Milwaukee Brewers 2007 Preview

Sunday, March 04 2007 @ 06:12 PM EST

Contributed by: Thomas

Last year I examined a 16-year gap in Brewers history to determine if the fate of the 1990 Brewers held clues for the 2006 Brewers. Was I right or was I wrong and am I going to drudge up more names from the history books in an attempt to tell you what’s going to happen to the 2007 Brewers?

In my 2006 Brewers preview I compared the 1989 Milwaukee Brewers to the 2005 Brewers, as they are the only two teams in Brewers history to finish with a .500 record. (If curious, you can read my preview of the 2005 Brewers here.) I then looked at the 1990 Brewers, who fell to 74-88 and compared that to the 2006 Brewers, to see if we could expect the 2006 Brewers to take a similar step backwards. I discovered that that the main culprit for their worse record was that five of their best players all suffered a substantial drop in performance, including Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, while you could reasonably have only expected this drop from Chris Bosio. I said that while the same thing could happen to the 2006 Brewers, I didn’t think it would and predicted 85 wins.

And how did that turn out? Well, my prediction was terribly wrong as the Brewers won 10 less games than I expected, finishing with a 75-87 record. However, in some ways this demonstrated the validity of the original idea, as this was only one game better than the 1990 Brewers. It turns out I’m a genius, but I don’t even know it. I could continue this trend by looking at the 1991 Brewers and seeing what they might say about the 2007 Brewers, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll try a typical preview and hope that it doesn’t leave me looking like a fool in six months time.

Damian Miller was the starting catcher for the Brewers in 2006, although his performance dropped to an OPS+ of 82 from a 97 in 2005. Miller’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage dropped by about 20 points, which was the same amount his batting average dropped, so we can conclude his ability to hit for power and eye remained about the same. However, the lack of production from Miller, who will be 37 this year, caused the Brewers to trade for Johnny Estrada in a six-player swap with the Diamondbacks. Estrada went .302/.328/.444 for Arizona during his only year in the desert for an OPS+ of 91. Estrada is two years removed from his OPS+ 114 season, where he won the NL Silver Slugger at catcher and finished 18th in NL MVP voting. He struggled in 2005, but rebounded somewhat in 2006. He’s entering spring training as the number one catcher, but having Miller around gives the Brewers an established player as the backup. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Estrada start in about 100 games and Miller the other 60.

Minor leaguers Lou Palmisano and Nestor Corrente are in camp as the fifth and sixth catchers while there are so many pitchers around, while Mike Rivera and former Rockies prospect JD Closser will be on the outside, looking in, and will in all likelihood be assigned to Triple-A Nashville. Rivera had a good stint with Milwaukee in late 2006, as he hit .268/.325/.448 in 141 at-bats in what was the most successful of his 4 brief spells in the majors. Rivera played in the 2001 Futures Game and has put up OPS’s over .800 in every year in Triple-A since then, aside from 2004. He struggled his previous stints in the majors, but given his history with the bat and the anemic production of some backup catchers, it’s a bit surprising some team didn’t give him longer to establish himself in the majors. Then again, backup catcher is a position where teams tend to be conservative and go with known quantities and strong gloves. Closser has a career .687 OPS in 447 at-bats in Colorado and is almost certainly behind Rivera on the depth chart.

Prince Fielder’s fine first full (nice alliteration, eh) year in the majors was overshadowed by the fabulous NL rookie class and he only finished 7th in RoY voting. This was despite the fact that Fielder hit .271/.347/.483 as a 22-year-old. There’s no reason a healthy Fielder shouldn’t improve on last year. He did sit out of Thursday’s game with a minor hamstring strain, but the outlook for this year for Fielder has to be optimistic. People may talk about the sophomore slump, but Fielder’s hit at every level since he was drafted and was a high draft pick, so there’s no reason that he should struggle in his second season. In fact, I think that Fielder’s got a very good shot at getting the first of many All-Star births this season, even with his poor defense which Chris Dial rated the worst of any first baseman in the National League. If Fielder gets injured short-term, Tony Graffanino will likely fill in at 1B, a position he has played before, but not regularly. If it was a long-term injury, Milwaukee will likely call up Brad Nelson or move Corey Hart or Ryan Braun to first for the rest of the year.

