June is a great month, wouldn’t you agree? School is out, golf weather has arrived, and we get the pleasure (for some reason) of both the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals.
In short, the first day of June marks the official start of the summer (unless you subscribe to that solar mumbo jumbo), which means months of carefree behavior, baseball and beer, boats, beaches, and ice cream.
However, for the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers, June marks the franchise’s make-or-break moment.
Since Mark Attanasio purchased the team—for $180 million in 2004, graciously pulling the Crew from Selig-era hopelessness—the team has improved. This is largely thanks to the emergence of a top-notch farm system that produced the likes of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Alcides Escobar, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and the recently-departed J.J. Hardy.
That homegrown core has provided the foundation for a small but important window in which the Brewers have done something that was unimaginable to its fans a decade ago: compete.
In 2007, the team finished 83-79, posting its first winning season since 1992.
The following year, C.C. Sabathia earned a lifetime key to the heart of Brewer Nation by dragging the club into the postseason for the first time in 26 long years (where they promptly folded into the fetal position and took a fanatical beating).
And, of course, last year, the team took a slight step backwards, limping to an 80-82 finish with a roster absent of any sign of serviceable pitching this side of Trevor Hoffman.
But what did all of those years have in common? That core of young, organizationally-produced position players.
Now that foundation has been cracked and is on the verge of collapsing, depending on the month of June.
Yet, heading into this month, all is not lost.
First, take a peek at the schedule.
In May, Milwaukee faced a slew of opponents that have combined for a .520 winning percentage thus far, including a brutal stretch featuring a dreaded West Coast swing, and then four series against teams either one or two in their respective divisions (the Braves, Phillies, Reds, and Twins).
Moreover, although the team’s 8-15 home record still provokes vicious head-scratching, they did win four of six in their last go-round at Miller Park, indicating that number should return toward comprehensibility as the season progresses.
Now, this is not to say there aren’t pitfalls lying in wait on the team’s June schedule—only that a well-timed hot streak could vault the team right back into the thick of things.
If the team can play well at home (definition of well: taking two of three) against its upper-echelon foes—the Cubs and the Twins—the rest of its home slate is rather favorable. They have three-game sets against the Rangers (owners of an 8-15 road mark), Seattle (in tailspin mode), and Houston (second only to the Orioles for worst-team-in-the-ML honors).
Beyond that, the team must simply hope to split its relatively difficult road schedule (three games versus the Marlins, Cards, Angels, and Rockies). If they can, the Brewers could find themselves bubbling to the top of the NL Central.
Needless to say, though, the previously stated-goal of 16-11 (or better) is only possible if a few things manifest.
Chief among these things is better, and more consistent, pitching from both the starting rotation and the bullpen.
Even if that’s quite easy to say, there are signs it will happen. In the past week-and-a-half, the squad has received quality outings from both Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf, and solid pitching can be contagious.
And while it would be unfair to heap great expectations on Chris Capuano, it is nonetheless possible he could join the growing list of pitchers to return successfully from Tommy John surgery (joining the likes of, among others, new teammate Randy Wolf).
Though anticipating All-Star-like starts from Capuano is obviously overboard, when he was healthy, he ate innings like Joey Chestnut eats burritos (trust me, it’s remarkable).
Additionally, the Brewers' ‘pen is quietly falling into place. John Axford has breathed life into the closer role, and Hoffman has managed three straight scoreless outings. If those two can become a solid setup/closer combo (in either order), everything else about bullpen management becomes easier.
But perhaps most heartening for Brewer fans looking forward is, frankly, that the pitching cannot get much worse.
Scary for opponents, however, is that the offense can improve—if Corey Hart keeps gushing power numbers like a BP oil well.
After a recent 16-game stretch in which he has 10 HR and 21 RBI (putting him atop the NL in long-balls), Hart is on pace for 41 HR, 106 RBI, and 127 hits.
Unfortunately, that stat line seems rather unrealistic considering Hart is still hitting only .221 against right-handed pitching.
Yet even as Hart cools off, he can still offer a legitimate fourth bat in the middle of the lineup, just as he did in 2008.
Imagine—if Hart keeps hitting and Macha likes his new lineup—standing on the mound and having to face, in order, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, and Corey Hart. I like the hitters’ odds.
Also important to note here is that Prince Fielder is still sifting through his trade and contract talk in search of his production. With only seven homers and a .267 batting average, Prince currently sits fifth on the team in RBI, slightly ahead of Alcides Escobar, who you could fit three of in Fielder’s expansive waistline.
That is bound to change. And when it does, NL pitching should beware.
Sadly, if these things do not happen, and say, for example, the Brewers instead post an 11-16 mark in June (meaning they would have a 32-46 record), the year, and the era, will have run their course.
How to redirect this team toward competitiveness in the near future is not really up for debate. Young pitching is a must, and the farm system simply is short on it right now.
To transform the team’s future crop of pitchers, Prince Fielder must be swapped for arms (which is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, short of a dramatic turnaround).
But I would recommend going further.
With Brett Lawrie in waiting, the team should package Rickie Weeks and a prospect (perhaps Mat Gamel?), or an everyday player like Corey Hart, for yet more pitching. An abundance of arms will never be a problem, although it will represent a completely new look for the franchise.
Trading proven entities like Prince and Rickie, along with another major-league-ready bat, may be difficult to swallow, but so will a lost season with nothing to show for it going forward.
If the Brewers do manage to catch fire soon, these drastic steps may not be necessary.
One thing’s for certain: only June will tell.