It seems like we’ve been in this boat before, doesn’t it?
September is right around the corner, and the Milwaukee Brewers are foundering. Late August 2011 seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
But, last year proved to be different.
On this date, 365 days ago, Mark Rogers, Manny Parra, Jose Veras and Kameron Loe shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates to start a stretch of play during which the Brewers rode young, largely unproven arms to a 25-12 closing stretch that got the team back into the wildcard race and allowed the club to finish with a winning record for the second straight season.
It was a stretch that provided hope going into this season, that Rogers finally was healthy, Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada could be viable back-end starters and Wily Peralta was a star in the making. The lineup would be back intact, and there was hope a young rookie named Jean Segura would pan out and that centerfielder Carlos Gomez could build on a breakout campaign.
What a difference a year makes.
Oh, Segura and Gomez panned out alright. But everything else went in the tank this season – namely overall health of the team.
It’s not impossible to think the Brewers could finish these final 32 games of the season 20-12 (it is baseball, after all) but that won’t get the team to .500.
No, the hope of posting three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1978-80 is gone.
What’s important for this Brewers front office now is self-scouting, taking a very hard, very close look at the men currently on the roster and the players they bring up from the minor leagues when rosters expand on Sunday.
Due to the vast number of injuries suffered already, the following players have already made their major league debuts this season: Rob Wooten, Johny Hellweg, Hiram Burgos, Donovan Hand, Josh Prince, Khris Davis, Sean Halton, Caleb Gindl and Scooter Gennett. Blake Lalli and Juan Francisco also made their Brewers debuts this year.
Frankly, I’m not sure who else the team can, or should, bring up on Sept. 1. Where will they play? When will they play?
The roster does need to expand, but there are certain players who the team must keep in the lineup every day from here on out.
Juan Francisco, first base: Yes, not many players can strike out 14 times in 22 at-bats as he did over the last Brewers homestand, but unless the team is going to call up Hunter Morris today and play him every at first base over these final 32 games, you’ve got to find out if the 26-year-old Francisco can really play every day. This is his fifth season and his third team, but first with over 200 plate appearances. He has prodigious power and you have to see if he can continue to adjust to major league pitching – even if he strikes out three out of four at-bats.
Scooter Gennett, second base: I’m still of the belief that Rickie Weeks is the starting second baseman as soon as the doctors clear him to return from his hamstring surgery – he’s just a better offensive player than Gennett. But, the platoon with Jeff Bianchi needs to end down the stretch here. The Brewers need to see if Gennett can be anything other than a singles hitter and if he can learn to take walks. Honestly, they should bat him leadoff, too.
Marco Estrada, starting pitcher: This is the second straight late summer that will be important for Estrada. He earned his spot in the rotation last year with a solid performance in 17 starts from June 26 through Sept. 29. He posted a 3.34 earned run average and held opponents to a .249 batting average while striking out 109 batters in 102 1/3 innings.
But this year, he’s been uneven and battling health issues. In 12 starts from April to June 3, he had a 5.32 ERA and opponent’s hit .275 off him. Since returning from the disabled list at the beginning of August, he’s posted a 2.65 ERA.
I’m not a fan of six-man rotations just to fit in a call-up (like Hellweg or a young pitcher like Tyler Thornburg) for many reasons, the top one being that it’s not used throughout the year. The team needs to keep Estrada on his regular schedule the rest of the year to determine if he, again, is a major league-level starter.
John Axford, relief pitcher: This is the tough one, because it affects another player and good guy in Jim Henderson. But the Brewers need to see if Axford can still close games. The club needs to find out if he’s a closer, set-up man, or middle reliever … or player who needs to be elsewhere in 2014. Henderson doesn’t deserve to be removed from the role, but you could argue Axford didn’t deserve to be yanked from it back in April. It’s time to switch it again and let Axford finish games.
Logan Schafer and/or Khris Davis, outfield: Schafer, 26, has hit at every level of the Brewers minor league organization. He has not done it in Milwaukee however, as most of his at-bats have come in platoon or pinch-hit situations. The same can be said for the 25-year-old Davis, who has shown some pop and is currently on fire at the plate. He can’t play center, like Schafer, but he could play right and the organization needs to determine if either can be the long-term answer in rightfield as Norichika Aoki turns 32 in January.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.