Fielding and road woes might derail Brewers

Jul 26 2011 - 5:34pm

SAN FRANCISCO -- Can a team with this many flaws make it to the playoffs?

That's a legitimate question regarding the Milwaukee Brewers, who have remained in the thick of a tepid National League Central race despite several glaring shortcomings.

Yes, the Brewers have plenty going for them, including an improved starting rotation, the one-two punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, an all-star season by second baseman Rickie Weeks and now the bullpen combination of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to close games.

But they also have significant problem areas. The left side of the infield, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and third baseman Casey McGehee, has underachieved offensively and defensively though both players have shown more life of late.

There are also the team's season-long woes on the road, centered primarily on a lack of offense. The Brewers have been shut out 10 times away from Miller Park, an outrageously high number for a club that has been an offensive force at home.

Perhaps most daunting, in terms of making the postseason, is the Brewers' substandard defense. They have become progressively worse in the field, sinking to a No. 14 ranking among the 16 NL clubs, and that doesn't count the high number of plays they haven't made that were not ruled errors.

The only worse teams defensively in the league are Houston and Chicago, and check out their won-loss records.

McGehee, Weeks and Fielder have the most errors of any players at their positions in the league, and Betancourt isn't far off the lead at short. After making only four errors at first base in 2010, Fielder has committed 11 this season, an alarming number at that position.

Win or lose, the Brewers continue to put pressure on their pitchers by forcing them to record more than three outs per inning too often. Entering Friday, the Brewers had allowed 46 unearned runs, tied with San Diego and Chicago for second-most in the league.

Asked about his club's defense, manager Ron Roenicke protected his players by saying, "You guys probably think the defense is worse than I do. There are probably two or three teams in the big leagues that have a really good defense. That's it.

"I don't feel we're way below average. Stats don't give you the whole picture. If you look at certain positions, you may say we're definitely below average. But if you look at the whole picture, I don't think we're below average. We've got a plus outfield."

The Brewers also lead the league with 46 wild pitches, a burden the catchers must share. Opponents have been successful in 67 of 89 (75 percent) of stolen bases, a number driven down because pickoffs go down as "caught stealing" if they keep running.

"Stolen bases and wild pitches have a lot to do with the pitching," said Roenicke. "I think we spike a lot of balls (in front of the plate). The catcher doesn't have time to get to them."

Which brings us to the bottom-line question: Can the Brewers make it to the playoffs with this defense?

"Yeah," said Roenicke, who quickly added, "you've got to have good pitching and got to have good offense."

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Needing a bat man

If the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates are going to hang in the up-for-grabs NL Central race, they're probably going to need to pick up a hitter before the trade deadline. They entered Friday averaging 3.89 runs per game, ranking 11th among the 16 NL clubs.

The Buccos were 12th in batting average (.245) and on-base percentage (.312) and 15th in slugging (.362). If not for a much-improved pitching staff, their title hopes would have faded long ago.

In taking two of three games from Cincinnati last week, the Pirates scored a total of only four runs.

"Right now, our front office is making connections everywhere to see if there's interest," said Clint Hurdle, a leading candidate for NL manager of the year. "I think it's a hot topic outside the clubhouse. I think everybody's got an opinion.

"We are looking for every way possible to strengthen the ballclub offensively. Some of those are internal. Some are external."

Pittsburgh has been linked in trade rumors to numerous outfielders. Ownership probably won't allow general manager Neal Huntington to add the $7 million remaining on the contract of the New York Mets' Carlos Beltran .

"We have missed the big hit," Hurdle said. "You give people at-bats, and there's some who perform above your expectations, some who are right where you thought they'd be, and we've got some guys who really aren't providing what we thought.

"It's challenging at times. We know what we have. We don't have much room for error as far as execution."

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Sticking it out

The Chicago Cubs are getting calls about third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who has been one of the few productive players during a disastrous season.

Unfortunately for lame-duck general manager Jim Hendry, Ramirez has 10-and-5 rights -- at least 10 years in the majors with at least five on his current club -- which gives him the right to block any deal. And Ramirez says he will do so.

"I'm at the same point that I was at two weeks ago, three weeks ago," Ramirez said recently. "Right now I'm not interested in a trade."

Ramirez could change his mind after the July 31 deadline, as former Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee did last August when he was dealt to Atlanta. Before the deadline, Lee turned down a chance to go to the Los Angeles Angels.

Ramirez said his primary reason for wanting to stay is family-oriented.

"If I were to be single, by myself, yeah, I'd move anywhere and be in a hotel the last two months," he said. "But it's too tough with my family. I've earned the right to be in this position."

Yes, you have. But even rats eventually jump from a sinking ship.

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The swing shift

Adam Dunn has become a very expensive platoon player. The Chicago White Sox's left-handed designated hitter, who signed a four-year, $56 million free-agent deal last winter, no longer starts against lefties.

Manager Ozzie Guillen made that decision after Dunn went 2 for 64 off southpaws this season.

"Everything is in his favor," Guillen said. "The only thing that's not in his favor is he's not producing. How will he come out of this? Keep playing. He has to do it for himself.

"We can't do anything about it. We have to play him and hope it all works out for the best. There aren't many options. If I keep seeing him struggle, I'll give him more breaks here and there to make sure he's mentally fine. The only way to come out of it is to keep playing."

Dunn believes he fell into a funk by being too aggressive and anxious to justify his deal. Pitchers saw that and fed him a steady diet of off-speed pitches.

"And that's not my game," Dunn said. "Everything is there except me swinging at bad pitches. I'm working the count, usually putting myself in usually good hitters' counts but not making them pay."

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An uncertain future

We know the Florida Marlins are moving into a long-overdue retractable-roof stadium next year. And we know the team's name will change to the Miami Marlins.

But who will lead the club into that new era? It's doubtful that 80-year-old Jack McKeon will be retained, but you never know with owner Jeffrey Loria, who is believed to covet the White Sox's Guillen.

Loria said the Marlins underachieved and were uninspired by former manager Edwin Rodriguez and dismissed hitting coach John Mallee and vowed not to let that happen again. He hasn't ruled out McKeon returning, saying he is "brilliant" and doesn't care if he is "180 years old."

"I'm not going to allow a repeat of what happened this year," Loria recently told reporters. "It was all done with good intentions, but I think experience is important, especially in the clubhouse and on the coaching staff.

"They weren't doing the things baseball teams are supposed to be doing. This is a gifted, gifted bunch of players. I don't want to say I saw it coming. We were winning in interesting ways, but we weren't doing what we're capable of doing, what we're doing now."

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Cooperstown calls

On Sunday, former pitcher Bert Blyleven, second baseman Roberto Alomar and longtime executive Pat Gillick will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. It was a long time coming for Blyleven, who had to wait until his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot.

Alomar's wait was much shorter. He was elected in his second chance and enters with a general manager, Gillick, with whom he had a strong connection.

As Toronto's general manager, Gillick worked with San Diego GM Joe McIlvaine on a blockbuster deal that sent Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter to the Blue Jays for shortstop Tony Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff. Alomar developed into a perennial all-star with the Blue Jays, and Carter socked the homer that won the 1993 World Series.

"That was a quick deal," said Gillick, who completed the deal with McIlvaine at the winter meetings in Chicago. I was looking for a right-handed hitter and was interested in Carter. Joe said he wanted McGriff.

"There was an age difference there. I asked him if he'd throw in Alomar. He said, 'If I throw in Alomar, will you throw in Fernandez?' I said, 'Let me think about it. I'll get back to you in a couple of hours.' "

And, thus, the deal was done. It was genius on Gillick's part to ask for Alomar, and now the two will go into the Hall of Fame together.

"He was pretty spectacular, both offensively and defensively," said Gillick, the first GM entering Cooperstown since the Yankees' George Weiss 40 years ago.

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AROUND THE BASES

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

MLB: Los Angeles Angels RHP Jered Weaver

Weaver pitched seven-plus innings of shutout ball Thursday in a 1-0 victory over Texas to boost his record to 13-4 with an incredible 1.81 ERA. It's the lowest-ever ERA through 21 starts in club history and Weaver has allowed fewer than three runs in each of his last seven outings.

BREWERS: CF Nyjer Morgan

The high-energy Morgan took a career-best 11-game hitting streak into Friday, during which he was batting .366 (15 for 41). He had recorded a hit in 16 of his last 17 games, boosting his overall average to .333.

BREWERS THIS WEEK

The Brewers return from their longest trip of the season for a welcomed day off Monday. They begin a nine-game home stand Tuesday against the woeful Chicago Cubs, followed by the even more woeful Houston Astros. The home stand wraps up with St. Louis.

DID YOU KNOW?

If the Houston Astros go on to lose 100 games this season -- and they are well on their way -- it would leave the Los Angeles Angels as the only major-league club without a 100-loss season.

YOU FIGURE IT OUT

When you ask Chris Hatcher about his major-league debut, you need to be specific. Are you talking about his 2010 debut as a catcher or his 2011 debut as a pitcher?

That's right. The Marlins' Hatcher became the first major-leaguer since Art Doll in 1935-'36 to make his debut as a catcher one season and return as a pitcher the next. He pitched a perfect eighth inning last Saturday in a 13-3 rout of the Cubs, including a strikeout of Kosuke Fukudome.

"Where else to do it? Wrigley Field," Hatcher said. "To be able to come in and throw the ball well and get three outs is what every pitcher dreams of."

The pitching debut was short-lived as Hatcher was optioned back to Class AA Jacksonville the next day to allow the Marlins to activate right-hander Clay Hensley from the DL. But Hatcher won't soon forget the experience.

"I got out there and home plate looked like it was about 20 feet away," he said. "That kind of knocked the nerves down. I was probably more anxious than anything."

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