Ryan Braun and the Batting Title

Ryan Braun is going to have to come with his game face tonight if he wants a batting title.

Mets manager Terry Collins (whose 2013 option was just picked up) decided to pull Jose Reyes following a bunt single in the first inning, to a chorus of boos from Mets fans.  It will likely be Reyes’ last game in a Mets uniform, as he’s a free agent after the season.  So I guess if you’re the Mets, why not one final act of disappointment to compound all those endured by fans during the season?*

In any event, Collins’ decision means that Reyes will finish the season 181-537, a .33706 average.  Braun currently has 187 hits in 559 at-bats (.334525939), so he’ll need at least three hits tonight in order to finish ahead of Reyes.  Let’s hope Pirates manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t decide tonight’s a good night to walk Braun.

Collins’ cowardice isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, though.  Braun has at least 3 hits in 15 games this season, including three in September.  He has never faced Pirates probable starter John Locke.

Whatever happens with the batting title, you have to give both Braun and Reyes a lot of credit.  Both have raised their averages by 5-6 points since mid-September, no easy feat this late in the season.

*That may have been a cheap shot.  I’m just very irritated that the Mets wouldn’t let this play out.  And in any event, a batting title for Reyes is sort of counterproductive for the Mets, who presumably would like to resign him this offseason.

Feels So Good

The last twenty-four hours have been a whirlwind for the Milwaukee Brewers and their fans.

The electric atmosphere at Miller Park last night, when the Brewers clinched their first NL Central Division Championship since 1982, came with plenty of questions.  Despite an evaporating magic number, many wondered just how much of a lock the Brewers were for the postseason with a surging Cardinals club hot on their heels.  An inconsistent offense has left plenty of runners stranded, and regulars like Casey McGehee, Jonathan Lucroy, and Yuniesky Betancourt are all just a few at-bats away from extended slumps.

That offense let some opportunities slip by again last night, but the Crew’s MVP-caliber sluggers provided all the momentum the Brewers would need.  Prince Fielder led off the scoring with a towering solo shot to right in the second.  That was all for the Brewers until the eighth when Ryan Braun hammered a 3-1 slider into left center for three runs.  The mash brothers were all smiles afterwards, and in Prince’s case, a few tears.

While Braun and Fielder grabbed the highlights (including an amazing diving double-play catch and throw by Braun), their effort would have been wasted if not for Yovani Gallardo and the bullpen.  Gallardo delivered one of his sharpest outing of the season, allowing only 1 run while striking out 11 over 7.1 innings.  Francisco Rodriguez struck out the remainder of the eighth, and Axford picked up his 44th save, tying Francisco Cordero for the club single-season record.

And with that, the Brewers are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, potentially as the number two seed.  And that’s where the Brewers want to be, as it would prevent them from having to face the Phillies in the NLDS if the Braves should win the NL Wild Card.

I know Brewers fans have been through a lot of heartache over the years (I can’t help that my mind occasionally wanders back to the waning days of the 2007 season), but I strongly advise everyone to take a break and enjoy this for a while.  The Brewers are in the playoffs, guaranteed, and we all know that anything can happen there.  So no mulling over the faults of the club or projecting how they will fare against their playoff competition.  Lets just ride out the last of the regular season and try to accumulate enough wins to stay ahead of Arizona.

Magic Number Watch: 0!!!

On Replacing Prince Fielder

Let’s start with the obvious.  There’s a reason Prince Fielder has priced himself off the Brewers’ payroll.  You’re simply not going to find another readily available  guy that can hit forty home runs, drive in over a hundred runners, and walk nearly as often as he strikes out.  There is no replacing that kind of talent, and if you expect Doug Melvin to do so, you will be disappointed.

And for those of you still hoping Prince will be back, well, Prince has a few words for you:

Unfortunately, this might be the last year for the one-two punch [with Ryan Braun]. I think it’s been good. The six years with me and him has been a good run. Hopefully, we can go out with a blast this year. . . . I’m signed through this year but being real about it, it’s probably my last year.”

Those comments stirred up a frenzy in Wisconsin, but there really isn’t anything there attentive Brewers fans didn’t know.  We can safely say that the hefty slugger who has anchored first base for the past six years is on his way out the door, presumably leaving a gaping hole in the lineup.

But hold on a second.  There are some hidden opportunities here that may do wonders to improve the ballclub.

First, it would be nice to have a first baseman that plays solid defense.  Fangraphs says that Fielder’s defense has been pretty bad; in his six full seasons, Prince has only once pushed his UZR/150 into positive territory.*  To be fair, Fielder has steadily improved, from a -11.6 in 2006 to a -5.2 this year.  Still, with a pitching staff loaded with contact pitchers, a defensive first baseman would be a plus.

