The new year is here, and that means we’re slowly getting closer to the start of Spring Training. Given the fact that there hasn’t been much Brewers news lately, and I’ve been thinking about baseball to keep my mind off the possibility of single-digit highs while I’m home in Wisconsin, here are 10 things I want to see from the team to start the decade:
1. Alcides Escobar: OBP over .330 A pretty popular comparison for Escobar is Elvis Andrus, the Texas shortstop who put up a line of .267/.329/.373 as a 20-year old last season. Neither player will ever hit for much power, and are mostly known for their defensive and baserunning abilities. We saw flashes of just how exciting Escobar can be last season during his end-of-season stint with the big league club, but if he’s going to live up to the hype, he’s going to need to be more selective at the plate. He’s shown increased patience in the Venezuelan Winter League, but we’ll see if it holds up to start the 2010 season. An OBP of .330 isn’t great, but it would be a step in the right direction for a young player like Escobar.
2. Carlos Gomez: 35 SB It’d also be nice if Gomez could muster up the patience to get on base at a .330 clip, but considering he’s never even put up an OBP of .300, that might be asking for a bit much. So instead, here’s to hoping he gets on base enough to at least make some noise when he’s there. Gomez stole 33 bases for the Twins in 2008, when he played in 153 games and hit .258/.296/.360 in 577 at-bats. Since he’s likely to see that many ABs in Milwaukee as the regular centerfielder, let’s hope he can raise a little bit of hell and steal around 35 bases. It’d be a small improvement over that 2008 number and is probably still a little below what he’s capable of, but it’s hard to predict how many chances he’ll get, given his struggles at the plate.
3. Randy Wolf: 4.00 ERA Let’s just get this out of the way: Randy Wolf will never again have an ERA as good as he had with the Dodgers last year. He’s moving out of the NL West and its spacious ballparks and moving into the NL Central and its homer-friendly stadiums. If you look at his FIP, he got pretty lucky with his ERA last year. All signs point to a regression to the mean this year, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad signing on the level of Jeff Suppan (we’ll get to Gazpacho later on). He doesn’t have a history of getting lucky like Suppan did in St. Louis. He strikes out more batters than Suppan did in his Cardinal years, and he’s still able to get quite a few guys to swing and miss. For those reasons, I think an ERA around 4 — perhaps even the high-3′s, if you want to get really optimistic — is possible. Some will think that would make him a waste of money, but it would represent a big improvement over what the Brewers had behind Yovani Gallardo last season. Speaking of Yo…
4. Yovani Gallardo: Less Walks I don’t have a specific number in mind here, but Yo needs to be more efficient with his pitches. His 94 walks ranked second in the National League last year, behind only Doug Davis. His average of 4.6 walks per 9 innings pitched was fourth highest in the NL. Whether it was an inability to throw strikes or just hitting a wall late in the year, it was frustrating to see him struggle to get through 5 innings down the stretch. In his last 10 starts, he managed to go 7 innings only twice, and 4 of his last 5 outings lasted less than 6 innings. While he bounced back from his knee injury better than any of us thought he would, the team’s pitching woes were amplified by the fact that their ace was wasting too many pitches and losing batters late in counts. Hopefully the addition of new pitching coach Rick Peterson will remedy some of those problems.
5. Ryan Braun: 40 HR It’s hard to ask Braun to do much more for the Brewers offense than he’s already done. He’s hit over .320 twice in his short career. He improved his OBP by 31 points and led the National League in hits last season. At the same time, this is a team that will be losing the home run pop of Mike Cameron and, to a lesser extent, J.J. Hardy. If there’s one mark Braun hasn’t hit in his short time in the majors, it’s the 40 home run plateau. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he’s a good bet to hit that many someday, and 2010 may be the year he finally does it. He came close in 2008 with 37 longballs, and probably would have surpassed the mark if he didn’t struggle with that odd intercostal injury.
6. Rickie Weeks: 500 at-bats I’m past the point of hoping for 20 home runs or 30 steals or less errors from Rickie. At this point, I just hope he can stay on the field for a full season. It seems like every time the light bulb goes off for Weeks, a season-ending injury isn’t far behind, whether it’s tearing tendons in both wrists or problems with his thumb. Despite the flashes of brilliance in the leadoff role, Weeks has never been able to top 500 at-bats in a season — he came closest in 2008, when he had 475. Here’s to hoping the Brewers can get 500 AB’s worth of the production Weeks put up in 37 games last season before getting hurt. If he can do that, Milwaukee’s offense may not be in such bad shape, after all.
