Hitting .300: Milwaukee Brewers 2011 Season Preview

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Hitting .300: Milwaukee Brewers 2011 Season Preview
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It seems all too appropriate that my 300th Fan Interference (formerly known by the much-less creative title of C3K Sports Blog) blog post is my annual Brewers/baseball season preview.  

After all, 300 is a big number in baseball. A hitter who achieves a .300 batting average for the season has had an excellent year. The 24 pitchers that comprise the ”300 win club” (just 24) are in an even more elite club than Saturday Night Live‘s “five-timers club” (23), or Charlie Sheen’s “hooker’s club.” And, though it’s not as highly regarded (largely due to the fact the statistic wasn’t formally introduced until 1969), only 21 relievers in MLB history have 300 saves.

I guess since I write for the web site Channel 3000, the only milestone that could top hitting 300 blogs would be hitting 3,000 blogs. But since it’s taken me five years to get to 300, I’d say the chances of me hitting that mark are about the same as Prince Fielder signing a long-term contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Did someone mention the Milwaukee Brewers? Oh yeah, I guess I did. (Hey, you don’t hit 300 blog entries without getting a little older and slower. Hey, did someone mention Craig Counsell?)

A year ago, I stupidly, along with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, stood in defiance of most reasonable people and declared that the Milwaukee Brewers would make a triumphant return to the postseason after missing it in 2009. Instead they had their worst year since 2006, finishing 12 games under .500 and in third place in the NL Central. 

Did I mention that Mike Greenberg went a laughable 12-22-3 on his 2010 NFL “Stone Cold Lead Pipe Locks” in 2010? Did I mention that I would sooner pick games based on perceived subliminal messages sent by Toodee and Plex on Yo Gabba Gabba than to pick games based on Mike Greenberg?

So, like the team put the eternally dull Ken Macha behind them after last season, can the Brewers put losing behind them as well?

As has been the case for the last several seasons, Milwaukee seems to be just fine offensively. They were one of the better hitting clubs in 2010 and, thanks to Prince Fielder’s $15.5 million, one-year contract, they haven’t lost any significant pieces.

That’s unless you include losing starting shortshop Alcides Escobar, who hit .235 last year in 145 games, as significant.  Escobar, at only 24, may have more potential than his replacement, 29-year-old Yuniesky Betancourt, but the Brewers, thanks largely to Fielder’s one-year contract, aren’t playing for potential. They’re playing to win now.

The most obvious sign of the Brewers’ intentions of winning immediately was their offseason signing of 2009 Cy Young winner Zach Greinke. Skeptics may deride the signing after his 2010 season, during which he put up very un-Cy Young-like numbers of 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA, while others will point out that even with those numbers,

Greinke still would have rated as a standout in the Brewers’ 2010 rotation. A bigger concern is the cracked rib injury that Greinke suffered while playing basketball after camp opened; the team has been vague about when Greinke will return, and although it’s a long season, Greinke’s absence leaves the Brewers starting rotation right where it seems like it’s always been: In a state of uncertainty.

The Brewers’ other major off-season acquisition, Shaun Marcum, was also brought on to bolster their starting rotation, and although his signing wasn’t nearly as attention-grabbing as the deal that landed Greinke, Marcum could turn out to be just as valuable, especially if Greinke has to miss more time than previously feared.

Playing for Toronto in the loaded AL East, Marcum’s ERA was just 3.64 last season with a 13-8 win-loss record. But Marcum too has injury concerns: He is just 18 months removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery and has already missing time this spring due to pain in his throwing shoulder.

The unsettling news surrounding the signings of Greinke and Marcum can only make Brewers fans appreciate the presence of opening day starter Yovani Gallardo all the more. As well they should: In a classic “the more things change, the more things stay the same” scenario, look for Gallardo to remain the Brewers’ most reliable pitcher.

Like the rotation, the Brewers’ bullpen is also undergoing changes: Gone is retired closer Trevor Hoffman, leaving last year’s saves leader (24) John Axford, last year’s holds leader (22) Kameron Loe, and 41-year-old journeyman Takashi Saito. The Brewers finished near the bottom in saves last year (35 total), but with the Hoffman drama gone and Axford’s star rising, the bullpen has the chance to be solid if unspectacular.

Despite the Brewers’ best intentions to win now, that clichéd phrase may just sum up the club’s 2011 season. While the offseason signings of Greinke and Marcum should help return the team to .500 , it’s hard to imagine the  club adding the 10 or 15 wins it’s going to take to win the NL Central. 

Final season prediction: 85-77, 2nd place, NL Central.

Here are my divisional picks:

AL East: Yankees. Everybody’s picking the Red Sox. And yes, Boston has had the noisier offseason. But I just have a feeling that the Yankees studs are going to make up for any deficiencies in their starting rotation.

AL Central: Twins. Every year I look for a reason to pick against them. Most years I’m glad I didn’t.

AL West: Rangers. Cliff Lee is gone, but reigning AL champs still best in division.

NL East: Atlanta. The Phillies injury concerns have me concerned, and the Braves will prove there is life after Bobby Cox.

NL Central: Cincinnati. Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, and — unless the Brewers staff performs above expectations — the best rotation in the division.

NL West: Colorado. A streaky team. I like them to be on a good streak more often than bad.

Wild cards: Boston and Philadelphia.

World Series: Braves over Yankees. After smarting over the bad ratings of last year’s Texas-San Francisco matchup, FOX executives rejoice. If only I could predict whether they’ll have NFL football this year.

Enjoy the season. Thanks for reading. And here’s to another 300.


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