As I’m sure the rest of Brewer Nation can attest, now is a time of concern, helplessness and bewilderment in the Brew City—a time when explanations are in short order and the hunt for solutions is a hunt in vain.
After dropping two of three to the Twins over the weekend, the Crew finds itself a woeful 17-27, eight-and-a-half games back of the NL Central-leading Cardinals, eight games out of the wild card, and losers of 11 of the last 13.
Now, while there are plenty of perplexing question marks surrounding this start—like, for instance, the 4-14 record at Miller Park—there is, in general, no question what plagues this team. Just look at the stats.
Through this weekend’s interleague series, the Brewers are among the top three in the National League in every significant statistical hitting category except triples (they’re fourth), and they’re tops in both hits and total bases.
And individually, Milwaukee’s lineup features the fifth-best hitter on the Senior Circuit in Ryan Braun (.324) and the league’s leading RBI-producer in Casey McGehee (39), who’s quietly making an undeniable case for his first All-Star nod.
In addition, all of this offensive firepower has manifested despite the team’s most valuable player (at least in terms of his free market valuation), Prince Fielder, struggling at the plate thus far, batting just .271 with a meager 19 RBI.
Conversely, the squad’s pitching staff ranks among the league’s bottom five in almost every important pitching measure, including dead-last in batting average against (.292).
Moreover, they are 12th in the NL in total errors and 13th in fielding percentage.
Hmm… they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, right? Well, by that understanding, I’d say the front office must be pretty damn insane.
Last season, the Brewers finished the year 80-82, 11 games off the division pace set by St. Louis and 12 off of Colorado’s 92-win wild card campaign. That team—which primarily ran out a pitching staff of Yovani Gallardo, Braden Looper, Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra and Dave Bush—finished second-to-last in ERA (4.83), and more or less, in the bottom five of every other pitching statistic.
Let Looper, the team’s best numerical pitcher in 2009, depart in free agency (where he remains today, although it is rumored the Cards may have an interest), ink Randy Wolf to a three-year, $29.75 million deal, and bring back Doug Davis for another Brewer-tour (get it?), with a one-year, $5.25 million agreement.
Then, after giving Suppan one last shot to validate that monstrous four-year, $42 million contract the team ill-advisedly offered him back in the 2006 offseason (which, of course, he couldn’t manage to do), the team inserted 28-year-old Chris Narveson.
And what did we get from that turnover (and almost $15 million in new obligations for the year)?
Well, Gallardo, one of the holdovers, has been solid, registering a 4-2 record, a 3.20 ERA, and averaging almost six innings a game!
As for the rest of the staff, it’s been so disastrous you’d think it was assembled by BP. Wolf is 3-4 with a 5.10 ERA, Bush is 1-5 with a 5.59 ERA, Narveson, despite a 4-1 mark, has posted a 5.17 ERA, and Davis, the worst of the group, is 1-4 with a 7.56 ERA.
Perhaps worst of all, however, has been the bullpen’s performance to this point. Last year, the team’s pen was middle-of-the-road overall, with respectable marks in ERA (3.97) and batting average against (.242). More importantly, the Brewers sported something ever-more critical: a reliable closer in Trevor Hoffman, who saved 37 games in 41 opportunities, with a stellar 1.83 ERA.
This time around, Hoffman’s signature “Hell’s Bells” entry makes the women here in Milwaukee puke like Jack Parkman’s trademark shimmy. Before having his closer title revoked last week, Hoffman had as many blown saves as saves (both five), and an exorbitant 12.21 ERA. As a whole, the 2010 Brewer bullpen sports a 6.02 ERA, and an almost unthinkable batting average against of .302.
So the point is, the Brewers simply do not have the arms to compete. Even if the numbers deviate toward something a little less outrageous, both the starting staff and the relievers do not stack up against the cream of the crop in the division or the league. The offense is there, but pitching and defense—what championships are built on—are not.
Which brings me to the burning question: what can be done to salvage the season, if it is salvageable at all?
Recently, the answer to this query that has been gaining more and more traction is to fire manager Ken Macha. Regarding this proposal, I find myself conflicted.
On the one hand, I would ask, what could Macha have done differently? He wasn’t the one who decided Wolf, a one-time All-Star (in 2003, when he won a career-high 16 games for the Phillies), with a career ERA north of four and a career average of 12 wins a season, was worth more than $9 million a year.
He also wasn’t the one who thought Davis, a sub-.500 career pitcher, merited more than $5 million.
While his input was surely considered, those decisions—as well as the albatross that is Suppan’s deal—ultimately fall on general manager Doug Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio.
Seriously, what was Macha supposed to do with this pitching roster? Not put the game’s all-time leader in saves out there to close games?
In fact, if there are any criticisms of Macha that are valid, they are on the offensive side—that he should start his runners more, hit-and-run more often, and work harder to manufacture runs. But really, considering the team is scoring over five runs a contest, those criticisms fall flat. Even if the wild scoring outbursts the team has posted are excluded, the offense has still acquitted itself well.
The bottom line is, Macha was not given enough pitching resources to win.
However, the other incontestable truth is that something needs to be done. Standing pat now and watching the team self-flagellate for four more months would be a slap in the face to ticket-buying fans.
It isn’t an option.
What is, though, is axing Macha, giving the reins to Willie Randolph and hoping a new voice of leadership can somehow mysteriously generate better pitching. No, it isn’t probable, but it is an alternative.
Although expecting a repeat of the Rockies’ historic 2009 about-face is a pipe dream (recall, that team fired veteran skipper Clint Hurdle after a 19-28 start, and proceeded to close the year 73-42, under Jim Tracy’s leadership, winning the wild card going away), sometimes a new message can galvanize a team and making that move sooner rather than later only gives the Brewers more room to figure it out.
So, unfortunately for Macha, he must be sacrificed as a sad victim of circumstance. Down the road, the organization (read: Doug Melvin) needs to determine how to replenish the farm system’s pitching coffers, if it has any hope of sustained success.
But for now, the beer-loving fans need some reason to hold onto their proverbial towels at least into the dog days of summer. And as far as I can see, the only way to do that is to fire Ken Macha.