpen where only Kameron Loe has an ERA below 3.

*Then we come to Rickie Weeks…the man who was the best second baseman in the National League a year ago, the culmination of steady improvement year-by-year, is hitting .158. His power, normally pretty good for a middle infielder at the top of the order is gone, with a slugging percentage of a meager .294. He’s taking his walks, with 31 free passes, but he’s struck out an astonishing 65 times. Weeks has morphed into Adam Dunn without the home runs. Then couple that with the fact centerfielder Nyjer Morgan has been almost as bad, and there is no one to set the table.

A lack of runners on base means that another solid season from Ryan Braun can’t have the kind of offensive impact it otherwise would. More alarmingly, it means Braun doesn’t have to given anything to hit. This past week, opposing pitchers got the message and they walked the Brewer slugger seven times.

Milwaukee’s record sits on 23-28, good for fourth place in the NL Central and 5.5 games off the pace. They begin a nine-game homestand against third-place Pittsburgh, then last-place teams in the Cubs and Padres. If the Brewers are going to make a move, now’s the time and the personnel on hand simply has to  play like its capable.

Around the rest of the NL Central…

Cincinnati (28-22)—Brandon Phillips got his bat going this week, hitting .364 and making up for a slump by otherwise hot-hitting rookie shortstop Zack Cozart. And Todd Frazier, the young third baseman in for the injured Scott Rolen, hit well, including the home run that went viral. Cincy hit well and pitched well, but some luck was missing as they only played .500 ball over the past week.

St. Louis (27-24): The trying times in St. Louis keep getting more challenging, as they lost three of four to Philadelphia last weekend and then proved to be the perfect antidote to the slumping Braves, who beat them two of three. It’s the pitching that’s the problem, as Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia all got hit hard, and Garcia’s schedule start tonight at the Mets will be skipped as the club flies him back to St. Loo and get his elbow checked.

Pittsburgh (25-25): A sweep of the Cubs and series win over the Reds have put Clint Hurdle’s team back to .500 as the come into Milwaukee this weekend and will be subject to careful observation by yours truly when I’m out there Sunday, something I’m sure that’s a motivating factor in the Pirate clubhouse. Almost as motivating as the fact that in the last four starts by A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Erik Bedard, they have combined for 26.1 IP and zero runs. And the offense, abysmal this season actually outperformed two NL teams in runs scored. Andrew McCutchen got some help from 27-year-old rookie first baseman Matt Hague, who went 6-for-19 with a couple doubles. Kudos to Hurdle for taking a shot with Hague rather than continuing to fail with “safe” veterans.

Houston (22-29): Forget I praised them last week. The Astros went into Colorado for a four-game set and gave up forty runs!  There are individual hitters—actually quite a few—still swinging good bats, but after a week like that, no good can be said.

ChiCubs (18-32): A sweep of San Diego earlier this week finally ended a long losing streak. The Cubbies got offense from the middle infield—Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney combined for 17 hits and four home runs—and the corner outfield as veterans David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano had good weeks. All the better to increase  the trade value of the outfielders, as I’m sure DeJesus will be moved this summer and Soriano might if GM Theo Epstein can find someone to take his contract. A tip of the cap also goes to the bullpen, especially middle men Shawn Camp and Casey Coleman. Each pitched in three games, averaged more than an inning per outing and did not allow a run.