Sunday, April 26, 2015

Brewers Off to Worst Start in Franchise History

On August 25th, 2014, the Brewers were 1-1/2 games up on the St. Louis Cardinals and approaching their 5th straight month in first place in the NL Central.  Since that day, the Brewers are a league worst 13-37, including a 4-15 start in 2015, which is the worst start in the 45+ year history of the franchise.  The more you dive into their awful start, the more depressing it is.  In nearly every category, in all aspects of the game, the Brewers are near the bottom.  They are 25th out of 30 teams in hitting, 27th in slugging, 27th in team ERA, have allowed the 2nd most homeruns, and are 28th in fielding percentage.  The Brewers have one regular hitting over .300 and one starting pitcher with an ERA under 5.00.  And just to throw gas on the fire, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Scooter Gennett are all on the disabled list.  No matter how you slice it and which way you try to twist the statistics, the Brewers are just an embarrassing team.

When analyzing the team, most Brewer fans and local media personalities are quick to point to how the Brewers did not make any large-scale changes to the team following last year's collapse.  The management's line of thinking seemed to be that hey, we were in first place for 150 days with this team, it doesn't make sense to try to improve it or mess with it in any way.  I can honestly understand both of those viewpoints.  However, I would argue that the Brewers should not have tried to add any pieces, nor remain status quo, but rather take this opportunity for a good old-fashioned rebuild.  I know the term "rebuild" makes most casual baseball fans cringe, especially around Milwaukee where the team was so bad for 10-15 years.  But I think the intelligent well-informed fan knows that most teams, particularly of a market the size of Milwaukee, need to hit the reset button every so often.  Had the Brewers not been so horrible in the late 90s/early 2000s, they never would have been able to draft players like Geoff Jenkins, Bill Hall, JJ Hardy, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, and Ryan Braun in early rounds and go on a couple of playoff runs.  The window of those draft picks has closed and all of them except Braun have moved on, and even he is starting to descend from the peak of his abilities.  Eight-plus seasons of being competitive with a "win-now" attitude in the front office, while certainly exciting for the franchise and the fans, has completely depleted the farm system and made the team's outlook beyond 2015 extremely murky.  Another way to put this - the only "big prospects" to make an impact at the major league level that were developed in the Brewers farm system since Ryan Braun's debut 8 years ago have been Jonathan Lucroy, and potentially Jimmy Nelson.  There are certainly times where trading major prospects for an impact player makes sense, and there are certainly times when signing a big free agent makes sense.  If you have a young core of guys and need to fill in a few holes, or need an extra arm or bat for a playoff push, for instance.  The Brewers did both of these things in 2008 and 2011 with much success.  But they are at the point now where they are being forced to sign a bunch of old free agents to inflated contracts and call up low to mid-ceiling prospects to be regular players, not only to be competitive but realistically just to fill the 25-man roster.  In a lot of cases like third base and starting pitcher, they literally have no other options.  While Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Lohse have been mostly serviceable, the Brewers should never have been in the position where they even needed to sign those players, particularly for three years.

I don't want to make it sound like I am making a snap judgment on this team based on their start - that should only serve to further validate my opinion.  On the contrary, I have been wanting the Brewers to rebuild since after the 2012 season.  After Greinke, Marcum, and Fielder left that offseason, it made no sense to keep the facade going.  Instead of doing what they would have done in 2004 and trade away their high-value players like Yovani Gallardo and Rickie Weeks for top prospects, they went out and signed Ramirez and Norichika Aoki, re-signed Gomez and K-Rod, and decided to make another run at it.  That decision has now left this team at a crossroads, and how the team proceeds from here might determine its future for the next decade.  There is a lot of money coming off the books next year, Carlos Gomez is coming off two all-star seasons and still improving, and Ryan Braun is still only 31.  Jonathan Lucroy is becoming one of the league's elite catchers and still makes practically no money by today's standards.  Jean Segura looks to be back to his all-star form.  The Brewers front office could look at these positives, and use all that money to go buy more players, and that certainly might work in the short term.  But there are only so many short-term bandages this team can affix.  The more logical way to sustain success would be to trade Gomez, Segura, Braun, pretty much anybody with any value whatsoever.  Even some of their expiring contracts should be on the table at the trade deadline if they can get anything more than a can of pine tar for them.  Using the undoubtedly blue-chip prospects they get in exchange, coupled with some of the promising talent in the low levels right now like Kodi Medieros, Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and Clint Coulter, could put the Brewers in position to be competitive in 2-3 years for another long window, just as they were from 2007 all the way through last year.  If the front office is not willing to have the foresight to sustain a couple years of short term pain for long term gain, I seriously will have lost faith in them.  I will always be a diehard Brewers fan, but it shouldn't take an armchair manager with a blog to see something more clearly than somebody who gets paid to do this for a living.