Second, Prince Fielder’s departure gives the Brewers an opportunity to improve other areas of the club by clearing salary.  Here’s an example.  One well-known liability this season is the shortstop position.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Brewers opt not to pick up Yuniesky Betancourt’s option.  Betancourt has slashed .250/.268/.375, and is terrible with the glove (-8.1 UZR/150 in 2011).  Prince’s departure frees up about $15.5 million, though escalating payouts to Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo will erase much of that.  Still, one cost-effective shortstop option might be Marco Scutaro, currently with the Red Sox, who is slashing .288/.346/.399.  Scutaro is currently making $5.5 million, which is probably right around where the Brewers will want to fall with a new shortstop assuming an internal candidate at first base.  Would I take, say, Mat Gamel or Taylor Green at first combined with Scutaro at short over the defensively challenged Fielder and Betancourt?  It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to sacrifice a little bit of power for a shortstop who makes better contact and plays decent defense.  That might go a long way toward solving the Brewers’ shoddy defense and life by the long ball.

Third, Fielder’s departure gives other players a greater opportunity to shine.  At .305/.370/.564, Corey Hart has been a dream at leadoff, but might do just as well as the third or fourth hitter in the order.  Hart easily has the power to hit 30 or more home runs, and the plate discipline to be a .285 hitter.  Or, perhaps Ron Roenicke could move Rickie Weeks up two spots to bat in front of Braun, guaranteeing that he will see some nice pitches to hammer.

Whatever the scenario, it really isn’t the end of the world that Prince is talking about leaving.  And when it happens, the Brewers may still have a good shot at contending for the division crown; their pitching will be largely intact for 2012.

*UZR/150 is one measure of a player’s defensive prowess, assessing how many runs better or worse a particular player is than an average (0) player.

Magic Number Watch: 4

The Not-So-Great Closer Debate

While John Axford was busy working on two innings of shutout baseball against the Rockies yesterday, CBS Sports’ Scott Miller was busy working an article certain to stir up a hornet’s nest among Brewers nation.

News flash:  K-Rod is not happy.

“I’m not fine,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “They told me I’d have the opportunity to close some games, and we’ve had 20-some save opportunities since then and I haven’t even had one.”

No one in the Brewers front office was confused about what role K-Rod wanted when they traded for him on July 12.  He was coming from a closer’s job, and wanted a closer’s job back.  The only problem:  a 6’5″,Canadian fireballer named John Axford, who, after blowing two games in April, had put together a string of 20 consecutive saves.

Axford has been pretty well lights out since the trade, too, meaning Rodriguez hasn’t seen those save opportunities he was promised.  But there may be hope for him tonight; having used the Axman for two innings in last night’s game, manager Ron Roenicke announced that if a save opportunity presents itself tonight, Rodriguez is his man.

While giving K-Rod a long awaited save might placate the troubled set-up man for a bit, Jim Breen over at Bernie’s Crew explains why we shouldn’t be too concerned about K-Rod’s disappointment spilling over into clubhouse troubles. I don’t know how far Rodriguez’s thirst for competition will quell his troubled mind (don’t most major leaguers?), but no one in that clubhouse is going to take sides against a guy with 39 consecutive saves and a 2.10 ERA.

Magic Number Watch: 8

Weeks Returns, But Rest of Offense MIA

My attention was split tonight between the Packers and the Brewers, but I saw enough of the Brewers game to worry slightly about whether this team is ready for the playoffs.

Rickie Weeks was activated from the disabled list prior to today’s game against the Phillies, but did not make an appearance.  That’s a shame, too, as the Brewers could have used him.  They were blanked until the fifth inning by Cole Hamels, who allowed only four hits en route to a complete game victory.  The only blemishes on Hamel’s outstanding outing came off the bats of Yuniesky Betancourt and Corey Hart, both of whom hit solo home runs.

The Brewers’ recent reliance on the long ball is somewhat troubling.  In the month of September, the Brewers have hit 13 home runs, second-most in baseball over that time period.  Unfortunately, the team only has a .257 average to pair with that pop.  After demolishing the Astros over the weekend by a combined score of 20-4, the Crew’s offense has withered against stronger competition.  Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook was knocked around for four runs on Monday, but half of those came by the home run.  Though the Crew ultimately got a “W” in that contest, the team has lost the last three games; in none of those have the Brewers scored more than two runs.  The opposing pitching has been high-quality, but that is precisely the point; in the playoffs, all of the pitching will be high-quality.*

Watch to see how the hitting trends over the next few days against the Phillies, who will trot out Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The Brewers have historically hit these regular Cy Young candidates pretty well; Halladay is 1-2 with a 6.41 ERA against the Crew, while Lee is 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA.  If the Brewers expect to find themselves playing deep into October, they will need to continue that kind of success against elite pitching.

