The Brewer bullpen makes me nervous

So, we’re a few weeks into the season now – the Brewers sit even at 12-12, 1 game out of first place in the NL Central. Considering that five players projected to be on the opening day roster have missed time, and the player expected to lead their pitching staff has yet to throw a pitch in the majors this season, that can’t be considered failure.

This guy can't pitch every day...can he?

But before the season started, the Brewers weren’t getting a whole lot of love from a lot of “the experts.” That’s cool, I guess – Wisconsin sports teams (except perhaps the Packers) rarely get any love from national media. It’s to be expected. However, the issue that many of those aforementioned experts brought up when talking about Milwaukee’s shortcomings was the bullpen.  No one considered it a position of strength, and most people predicted it to be below average.  At first, I shrugged these people off.  After all, most of the bullpen’s major contributors last year were either rookies (Braddock, Axford, even Mike McClendon) or failed starters (Kameron Loe, Manny Parra).  This year, LaTroy Hawkins was coming back, we’d picked up Takashi Saito, and all those other guys, minus a below average Trevor Hoffman, would be back.

Unfortunately, at this point in the season, it looks like they might be right. Interestingly enough, there isn’t really one guy to point the finger at. The bullpen, as a whole, has just made me uneasy.  First, it was John Axford – he had a disastrous opening day, and then a few subpar outings after that.  Luckily for all of us in Brewer Nation, Axford has looked like a different pitcher his last four outings, much more like the excellent pitcher from last year than the unsure pitcher from the first week. Additionally, Kameron Loe has been outstanding. Continue reading

The Week In Review: April 18 – April 24

Each Sunday night throughout the season I’ll be looking back at the previous week – who performed well, who wasn’t so good, what to look for next week and other points of interest from the week.

An old rich guy, a new rich(er) guy, and a bad suit.

The Brewers’ biggest newsday this week came on a day when they did not play. Amid a flurry of roster moves on Thursday, the Brewers drew everyone’s attention away by signing Ryan Braun to a 5 year, 105 million dollar extension, keeping him with the Brewers through 2020. It’s a very exciting contract, the fanbase seems happy about it (see all the standing ovations on Friday night) and Milwaukee appears to have their first franchise player since Robin Yount skipped town. Unless, of course, you count Geoff Jenkins.

Meanwhile, George Kottaras is gone, Nyjer Morgan is on the DL, Mike McClendon has ben all over the place, and Corey Hart is on the brink of returning.

Oh, the team also played a few games this week.

Who’s Hot?

I mentioned the contract above, but Ryan Braun is committing battery on baseballs right now, folks. So, we could say Braun is doubly hot – not only is he now, according to Prince Fielder “super rich,” but he is also one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball. For the week, Braun batted .480/.533/.840 with three home runs and nine (!) RBIs. Braun is now tied for the NL lead in home runs and third in RBIs.

Braun’s batting-order-follower, Prince Fielder, also raked this week. Braun and Fielder had a couple special moments, especially in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday night, when they seemed to single handedly get the team back in the game. After watching these two guys for the last couple weeks, it really makes you sad that Fielder probably won’t be around after this season. In total, Fielder was 11-for-24 (.458) with seven runs scored and six runs batted in this week.

After a bit of a slow start, Randy Wolf has really turned it around lately. Wolf was stellar on Tuesday in Philadelphia, going six shutout innings while giving up only two hits, beating Roy Halladay. He followed that up with eight innings this afternoon, giving up only four hits – two of which were by opposing pitcher Wandy Rodriguez. Wolf worked his scoreless innings streak up to 20.1 innings before it was snapped in the eighth inning today by a J.R. Towles solo home run.

Also worth mentioning is catcher Jonathan Lucroy – in addition to doing well with the pitching staff and playing solid defense, Lucroy had seven hits in seventeen at bats (.412) with his first home run and three RBIs in his first full week since returning from a broken pinkie. Casey McGehee also continued to turn around his early struggles, and finished the week 8-for-25 with a homer and six runs batted in.

Who’s Not?

