By Brian Gillespie, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (68-94) - Sixth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Gary Bennett, SP/RP - Chris Capuano, INF - Craig Counsell, OF - Ben Grieve, C - Chad Moeller, 1B - Lyle Overbay, 2B - Junior Spivey
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SS - Royce Clayton, RP - Jayson Durocher, C - Eddie Perez, SP - Todd Ritchie, SP - Glendon Rusch, 1B - Richie Sexson, OF - John Vander Wal
PROJECTED LINEUP: Scott Podsednik (CF); Craig Counsell (SS); Junior Spivey (2B); Geoff Jenkins (LF); Wes Helms (3B); Lyle Overbay (1B); Ben Grieve (RF); Chad Moeller (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Ben Sheets (RHP); Matt Kinney (RHP); Wayne Franklin (LHP); Wes Obermueller (RHP); Doug Davis (LHP);
PROJECTED CLOSER: Dan Kolb (RHP)
MANAGER: Ned Yost
Not often can a team say it made marked improvement following a season in which it won just 68 games and finished last in its underachieving division, but that is exactly the boast of the Milwaukee Brewers. Milwaukee finished 20 games out in the weak NL Central Division, but actually increased its win total by 12 from 2002.
Ideally, second-year manager Ned Yost and his coaching staff would like to build on the momentum of the solid season. However, it will be easier said than done in the quickly improving Central. Also, it won't be easy for the Brewers to ignore the fact that they have posted 11 straight losing seasons.
First things first, the Brewers need to sort things out after a franchise- changing offseason. To keep its small market club viable, Milwaukee chose to deal franchise first baseman Richie Sexson to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sexson's salary was about to explode and the club wasn't ready to open the check book and ante up.
Instead, the Brewers chose to take seemingly half of Arizona's team in exchange for Sexson. Infielders Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey and Lyle Overbay were part of the deal, as were catcher Chad Moeller and left-handed pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Chris Capuano. All four position players acquired in the deal are expected to start on opening day for the Brewers.
Outside of the Sexson deal, the Brewers made very few changes to the roster. The other major change came in the front office, as president and CEO Ulice Payne Jr. was given his walking papers with four years left on a five-year deal. It was reported that Payne wasn't happy with the club's continuing interest in slicing payroll.
The franchise was also put up for sale during the offseason, as the Selig family is ready to cut its losses and jump ship. Team chairperson Wendy Selig- Prieb, the daughter of commissioner Bud Selig, announced the news in January. The team won't likely ever leave Milwaukee, but the fact that a change of ownership looms could make a few people uneasy.
The Brewers infield will look much like the unit that began its season at Bank One Ballpark in Arizona last season. Spivey will be manning second base, while Counsell and Overbay will be starting at shortstop and first base, respectively. The lone holdover in the infield for the Brewers is third baseman Wes Helms.
Spivey, who could end up trade bait with talented youngster Rickie Weeks nipping at his heels, saw a substantial decline in production last season. The 29-year-old, who struggled with injuries, saw his batting average slip 46 points to .255, while striking out just five fewer times (95) in 173 less at- bats (365). His patience at the plate seemingly went down the drain during the campaign. Spivey much perform better this season or Weeks could unseat him sooner rather than later.
Overbay, who hit .276 with four homers and 28 RBI in the 2003 campaign, will finally get a chance to play on a regular basis this season. The Centralia, WA native has a powerful bat from the left side, but he won't be able to match Sexson's numbers. Overbay could also be keeping the spot warm for Prince Fielder, who seems to be on the fast track to the big leagues after winning Minor League Player of the Year in 2003.
Counsell, a 33-year-old veteran, should be a calming influence on the young team. The sure-handed fielder struggled with the bat last season, hitting just .234 with three homers and 21 RBI in 89 games. Look for Counsell to begin the season in the starting lineup, only to end up being replaced by the recently re-signed Keith Ginter.
A substantial amount of pressure will be placed Helms' shoulders this season, as he will be relied upon to hit more homers and knock in more runs with Sexson in the Valley of the Sun. Last season, Helms notched career-highs in homers (23) and RBI (67).
