MANAGER NED YOSTfifth season with Brewers
THIS TIME lastspring manager Ned Yost couldn't find a spot in his lineup for 27-year-old BillHall. Now Yost can't imagine life without him.
Hall began 2006on the bench and finished it with 35 home runs, a major-league-leading 27 as ashortstop. This season, with regular shortstop J.J. Hardy coming back from anankle injury that forced him to sit out the second half of last year, Hallagreed to move to another premium position, centerfield. "He's looking likea natural out there in center," says Yost. "He's the total package, andhe's still growing. One day Billy will contend for MVP in the NationalLeague."
Any awards Hallcollects will likely come while he's in a Brewers uniform. In the off-seasonthe club signed him to the largest contract for a position player in teamhistory, a four-year, $24 million deal that will lock in the Nettleton, Miss.,native during his prime years. Not bad for a guy who had 32 career home runsheading into last season.
Hall's meteoricrise coincides with what Milwaukee hopes will be the culmination of years ofrebuilding and the end of a 25-year playoff drought. Along with 24-year-oldHardy, 22-year-old first baseman Prince Fielder, 25-year-old second basemanRickie Weeks and 25-year-old rightfielder Corey Hart, Hall is part of a young,mostly homegrown lineup that has turned the Brewers into a dark-horse contenderin the NL Central even with a modest payroll in the neighborhood of $70million.
Though Milwaukeewas expected to contend for a playoff spot last year, a slew of injuries, mostnotably to Hardy, Weeks and ace Ben Sheets, contributed to a fourth-placefinish. (A slipshod defense, which led to 70 unearned runs, the fifth-highesttotal in the NL, didn't help either.) But this season the Brewers believe theyhave added enough talent throughout the roster to cushion themselves againstany major losses. Chief among their acquisitions were righthander Jeff Suppan,fresh off an impressive postseason turn with the Cardinals (2.49 ERA in fourplayoff games), and former All-Star catcher Johnny Estrada, a switch-hitter whohas batted .300 in two of the last three seasons. "If guys get hurt, we'rebetter prepared to fill in the gaps and at least tread water," saysrighthanded starter David Bush.
Yost says youngrighties Carlos Villanueva and Yovani Gallardo, though not expected to breakcamp with the major league club, have shown enough in spring training to merita call-up perhaps sooner rather than later. "Yovani looked like he belongedthe minute he walked in here, and Carlos is like that too," says Yost."It's not that they feel like they can do the job, they know they can dothe job."
But Yost and theBrewers know it all starts with Hall, who for the first time in his career willbegin the season with an every-day position locked up and the team's fortunesweighing heavily on his performance. Not one to become cocky after a breakoutseason--he did toil for nearly six full seasons in the minors, after all--Hallsays he carries a "quiet confidence" now that he's established himselfas the anchor to the lineup. "Hopefully, I'm [still] one of the humblestguys in this clubhouse," he says.
But in the lineuphe is definitely one of the most feared. Last season Hall was one of fourplayers in the majors to hit at least 35 home runs and 35 doubles. The othermembers of that group: All-Star outfielders Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Sorianoand third baseman Aramis Ramirez. "I like it when the game is on theline," says Hall, "and I'm coming up in a tough situation."
That's certainlythe way the Brewers like it too.
a modest proposal ...
The Phillies andthe Angels might have reached the playoffs last year if they had promotedhard-throwing young starters Cole Hamels and Jered Weaver earlier. The Brewersshould heed that lesson, go for broke in a wide-open Central Division and breakcamp with top prospect Yovani Gallardo (11--5, 1.87 ERA combined in Class A andDouble A last season) in their rotation. Milwaukee's fifth starters, a groupthat included such forgettables as Zack Jackson and Rick Helling, combined fora 4--13 record and a 7.23 ERA in 27 starts last season. Gallardo (left), whoturned heads in spring training with a 96-mph fastball and two-plus breakingpitches but is headed for the minors to start the season, is projected byPECOTA to finish with a 3.92 ERA, the second lowest of any starter on thestaff, after ace Ben Sheets.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
* New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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ERA last season of closer Francisco Cordero, his worst since 2001. However,when his poor start--his 14 earned runs in his first 12 appearances cost himhis closer's job in Texas--is removed, his ERA the rest of the season was 2.38,including a 1.69 effort (and 16 saves in 18 chances) after he was traded fromthe Rangers to the Brewers on July 28.