Filed under the “slightly disturbing” news file, Yovani Gallardo continued to struggle. Gallardo pitched on Friday, and gave up four runs in six innings on eight hits. His strikeouts were up a bit (seven), but labored – his 113 pitches were the most he’s thrown in a start all season. He only allowed one walk, which is encouraging, but Houston seemed to be hitting everything Gallardo threw, and for the third straight game he had below average stuff. Gallardo, in three starts since his complete shutout on April 5th, is sporting an 8.27 ERA, and his opponent batting average sits at .368. Hopefully he is just working out kinks, but I know I would feel much better if Gallardo just looked more like Gallardo next time out.

I’m also going to call out the bullpen a bit for their performance on Saturday night. It was a game that Milwaukee could have, and should have, won. Indeed, at many times late in that game, it really felt like Milwaukee was going to pull it back, but time after time the bullpen folded, and the wind came out of the Brewers’ sails one time too many. Shaun Marcum, who was fine but not great, left after six innings, with the Brewers trailing 4 to 3. Brandon Kintzler entered, and gave up two runs in the seventh. Zach Braddock started the eighth, and failed to record an out before being pulled for Kameron Loe, who thankfully bailed out Braddock. Milwaukee scored two in the bottom of the seventh, making it 6-5, and then scored again in the bottom of the ninth (after John Axford did look very good) to tie the game and send it to extras. Just when the Brewers seemed to have all of the momentum (the bottom of the ninth was electric), Sean Green immediately gave it back, failing to finish the top of the tenth, while giving up three runs – the difference in the end.

The bullpen was an area of concern for many experts this spring, and it looks like they may have been right. LaTroy Hawkins returned this week, and we can hope that he’ll pitch like he did in 2009. Manny Parra will be back soon, but it’s unclear if either of those guys will make a huge difference. Luckily Axford appears to be turning it around, and Kameron Loe has been outstanding. But a bullpen needs more than one reliable middle reliever to function properly. Hopefully someone will step up.

Injury Report:

Finally, the lingering injuries from spring training appear to be clearing themselves. LaTroy Hawkins made his 2011 debut on Friday night, and showed a little rust but hopefully will be good to go from here on out. Corey Hart could be back with the team on Tuesday. Manny Parra remains in the minors on a rehab assignment, but should be back with the team soon. Zack Greinke, who started today for triple A Nashville, wasn’t particularly sharp but suffered no physical setbacks. He’s scheduled to start again for Nashville on Friday, and could make the start after that in a Brewer uniform.

Meanwhile, Rickie Weeks sprained a pinkie on Friday night while sliding headfirst, and took a day off on Saturday night. He returned to play on Sunday, and showed no ill effects, going 2-for-4 with a solo home run and a stolen base – for which he slid feet first.

Roster Shuffle Special:

The Milwaukee roster looks a little different since Thursday. Thursday was a big day in Milwaukee, mainly due to the previously mentioned Ryan Braun news. But the roster has changed shape a bit as well. I mentioned that LaTroy Hawkins was activated – in addition, Brandon Boggs was called up to the big league roster. Mike McClendon had a busy week – he was called up on Tuesday, as the Brewers placed Shaun Marcum on the bereavement list so he could tend to his recently surgerized father – and also because the bullpen was shallow. McClendon was only in the bigs for two days, as he was sent down with the activation of Hawkins. Nyjer Morgan was also placed on the DL Thursday, which freed up the roster spot for Boggs.

The odd man out in all of this was former backup catcher candidate George Kottaras. Marcum needed to be reinstated from the bereavement list, and the Brewers elected to take Wil Nieves as their full-time backup catcher over Kottaras. Personally, I was hoping to see Kottaras get the job – Nieves is a bit of a black hole offensively, whereas Kottaras shows some pop, and Kottaras also appeared to have improved his defense this offseason. Kottaras is now in a crowded catcher scene at triple A Nashville, so if anything happens to Nieves or Lucroy, he’ll be back up.

What to watch for:

The Brewers welcome Cincinnati to Miller Park starting tomorrow, and you can bet that they’ll be trying as hard as they can to avenge the three game sweep that the Reds laid on Milwaukee to start the season. The series will certainly have a pretty large effect on the early NL Central standings, where the Brewers currently sit a half game back of St. Louis and a half game ahead of Cincinnati.


The Week In Review, April 11 – April 17

Each Sunday night throughout the season I’ll be looking back at the previous week – who performed well, who wasn’t so good, what to look for next week and other points of interest from the week.

The Wolf.

A strange week that started in optimism ended in disappointment as Milwaukee came in on a tear, having won four of their last five games. After they swept a rain-shortened series in Pittsburgh, it looked like it was a matter of time before Milwaukee caught up to the Reds atop the NL Central, but a sweep at the hands of the lowly Nationals later, and bad feelings are back in Milwaukee.

Who’s Hot?

Rickie Weeks has swung a pretty hot bat in the past week, and leaves play today sitting on a ten game hitting streak. Through five games this week, Weeks batted .368 with a home run. He provided most of the teams offense in their Friday night loss to Washington, and though he wasn’t great today, he did have a hit in each game.

He may not have gotten the win today, but Marco Estrada certainly pitched well enough to. Estrada did more than you can ask for from a spot-fifth-starter, holding the Nationals to one run on five hits to go along with seven strikeouts in six innings this evening.

Randy Wolf, kind of the forgotten man the first couple times through the rotation, delivered an excellent start on Thursday, striking out ten Pirates and giving up no runs through 6.2 innings, being pulled due to a fairly high pitch count.

Who’s Not?
I mentioned in last week’s review Yovani Gallardo’s last start, where he was uncharacteristically wild and gave up four runs in an inefficient five innings. Today, Gallardo (pitching on seven days rest) looked good for the first three innings, and appeared to have his strikeouts back, but fell apart, giving up a run in the fourth, and three run homers in the fifth and sixth innings en route to picking up a loss while giving up seven runs on ten hits in 5.1 innings. Not what you want out of your ace. Hopefully, Gallardo is just pressing and putting too much pressure on himself while Greinke is out, and there is nothing mechanically wrong with him, because the Brewers will need him to recover from back to back rough outings.

I will also, perhaps unfairly, mention Kameron Loe. Loe has been doing a very good job out of the bullpen all season, but he suffered his first big meltdown today in the nightcap and gave up three runs in the seventh just after Marco Estrada delivered a big spot start. Those three runs proved to be the difference. Hopefully Kameron just shakes this one off and keeps doing what he’s been doing. Continue reading

The Week In Review: April 4 – April 10

Each Sunday night throughout the season I’ll be looking back at the previous week – who performed well, who wasn’t so good, what to look for next week and other points of interest from the week.

A couple of hot guys.

Well, the Brewers finally righted the ship, and have managed to come out of the weekend with a .500 record – about as good as we could ask for after an 0-4 start to the season. Some hitters started to come alive, some continued to perform, and the pitching looked superb for much of the week.

Who’s Hot?

Prince Fielder, off to another slow start, turned it around in a big way starting on Wednesday. After going 3-for-4 on Wednesday afternoon, Fielder is 11-for-18 over the last five games with 2 homers, 11 RBIs, and 4 doubles, including 3 on Saturday night, which tied a franchise record, that drove in 4 batters.

3 of the 4 runs that Fielder drove in on Saturday night belonged to Ryan Braun, who continued his hot hitting this week, capping it off with a 2 run home run this afternoon. For the week, Braun hit .348 (8-for-23) with 2 homers and 6 batted in.

I already spoke earlier in the week about Nyjer Morgan, who continued to play well over the weekend. He started in right field last night going 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI, and made a very nice catch in right field. On Friday he was 2-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt. Morgan had most of today off, coming in late as a defensive substitute in right. His totals for the week: .471 (8-for-17) with two triples, an RBI, a stolen base, and some stellar defense. Morgan is now hitting .474/.524/.737 on the year.

On the other side of the ball, Chris Narveson turned in the best week. Narveson pitched well enough for the victory on Monday in the home opener, going 6 shutout innings and picking up 5 strikeouts while giving up just three hits. Unfortunately the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead late, and the offense struggled, so Narveson had a no decision. On Saturday night, Narveson turned in a gem in one of his best career starts, going 7 shutout innings and striking out 9. This time the bullpen held and Narveson picked up his first victory of the season.

John Axford bounced back in a big way this week, and hopefully put some concerns to rest about his struggles in his first two outings. Axford has yet to pitch a perfect inning this year, but he picked up 3 saves this week without allowing a run.

The last “hot” mention of the week goes to Yovani Gallardo, who pitched an outstanding game on Tuesday, going the distance for a 1-0 shutout, also providing the only run in the game after scoring on a Ryan Braun single. Gallardo only had 2 strikeouts, but was getting ground balls all over the place and only walked 2 batters. He threw a very efficient 111 pitches, something that he struggled with at times last year. Unfortunately, he had much more difficulty today…

Who’s Not?

…which gets Gallardo a spot on the “not” list. Gallardo struggled pretty badly today, and just didn’t appear to have it. His command was off and he could never seem to get the big outs. In total, Gallardo threw 5 innings and gave up 4 runs on 7 hits, with 4 walks and 2 strikeouts. He needed 106 pitches to complete 5 innings.

Takashi Saito hasn’t had a good week – he surrendered two home runs on Monday in the eighth inning which ended up being the difference in that game, and he hasn’t pitched since. Saito has a stiff hamstring. He hasn’t been placed on the DL, and it looks like he won’t have to, but hopefully he can get back on track.

On the other side of things, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint batters who are struggling terribly. Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt haven’t been great, but Betancourt is improving after a bad start to the season (he even drew a walk today!), and Gomez has looked… okay. He hasn’t been swinging the bat well at all, and it is especially tough to keep the faith high with Nyjer Morgan playing so well, but his approach has looked a little better in recent days and he scored a couple runs today. I would have put Casey McGehee on this list, but he erased many worries of a tough start after hitting a game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth today. I guess you could mention Jeremy Reed, who has yet to get a hit this season in six at-bats. Continue reading

More Nyjer, Please

“I’ve seen enough of Nyjer Morgan for one series,” said Braves play-by-play announcer Chip Caray this afternoon as Morgan made a diving catch on an Alex Gonzalez fly ball to end the sixth inning.

Nyjer Morgan doing what he does best.

Indeed, if I were a Braves fan, I would probably be pretty sick of Nyjer Morgan right about now. Morgan, acquired essentially as an afterthought right at the end of spring training, came up big in the Atlanta series. He got his first start of the season in right field on Monday, and struggled a little, going 0-2 with a walk and a sacrifice bunt while hitting seventh. Of course, no one was really doing anything with the bat against Brandon Beachy on Tuesday, so the fact that he got on base is something.

On Tuesday, Nyjer got the start in center field over the struggling Carlos Gomez. Morgan, hitting second, came up big, going 3 for 4 with a triple (although that could have been an out, but Braves RF Jason Heyward lost it in the lights). Morgan was thrown out at home plate in the game, but the three hits helped get a sputtering Brewer offense going, and even though they only managed one run, they came away with their first win of the season.

Morgan came on to pinch hit in the eighth on Wednesday and knocked another base hit. He was reinserted into the starting lineup today, and picked up one hit in four at bats – a double, which he followed with a stolen base, which he followed by taking out catcher Brian McCann at home plate on a ground ball by George Kottaras, which forced McCann to lose the baseball and allowed Morgan to step on home plate for the Brewers’ third run – and ultimately difference-making – run.

“He’s a spark,” said Ron Roenicke. Continue reading

The Week In Review: March 28-April 3

Each Sunday night throughout the season I’ll be looking back at the previous week – who performed well, who wasn’t so good, what to look for next week and other points of interest from the week.

That's about right.

The season finally started!…and the excitement that surrounded the Brewers for months leading up to opening day Thursday disappated very quickly as the team came out of the gate looking sluggish, losing three straight to Cincinnati to open the season. In the review this week, I will ignore the last couple games of spring training and just talk about the three games Milwaukee played against the Reds.

Who’s Hot?

We’ll give some points to baseball, for starting. That’s good.

Other than that, there wasn’t much to like about the Brewers this week. There were a couple of encouraging players though…

Yovani Gallardo got off to a good start, going six innings and giving up two runs on seven hits with four strikeouts and three walks. Of course, Gallardo’s quality start was given away by the bullpen (and the defense), so, that sucks.

Rickie Weeks got off to a good start in his first at bat, hitting a leadoff home run to start the season (followed by another home run by Carlos Gomez). He continued his hot hitting, hitting another leadoff homer today and adding an RBI double. In three games this week Weeks was 4 for 13 with two home runs and two doubles, with four RBIs.