*Unless, of course, you are the 2008 Brewers, who had to send perennial All-Stars Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush to the mound.

 

Questions at Third Base

As late as last October, the future at third base for the Brewers seemed pretty clear.  After placing fifth in Rookie of the Year voting following a 2009 campaign in which he hit .301, Casey McGehee followed up with a .285 batting average in his first full season with the Brewers.  2010 saw McGehee hit a career-high 23 home runs, with a team-high 104 runs batted in.  McGehee’s up-and-coming competition at third base, Taylor Green, spent the year in AA still hampered by a wrist injury and hit only .260. Drafted in 2005, Green was noted for his plate discipline and contact and appeared more likely to make the club in coming years as a utility player rather than a starting third baseman.

Things have changed considerably since last October.  McGehee opened 2011 with a slump of epic proportions, hitting only .223 with 5 home runs through the first half of the season.  Green, meanwhile, knocked the cover off the ball at AAA Nashville, batting .336 with a good bit of pop (22 home runs).  Though McGehee has turned it on a bit in the second half (.265 average, 7 home runs), his recent success hasn’t silenced McGee’s critics — or Green’s proponents.

Those fans finally got their wish on August 31.  After his call-up, Green logged his first major-league hit in his first at-bat, delivering a Jake Westbrook changeup into right field for a pinch-hit single.  In limited appearances, he’s gone 7 for 16 with an RBI.  If Green can continue his hot start, he has an excellent chance of making the postseason roster and might even challenge Casey McGehee next year at third base in spring training, especially since Green is better with the glove.  Even if that scenario doesn’t materialize, Green will likely make the team as a left-handed utility player with a decent spring training.

Along with the likely departures of Prince Fielder and Yuniesky Betancourt, Green’s ascension could mean the Brewers’ infield has a whole new look in 2012.

Firing on All Cylinders

Sweeps, cycles, and saves.  And cowboys.

The Brewers have a lot of things working for them right now, even after a disappointing three-game sweep by St. Louis on the last homestand.

We’ll start with the sweep.  The Brewers rebounded from their series loss to St. Louis in a big way, sweeping the Astros and gaining a game to push their lead to 9.5 games over the second-place Cards.  Great pitching was the name of the game; the Brewers didn’t allow the Astros to score more than two runs in any game of the series at the historically difficult Minute Maid Park.  On Friday the Brewers did all of their scoring late as the Astros bullpen melted down.  For the game, Braun and Fielder combined to go six for nine with four RBI, enhancing their collective case for an NL MVP award.  Chris Narveson rolled past the Astros on Saturday, holding the Texas team to two runs, and Shaun Marcum tossed an absolute gem on Sunday, striking out eight over seven innings of one-hit ball.  But it was a Brewers position player that made the series highlight reels.

The Brewers’ backup catcher, George Kottaras, became the first major league player to hit for the cycle this year, accomplishing the feat on Saturday night during an 8-2 Brewers victory.  Kottaras is the latest of unlikely Milwaukee players to hit for the cycle.  Jody Gerut, a backup OF, did it last season; the Brewers cut him later in the year.  Before him, catcher Chad Moeller did it on April 27, 2004, as the Brewers topped the Reds, 9-8.  Mike Hegan did it in the ’70s, and Charlie Moore was the only Brewer to hit for the cycle during the ’80s; Hegan was a .242 career hitter, Moore, .261.  In fact, the only cycle-hitters in franchise history that one would expect are Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.

Last on the list: saves.  Is it too much to think that John Axford might be in the discussion for NL MVP, too?  Axford saved his 41st game of the season today, tossing a scoreless ninth inning to preserve the 4-1 victory for starter Randy Wolf, who lasted eight innings against the difficult St. Louis Cardinals.  The victory pushed the Cardinals to 10.5 games back, all but eliminating the Cardinals from the postseason.  Axford hadn’t earned a save since finishing all three games against the Cubs between August 26-28, but he picked up right where he left off and now sports a nifty 2.23 ERA along with 75 strikeouts in 64.2 innings pitched.

Oh, and the team dressed like cowboys out in Houston just to liven things up a bit.

All these things – competitive starting pitching, historic hitting, a lockdown bullpen, and a loose and fun-loving ballclub – will be needed during the next six games.  The remainder of the Cardinals series lies ahead, including a matchup of former Cy Young winners in Zack Greinke and Chris Carpenter on Wednesday.  After that, the Brewers head off to Philadelphia in what could be a preview of the National League Championship Series.  Game one will feature Roy Halladay and Shaun Marcum in what is must-see television.  And all eyes shift toward the postseason.

Magic Number Watch:  11