Top Ten Keys for the Brewers to make the playoffs (or not)–Part I

It’s that time of year again. Pitchers and catchers report on Saturday, followed soon thereafter by the position players. As I’ve done in years past, I’ve identified what I feel are the Top Ten things that need to happen in order for the Brewers to make the postseason. Qualifier: In years past, I put together two lists–one of reasons why the Brewers could make the playoffs, and another why they could not make the playoffs. Often, I found that the reasons on one list could actually go on the other, e.g. “Ben Sheets’ health.” Obviously, if Sheets is healthy, the Brewers chances of making the postseason improve, and, if not, their chances diminish. So I am combining the lists into one and just calling it “keys” to making the playoffs (or not).
Another qualifier: In years past, I intermixed keys dealing with individual players with those involving more the one player, e.g. “the starting rotation.” In some sort of epiphany, I am now going to still identify these…but recognize that factors that impact more than one player will always be more important than those involving a single player…as such, reasons #6-10 will be the individual keys, whereas reasons #1-5 will contain groups of players. So, without further delay, here are my “Top Ten Key for the Brewers to make the playoffs (or not),” in order from least important to the most important (IMHO):
#10: Jason Kendall needs to be an upgrade over Johnny Estrada–A year ago, Brewers’ nation thought that the switch-hitting Johnny Estrada would be an upgrade over Damian Miller. And, offensive wise, he was. But defensively, Estrada struggled in 2007–he only threw out 11 of 84 base stealers, just over 13%…partly due, perhaps, to an injury. Kendall threw out 15 of 74 with the A’s (20.3%), but only 5 out of 57 (8.8%) with the Cubs–for a total of 20 of 131, or 15.3%. Kendall also had 12 passed balls on the year, versus Estrada’s 5. But, most importantly, will be Kendall’s ability to work with pitchers–someone once told me that the Brewers’ bench calls most pitches, but, even so, Kendall will be instrumental in working with pitching coach Mike Maddux and the pitching corps to determine what the pitchers will throw–and when. Plus, it was widely known that Estrada was a bit of a clubhouse distraction–Kendall will surely be an upgrade in terms of morale…but he also needs to be a contributor on the field. If Kendall can maintain his .362 OBP that he had in the last 57 games after re-joining the NL, that, too, will be an upgrade over Estrada’s miniscule .296 OBP last year.
#9: Ben Sheets needs to be consistent…and healthy–Just about every such list has Ben Sheets’ health on it somewhere…and for good reason–the #1 starter would normally get at least 33 starts every season, if healthy the entire time. Sheets did get 24 starts last year–the most since 2004. Yet, despite having their ace only pitch 2/3rds of the time, the Brewers almost made the playoffs. Equally important is that the 30 year-old (Sheets turns 30 in July) needs his share of quality starts in the second half of the season–he had 10 before the All-Star break…but only one quality start afterwards. Sheets averaged 5.89 IP/GS for the year, but just 4.22 IP/GS in his 6 starts after the All-Star break, when Sheets went just 2-1, with a 5.68 ERA. For the Crew to make the postseason, Sheets needs to not only stay healthy for most of the season, but be productive throughout the season.
#8. Eric Gagne needs to return to being a dominant closer–After the Brewers’ could not re-sign closer Francisco Cordero, Brewers’ fans scratched their heads as to who the 2008 closer might be. After signing David Riske, fans were still left wondering. Signing Gagne didn’t stop it, either. Are the Brewers getting the Gagne that only allowed 23 hits over 33.33 IP with the Rangers, or the one that gave up 26 hits in just 18.67 IP with the Red Sox? Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin is hoping that the move to the NL will help Gagne, too. How much Gagne has left in the tank is a big question mark.
#7. Bill Hall needs to return to his 2006 form–Everyone expected Hall to have a banner 2007 season, after signing a four-year, $23.5 million deal at the start of the season. And while it will never be known with any degree of precision if Hall’s dip in ’07 was due to switching from the infield to the outfield or for some other reason, Hall’s productivity went south last year–.315 OBP (vs. .345 in ’06), 14 HR’s (vs. 35), 59 runs (vs. 101), 63 RBI’s (vs. 85)…even 4 SB’s (vs. 8) and 0 triples (vs. 4). Hall needs to take the mindset that his ’07 offensive dip was due to his move–and now that he’s back in the infield, he can hit like he did the last time he played the infield.
#6. Jeff Suppan needs to step up and become competitive with the other #2 pitchers in the league–Lost last year among the Ben Sheets’ missed starts and the 5+ ERA’s of Chris Capuano, David Bush, and Claudio Vargas, was the fact that the second highest paid starter–and the one with the most experience–went 12-12, with a 4.62 ERA. While Suppan made 34 starts for the Crew in his first year in Milwaukee–and averaged 6.08 IP/GS–”Soup” led the Brewers in their road woes, posting a 3-9, 5.38 record outside of Miller Park. And, after throwing out his 1-0, 1.29 with 2 ER’s in 14 IP at Wrigley, Suppan’s road ERA outside of Wrigley jumps to 6.03. After 5 quality starts in April, he didn’t see another one until July 15th. Much of this has to do with Yost keeping Suppan in a bit too long (or Suppan tiring late in the game)…opposing hitters hit .271 off of Suppan in the first three innings, but .323 from the fourth inning on, as well as .377 after 75 pitches. Suppan turned 33 during the off-season, and might be starting to feel the effects of a long career.
I resisted the temptation to include “Fielder and/or Braun” need to improve…true, having Braun for a full season will help–and a decline in his productivity would impact the Brewers…but the Brewers struggled in the second half last year when Braun was hitting well. My list is geared more towards where improvements will help…versus where backslides would hurt.
I’ll try to compile the top five–the team factors–sometime this weekend.

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