Moeller, a 29-year-old, will be handling a bulk of the catching duties. The veteran will have his first chance to be a starter after platooning for four years in Arizona.
If the Brewers have a strength, it is their outfield led by oft-injured All- Star left fielder Geoff Jenkins. Surprisingly, Milwaukee took a step in the right direction early in March, inking Jenkins to a three-year deal worth $23 million with an option for 2008. Jenkins has struggled with a variety of maladies over the past four seasons, including a broken thumb that limited him to 124 games in 2003. Yost can only hope and pray that Jenkins is able to keep himself healthy this season, as the talented outfielder has never played in more than 135 games in one season.
Roaming center for the Brewers this season will be speedy Scott Podsednik, who will be aiming to duck the sophomore jinx. Podsednik. who had toiled in the minors for nine seasons prior to last season, made the most of his big chance. The 28-year-old hit .314 with nine homers and 58 RBI, barely missing out on National League Rookie of the Year honors. Podsednik will need a repeat performance to keep the Brewers afloat.
Handling right field for the Brewers will likely be former AL Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, who signed a free agent deal in the offseason. Grieve struggled to get along with Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella last season, as Piniella questioned his work ethic and dedication to the game. For Grieve to stick with Milwaukee, he must step up and be accountable for his play this season.
At the top of the rotation for the Brewers will once again be former Olympian Ben Sheets. In each of his first three major league seasons, Sheets has tallied 11 wins and an average ERA in the mid-4s. The 25-year-old ace righthander has the stuff of a 20-game winner, but alas he twirls for the Brewers. Look for another solid season from the Baton Rouge, LA native.
Filling out the rest of the rotation will be veteran lefties Wayne Franklin and Doug Davis, and righthanders Wes Obermueller and Matt Kinney. Davis owns the best career mark of any of the Milwaukee pitchers at 28-29 with a 4.79 ERA. Davis split time with three teams in 2003, including Milwaukee where he posted a 3-2 mark with a 2.58 ERA.
Franklin managed 10 wins last season, but also tallied a 5.50 ERA in 36 outings. The southpaw will be in just his second season of starting, after coming out of the bullpen for the first three campaigns of his career.
Obermueller and Kinney are both solid pitchers searching for a spot. The duo combined for 12 wins last season, as Kinney went 10-13 with a 5.13 ERA. Obermueller is coming off a rookie season in which he tallied a 2-5 mark to go along with a 5.07 ERA. After a slow start, Obermueller tallied wins in his final two starts of the season.
The Brewers' bullpen isn't exactly something to write home about, as none of its members are dominant. Closer Dan Kolb is probably the most talented of the Brewers' bullpen, as he converted 21-of-23 save opportunities after Mike DeJean was dealt to St. Louis last season. Kolb, a hard-throwing righthander, will truly be judged this year.
First out of the 'pen in the middle innings for the Brewers is often righthander Luis Vizcaino, who has appeared in 151 games over the last two seasons. Vizcaino is the most utilized hurler of the unit despite tallying a 4-3 mark with a meaty 6.39 ERA last season.
Leo Estrella will serve as a righthanded setup man.
The most intriguing of the Brewers' relievers is Brooks Kieschnick, who moonlights as a pinch-hitter. Kieschnick went 1-1 with a 5.26 ERA in 42 appearances last season, while hitting .300 with seven homers and 12 RBI in 70 at-bats. His versatility provides Milwaukee fans with excitement when games aren't as much fun.
Depth off the bench comes from Kieschnick, Ginter, INF Bill Hall and OF Brady Clark. Hall hit .261 with five homers and 20 RBI with the Brewers last season, while Clark mustered a .273 batting average in 128 games. Clark is a solid replacement for Grieve in case he struggles.
Backstopping off the pine for the Brewers will be veteran Gary Bennett. Last season, Bennett posted two homers and 42 RBI for the San Diego Padres while hitting .238.
The Brewers have a lot of young talent in their organization, but that and $1.25 will get you a cup of coffee nowadays. Although, Milwaukee would like to win more than 68 this season, it doesn't look good. With the Central becoming the premier division in the National League, it appears that wins will be very hard to come by this season. Don't count on more than a last place finish for the Brewers.