Rickie Weeks, winner of the Golden Spikes Award in college, will be Milwaukee’s starting second baseman. As I predicted, Weeks hit for a significantly higher batting average than he did in 2005, but he also hit for less power in 2006, as he hit five less homers in basically the same number of at-bats. Milwaukee’s coaching staff will likely try to get Weeks to combine his ability to hit for contact with his 2005 power levels in hopes he turns in a line like .280/.340/.440, which I’m sure the Brewers would take from second base. However, the main concern with Milwaukee’s coaching staff is Rickie’s defense. Weeks is a poor fielder, as according to Chris Dial’s defensive ratings, Weeks is the second worst defensive second baseman in the NL, behind only Jose Castillo, with -14 runs saved over 150 games. Graffanino will get some time at second, as well, particularly if Yost grows tired of Weeks’ defense.

J.J. Hardy had injury problems last year and he only put up an OPS+ of 76 in 128 at-bats. Hardy will return as Milwaukee’s starter at shortstop this year. If he can put an OPS+ of around 90 with his strong defense, he’ll fit in nicely at the bottom of the Brewers lineup. If Hardy doesn’t improve his offensive production and if Milwaukee hopes to do something in the next couple of years than Milwaukee may look for help elsewhere. I think this is the year that will make or break Hardy in Milwaukee’s future plans. Contending teams have the ability to carry a good-field no-hit shortstop, but it decreases your margin for error if you have a near-automatic out in the lineup and also is harder if you don’t have any bonafide superstars in your lineup. Counsell will be the primary backup SS and was brought in to give Hardy a push. Depending on how much pressure the Brewers feel to compete, he could get the bulk of the playing time in the second half if Hardy gets off to a slow start.

Unfortunately, Corey Koskie, who by all accounts is a stand-up guy, has run into ongoing injury problems due to his concussions. In an attempt to deal with his post-concussion syndrome Koskie has visited specialists from the University of Buffalo and the University of Pittsburgh, who have success with hockey players. Koskie’s problems are so severe that he hasn’t participated in baseball-related activities since early in the second half of last season. When he was healthy Koskie had a fine campaign, as he rebounded to old production levels and put up the best rate stats of anyone at 3B defensively, with +19 RS/150. David Bell, who handled most of the 3B duties in Koskie’s absence, didn’t return. Jeff Cirillo, whose career seemed over a couple of years ago, left for the Twin Cities. Finally, the Brewers promised Bill Hall a regular position, so he won’t return to 3B. Barring them jerking around Hall again, the early season action might see Counsell or Graffanino at 3B. Neither are overwhelming figures, although they might platoon nicely. However, another possibility is the starting job going to Ryan Braun, who split last year between A-ball and Double-A and put up a .956 OPS at Double-A Huntsville. Braun’s a good offensive prospect, although he is also supposed to be weak on defense. I don’t think Milwaukee wants to rush him, but if Koskie’s career continues to be in jeopardy and if he gets off to a hot start at Triple-A Nashville, he may force the Brewers hand. Braun had an impressive stint in the AFL, finishing in the top 5 in many offensive categories and 2nd in several, behind only Toronto’s Chip Cannon.

As mentioned above, Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino should serve as Milwaukee’s two main backup infielders. Counsell signed a $6 million/2 year deal in the offseason, which means that he’s a very expensive part-time player. He’s not even that good, as his highest OPS in the past six years was .726 and he only broke the .700 mark twice over that span. Graffanino signed a one-year contract worth $3.25 million after putting up a .751 OPS in 456 at-bats between Milwaukee and KC. Price considerations withstanding these two form a good combination of infield reserves. Graffanino is more comfortable on the right half of the infield and Counsell on the left. Graffanino appeared in 67 games at 2B, only 16 at first, 13 at short and 27 at third. Counsell appeared in 88 at short, 2 at second and 7 at third. Each of them have their primary positions, but this also demonstrates that either of them is capable of playing any infield position should circumstances necessitate.

Graffanino hits right-handed and Counsell hits left-handed, so if they needed to fill in for Koskie permanently they could platoon at 3B. It would be a near ideal tandem of backup infielders if Counsell was a bit better hitter. The main issue is that the Brewers are spending $6 million on their backup infielders, which is a lot for a small-to-mid market club. However, it’s not unreasonable when you consider the question marks Milwaukee has concerning Koskie’s health, Weeks’ defense and Hardy’s bat and the level of production they’re assured from Counsell and Graffanino.

There is only one other infielder who could make a claim to a job with Milwaukee and that’s Vinnie Rottino. Rottino is Wisconsin born-and-raised and attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He was signed soon afterwards as a non-drafted free agent by the Brewers. Rottino is a corner infielder who has played at 3B most of his minor-league career. He had a cup of coffee with the Brewers last year after a fine year in Nashville, where he put up a .314/.379/.440 line. If Koskie’s not healthy and the Brewers want to keep Braun in the minors, Rottino has a good chance of making the team as their second backup infielder, behind the platoon at 3B.

