(NOTE: I write this column with no journalistic integrity and that is, no doubt, unsurprising to many people. I am writing this from the most blindly biased angle possible because I am a huge Brewers fan and that is a fun thing to be right now.)
I am excited about the 2006 Milwaukee Brewers. Why?
Well, I am almost 30 years old and have never had the opportunity to witness a Brewers team that I believed could contend. I believed this for good reasons and, in the end, they didn't completely disappoint me.
I was 5 years old in 1982 when I attended all of the ALCS and the World Series games. My only recollections of any of the games, however, were:
- I had to cover my ears when the starting lineups were announced.
- My brother gave me the bag of candy that didn't have the Starburst in it.
- I couldn't figure out why the guys sitting in front of me came back with a pan full of dirt.
- I had a blast honking the horn in the VA Hospital parking lot.
- Reggie not only sucks, but he also eats quiche.
In the late '80s, the Brewers made a few runs. It was fun watching "Team Streak" in 1987 and chanting "MVP" in 1988, but those teams were constantly chasing a giant that they couldn't catch (although I still think that if Dale Sveum didn't break his leg in Detroit late in the '88 season the Crew would have won the division.)
Only years later did they figure out what the giant was: Money.
The 1991 team was fun to watch, but as we all know that was a fluke -- just ask Pat Listach.
It was also the end if winning baseball as we knew it.
Before I go on, I realize some people think all this hoopla is premature. They might say that this team hasn't accomplished anything but finishing .500 so far -- and they are right. The must keep in mind, however, that most pundits believe that the Brewers could be the sleeper team in the National League. I am here to tell you that the Brewers are as good if not better than every team in National League Central and have no reason not to scoff at winning in the future and breaking their 24 year post-season drought this year.
Yes, I said it. The Brewers are going to make the playoffs. Not in 2007 or 2008, but in 2006.
This team is the real deal. They do have their weaknesses and will need to stay healthy (especially Ben Sheets), but name another team in the National League that can take on a bunch of injuries or doesn't have certain holes to fill.
Three years ago I wrote a column titled, "There is light at the end of the tunnel." Well folks, we're there. Doug Melvin has done a masterful job of following the script of the Minnesota Twins with patience, diligence and the uncanny knack of un-earthing diamonds.
What makes this period in Brewers baseball so exciting is that we have talked about these prospects for years. The likes of Billy Joe Robidoux, Joey Meyer, Antone Williamson, Todd Dunn, Kevin Barker, Chad Green and Kenny Felder have all come and gone. They all had something very important in common -- they couldn't play.
Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder and Bill Hall also have something in common -- they are all studs. We have finally come to the time where the fruits of the labor will be producing in Miller Park, not in Huntsville, El Paso, Denver, Stockton, Vancouver or New Orleans.
This is the reason why the Brewers can contend. For once and for all they finally have the players.
What a novel idea!
The Brewers need some things to go well for them to accomplish this lofty goal, but there isn't a team in the NL Central that has improved (unless you want to count Pittsburgh, but we shouldn't have to concern ourselves with them).
The Cardinals have come back to the pack. While they still have a vaunted lineup, Scott Rolen is coming back from a major injury and Jim Edmonds isn't getting any younger. Their rotation and their bullpen also took a hit and I wouldn't put my money on Chris Carpenter garnering back-to-back Cy Young Awards.
As far as the rest of the division, if the Rocket comes back Houston will be a team to deal with because of their pitching, but their offense is terrible. The Cubs have been saying for years that they would contend with a healthy Kerry Woods and Mark Prior. Let me know when that happens. Plus, their offense is now re-treading retreads.
The Reds and the Pirates, well, they are the Reds and the Pirates. Isn't that fun to say about other teams?
Getting back to the Brewers themselves, their day-to-day lineup could be dominating. Think "Harvey's Wallbangers." This, of course, assumes that Hardy will be the Hardy of the second half, and that Fielder and Weeks will adapt to their first full season against big league pitching.
Don't be afraid to wager on the youngsters' hitting. Their offense at times will have to overcome potential defensive liabilities, but let's face it, Weeks and Fielder aren't here to win gold gloves.
Another plus to this team that hasn't existed in years is depth. Melvin must have got Blue Jays' General Manager J. P. Ricciardi really drunk to give him Cory Koskie and the infield depth he provides. Now Hall can fill in where necessary and be a big bat off the bench. Same goes for Koskie when Hall is starting (plus he hits left-handed).
There is also depth in the outfield where it appears that Cory Hart and Gabe Gross are the fourth and fifth outfielders. Not only can Hart fill in the outfield he can also play first base and give Ned Yost an option against lefties. He also may be the Brewers' best base runner, which can come in handy late in games.
Also a player to keep your eye on is Nelson Cruz. If Cruz keeps progressing at his current pace, he may make the decision process on Carlos Lee's future with the club an interesting one after this year. Cruz has also been playing some center field, which only increases his value.
As we all know, pitching wins championships. This team goes nowhere without a healthy Sheets. The staff is rounded out by two of the most underrated pitchers in the National League in Doug Davis and Chris Capuano. Although Capuano needs to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. Tomo Ohka will fill the four spot.
The staff is not spectacular but it is solid. It is also the one place where someone needs to step up. Whoever between Dana Eveland, Dave Bush and Rick Helling gets the five spot will need to deliver more than that typical fifth slot production.
One of the main things that sparked the Crew's run in 1991 was bringing up Cal Eldred during the middle of that season. Eldred and ace Chris Bosio teamed to dominate the rest of that season. While none of the Brewers' pitching prospects appear to be ready to make that leap, this is the one unknown that could put the Brewers over the top.
Finally, the Crew looks to have a stellar bullpen. If Dan Kolb can return to form and Derrick Turnbow isn't a one-year wonder, the pen could turn games into a six inning affair on a nightly basis. Jose Cappellan and Jorge De La Rosa in the seventh, Matt Wise, Kolb and Eveland in the eight and Turnbow in the ninth. Gone are the days of calling on Bronswell Patrick.
Has this convinced you? Possibly, but they are still always questions over the course of the marathon 162-game schedule. That is where the blind faith comes in. Yes it has been crushed many times before, but for some reason this year it seems stronger than ever.
One thing for sure, Miller Park should be hopping, and not just for the Cubs and the Cards. The kids will be fun to watch and there is a buzz in the air about Brewers baseball again. For all of those old enough to remember, this is a baseball town and if the Red Sox and White Sox can break their curses and win it all, is it really that far out of the realm of possibility that the Brewers will play in October?
Memo: If Sundays are "Retro Sundays," can we bring back the "True Blue Brew Crew" sign? It wouldn't truly be retro without it.