7. Jeff Suppan: ERA under 5.00 I’m not setting the bar real high here, but it’s a mark that I think he can attain in the last year of his albatross contract. Yes, he was bad last year, putting up an ERA (5.29) that was his worst full season effort since 2002. As bad as he was, he had an ERA under 5 heading into his start against the Phillies on September 24. From there, he gave up 16 earned runs in his next 12.1 innings, making his final stats look even worse than they probably should have been. The good news with Suppan? The chance that if he realy flames out early, the Brewers can just cut him loose due to the fact that he’s in the last year of his contract. In the words of Carl Spackler, they have that going for them, which is nice.
8. Corey Hart: .800 OPS Remember when the Brewers wouldn’t part with Corey Hart in any potential trades and saw him as just as important to the Brewers’ future as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder? Weren’t those days great? Ever since putting up an .892 OPS in his first full year as a starter in 2007, causing thoughts of 30-30 seasons to dance in our heads, he’s been a pretty big disappointment. To his credit, he did improve his OBP by 35 points last year, but his batting average and power likely suffered due to him trying too hard to take more walks. There was talk from Doug Melvin earlier this offseason about just letting Corey go back to being aggressive and seeing how it works out — he did carry a .353 OBP in that great 2007 season, thanks in large part to a .295 batting average. I’m not going to count on Hart getting close to being a .300 hitter anytime soon, but it would at least be nice if he could hit the .800 OPS mark. Given a fresh start in 2010 and a clean bill of health, I think it’s a possibility, but time is running out for Hart. As he slowly gets more expensive, the Brewers may be persuaded to look for cheaper alternatives if he can’t turn it around — corner outfielders who can only OPS .750 are a dime a dozen.
9. Manny Parra: Serviceable Starter No specific numbers in mind, but if the Brewers are going to be anything more than a third or fourth place team in the NL Central, they’re going to need Parra to pitch more like he did in 2008 and less like he did in 2009. Hopefully having a veteran left-hander on the staff in Randy Wolf will help Parra, like the positive effect CC Sabathia supposedly had on him in the short time he was here. Rick Peterson also has a history of turning around the careers of embattled left-handers, which could work in Parra’s favor — if he managed to get a few useful seasons out of Oliver Perez, you’d have to think he could find something in Parra’s delivery or mindset to fix. If the Brewers do end up adding another starter before the end of the season, it’s probably a good bet that Parra starts the season in Triple A, rather than the new starter replacing a guy like Suppan or Dave Bush. If that’s the case, here’s to hoping Parra doesn’t take the demotion too hard — I still think he has a bright future if he can keep his head on straight. Left-handers typically take longer to fully develop, anyway, and Manny also had injury issues to overcome.
10. Mat Gamel: Playing Time One of the most frustrating things about the 2009 season was the lack of meaningful playing time for Mat Gamel. For whatever reason, he was kept on the big league roster even though Ken Macha much preferred to start Casey McGehee or Craig Counsell at third base. At first, their plan seemed reasonable — they’d use him as a DH in interleague games and give him an occasional start at third, with pinch hitting opportunities sprinkled in until all AL road trips were finished. It sounded a lot like how the Brewers broke Prince Fielder into the big leagues, and it worked well back then. Unfortunately, instead of just sending Gamel back down to Nashville for regular playing time, like they did with Fielder, they kept him on the bench to burn up service time. It’s no wonder Gamel struggled both offensively and defensively when he did play — his starts were sporadic at best, and you couldn’t really fault him for not being able to get into a rhythm. Now it seems like the club is content with Casey McGehee at third base, which would again regulate Gamel to the bench if he’s on the big league club. So, for the last item on the list of things I’d like to see in 2010, I just hope that Gamel can find stable playing time somewhere in the Brewers system. If it’s not a third base in Milwaukee, it should be in Nashville — given the way he struggled to end the year with the Sounds, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Just make sure he’s given the opportunity to improve.