Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brew Crew Looking Good

by Scott Silversten

Let’s get something straight right now … the bandwagon doors get locked for good on Monday. If you want in, buy tickets immediately.

There are only a few spots still open. One is an aisle seat next to Ben Sheets, who prefers the window so he can keep his valuable and oft-injured right arm out of harm's way. If you are svelte enough, try finding an empty chair next to Prince Fielder, who just might be baseball’s next slugging superstar.

However, if the intellectual side of the game is more your speed, there is room next to Ned Yost, a manager who has helped build a team ready to give Milwaukee its first look at playoff baseball in nearly a quarter century. That’s right, it’s been 23 years since the Brewers have crashed the postseason party.

For a sport known as being dominated by big-market teams and lacking parity, it’s quite ironic that the last two world champions have come from two of the largest cities in the country that had gone 86 and 88 years, respectively, without a world champion. Is baseball ready for a drought to end in a smaller market while extending the streak to six years of surprising World Series winners?

Envisioning the Brewers winning the 2006 championship is still hard to fathom, but for the first time in over a decade, Milwaukee sports fans should still be focused on the diamond when the Green Bay Packers start training camp in July. Here’s a recommendation for Brett Favre … retire now and reserve your spot on the blue and gold bus that just might leave other members of the National League in the rearview mirror.

The Brewers (81-81) are coming off their first non-losing season since 1992. How long ago was 1992 in baseball terms? Milwaukee is actually two divisions removed from their second place finish in the American League East that year. Realignment shifted the Brewers to the AL Central in 1994 prior to their departure to the Senior Circuit four years later.

Despite all he has accomplished as commissioner, former Brewers owner Bud Selig is still reviled by most fans and blamed for such mishaps as the steroids scandal, the All-Star Game tie and the 1994 players’ strike that caused the first cancellation of the World Series since 1904.

However, the real shame of his tenure has been the struggles of his former franchise. In 1970, Selig responded to the 1965 departure of the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta by purchasing the Seattle Pilots and moving them to his hometown. With Robin Yount and Paul Molitor leading the way, the Brewers reached their only World Series in 1982 but over the last decade have averaged 71.9 wins, including a horrendous 56-106 campaign in 2002.

But last season has finally brought optimism to Milwaukee. After falling eight games under .500 on June 21, the Brewers slowly rebounded and had a chance for a winning campaign before dropping their last two games of the year in Pittsburgh. And they did it with Sheets, a Cy Young-talent, missing significant time after tearing a muscle behind his pitcher shoulder in the spring, straining an adjoining muscle in early March and then suffering a shoulder tear in August. Any optimism heading into 2006 is quickly tempered with the knowledge that he will likely start the season on the disabled list again after straining a back muscle near the one he tore last summer.

For a mid-market franchise, the Brewers took a huge risk when they gave Sheets a four-year, $38.5 million contract after he struck out 264 in 2004. Approximately 20% of the club’s payroll is tied up in Sheets, who also missed time last season with an inner-ear infection.

If healthy, Sheets leads a deep starting staff that includes lefties Chris Capuano and Doug Davis. Tomo Ohka is serviceable and David Bush won the fifth starter spot over Rick Helling, who has battled elbow issues this spring but appears ready to break camp in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Derrick Turnbow is back as the closer after posting 39 saves in 2005.

The everyday lineup is talented, but extremely young. Fielder, the son of former 50-home run hitter Cecil, and second baseman Rickie Weeks are potential stars, while shortstop J.J. Hardy will need to mature as he approaches his 24th birthday in August.

A big problem area could be defense, as the Brewers ranked last in the N.L. in fielding percentage and had the most errors in league last season. New third baseman Corey Koskie should help, but Weeks’ struggles (21 errors) have led the team to consider a move to the outfield.

The offensive star should once again be left fielder Carlos Lee, who came over from the Chicago White Sox prior to the 2005 campaign and, although he missed out on a World Series ring, accumulated 32 homers and 114 RBIs to help the Brewers stay on the fringes of the wild card race for a good portion of the summer.

So keep faith Milwaukee! Miller Park will be jumping throughout 2006 and Bernie Brewer should be doing more than waiting for football season to arrive.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine