Before 2005, there was only one reason why the Milwaukee Brewers were selling any merchandise:
The old ball and glove logo that cleverly incorporated the team's initials still looks really sharp on baseball caps more than 20 years after its heyday.
While inherently awesome, there must be something wrong when the most recognizable symbol of your ball club is a relic from days gone by. In 2004, it was far more attractive to be a fan of the 1982 Brewers than it was to be a fan of the current product at the time.
That year, the Brewers finished with 94 losses, and two years before that, they suffered 106 losses. That still is the most in franchise history, including the forgettable season of 1969 when they were the expansion Seattle Pilots.
The team hadn't even finished at .500 since 1992, but in 2005, the Brewers surprisingly finished 81-81, and the Milwaukee fan base was suddenly energized by new ownership and an exciting young squad.
2006 was a letdown after a 75-87 finish, but with the emergence of Prince Fielder, Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks, and J.J. Hardy in the infield, and Corey Hart in the outfield, signaled that 2007 could mark the reemergence of Milwaukee as a major baseball city.
The new season finally arrived with Weeks, Fielder, and Hardy constituting 75 percent of the infield. Ben Sheets dominated in his opening day start, going the full nine innings while allowing only two hits and one run. This officially started Brewer fever in 2007, but, long story short, the Crew missed out on the playoffs. As disappointing as that was, the team finally finished with a winning record, going 83-79.
And now, 2008 is about to begin, with the bitter taste still in the mouths of the young core players and their coaches.
Can the Brewers continue building on the success of 2007? Did they make the right moves in the offseason to get the team postseason-ready?
My answer is yes.
The pitching is there if all parts can remain healthy (Ben Sheets) and stay consistent (Derrick Turnbow, affectionately known as Turn-blow to many fans). Even if Sheets, who clearly has the stuff to be a dominant pitcher in the National League, goes down yet again this season, there will be plenty of arms ready to fill in.
Nine pitchers on the current 40-man roster have started games in the Major Leagues, including young studs Yovani Gallardo and Zach Jackson (a lefty).
The bullpen was the Achilles heel of the team last year, especially in the grueling late summer months. Additions of David Riske, Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, and Salomon Torres will prove helpful, no matter what Boston fans say about Gagne or what Mets fans say about Mota. Torres and Riske, who have been stuck in Pittsburgh and Kansas City respectively, will finally have a chance to show what they can do on a team that can score runs on a nightly basis.
Speaking of scoring, this team can do that—a lot. Let's start at the top of the lineup.
Weeks, who struggled so much last season that management sent him to Triple-A Nashville to work on his swing, came back late in the year and showed what he is capable of. Weeks is able to hit for average and for power, and once he's on base, he's only one hit away from scoring.
Batting second will likely be new center field acquisition Mike Cameron, who will join the team after serving a 25-game suspension for a substance abuse policy violation. Better known for his defense, all Cameron will have to do with the bat is not be a liability, because the men coming to bat after him will more than make up for it.
Ryan Braun, the 2007 Rookie of the Year who will be transitioning to left field from third base, should have no problem making the adjustment to the outfield. Braun hit 34 home runs after joining the team in early May.
Prince Fielder, the single season home run leader in franchise history, will bat clean-up for obvious reasons. Behind him, Corey "I wear my sunglasses at night" Hart, Bill Hall, Jason Kendall, and J.J. Hardy will shuffle to form one of the strongest 5-8 groups in the National League.
Chicago and Milwaukee, a natural geographic rivalry, will become one of the biggest rivalries in the National League. Schedule-makers got it right this year, with the Brewers and Cubs scheduled to play a final series in Milwaukee. These three games will likely be significant in deciding a division winner.
If the Brewers can keep their players on the field and adjust to new roles defensively, there really is no reason why Milwaukee won't return to the postseason in 2008.