- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHOENIX -- The Milwaukee Brewers might not be "America's team" just yet, but they're a huge hit at local synagogues. That's a given for a club with two players, Ryan Braun and Gabe Kapler, who go by the nickname "Hebrew Hammer."
Hey, if Wikipedia confirms it, it must be true.
The Brewers were on their way to becoming a national story last year when they were done in by inferior defense, underperforming veterans and a failure to win on the road. Their 83 victories were the franchise's highest total since 1992, but after leading the National League Central by 8½ games on June 23, they were left with a nagging sense that they'd blown a major opportunity. To the Cubs, no less.
There's plenty of optimism in Milwaukee's camp this spring, but a lot of elements have to mesh. Closer Francisco Cordero left to sign a $46 million contract with Cincinnati, and general manager Doug Melvin rebuilt the bullpen. The Brewers signed Mike Cameron to play center field, which means Bill Hall will shift from center to third base and Braun, in turn, will move from third base to left field.
The starting rotation, a potential team strength, also suffered a minor setback in the first week of spring training when Yovani Gallardo underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
So questions abound for manager Ned Yost. Here are five that could determine whether the young Brewers will be serious contenders or will fall into the "not quite" category again in 2008.
1. How many starters will be enough?
Like their Midwest neighbors, the Cubs, the Brewers need to sort through an abundance of pitching options in Arizona. When the Brewers arrived in camp, Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan and Gallardo were locks for the Opening Day rotation, and David Bush, coming off two straight 12-win seasons, was pretty darned close.
Gallardo isn't expected to return until mid-March, but the Brewers still think he might be ready to slot into the back end of the rotation in April.
So where does that leave Chris Capuano, Carlos Villanueva, Claudio Vargas and Manny Parra? It appears likely that Parra will begin the season with Triple-A Nashville. Villanueva, who pitched so impressively in 2007, could win a starting spot, move to the bullpen or begin the season in the minors.
Capuano or Vargas might be trade bait if they pitch well this spring. Curt Schilling and Kelvim Escobar already have gone down with injuries, and there's no telling which other clubs might give Melvin a call if their rotations spring leaks in the next few weeks.
In keeping with tradition, the Brewers are cautiously optimistic about Sheets. From 2002 through 2004, Sheets averaged 225 innings per season. The past three years, he has averaged 135. Can he finally stay healthy? He hears that question almost as often as Mark Prior and Rich Harden do.
On a positive note, pitching coach Mike Maddux said that Sheets "found" his mechanics last year before suffering a pulled hamstring in mid-September.
"He looks very motivated," Maddux said.
2. What will life be like after Cordero?
Now that Cordero has departed for Cincinnati, Eric Gagne will try to fill the void. Will he be the Gagne who converted 16 of 17 save opportunities in Texas, or the guy who was nearly run out of Boston during the stretch drive?
Various explanations have been offered for Gagne's free fall with the Red Sox. Did he try too hard to impress in Boston and overthrow as a result? Could his problems be traced to an inability to adjust to a set-up role? That was agent Scott Boras' explanation, although it sounded kind of lame.
More likely, Gagne simply hit a wall after a series of health problems. Gagne underwent two elbow operations and a back surgery in a span of 13 months in 2005 and 2006, and last year was essentially a rehab season.
"When you run out of gas, you run out of gas," Maddux said.
Melvin has been criticized for extravagance in giving Gagne $10 million, but he preferred that option to a two-year, $16 million deal. And the PR got worse when Gagne's name appeared in the Mitchell report for alleged use of performance enhancers. For what it's worth, the Brewers scouted Gagne extensively and talked to management in Texas and Boston before signing him, and they insist they're comfortable with the decision.
"The character references we got were phenomenal in both places," Maddux said.
The Brewers blew a major-league-high 16 leads of three or more runs last season, and they've stocked up on veteran middle guys in an effort to avoid a repeat. They signed David Riske to a three-year deal and picked up Salomon Torres and frequently maligned Guillermo Mota on one-year contracts.
Set-up man Derrick Turnbow ultimately will play a huge role this season. Turnbow tied for third in the National League in "holds" last season behind Brandon Lyon and Heath Bell, and some of his underlying numbers were stunning. He averaged 11.12 strikeouts per nine innings, and the league hit .183 against him.