There could be trouble brewing in left field for Milwaukee. Manager Ned Yost plans to move Geoff Jenkins back to left after he spent the last couple of years in right, following the Carlos Lee trade. Yost also stated he might platoon Jenkins with Kevin Mench, to which Jenkins replied that considering all he’s done for Milwaukee, they should trade him if they’re going to reduce his playing time. Mench said he’d “pitch a fit” if he was platooned, but so far Milwaukee hasn’t backed down from the idea. Jenkins put up a .791 OPS last year, continuing his pattern of rotating good and mediocre years, as he had an OPS of .888 in 2005, .798 in 2004 and .913 in 2003. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how good Jenkins was in 2003. Jenkins might have a leg to stand on if he wasn’t awful against LHP in 2006. He hit .133 against lefties in 89 at-bats with a .479 OPS. His OPS against righties was .871. For his career the difference is .892 and .723. Jenkins, in fact, seems like an ideal candidate to be platooned as his performance against lefties is consistently subpar and not worthy at all of starting corner outfield position. However, it’s often hard for athletes to recognize or accept their own shortcomings.

Mench played exclusively in left for the Brewers after coming over in a midseason trade for Carlos Lee that saw Nelson Cruz go to Texas and also netted Milwaukee Laynce Nix and Francisco Cordero. His offensive production was terrible for Milwaukee, as he batted .230/.248/.317. This was the first year since his 2002 rookie year that his OPS was below 100. However, I doubt even these struggles did anything to dent Mench’s massive head. It seems like Milwaukee will allow Mench to prove that the second half of 2006 was a hiccup in his career. Mench is a right-handed batter and has a career OPS of .930 against lefties and .746 against righties. In fact, Jenkins and Mench are a good match for a platoon and could provide Milwaukee with an .860-.880 OPS in left.

Sometimes there’s no greater joy than being completely and unashamedly wrong. In the spring of 2005 I wrote, “[Bill] Hall’s not a bad infield reserve at this point, as he’s multi-positioned and cheap. He’s not going to wow you with his bat, but backup infielders don’t have to.” All he’s done since then is turn in a season of .291/.342/.495, followed by a season of .270/.345/.553. He’s precisely wowed me with his bat. He’ll have a permanent job in CF this year, after spending the last two years as a jack-of-all-trades, although he did settle into the shortstop role somewhat last year, playing 127 of his 148 games there. Hall is agile and athletic enough to be able to move to center and he does have previous experience in the outfield. He’ll work hard on skills other outfielders have refined, like reading fly balls. Hall’s a hard worker and I think he’ll end up at least close to average defensively, if not better.

Last year Hall had one of the quietist 35-homer seasons in recent memory, as I had no idea he hit that many. I figured he was in the 20-25 range. Hall might regress somewhat offensively, as following a .650 OPS in 2004 I doubt I was alone in doubting Hall’s potential with the bat. Even if Hall settles in with a .mid-800’s OPS, that would be fine for a center fielder. Brady Clark was the team’s regular centerfielder last year, but after a disappointing .263/.348/.335 line it was evident that Clark wouldn’t be handed the starting job in 2007 and his spot on the 2007 roster may even be in some jeopardy. I’ve only seen Hall play a couple of times, but he’s been great fun to watch both times and watching someone build a solid career unexpectedly is always interesting. I’m very glad I got things wrong on Hall and hope he has continued success in the years to come.

Yost has stated Corey Hart will get the starting job in right. Corey Hart, who I’m sure has heard no shortage of sunglasses jokes, had 237 at-bats for Milwaukee last year, where he put up an OPS of .796. His production at Nashville has been even more impressive, with an OPS of .913 in full year in 2005 and .976 in half a year in 2006. Hart deserves a shot at regular playing time and that’s what Yost seems determined to give him. An OPS over .800 in regular playing time isn’t unreasonable and would cement Hart as a starter in Milwaukee’s outfield going forward.

