Dan Shafer
True Blue

Midseason Email Exchange – Part One

Dan Shafer and Michael P. Bischoff exchanged emails to recap the harrowing first half of the Milwaukee Brewers 2012 season and take a look at the road ahead.

By - Jul 11th, 2012 09:50 am
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The midsummer classic symbolically marks the halfway point for the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers, so to recap a “harrowing” first half, sift through the trade deadline rumor mill, and weigh the Crew’s chances going forward, Managing Editor Dan Shafer and Contributor Michael P. Bischoff exchanged emails over the past week. Here’s what transpired.

Mike:

We’re halfway through the season for Ryan Braun, Zack Greinke and the 2011 Nashville Sounds, er, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers. As of today (Thursday, July 5), the Brewers record is 38-44, 7.5 games behind the first place Pittsburgh Pirates (?!?) in the NL Central.

Before we get to any trade deadline or second half talk, let’s take a look at the Brewers Opening Day roster. You know, the team I thought would contend for the playoffs this season.

  • Pitchers: John Axford, Tim Dillard, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Kameron Loe, Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, Manny Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Randy Wolf.
  • Catchers: Jonathan Lucroy, George Kottaras.
  • Infielders: 1B Mat Gamel, 2B Rickie Weeks, SS Alex Gonzalez, 3B Aramis Ramirez, UTIL Cesar Izturis, 1B Travis Ishikawa.
  • Outfielders: LF Ryan Braun, CF Nyjer Morgan, RF Corey Hart, OF Carlos Gomez, OF Norichika Aoki.

Yikes. This is not the same team that began the season. April is a distant memory, and the 2011 playoff run seems like a childhood dream. It feels like this team has hit bottom a dozen different times and it might happen a dozen more times before it’s all said and done.

Nevertheless, I’ve broken down the Opening Day roster as into six categories: All-Stars, Gamers, Outright Disappointments, Bench Guys (but nothing more), Minor Leaguers (at best), and the Disabled List.

  • All-Stars: Ryan Braun and Zack Greinke.
  • Gamers: Yovani Gallardo, Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, Norichika Aoki, and in the right spots, Carlos Gomez.
  • Outright Disappointments: Nyjer Morgan, Jose Veras, Randy Wolf, Francisco Rodriguez, John Axford, and Rickie Weeks.
  • Bench Guys: Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, George Kottaras, and Marco Estrada.
  • Minor Leaguers: Tim Dillard, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra.
  • DL: Jonathan Lucroy, Shaun Marcum (both gamers when healthy, and are probably coming back), Mat Gamel, Alex Gonzalez and Chris Narveson.

Outright Disappointments is the largest category. That should pretty much tell you all you need to know about the 2012 Brewers. Everything has gone wrong. I keep expecting to see a report from Tom Haudricourt that Bernie Brewer has checked into AA or that Miller Park is no longer serving soft pretzels. Barring some sort of Major League-esque second half streak, we’ll be more concerned with analyzing September call-ups in a couple months than sizing up our playoff chances. Agree or disagree?

Three more questions for you:

  1. Which player not on the Opening Day roster has made the most positive impact thusfar?
  2. What is your opinion of Ron Roenicke in Year Two?
  3. What do you think is the single biggest reason the Brewers have struggled?

– Dan

***

Dan:

If I had to choose a word to describe the first half, it would be “harrowing.” Even when they win, it certainly doesn’t look easy. This team has played in twelve extra-innings games out of their first 81. To put that in perspective, the 2011 Brewers played in only 14 extra-innings games all season. This year’s configuration has scored a respectable 369 runs, a rate of 4.55 per game, but the pitching staff has allowed 379, barely a tenth of a run more per game. If that’s not a recipe for a harrowing half, I couldn’t tell you what is.

But, shoot, it’s not all bad, let’s take a look at the positives (don’t worry, this won’t take long). Ryan Braun is not only ahead of the MVP pace he set last season, he’s on track for, potentially, the greatest season by any Brewer ever. As great as that is, it gets better in context. Sure, there was that offseason thing where he forgot to send his mail in on time or something—I forget the details—but more importantly, he’s doing this despite the loss of Prince Fielder, who national pundits would have you believe created some nebulous element they call “protection” in the lineup. I watched Richie Sexson hit 45 bombs in a lineup that featured Wes Helms and John Vander Wal as supposed protection, so pardon my incredulity on the topic. It should be further noted that Braun (.309/.392/.605) is greatly outperforming the ursine first baseman (.299/.377/.484) whose Detroit team, at 40-41, is actually a bigger disappointment than the Crew. Admit it, that made you feel a little better.

