Wednesday March 18th, 2009

PHOENIX -- Ken Macha didn't say a word, but the look on his face gave voice to the thoughts in his head as he stood, an audience of one, on a back pitching mound at the Milwaukee Brewers spring training complex and watched his new ace one morning last week.

What do we have here?

It's the same question that Brewers fans everywhere have been asking about Yovani Gallardo ever since the talented 23-year-old was thrust from understudy to starring role in Milwaukee's rotation upon the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, two veterans who had combined last year to lead the Brewers to the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

For all of Gallardo's gifts, his promotion was not due to his potential, and certainly not to his statistics -- with 24 career appearances he still has almost as many whiskers on his chin as games under his belt. Rather, his elevation is due to the sobering reality that Milwaukee's moment as a big-market team --acquiring one of the game's best pitchers before the trade deadline and then offering him a nine-figure contract in the offseason -- was as brief as it was productive.

Having lost Sabathia to the Yankees after New York trumped their reported $100 million offer by more than $60 million, and Sheets, who remains a free agent but is currently sidelined with an injury, the Brewers were forced to refurbish their rotation. They signed Braden Looper from the Cardinals for a much more affordable one-year, $4.75 million deal, but he has never been asked to front a rotation. (With a 24-26 record in two years as a starter, it's easy to see why.) Despite the presence of promising lefty Manny Parra and veterans Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan, it is the young, gifted and cost-effective Gallardo who has the most physical ability and thus the best chance to be the new ace -- and new face -- of the Brewers' rotation.

What Gallardo lacks in experience he makes up for in talent. Teammate Ryan Braun once called him "the best pitcher I've ever played with," and catcher Jason Kendall, a veteran of 14 big league seasons, says, "Yovani has the potential to win a Cy Young. He's that good."

"He has all the tools you're looking for," Brewers pitching coach Bill Castro says. "A good, young arm, good pitches and confidence."

Gallardo also possesses an extremely impressive work ethic. After enduring a left knee injury before last season started, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee on May 1, in just his third start of the season. (One heroic side note: Gallardo, who sustained the injury in the top of the fifth inning, actually stayed in the game to record five more outs.) With the devastating injury, Gallardo was declared out for the year. Instead, he rehabbed furiously, returning in time to make a critical start against the Pirates on the last weekend of the season and then opening the Division Series against the Phillies a few days later.

"I'm usually at the ballpark pretty early, but he beat me every day," says Kendall. "He was here busting his [butt]. A lot of guys would have just shut it down."

Gallardo, who pronounced himself "in perfect health right now" after a rigorous offseason routine that included workouts three times a week to add lower-body strength, didn't just spend his free time last year fixing his body. He studied Sabathia and Sheets for insight into their success, and wasn't afraid to ask the veterans for their counsel.

"The most important thing I learned was that both of them are very aggressive," he says. "They pound the strike zone and go right after hitters. Sheets was basically fastball and curveball and CC fastball and slider, two pitches, but they mixed them very well."

Gallardo throws four pitches, with a mid-90s fastball and a developing curveball being his two best (complemented by a slider and a changeup). Still, his various gifts have been like a hyped movie that opens at a film festival: great reviews, but few people have actually seen it for themselves.

"His fastball gets to the circle [in front of the plate] and just -- kaboom! -- explodes," said Kendall, making a noise like he just sunk someone's battleship. "He's got a great changeup and control. And he can use any pitch at any time."

This spring Gallardo is drawing rave reviews and heady comparisons in equal measure. Castro likens him to another Mexican native and former Brewers star, Teddy Higuera (Gallardo was born in Mexico but moved to Texas at age 4) because "when he's in trouble, he can reach back for something more." Looper says he has seen similarities to a young A.J. Burnett, a flamethrowing teammate on the 2003 World Series-winning Marlins. "A.J. was electric, throwing 97-plus with a [great] curve," Looper says, "but Yo has better stuff and better command than A.J. did at that age."

Macha managed the Oakland A's when they were fronted by the vintage staff of All-Stars Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Though he's cautious to equate Gallardo to those three until his performance matches his potential, Macha concedes that Gallardo has the stuff to match. "All the situations will be different," Macha said. "You've got to figure out what their makeup is."

Macha will have to figure out a lot about his likely new ace. After being hired during the offseason Macha consulted with Kendall to get a sense of what his new pitchers were like, on and off the mound. "He said, '[Gallardo] doesn't know how good he can be.' "

Neither, for the moment, does anyone else. Gallardo pitched 113 innings in his debut season of 2007, going 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 110 innings. But he only pitched a total of 46.2 innings in '08 between the minors and the majors, and when Macha says he envisions a 15 percent increase in Gallardo's innings this year, he likely means from his professional high of 188 two years ago. That would put Gallardo at 216 2/3 IP this year, a massive increase from a year ago; although Macha is hoping to build in extra rest once the season starts.

For now, Macha still hasn't had a chance to watch Gallardo much in person (entering Thursday's scheduled start, he's pitched just 8.2 innings this spring), and is likely to be learning as much from those morning bullpen sessions as anything that happens on a mound before the team heads north.

So what do we have here? The manager, just like everybody else, is about to find out.

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