Brewers brass believe in team's talent
It's not easy to evaluate a season such as the one the Milwaukee Brewers experienced in 2013.
How severe should the grading curve be when there were so many key injuries as well as the 65-game suspension for Ryan Braun? Do you substantially penalize a starting rotation that sunk the team early but then stabilized and was actually a strength down the stretch?
Do you grade the team based on the roster if was supposed to have or the one featuring many young, inexperienced players summoned to fill in the blanks? Is there any extra credit for playing hard down the stretch rather than rolling over and playing dead?
There were more layers to the Brewers' season than you'll see on a wedding cake in the Hamptons. So much to digest. So much to ponder. You can go decades without seeing a season exactly like this one.
The bottom line was a 74-88 record and fourth-place finish in the National League Central, far off the pace set by front-runners St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. But it was the road traveled to get to that finish that makes you wonder if you should be depressed about 2014 or encouraged.
“Are we as talented as we've been in the past? Probably not,” conceded general manager Doug Melvin. “You have to have a lot of talent.
“You look over in the other dugout and we were a little short on talent at times. Everything has to go right for you. You can't afford injuries; you can't have things happen.”
Many things happened to the Brewers in 2013, few of them good, particularly in the first half of the season. The players projected in the middle of the batting order — Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart — were missing in action for most or all of the season. Braun was limited by a nagging thumb injury before his suspension; Ramirez never was the same after spraining a knee in spring training; and Hart didn't play a game because of surgery on both knees.
“We've been pretty good through our history here with injuries,” said Melvin. “We've got a great medical staff, and we've been really good at it.
“This was a year that we weren't as good, and the injury bug bit us. We have to get as much talent as we can. It all comes down to talent and keeping it on the field.”
The starting rotation staggered out of the gate and was largely responsible for a 6-22 May that knocked the Brewers out of he race quicker than you can say, “Wait 'til next year.” The roster became a revolving door in which 12 rookies saw action during various points of the season.
First base became a quagmire with seven players making starts there, none of whom had played the position previously in the majors. Manager Ron Roenicke got scalp burn from scratching his head on a daily basis, trying to put a batting order together.
“Sometimes, you like the adversity,” said Roenicke. “The first year I was here, there were challenges and trying to figure out things, but it went very well. Last year, we didn't start off well, then all of a sudden we started playing well.
“The more things that happen to you, the more you can figure out the right ways to handle different situations, whether it's minor next year or it's major. I don't want to say I enjoyed the challenges because nobody enjoys it, but I understand that it does make me better in what I do.
“Sometimes, it makes a player better in what he does.”
As stomach-churning as the season got at times on the field, no one was prepared for the fallout when Braun was caught in Major League Baseball's Biogenesis web and exposed as a performance-enhancing drug cheat after denying it for a year and a half. His suspension cast a darker cloud over the season and put an organization tied to him for the next seven years at more than $130 million in a very tough spot.
“Everybody knows we're going to need Ryan to come back and perform,” said Melvin. “He's going to have some tough times, probably, when you go into visiting ballparks. But he's going to have to handle that. He knows that.”
In even the bleakest of seasons, there are silver linings. Centerfielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura broke through with all-star seasons. Scooter Gennett came up from the minors and staked his claim on the second base job. Brandon Kintzler emerged as a reliable setup man in the bullpen. Jim Henderson showed he had the stuff to close games. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy increased his presence as a run producer. Rookie outfielder Khris Davis forced his way into the conversation for 2014.
Take away May and the Brewers were 68-66 this year. Of course, you can't take away a month of the season at your discretion. And two games over .500 isn't going to get you in the playoffs, not in a division in which the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds each won at least 90 games.
So, the Brewers' decision-makers have to analyze what went right, what went wrong and what's fixable by 2014. A better year on the injury front is essential but Melvin and Co. must make all the right moves otherwise with little margin for error.
“We're going to work hard at it; we are going to be smart,” said Melvin. “We can't give up wins in May, because they come back at the end of the year.
“We have to win games in our division (the Brewers were 21-36 against the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds). We have three tough teams in our division. We have to be out there every day when we play those teams.
“We have to have our best people on the field when we play teams in our division because they mean something. They are like double wins or two games (in the standings). We have to get back to the postseason, and it's tough to get there.
“Can we win with this roster? Yeah, we can win with the roster we have. I think if our best players are on the field and our young guys take that next step, we can be there.”