Brewers 4-15 (3 @ Reds, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 8-10 (3 v. Brewers, 4 @ Braves)
Twins 8-10 (3 v. Tigers, 4 v. White Sox)

Erik - 2 (+1 worked)

Peter - 6

Friday, April 17, 2015

Return to Appleton

All photos of 2015 Timber Rattlers Home Opener available on Flickr.

Let it be forever recorded here that on April 12th, 2015, I attended a Midwest League opener that was above 40 degrees, for the first and probably the last time.  Megan and I stopped in Appleton on the way back from an event in Eau Claire, and it was near 70ยบ at gametime.  We arrived about an hour prior to the 4:05 first pitch and the parking lot was already packed.  The combination of the gorgeous weather and a Jonathan Lucroy bobblehead giveaway created the perfect storm for a Timber Rattlers record opening day attendance of 5,954.

After a stop in the team store, we went in search of some eats.  Much like their parent Brewers, the T-Rats have been making efforts to improve the fan experience at their ballpark year after year, and concessions is a big part of this.  Even with the large renovation a couple of years ago, the food offerings remained the status quo, but this year features a wide variety of new options.  The T-Rats now offer full-helmet sized nachos, which Erik and I always used to joke about but it seems like a lot of teams are actually implementing now.  There is also now a cocktail bar up the 3rd base line featuring liquors from the nearby Green Bay Distillery, in souvenir cups like the Brewers do.  Last but not least, there is a new made-to-order grill stand in the left field corner, kind of like the setup in Cedar Rapids.  Here you can find a lot of specialty burgers and various other forms of meat on a bun.  Or in some cases, not even a bun - they serve a one-pound burger on two funnel cakes called the Great Mother Funnel.  It also has cheese and 8 SLICES OF BACON.  If you think that's ridiculous, they even had the audacity to put a piece of lettuce on this thing.  What value is that adding?  If I'm spending $20 on a burger that uses a fried dessert as a bun, I am not concerned with the health benefits of a leafy green.  Naturally, Megan and I destroyed this burger.  And if you looked at our plate afterwards, "destroyed" is a pretty accurate term.  The funnel cakes were way overcooked and crispy, so it was incredibly difficult to eat, and we left many rock-hard shards of cake on the plate.  In an era when ballparks are all trying to outdo each other with ridiculous foods, I definitely give points for the effort, but it wasn't worth more than the novelty of just saying you tried one.  I do concede that it was Opening Day, so I'm guessing the guy running the grill probably had no idea how to assemble this beast.  Hopefully by the summer they will have perfected the recipe.  Despite my thin patience, I try not to judge anything going on at a ballpark based on an Opening Day experience - it's an entire staff of new employees learning new procedures during the biggest crowd of the year.

Now that I've talked about a hamburger for a paragraph, I will get into the game.  We had 9th row seats behind homeplate to witness Brewers 2014 1st round pick Kodi Medeiros master the Peoria Chiefs lineup.  He tossed 6 hitless innings with 7 strikeouts and had about the nastiest slider I have ever seen at this level.  Nobody was coming within 6 inches of even making contact with it.  Unfortunately the bullpen went on to surrender 11 runs in the final two frames and the offense mustered only 1 run on 6 hits, so the brilliant pitching performance was practically forgotten before the game was over.  In addition to Medieros, Jake Gatewood and Monte Harrison are on the team, both also drafted high in last year's class.  The Brewers are pretty notorious for coddling their prospects, so it was nice to see these three already in A-ball less than a year after getting drafted.  That tells me the Brewers really see something in these kids and think they will respond well to being thrown into the fire.  Medieros and Harrison in particular have "stud" written all over them and I think will handle this level of competition just fine.  Given how terrible the Brewers are now, it is nice to be able to drive under 2 hours to see their future stars - until Doug Melvin trades them for a middle reliever.

Brewers 2-7 (4 v. Reds, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 5-4 (4 @ Brewers, 3 v. Cubs)
Twins 3-6 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ Mariners)

Erik -1 (+1 worked)

Peter - 4

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Brewers Opening Week 2015

All photos of 2015 Brewers Home Opener available on Flickr.

The Milwaukee Brewers kicked off their 46th season on Monday, and once again my family, fiancee, and I were in attendance (oh yeah, by the way, I got engaged in the offseason). It seems like every year it is either around the freezing mark or 30 degrees above normal, but this year was actually about an average April day. Sunny and 40s made for a great day of tailgating with 46,000 friends. I always look forward to Opening Day, among other reasons, as the real start to spring in Milwaukee. Who wouldn't be anxious to get outside and party after 4+ months of cold weather? Much like spring, Opening Day signifies new beginnings and a fresh slate, and it's easy to be teeming with anticipation on the first day of the season. It is the one day a year I play hookie from work and set an alarm to start drinking, and despite the Brewers seemingly dismal chances this year, that is reason enough to be excited.