This leaves the question of who Milwaukee’s backup outfielders are. If we assume one of them is Kevin Mench, who will be starting less frequently than Jenkins in their platoon, then that leaves one or possibly two spots open. The Brewers do have a logjam of outfielders though, as Clark, Gabe Gross, Laynce Nix and Anthony Gwynn are all in training camp. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one of their outfielders traded, as right now Nix and Gwynn Jr. seem certain to head to the minors. I’d be surprised if Gross doesn’t beat out Clark for the last spot on the bench, as he put up a .274/.382/.476 line in 208 at-bats off the bench last. With that OPS+ of 119, Gross demonstrated why Ash’s regime made him their first round pick in 2001. He also got the majority of his at-bats in centerfield, so he proved he can capably play all three outfield positions. As the situation stands right now, Gross would probably play a couple of times a week, perhaps spelling Hart a couple of times and Hall occasionally. Clark might end up on the roster depending on how many pitchers Milwaukee carries, but otherwise the team might have to eat his contract. Nix, the man with the extra-Y in the middle of his name like his brother Jayson, has a .688 OPS in 851 MLB at-bats over the last four years, and a career .808 OPS in the minors. Gwynn might have benefited from his father’s name this far to some degree, as he had a .587 OPS in 77 at-bats in the majors and a career .694 OPS in the minors. As I said, I imagine the Brewers are shopping outfielders around, most likely Mench, who they can advertise as an every-day player, and Clark, who has regressed from starter to someone who probably won’t even make the team’s bench.

Ben Sheets had his worst year since 2003 last year, as he suffered through an injury and only made 17 starts. Still, he finished with a 3.82 ERA, which was good enough for an 118 ERA+. Sheets had a ridiculous 116 strikeouts to 11 walks. Furthermore, Sheets posted career bests in HR/9 and BB/9 ratio and his K/9 ratio was the second highest of his career, behind only his 2004 rate. His hit rate was the highest it had been since 2003 and Sheets’ ERA likely suffered from bad luck combined between hits allowed and run distribution. Sheets is a good bet to return to somewhere between his 2004 and 2005 ERA. He had some problems with a bulging disc in his back during spring training, but an offseason visit from trainer Roger Caplinger reportedly set him on course to be healthy for spring training. The Brewers are convinced enough of his health that they apparently told Omar Minaya that Sheets was flat out not available in a trade. A healthy Sheets is a legitimate ace and will go along way towards the Brewers reaching .500.

Chris Capuano enters the season as Milwaukee’s number two starter. Capuano had a 4.03 ERA in 2005, which was a slight jump from his 2005 ERA of 3.99, but it is relatively better as the NL ERA in 2005 was 4.23 and 2006 it was 4.49. The most interesting part of Capauno’s 2006 season was his walk rate. His K/9 ratio fell .15 points and his HR/9 ratio fell .09 points, but he dropped his BB/9 ratio from 3.74 in 2005 to 1.71 in 2006. If Capuano can continue walking batters half as often as he used to, he should be able to continue posting ERA’s under 4 for Milwaukee and should be able to improve on what he did last year. That will give Milwaukee a relatively solid #2 starter to slot right behind Sheets.

Free agent Jeff Suppan’s decision to sign with Milwaukee was one of the most surprising of the offseason to me. I didn’t hear Milwaukee’s name in any of the rumours and I assumed Suppan would end up back in St. Louis, but Milwaukee persuaded him to leave the World Series Champions with a 4-year offer worth $42 million, which includes a full no-trade clause for the first two years and limited no-trade protection after that. Some have criticized that contract as a lot of money for a #4 starter, which is what some analysts, like Keith Law, called Suppan. However, since 1999 Suppan has only had one year where his ERA+ wasn’t under 100. In 2002 he had a 97 ERA+ with KC, which followed three years where he had ERA+’s 109, 112 and 103. After that Suppan split a season between Pittsburgh and Boston and although he was left off Boston’s postseason roster, he finished the year with an ERA+ of 105. Suppan spent the last three years in St Louis with ERA+’s of 100, 120 and 107. The 2006 NLCS MVP may not be the flashiest pitcher, but it’s hard to argue with 8 years of 30+ starts and 7 out of 8 years of ERA+’s over 100.

Suppan never has put up great ratios, as he has a career 5.06 K/9 ratio and a 2.95 BB/9 ratio. Last year the ratios fell to 4.93 and 3.27, which is the worst they’ve been in the last 3 years. In that sense, it’s tough to tell what to expect from Suppan, as he has a small margin for error. I don’t know if I’d want to commit 4 years to him, but he’s been successful for so long with his game that I wouldn’t bet against him until he actually has a bad year. If the Brewers felt they had a choice between resigning the 30-year-old Doug Davis or signing the 31-year-old Suppan, I’d have gone with Suppan, too.

