This past weekend was an exciting one for any fan of baseball. With the simultaneous exhibition of preseason baseball and the World Baseball Classic (WBC), there was no dearth of games, stats and news for fans to dive into.
However, for fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, baseball last weekend was a bittersweet affair, especially with regard to two specific games in the World Baseball Classic.
Although Brewer fans are likely ecstatic that a United States team featuring Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy took first place in its group and moved to the next round in the WBC, other aspects of group play were less encouraging.
The Brewers are coming off a season in which their offense was arguably as formidable as any in Major League Baseball. However, it was also a season characterized by frequent disappointments in the ranks of their pitching staff.
Although their starting pitching at times performed well last year, some of those players have been lost to trade, free agency or outright release. The bullpen on the other hand was atrocious, posting the worst ERA of any team in the majors.
As a result, the Brewers retooled their staff. First, they made the decision to go with emerging starters from their farm system rather than sign proven veterans. In the bullpen, the Brewers cleaned house and then restocked their middle relief with free agents. They also took a gamble and locked down a closer who struggled at times in 2012, John Axford.
The reality is the new stable of pitchers has left the Brewers with young arms in the starting rotation, new arms in middle relief and inconsistent arms on the back end. The Brewers are of course hoping the young arms blaze, the middle relievers find success in a new home and the lockdown guys are flawless.
With so many pitching questions heading into the new season, the World Baseball Classic was set to be a good testing ground for the Brewers' fresh approach.
It was this test, and associated poor results, that comprise the "bitter" part of the weekend for Brewer fans as it relates to the Classic.
On the starting side of their pitching staff, Marco Estrada was chosen by the Mexican team to start a must-win game against Canada. Estrada is a player the Brewers previously used as a stop-gap starter, but hope to transition to full-time starter in 2013. In his appearance for Mexico, Estrada yielded four runs in the first inning, effectively digging his team into a hole from which they couldn't emerge.
Then, in a game between Canada and the United States, two other Brewer pitchers were expected to play important roles. Unfortunately for Team Canada and the Brewers, these two pitchers were equally bad. Jim Henderson, the Brewer setup man, was called into the game to hold a 3-2 lead. He ended up surrendering three earned runs and the lead, and left the game with a score of 3-5.
Later in the same game, John Axford was called in to help keep the game in reach before Canada's final at-bat. Axford gave up two more hits and another run to end the inning with a 4-9 score. Although Axford only gave up one run, the main point is he failed to do his job.
It was a scene which was all too familiar to dedicated fans of the Brewers—and likely produced the same nauseous feeling experienced so often last season.
Certainly, these three examples from the World Baseball Classic are a small sample size, and it would be extremely premature to press the panic button on the Brewers' upcoming season. There is plenty of time for these three pitchers and the other arms in the bullpen to find their "A" game before the season begins in April.
At the same time, the World Baseball Classic did put the spotlight back on some uncomfortable issues for the team, particularly involving the crucial innings at the end of the game. The meltdowns by Henderson and Axford as members of Team Canada simply hit way too close to home.
Thankfully, it wasn't all bad news for the Brewers.
Yovani Gallardo, expected to be Milwaukee's ace in 2013, looked very good in his own outing with the Mexican team. Jonathan Lucroy similarly came up with a big hit in the team's win against Canada. Ryan Braun struggled slightly at the plate in the WBC, but has been one of the most consistent offensive players since he entered the league, and there is little reason to think he won't get back to his typical level. Braun also hit several balls that just missed home run territory.
However, these are some of the team's known quantities, and they've already been factored in as big producers.
Unfortunately, the WBC experience did nothing to settle some of the key question areas for the team in 2013, especially in regard to an unproven pitching staff. That doesn't mean those questions won't eventually be answered, and positively at that.
But until that happens, the images of Estrada, Henderson and Axford trying to shake off poor execution might haunt some fans as we march toward opening day. Now its up to the Brewer coaching staff to ensure the players successfully navigate troubled waters and help them rebound accordingly.