The Brewers hope Rickie Weeks can rebound in 2013.
Routinely, it seemed as if Weeks wasn't swinging for the fences and missing badly, he was getting called for strike three on yet another pitcher's count. In either case, Rickie's failure seemed to parallel the team's, with both spiraling ever lower into the All-Star break.
It would be negligent to blame all of the Brewers' problems last year on Weeks. His 169 strikeouts, good for third most in the National League, certainly weren't the only reason the Brewers struggled.
Injuries to several regulars, free-agency departures, as well as numerous embarrassments by the bullpen were equally, or more, deflating to the team. However, there seemed to be an oasis of improvement at times in those other areas, whereas Weeks' futility was as constant and demoralizing as a sandy horizon in the Sahara.
In some ways, it would also be incorrect to blame Weeks for routinely spinning like a top in the batter's box. As the All-Star break approached, with him still batting well below .200, it wasn't Weeks still penciling himself into the lineup everyday. The job of submitting a competitive lineup on a daily basis was the responsibility of the team's skipper—Ron Roenicke.
Maybe best monikered the "Librarian" for his academic approach and reserved manner, Roenicke has created an almost subconscious presence, thus far, in Milwaukee—present in sight, but out of mind.
Where should Rickie Weeks bat in the Brewers lineup?
Unlike his predecessor, Ken Macha, who often drew criticism for his relaxed approach, Roenecke has arguably brought the same calm, outward appearance to the dugout. However, where Macha was criticized for failing to tinker with the lineup or to display emotions, Roenicke's placid demeanor is often interpreted as thoughtful analysis or prudent patience—a subtle, if not interesting, differentiation.
Having come off a deep run in the playoffs in 2011, it's possible that Brewer fans and ownership were willing to give Roenicke the benefit of the doubt regarding Weeks in 2012. Certainly, managing the team toward a legitimate shot at the National League pennant in 2011 has to count for something.
The fact that a former slumping Brewer, JJ Hardy, had found new life in Baltimore might have also contributed to a patient approach with Rickie. Additionally, there's absolutely no doubt that Weeks' large, guaranteed contract was a consideration.
Regardless, it's certain that Weeks' early progress this season will be carefully monitored by ownership, management and the fans. It's also certain, that should his performance at all start to resemble last year, Weeks will be quickly dropped to the back of the batting order. That's assuming he doesn't start the year at the tail end of the order—which at this point seems unlikely.
Despite everything that was observed last year, Roenicke seems to believe a second baseman who nearly led the league in strikeouts still deserves to be at the top of the lineup come Opening Day.
Roenicke has been mulling Aoki and second baseman Rickie Weeks atop the lineup, trying to decide the best 1-2 alignment. When exhibition play starts, Roenicke said Aoki will get the first shot at leading off.
Certainly, having the support of the manager may help Weeks get off to a solid start this year. And despite last year's struggles, Weeks does indeed maintain the skipper's confidence. Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that Roenicke said, "Rickie plays the game the right way; there's never a question whether he's going to be in the lineup or not."
From such glowing comments, one might think that Weeks provides dominant defense to the Brewers—even when he's slumping offensively.
However, the statistics just don't support that assertion. Last year, Weeks was tied for the third-worst fielding percentage of all regular second basemen in the majors. Combining poor defense with the aforementioned offensive struggles hardly paints a pretty picture for Weeks in 2012.
The resulting portrait creates a stark reality in Milwaukee. On the one hand, Weeks doesn't appear to be cutting it on the field, but on the other, he seems to have the full support of the organization.
Will the Brewers make the playoffs in 2013?
According to ESPN, Weeks is forecast to be the highest paid Brewer in 2013 with a salary of $11 million. That's ahead of even Ryan Braun, who won the NL MVP not so long ago. With Weeks struggling on both sides of the ball in 2012, that salary also means he'll be under even more pressure to perform this year—not exactly the perfect recipe for success.
At minimum, these facts help explain Roenicke's patient approach with Weeks last year, as well as his words of encouragement entering spring training. But while rosy compliments by the manager are one thing, laying it down on the field and earning those extra zeros is quite another. In 2013, something's gotta give—there's only so much lipstick one can put on a pig.
When the Brewers open their season in April, Weeks is going to have to improve his level of play, or the Brewers are going to have to move in a different direction. Certainly, this creates a potential dilemma for general manager Doug Melvin.
We can only hope he finds a better solution than he did when signing Weeks up for that much money to begin with. It's far from ideal to have one of your highest-paid players simultaneously be one of the lesser contributors. In professional sports, that situation simply can't last too long.
Right now, the team is left with a couple of likely outcomes.
The first, and best, is that Weeks delivers on his contract and potential with an amazing season. The second, and more likely based on recent history, is that Roenicke and the front office at least agree to move a struggling Weeks back in the batting order where he can do less damage to the team.
The one thing nobody wants to see is a free-swinging, low-averaging Rickie Weeks serving as a momentum killer atop the Brewers' otherwise impressive batting order.
For a long period of time last year, the combination of Norichika Aoki, Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez served as a very effective top four in the batting order. With a healthy Corey Hart inserted into the fifth spot, the Brewers could be a formidable offensive force.
It's possible that Roenicke could test Weeks at the fifth spot until Hart returns to team sometime in May. But the current thinking that Weeks can only be placed at the front end of the order seems narrow-minded at best.
The Brewers tried that experiment last season with below-average results. In this new season, it's time for just that—something new. As any good "Librarian" should know, learning from the past is a key to the future.