Dave Bush, former Blue Jay and friend of the Box, should be Milwaukee’s fourth starter. Bush made 34 starts for the 2006 Brewers and put up a 12-11 record with a 4.41 ERA. The Pittsburgh native had a 102 ERA+ on the year and demonstrated what many thought about him when he was traded – that he can become an average big league starter. His durability was not a huge issue either, as he had an average of 6.36 innings per start. Bush also found himself on some more obscure NL leader boards. He ranked second in the NL in hits batsmen, as he hit 18 on the year. He ranked 4th in the AL in 2005, despite spending a month or so in Syracuse. Also, and something I had no idea about, Bush tied with Roy Oswalt to lead the NL in K/BB ratio. That’s pretty impressive; he did it with 166 strikeouts and only 38 walks. The rest of the leader board reads like a Who’s Who of many of the NL’s best pitchers as the other pitchers in the Top 10 are: Chris Carpenter, Jon Lieber, Aaron Harang, John Smoltz, Capuano, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux. That is elite company and I would say that’s a good predictor of future success, although Bush’s high number of hit batsmen means his actual rate of baserunners allowed is not that impressive. He’s another member of the rotation who it would not be surprising to see take a step forward, as you could easily see him posting an ERA in the low 4’s.

Last year Tomo Okha made 18 starts for the Brewers out of the 5-hole and seven other starters made starts for the team, filling in for an injured Sheets or Okha. The other seven starters were Carlos Villanueva, Rick Helling, Jorge de la Rosa, Dana Eveland, Ben Hendrickson and two players with connections to the Blue Jays: Geremi Gonzalez and Zach Jackson. Only three of those names are returning to camp this year: Hendrickson, Jackson and Villanueva. Eveland, who was one of the better lefties in the high minors, struggled during two separate stints with the Brewers and there are rumours the front office tired of his weight issues. Whatever the case, Eveland was included in the Doug Davis-Johnny Estrada trade. The three returning players are battling Claudio Vargas for the fifth spot. Vargas had a 4.83 ERA in 31 starts, which looks pretty decent for the five hole until one sees his 167.2 innings and calculates his 5.39 innings per start. Vargas got $2.5 million/1-year deal from Milwaukee and is the favourite for the 5 hole even with his inability to go deep into games consistently. However, if they did choose to cut him, Villanueva, Jackson, Hendrickson and prospect Yovani Gallardo are in the mix. Gallardo’s almost certainly a year away still, so Villanueva is probably the leading candidate for a callup, followed by Jackson and Hendrickson. I’d be surprised if Villanueva and Jackson didn’t pitch in the majors this year. Hendrickson was once thought of very highly in some circles, but he’s really struggled in his two stints in the majors. He’s also pitched worse in Triple-A the last two years than he did in his first year. He’s still got potential, but the Brewers seem unwilling to give him any extended stay in the majors and one wonders whether they’ve just written him out of their plans. He’s out of options and might be dealt in spring training. Perhaps they’ll try to package him with one of their excess outfielders, such as Mench or Clark.

Francisco Cordero found his way to Milwaukee during the trading-deadline deal that saw Carlos Lee end up in Texas. Cordero was outspoken about the trade after the season, saying “Texas made a lot of stupid changes” including the fact they lost Lee in free agency and thus Milwaukee acquired him, Mench and Nix for basically nothing. Cordero turned around what had been a miserable year in Texas and put up a 1.69 ERA in 26.2 innings with the BrewCrew. With 16 walks in 26.2 innings, Cordero isn’t quite as accurate as one’d like. He throws hard so there’s the possibility that he’ll have a spectacular year, but it seems unlikely that Cordero will ever be one of the best closers in the NL. However, there’s no reason he shouldn’t become a good closer in Milwaukee. There’s a lot to be said for this when one looks at the difficulties Atlanta, the Cubs and the Brewers, among others, had with their bullpen last year.

The Brewers 2006 closer was supposed to be Derrick Turnbow, but he had a year to forget. I predicted Turnbow wouldn’t live up to his 2005 line, but I also never expected a 6.87 ERA. He did record 24 saves, but with a 6.87 ERA and an ERA+ of 65, I expect Turnbow to get a spot in the bullpen for 2007 based on his 2005, but he won’t be the closer and I imagine the Brewers will pitch him in low-pressure middle relief situations to help him get his confidence back and to see if he can regain his old form. At least Turnbow can always say he had his own Bobblehead Day during a year when he put up a 6.87 ERA, which rivals Mike Williams’ “I was an All-Star with a 6.14 ERA” boasts.