As for your questions, Doug Melvin came out and said the first few series after the All-Star Break basically determine their role as buyers, sellers, or let’s-try-it-with-what-we-havers. It’s tough to imagine this team, which has routinely failed to inspire more than an acid reflux attack, finally matching their socks and playing some ball, but it’s baseball, and baseball is weird. That said, more than one or two jerseys will probably be collector’s items by the end of July.

Michael Fiers (or #TEHFIERS for you Twitter savants) has been a hidden savior for this team. Hidden because they’re still struggling, but how much worse could it have been without him jumping from AA and pitching above his head in his month-plus of Major League duty. The team is only 3-3 in his starts, but his 2.29 ERA, 1.068 WHIP and Greinke-ish 9.4 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 have been more than enough to keep them in those games. I should also mention, despite his 4.31 ERA, Marco Estrada has nearly-identical peripherals and has continues to excel as 6th-pitcher extraordinaire.

The second season of Ron Roenicke, really, has been no different than the first season. He bunts! He runs! He mis-manages the bullpen! He baffles even the most apologetic observers! Honestly, I could go on with this, but the guys at RonRoenickeStoleMyBaseball.com do it way better.

The biggest sore spot on this team is one part roster construction, one part poor utilization, but about seven parts player performance, and that’s the bullpen. Injuries have depleted the depth of the starting five, and Randy Wolf hasn’t had much of a follow-up to his excellent 2011, but the previously mentioned contributions from Fiers and Estrada have kept the starting rotation from devolving into a disaster. There isn’t a single member of the bullpen with an ERA below Francisco Rodriguez‘s 4.06. No one has been reliable, no one has been able to consistently perform in the way Rodriguez, John Axford, and the departed LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito did a year ago. The team has burned through Mike McClendon, Vinnie Chulk and Juan Perez with no luck, and are now trying to get what they can out of Livan Hernandez, who, for his part, looks like he’s just adding caps to his collection at this point.

Well that’s a whole bunch already, and we haven’t even gotten to your X-Factor, Rickie Weeks, yet.

– Mike

***

Mike:

No, we have not. I feel personally responsible for Weeks’ atrocious season, as ridiculous as that sounds. I’m legitimately terrified to write any more about him. In fact, as I’m typing this, I’m worried his wrist will spontaneously combust. I have to move on.

A few other things from that last email.

1. I think the biggest reason the team has struggled has been their inability to win at home with any consistency. A 57-24 home record propelled the team to the playoffs last year, while this year, they’ve already lost 21 home games (22-21). They haven’t swept a single home series all season—not even against the Cubs! Pittsburgh has been dominant at PNC Park this year (27-13), a big reason they’re in first place, despite being under .500 on the road.

2. The bullpen has been abysmal, but look around the league. There aren’t too many teams that can say “I have total confidence in this bullpen.” Not that this excuses the Crew’s poor performance (that K-Rod ERA stat almost made me vomit), but it’s something the team has in common with most of the MLB. Jim Johnson (Baltimore) and Fernando Rodney (Tampa) are leading the league in saves. You’re right, baseball is weird. Bullpens are even weirder.

3. Braun’s singular brilliance is reason enough to go to the ballpark. He’s been unbelievable. He’s answered every question his troubling offseason posed. In a way, it’s a bit like those post-Shaq Laker teams when Kobe put up the best stats of his career with an “Eff You” edge, the difference being that Braun hasn’t crapped all over his teammates in the process.

Here’s another LA comparison for this year’s team: the 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that was shaky at home, battled bullpen issues, and ended the season 82-79. Only MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw kept the team competitive.

Which brings us to Donald Zackary Greinke.

Did you know that’s his full name? There’s nothing about Zack that isn’t fascinating. Every start is a must-watch, and he’s nearly as quotable as Uecker. I would love to see him in Brewers blue for the next decade. With his astronomical strikeout rate, there’s no better pitcher for the bandbox that is Miller Park.

But will he be a Brewer in August?

– Dan

Check back soon for Part Two.

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