"The hitters are not real comfortable on him, and when he's ahead in the count, he has the ability to put you away real quick," Maddux said.
When Turnbow comes in missing the strike zone, though, he has the ability to make the Milwaukee dugout squirm. A lot.
3. How's Braun faring in his transition to the outfield?
Quite well, thank you. Braun was so anxious to hit the ground running that he spent the winter at Pepperdine University chasing down fly balls off the bat of his agent, Nez Balelo. Since his arrival in Arizona, he has come out early each morning to work on the finer points of outfield play with coaches Ed Sedar and Reid Nichols.
"I feel surprisingly comfortable," Braun said. "I think I'm already better in left field than I was at third base."
Braun won the NL Rookie of the Year award despite committing 26 errors in 112 games at third base. A few years ago, when the Brewers came in expecting to lose 90 games, management might have stuck with him at third and allowed him to take his lumps. But expectations are higher now, and the Brewers no longer have that luxury.
Braun appears to have the speed, arm and athleticism to make the transition to the outfield. Sedar's early lessons have focused primarily on footwork -- about being ready to go in "eight different directions," rather than side to side, as in the infield.
Braun is learning to run more on the balls of his feet or with a slight bend in his knee so his head doesn't bob so much. And although Braun's arm is strong, Sedar is stressing the importance of leaving the machismo at home and exercising prudence when he throws.
"The secondary runner always causes the problems," Sedar said. "Even on a perfect throw, you have a very minute chance of throwing a runner out at the plate. We're trying to instill in him that we'd rather have him be strong-minded than strong-armed."
Braun isn't the only Brewer moving to the outfield this spring. Matt LaPorta, Milwaukee's first-round pick out of the University of Florida in 2007, is shifting to left field from first base. At least he'll have the luxury of doing it for Class A Brevard County or Double-A Huntsville, though.
"We've got to get away from moving guys at the big league level," Melvin said.
4. What's up in center field?
Cameron paid a price after testing positive twice for banned stimulants. At one point, it appeared likely that he'd sign an Eric Byrnes-like deal for three years and at least $10 million annually. In the end, Cameron landed in the Brewers' laps for one year at $7 million. And now he'll have to sit out the first 25 games of the regular season.
Cameron will play in the Cactus League and join the Brewers for two spring training games with Kansas City at Miller Park on the final weekend before the season opener. Then he'll return to Arizona for extended spring training before joining Triple-A Nashville for a five-game tune-up.
"I don't know how it's going to be," Cameron said. "I'll just take it as being like I'm hurt, I guess. But I won't be hurt, physically."
The suspension put a dent in Cameron's reputation as a solid-gold citizen, but the Brewers expect him to be a positive influence on a young roster. When Cameron played for Cincinnati in 1999, he remembers Barry Larkin and Greg Vaughn setting the tone in the clubhouse. Now, Cameron and Jason Kendall will fill the role of calming influences in Milwaukee.
While Cameron is serving his suspension, Tony Gwynn Jr., Gabe Gross and Kapler will divvy up the at-bats in center field. If the Brewers get off to a fast start or Gwynn goes on an early tear, Yost might have a decision to make. But the job ultimately belongs to Cameron for his defense alone. The presence of a three-time Gold Glove Award winner in center can only make life easier for Braun in his transition to left.
5. Is this Rickie Weeks' breakout year?
If B.J. Upton could break through in Tampa after years of position changes and organizational misuse, it might be time for Weeks to live up to his billing as the second overall pick in the 2003 draft.
After three years of wrist and thumb injuries, Weeks finally showed what he can do when able to grip a bat without pain. He posted a .442 on-base percentage after Aug. 10 last season, and ranked fourth in the major leagues in walks behind Jack Cust, Carlos Pena and Adam Dunn in that span.
Weeks will never be a defensive dynamo at second base. But he still has that Baby Sheff waggle and enough natural ability to make an All-Star team with his offense. That's why Melvin turned down a Weeks-for-Chad Cordero trade offer from Washington while the Brewers were still looking for a closer.
"With his strength and his bat speed, you just don't see any weaknesses for a pitcher to go after," Braun said. "He's fun to watch."
Will the young Brewers be serious contenders or fall into the "not quite" category again in 2008? Players such as Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks will play a big role in determining that.