Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Opening Weekend 2011

All photos of Brewers Rising Stars Game and the Brewers home opener available on Flickr.

It was a little weird that Opening Day was on a Thursday this year, but my excitement and anticipation of another baseball season was not diminished. Excitement, in that all 30 teams from New York to Kansas City start out tied for first. And anticipation over what is going to be at least a 4-team race all season long in the NL Central. Right out of the gates, the Reds picked up where they left off in 2010 as they came back in dramatic fashion to beat the Brewers 7-6 with a walkoff homerun and are already atop the division at 4-0. The Pirates' window of opportunity with its young talent and energetic manager is fast approaching, and hey they won their 5th consecutive season opener - who knew? The Cubs will, yet again, attempt to ride the neverending contracts of Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano into the playoffs. Even though the Cards are already down a perennial Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright and the Pujols contract situation looms daily, you can never count out LaRussa and Dave Duncan. To be blunt, the Astros are in a transitional phase and will be really terrible this year. Last but certainly not least, on paper the Brewers look strong and are expected to have a very successful season following the offseason acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and new manager Ron Roenicke. They had to trade a lot of young talent away to get these two new horses for the rotation, but it was clear after the 2009-10 campaigns that something drastic had to be done.

To encourage fans concerned about the longterm future of the Brewers, a "Rising Stars" game was held at Miller Park the Saturday before the home opener. It allowed the Brewers to show off some of the organization's top prospects and to help alleviate concerns about the dwindling farm system and failed draft picks the last several years. Despite trading away both their top pitching prospect (Jake Odorizzi) and positional prospect (Brett Lawrie) in one winter, the Brewers still hold a number of players filing through the ranks that should make a major-league impact sooner rather than later. Pitching actually holds the most promise, as Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta, Amaury Rivas, Kyle Heckathorn, and Cody Scarpetta are all expected to compete for spots in the Brewers' rotation in the next couple years, and Tyler Thornburg and Josh Butler for spots the bullpen. Half of these guys will probably be on the 25-man roster at some point during the season. The positional players are a little bit further behind, with all of the big names now traded or on the big league squad. But the Brewers still have Mat Gamel and despite a lot of ill-timed injuries, he is still expected to rake at the big league level and it will be his job to lose at 1st next year after Prince leaves. Gamel did not play in the Rising Stars Game, but Scooter Gennett, Kentrail Davis, Eric Komatsu, Eric Farris, and Caleb Gindl all did. I wouldn't classify these guys as blue-chip prospects, but they're solid defenders who have a good approach at the plate, and the Brewers will definitely have spots at least three positions for these kids to compete for next spring.

The results of the Rising Stars Game were mostly reflective of the level of talent at the Brewers minor league level - strong on pitching and defense, a little bit lacking in hitting. But that's really not a bad thing - pitching is something a team always wants in surplus in the minors. Pitching is also cyclical - 6-8 years ago, when the Brewers were selecting big power bats like Weeks, Fielder, Braun, and Hart, who are now all in the bigs, the pitching was lacking, and now it is vice versa. I'm sure once guys like Brauny and Prince get older and start to leave, you'll see another influx of positional drafting by the Brewers. For the game, the Brewers split their top prospects into two teams of "Blue" and "White" and they faced off in a scrimmage, sort of like a minor league all-star game, except it was intrasquad. All the pitchers got about 2 innings and positional players played most of the game. It was a 2-0 win for the White team, but hey the best part was that whoever won, it was a Brewers victory! There must have been at least 20 total strikeouts in the game and all of the aforementioned pitchers simply dominated the hitters in a game that flew by in less than 2 hours. The lone offensive highlight was a solo homerun by Taylor Green. The Brewers have only had a local minor league affiliate in Wisconsin for 2 years, so it was good to see some of the AAA guys that I didn't know too much about, as well as guys like Rivas and Scarpetta that I saw pitch in Appleton. The best part of the game by far though was getting that first 2011 Miller Park tailgate under the belt, and getting a sneak preview of the brand new gigantic HD scoreboard, which is now 4th in the majors to Yankee Stadium, Kauffman Stadium, and Turner Field in size and pixels.

Saturday's event was just a warmup for the big day on Monday. Emerging from the secret path through the VA grounds (which is now paved, by the way) and smelling those brats in the parking lot almost made me forget that it was 30 degrees colder than last year with 30 mph winds. The Brewers drew the 2nd largest crowd in Miller Park history, over 46000 screaming fans. This year, the Brewers remedied Miller Park's two biggest shortcomings: the jumbotron and the food. The old jumbotron really started to show its age last season, with many bulbs out and the obsolete dot matrix board constantly flickering. The $10 million scoreboard upgrade from the stadium's tax district money is amazing. Secondly, food is an area I feel that Miller Park, as a stadium connoisseur, has always lacked in compared to some of the newer parks. Not necessarily in quality, but in quantity of options. Miller Park, up until now, has had the approach of just doing what Milwaukee does best - the best cased meats in the league, and a damn good fish fry that will compete with any in the city. The change started a little bit last year with the introduction of an Asian noodle stand and a burrito cart, but this year the influx of new foods went into high gear: carved prime rib sandwiches, barbeque parfaits, beef brisket, sausage kabobs, and poutine are all new at Miller Park in 2011. I had been full from tailgating at each of the games I've attended at the ballpark thus far, but I will definitely be on a hunger quest at my next Brewers game and will report my findings right here on HE&PB.

The great thing about Opening Day in Milwaukee is that even a 2-1 loss to a rookie pitcher on a cold April day is not enough to deter the fans from carrying their enthusiasm through all 9 innings, and even back to the parking lot to the patented re-tailgate. The Crew did not play very well - aside from starting pitcher Chris Narveson who chucked 6 scoreless - but it's a long season to go and I'm not making any bold predictions at this point. I will say that two things that already concern me are Carlos Gomez's inability to do anything semi-productive offensively, and the combined 78 years of setup guy we're running out there. The Brewers as of this post are still looking for their first win of the 2011 campaign and it will be an interesting season to say the least. Hopefully a dozen of the World Champion Green Bay Packers throwing out the 1st pitch of the home schedule will rub off a little luck on the team and get them on a roll.

Brewers 0-4 (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 4-0 (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Diamondbacks)
Twins 1-3 (4 @ Yankees, 3 v. Athletics)

Erik - 1
Peter - 9

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