We wrapped up our Opening Day tailgate a little early this year because of one of the big changes at Miller Park this year – new security measures. Now implemented league-wide (with the exception of Wrigley Field because it's a shithole), all ballparks are now required to have metal detector screening at the entrances. I've been to three games already this year and for the most part it seems to be just a big production to give fans a false sense of security. You're only required to remove your keys, carry-in items, and phones, no other metal. Megan went through the metal detector and set it off, and the lady asked “do you have anything metal on you?” and she replied no, and that was good enough for her to go through. Yesterday I snuck in beer in my back pockets just like I have for the last 10 years (if any Brewers staff is reading this, that's a joke). In my opinion it's more a scare tactic than a real safety concern, and unfortunately just an annoying way to add 5 minutes to my wait to get into the ballpark. Once inside, we split up – my parents, brother, and sister-in-law took our regular 20-pack seats, and Megan, myself, and her friend went to the standing room area in right-center like we did last year. I really love nice standing room areas at ballparks and I'm glad the Brewers removed the private area that used to be there. A note on our 20-pack seats – this year we moved up to the 300-level club seats, which was surprisingly cheaper than the loge level. We sat there for Friday's game and this was the first time I had ever been up there, it's really cool. You're not that much further from the game action, and you get aisle service from wait staff. The aisles are much wider and the seats are more comfortable, and the sections are only about 8 rows deep so it feels much more private. There is also a huge bar up there open the entire game called the Skyy Lounge, which let's be honest was the main reason we decided to move up to the club level.

The other noticeable changes at Miller Park this year are even more food options, and the retiring of Bud Selig's “number.” As the original owner and person responsible for bringing the Brewers to Milwaukee from Seattle, the Brewers have decided to honor the number 1 and retire it. Personally I think they should be retiring “70” since that is the year the team started, but whatever. The formal ceremony for this is not until the end of May, but the number already hangs from the rafters next to the likes of Hank Aaron, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers, and of course Jackie Robinson. As for the food options, a couple of popular Milwaukee institutions – Smoke Shack and Holey Moley Doughnuts – now have stands on the main level. I ate a sandwich on Wednesday that combined the two called the “Ham Dinger.” It is smoked ham on a freshly baked glazed yeast doughnut, and I ate it quickly so that I did not have the time to process how many delicious calories I was ingesting. Speaking of calories, the Brewers have also added Nachos on a Stick, an 18” long bratwurst with the works, and nachos topped with bratwurst (Bratchos) to their repertoire. The Brewers' marketing department continues to evolve and outdo themselves in the wake of some very lackluster concessions in the first 10 years of the stadium.

I suppose I have to talk about the team now, even though I don't really want to. Words cannot even begin to describe how awful they look. People talk about how the 2011 team started 0-3 and went on to win the division, but I think those in the industry generally expected that team to right the ship and do well. The 2015 iteration is a sad compilation of aging free agents, mid-level prospects that have not yet reached their potential, and utility roster-fillers who only play defense. The pitching staff has given up 26 runs in 4 games and 20 doubles, which is the most given up in the first 4 games of a season since 1914. The offense that was churning out 9 runs a game in the spring has come to a sputtering halt and looks pathetic. Jonathan Lucroy doesn't have a hit yet and Scooter Gennett has already gotten himself ejected from a game for outwardly showing his frustration over sucking. Carlos Gomez looks out of shape and there is a pretty reasonable fear that Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and/or Adam Lind could just break down and go on the DL at any point in the season. If you can't tell from what I'm saying, yes the Brewers are still winless. But the season is young, and even though I don't expect the team to do well, there are some bright spots. Braun and Jean Segura seem to be back to their early 2013 forms and are hitting a lot of line drives. Lind is a complete, professional hitter and I'm really excited to finally have a real first baseman on the team; I always liked him when he was on the Blue Jays. Khris Davis showed substantially more plate discipline in the spring, and if that translates into the regular season, he will eventually evolve into an effective cleanup hitter next year when Aramis is gone. I think Wily Peralta is going to have a big year and is legitimately about one season away from being a real Cy Young candidate. I'm also always excited to see Mike Fiers pitch because he has a chance to completely dominate a lineup and strike out 10 every time out. Even though I think this team needs to sell of some of these expiring contracts this year and rebuild, I am still excited for baseball to be back. I've purchased tickets to a lot of games already, so I at least have to feign optimism - after all, that is what Spring is all about in Milwaukee.

Brewers 0-4 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 4-0 (3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 1-3 (3 v. Royals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 0

Peter - 3