Matt Wise will find a spot in the bullpen, as he had a 3.86 ERA in 2006 and a 3.26 ERA in 2005. Wise appears to have found a role with Milwaukee, although he had a noticeable drop in strikeouts in 2006. Jose Capellan is another name who will have a role in Milwaukee’s 2007 pen. Capellan had a 4.40 ERA over 71.2 innings with the Brewers last year. He or Wise might serve as the primary setup man if the Brewers want to work Turnbow back in low-pressure situations. Capellan’s a young powerful arm who could eventually serve as Milwaukee’s closer once Cordero moves onto greener pastures. That’s a pretty good return for salvaging Danny Kolb off the scrap heap.

With Jorge de la Rosa gone, Brian Shouse was brought in to be the team’s main lefthander. Shouse came over in mid-2006 in a deal for Enrique Cruz and put up a 3.97 ERA over the rest of the year. Shouse, who carved out a big league career in his mid-30’s, will be 38 this year, so there’s no guarantee of his effectiveness, especially considering the volatility of relievers. However, Manny Parra is the only other left-hander on the 40-man roster besides Shouse, Jackson and Capuano. Parra’s a minor-league starter who split last year between A and Double-A and he could pitch in relief at some point this year, but I’m sure Milwaukee would like him to stick to starting in Double-A Huntsville to begin 2007. So, Shouse is all but a lock to make the team.

That gives Milwaukee 5 relievers who are near certainties to start 2007 with the Brewers and leaves probably two spots up for grabs. Candidates for these spots include Grant Balfour, Greg Aquino, Dennis Sarafate and some non-roster invitees, including Luther Hackman, Canadian Mike Meyers, former Toronto farmhand and Canadian Vince Perkins, Chris Oxspring, Alec Zumwalt and, someone who I’m personally rooting hard for, Corey Thurman. Aquino has a career 4.89 ERA over 115 big league innings with Arizona and should get a good chance to make Milwaukee’s pen. If we assume he’ll claim a spot, that leaves one leftover.

If healthy, Balfour would be a leading candidate for the final spots, as he has a career 4.63 ERA in 68 big league innings. However, Balfour missed all of 2005 with injury and barely pitched in the low minors last year with Cincinnati. Milwaukee was intrigued enough to give him a spot on the 40-man roster. Depending on how Balfour’s recovery goes we might see him in Wisconsin later in the year, but to begin the year he’ll likely go back to the minors.

I always like to see Canadians get to the majors and Meyers has been pitching in Triple-A since 2000, although he posted his best ERA last year with a 3.43 ERA over 65 innings. However, his H/9 was noticeably out of line with his career average and he shouldn’t be expected to duplicate that. Hackman, who had spells in the majors with Colorado, St. Louis and San Diego, was signed from the independent leagues last year by Milwaukee and might be a leading candidate for the last spot. Oxspring, who won a silver medal with Australia at the Athens Olympics, might also get a look. Alternatively, Milwaukee might have Villaneuva pitch out of the bullpen if they want to keep him on the team, as it's been reported they were very impressed by him during his time in the majors in 2006.

Mike Green astutely summarized my long 2005 preview by saying, “If all goes well for the Brewers, they can compete in 06. For now, the players to watch are Hendrickson, Capellan, Fielder, Weeks and Hardy.” All didn’t go well for the Brewers, but they are looking to compete in 2007, and if not 2008-2009. Mike was right on when he listed the players to watch and two years later, little has changed. They still need to watch Weeks to see if he can overcome his defensive difficulties at second base. They still need to watch Hardy to see if he can stay healthy and put up decent offensive numbers. They need to watch Capellan to see if he can turn into an ace reliever like they hope he can. They don’t need to worry about Fielder anymore and I would say Hendrickson’s not a big concern of theirs. Instead, they’re likely watching the development of Hart and Braun closely.

Milwaukee is tired of being an also-ran and I suspect Yost will be fired if they do not finish above .500. They want to contend now, but they also have to begin to decide whether their young players are long-term solutions or not. There’s a lot of optimism in Milwaukee with the Cardinals offseason (lack of) moves and Houston’s loss of Pettitte and Clemens. There’s an opening in the NL Central and while it may not be the most likely outcome, there’s some people who think Milwaukee is well positioned to fill the void.

I don’t know if they’ll make the playoffs this year, but the division’s strongest rotation and Fielder’s all-star year will propel them to 85 wins.