Spring postcard: Strong rotation has Brewers thinking playoffs
MARYVALE, Ariz. -- Three observations after spending time in Brewers camp:
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin wanted two starting pitchers this offseason, and he pounced. First, he traded second-base prospect Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for starter Shaun Marcum in early December. Melvin was confident the club could extend current second baseman Rickie Weeks -- and did in February, to the tune of four years and $38.5 million -- which gave him the flexibility to trade Lawrie.
During an initial private meeting with Royals GM Dayton Moore at the winter meetings, Melvin expressed interest in Kansas City ace Zack Greinke, if the 2009 American League Cy Young winner would be willing to waive his no-trade protection to the Brewers. A week later, Melvin said, Moore called to let him know that Greinke was swayed by the Marcum trade and the club's insistence on not trading first baseman Prince Fielder and would accept a deal to Milwaukee. That led to the mid-December trade that sent Greinke to the Brewers for a bevy of prospects.
"When we saw the opportunity that a couple starters were available, we thought we'd jump at it and be aggressive," Melvin said from his suite at Maryvale Baseball Park. "They don't come along very often. It's not like every year there's starting pitching available. Very seldom it happens."
Importantly to Melvin, both Greinke and Marcum -- in addition to incumbent starters Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson -- are all under team control for at least two years. Greinke will miss the first few weeks of the season with a broken rib sustained while playing pick-up basketball, but once he's healthy, the Brewers' rotation will have gone from a weakness to a strength.
Melvin is candid in discussing Fielder acknowledging that he engaged in some trades talks -- but "nothing serious" -- regarding his franchise first baseman and free-agent-to-be. Were Melvin to make a trade, he said, he would have needed a front-of-the-rotation starter in return, which would have been a hard sell given that Fielder only has one year remaining of team control (he'll make $15.5 million this season).
So Melvin left the winter meetings and decided he would hold onto Fielder for what will likely be his last season with Milwaukee, given the expectation that he'll receive somewhere in the range of $200 million as a free agent. Fielder is, after all, the youngest player to ever hit 50 home runs in a season, which he did at age 23 in 2007, and he has averaged 40 home runs and 111 RBIs the past four years.
That production has gained respect from his peers, too. Last week in Reds camp, reigning NL MVP Joey Votto called Fielder one of the scariest hitters in the game.
"I know that if we were hitting together that they'd probably walk him before they'd walk me," Votto said. "That's not to say he's a better hitter than me -- I'm not saying that -- but I'm saying there's an intimidation factor, and he has a track record of hitting 50 homers."
There'll be some degree of urgency for the Brewers to win a World Series this year with the whole team intact -- or at least win enough to somehow convince Fielder to stay -- but the club insists they won't be one-and-done. Several other big hitters -- Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Casey McGehee and Weeks -- will all remain in town.
"There are a lot of people saying we have a one-year window, but everybody [else] is signed for more than one year," Hart said, "so if we lose Prince, it's sad but everybody else is here. We have the guys to compete for years to come."
The additions to the rotation are the big story in Maryvale, but the Brewers also solidified their bullpen. In 2010 Milwaukee's relievers had a 4.48 ERA, which ranked 12th in the NL, but that stands to improve this season with the addition of Takashi Saito and, possibly, the return of a healthy LaTroy Hawkins.
Saito is perennially one of game's most underrated relievers. The former Dodgers closer, who has 84 career saves and will provide insurance should closer John Axford need it, has been very good as a set-up man, with the Red Sox two years ago and especially last year with the Braves. His 2.83 ERA in Atlanta, though more than respectable, was actually the worst of his five-year major league career. He still managed an impressive 11.5 K/9 over his 54 innings and a 4.1 K/BB ratio.
Hawkins, who only pitched 16 innings in an injury-plagued year, had shoulder surgery in August but has started throwing bullpens. He had a 2.13 ERA in 63 1/3 innings with the Astros in 2009. The Brewers traded talented but inconsistent Carlos Villanueva largely to shed payroll and saw Trevor Hoffman retire, but Saito and Hawkins, who has 87 career saves to his name, may be an improvement in performance and will provide additional support to Axford.
"It's huge for not just setting him up," manager Ron Roenicke said, "but I think it's huge for his makeup and his development to have those two guys that are able to help him out -- not just how they're pitching but their thought process."
Claimed off waivers from the Cubs after the 2008 season, McGehee has blossomed from a forgotten infielder to a middle-of-the-order slugger with the difficult task of protecting Fielder in the lineup. It's a task he accomplished reasonably well. Batting fifth in his first major league season, McGehee led the club with 104 RBIs. Fielder, who paced the league with 46 homers in 2009, led the NL with 114 walks in 2010.
"If I were in the other dugout, there's no way I'm pitching to him," McGehee said. "Once I proved to him that I could handle that situation, he started trusting me more and felt comfortable taking his walks."
Indeed, Fielder's walk rate went up slightly after the All-Star break while McGehee took advantage of RBI opportunities. He had a batting line of .324/.372/.571 in 170 at bats with runners in scoring position.
The former Angels bench coach and candidate for the Brewers managerial job was driving on the freeway in California when his cell phone rang. It was Melvin. Being a safe driver -- and one who follows instructions from a would-be boss -- Roenicke exited the highway and pulled into a safe parking spot at the request of Melvin, who offered the position to Roenicke and then asked him to ready a pen and paper to write down some instructions.
Roenicke worked on the staff of Angels manager Mike Scioscia for 11 years as third-base coach and bench coach and is now the third Scioscia underling to become a big league manager, following the Rays' Joe Maddon and the Padres' Bud Black. Roenicke is following in big footsteps: Scioscia, Maddon and Black have all won Manager of the Year awards.
But Roenicke, who managed five years in the Dodgers' minor league system, said he feels ready and that much of the Angels' managerial strategy was already collaborative. Scioscia had only one year of minor league managing experience under his belt and leaned on Roenicke to formulate a plan. Before that, when Scioscia was the roving hitting instructor, the two often talked shop.
"A lot of that just carried over into what he was doing," Roenicke said. "It wasn't like I had to adjust to his philosophy because, really, it was basically our philosophy."
McGehee said that after excitedly texting his friends about the Greinke trade, one wrote back, "Well, you're not going to suck this year." . . . Axford did cross-fit workouts about once a week this offseason. He enjoyed them, but "it hurt my body a lot," he said. . . . Roenicke said Greinke was very forthright to his coaches, teammates and trainers after his injury and explained the situation thusly: "The world-class athlete is not going to do things the safest way. The mentality is a high-strung individual. Whether you're outgoing, talkative, whatever, maybe you don't say a word -- inside, that quality of athlete is not very docile. He's not one to just sit around and watch TV. So somewhere, sometimes, there has to be an outlet for them where they're just not dwelling on the game all the time." Roenicke then added with a shrug, "What it is -- you hope it's not something that can get him hurt."