Ryan Braun was the only other Brewer really swinging the bat, finishing the week 4 out of 11 with a pair of long solo home runs. Braun was also robbed of a big hit in the ninth inning on Saturday by Edgar Renteria.

We can also give a shout out to Erick Almonte. He only had one hit in six at bats, but that one hit was his first home run since his first career homer on April 2, 2003 – exactly eight years before his second career home run.

Who’s Not?

Everyone else? The team looked absolutely terrible at times, playing weak defense, hitting poorly and pitching badly.

Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum struggled in their first starts of the year. Wolf looked like he might be okay, but Drew Stubbs got an RBI infield single with two outs in the fourth today and the next batter, Brandon Phillips, hit a three-run home run, which completely ruined any chance Wolf had of putting together a decent outing. Marcum looked horrible for the first two innings on Saturday, but settled down a bit. He was on a pitch count, and was taken out after 4.2 innings. All in all, Wolf gave up six runs in four innings, and Marcum gave up four in 4.2.

John Axford, well, you know.

The bullpen actually performed well on Saturday, when Zach Braddock, Sergio Mitre and Sean Green combined for 3.1 innings of one-hit, no-run baseball. On Thursday and Sunday, the bullpen struggled mightily. On Thursday, Kameron Loe gave up a run in the seventh, Takashi Saito pitched a clean eight and then Axford gave up four in the ninth. On Sunday, it looked like nothing could slow down the Reds’ offense. After Wolf left, Brandon Kintzler gave up 4 runs in 1.1 innings (although only one was earned), Mitch Stetter surrendered a three run homer, and Sean Green gave up a run in the eighth.

Yuniesky Betancourt got off to a dreadful start to his Brewer career, as well, which I guess we should have been expecting. Betancourt is 0 for 11 after three games, and he got his first error today. In addition to the official error he got, there was one play where Betancourt inexplicably backed off a ground ball that was on the left side of second base and let Rickie Weeks field it while running away from second base – Weeks throw was late and the batter had an infield hit.

He may have gotten a couple of hits including a home run in three games, but Carlos Gomez didn’t show me much. Watching his at bats, he did a whole lot of swinging for the fences. WAY too much swinging for the fences when you are batting directly in front of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Come on, man.

Injury Update:

Zack Greinke continued to progress, throwing what Brian and Bill were calling an “aggressive” flat ground throwing session today, but don’t expect him back before May.

Corey Hart is still unsure about when he will return, but he might join the team in Milwaukee for the home opener to see a doctor and determine whether or not he will need a rehab assignment. Mark Kotsay started in right field twice, and Erick Almonte once, in Hart’s absence. Nyjer Morgan figures to get some time out there as well.

Jonathan Lucroy, at last check, was going to report to class A Brevard County, and then play a few games in the minors, perhaps rejoining the team in the middle of April. Kottaras and Nieves will continue to catch in the meantime.

Manny Parra and Latroy Hawkins are also rehabbing. All five players have been placed on the 15 day disabled list, retroactive to March 22nd, so when they are ready, they can come back any time after April 6th.

What to watch for next week:

A win, perhaps? The Brewers have their home opener tomorrow at 1:10 pm vs. the Braves. Atlanta is a good team this year, so we’ll have to hope Milwaukee can get some runs. The Braves put Jair Jurrjens on the 15 day DL, so Atlanta will probably throw Brandon Beachy tomorrow. Atlanta had Friday off, so they could go back to the top of their rotation with Derek Lowe, who had a fantastic opening day start, on Tuesday, and hot prospect Mike Minor on Wednesday. Tommy Hanson is the likely pitcher on Thursday. For Milwaukee, they’ll have Chris Narveson tomorrow in the home opener, then Gallardo on Tuesday. No one knows what will happen yet on Wednesday. Keep an eye on that to see if Sergio Mitre starts what would be a bullpen game, or if the Brewers recall someone like Marco Estrada. Shaun Marcum lines up to pitch Thursday.

The weekend series is at home against Chicago. The pitching matchups currently project for Matt Garza versus Randy Wolf on Friday, Randy Wells versus Chris Narveson on Saturday, Andrew Cashner versus Yovani Gallardo on Sunday.