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Brewers a serious threat in NL Central

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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For anyone who wasn’t paying attention during the offseason, Milwaukee is serious about winning an NL Central title. General manager Doug Melvin, his future with the Brewers very much tied to how they finish this season, reinforced that determination during the All-Star break.

The man who was willing to mortgage a chunk of the future by packaging prime prospects during the winter to land right-handed starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and who held onto pending free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, created an All-Star break buzz by capitalizing on the financial mess of the New York Mets and adding Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers’ bullpen.

John Axford is the closer in Milwaukee, which means Rodriguez is going to have to handle more of a setup role. It will be interesting to see how he handles it from an ego and financial standpoint. It pretty well assures that the Brewers can exercise a $3.5 million buyout on his $17.5 million option for 2012 that vests only if Rodriguez finishes — i.e., is the pitcher when the opposing team records its final out — another 21 games.

More than anything though, the move shows that Melvin isn’t lulled into a false sense of security by the fact the Brewers overcame a slow start to share the division lead at the All-Star break with St. Louis.

After all, the Cardinals are where they are despite the loss of top of the rotation starter Adam Wainwright before the season began, the demise of closer Ryan Franklin that resulted in his release, and the fact that while Albert Pujols came back from a broken wrist four weeks early, there is concern about how he will perform in the second half with free agency looming and potential lingering problems with his wrist.

The other contenders in the NL Central have their areas of concern, as well. Pittsburgh has a winning record at the All-Star break for the first time since 1992, and its pitching depth will be challenged as the season winds down. Cincinnati has struggled finding enough starting pitching to defend last year’s division title.

What all four NL Central contenders have in common is none has a budget surplus for in-season shopping. That’s why Melvin moved quickly to pick up Rodriguez, whose salary for this year is being picked up by the Mets, which means the Brewers are liable only for the $3.5 million buyout. That can be pushed into the 2012 budget.

KEYS TO SECOND HALF

The fact Pujols is hitting .280 with 18 home runs and 50 RBI and is being talked about as a disappointment underscores his offensive potential. The Cardinals have been able to hang in so far, and if Pujols goes on one of his white-hot streaks, they could pull away in the NL Central.

BREWERS ARE 'ALL IN'

Fresh off acquiring K-Rod, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin still looking to make moves.

Atlanta is more in line to be the NL East wild card — Philadelphia isn’t even enjoying a big-time offensive year and is still the dominant team in the NL — and manager Fredi Gonzalez, in his first year as the replacement to Bobby Cox, has shown the patience that is allowing prospects such as Freddie Freeman to flourish. Hitting just .226 with four home runs and 14 RBI on May 17, Freeman now finds himself a middle-of-the-lineup factor at .274 with 13 home runs and 43 RBI.

San Francisco is on course to take the first step in defending its World Series championship — winning the NL West — thanks to a pitching staff that remains the one by which all others can be judged. But even with the strong arms, the Giants do need an occasional run or two; that’s where Pablo Sandoval enters the conversation. A major disappointment a year ago, Sandoval was intent on getting himself in shape and proving he is a legit big leaguer this year. Sandoval not only went into the All-Star break with a 21-game hitting streak, but also had hit .338 in the past 17 games with 12 doubles, three home runs and 14 RBI. What’s more, the Giants’ attendance has been so strong there is room to add salary down the stretch.

Boston stumbled its way to a 2-10 start, but the Red Sox didn’t take long in getting things headed in the right direction. Offseason addition Adrian Gonzalez had no problem adjusting to the AL; in fact, he has seemed to enjoy the move from San Diego’s Petco Park to the hitting heaven of Fenway Park, carrying a .354 average, 29 doubles, 17 home runs and 77 RBI into the break.

Detroit rallied to take a half-game lead over Cleveland into the break, but now comes the real challenge for the Tigers, who haven’t advanced to the postseason since 2006, the year Jim Leyland took over as manager. More concerning is the second-half slides that have haunted the team the past four years. The Tigers are in first place for the third time in five years. They have been .500 or better before the break five years in a row. But in the past four years they have failed to have a winning second half, going a combined 134-162.

Texas has shown an amazing ability to keep off-field emotions in check when it takes the field, particularly Michael Young, who was basically traded to Colorado during the offseason, wound up not speaking with General Manager John Daniels, and then settled into his new role as the DH and wound up an All-Star.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

The New York Yankees can’t seem to keep a lineup on the field. They head into the second half with Alex Rodriguez having decided to have a torn meniscus in his knee repaired. The Yankees have enough swagger to at least claim the AL wild card but not the depth to do much more, which is a puzzle given that they have the biggest payroll in baseball.

POWER RANKINGS

See if your favorite team is pointed in the right direction this week.

The Chicago White Sox probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but they are because every year they are considered a legitimate contender in the AL Central. However, since the All-Star Break in 2006, they are a combined 405-410 — and that includes an AL Central title in 2008.

The Los Angeles Angels began to erode the day Tony Reagins took over as general manager and began undermining the scouting department. The team that seemed in line to dominate for a decade has decayed, and it hasn’t helped that major financial additions, such as Vernon Wells, were made without input from pro scouts.

The New York Mets have become a blemish for baseball due to ownership ties to the Madoff Ponzi scheme, which has created a major financial crush on a team that reached such a point of stagnation that the entire management team was tossed out during the offseason.

The Chicago Cubs are no longer lovable losers. They are a high-priced group of misfits, whose veteran stumbles have overshadowed the work of the scouting and farm departments, which have started to produce hope for the future with the likes of shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney.

The Colorado Rockies made no secret in the spring about expectations to claim the first NL West title in franchise history, but the three veterans of the rotation stumbled, and they arrived at the break with the eighth-worst record in their 19 years of existence. Aaron Cook opened on the disabled list. Jorge De La Rosa got off to a great start only to tear his left elbow ligament and undergo reconstructive surgery. And Ubaldo Jimenez tried to hide early-season injuries, much to blame for a 0-5 record and 5.86 ERA the first two months.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Arizona asked Manager Kirk Gibson to change the losing culture created by the Josh Byrnes regime, but nobody expected that Gibson and his proven coaching staff,  including former MVPs Don Baylor, Alan Trammell and Matt Williams, would get things turned around so quickly. With Justin Upton learning to respect the game and the powers of new general manager Kevin Towers in building a bullpen, the Diamondbacks have become San Francisco’s biggest concern in the NL West.

HALL'S FAIR

Ken Rosenthal says it's actually a good thing that nobody was voted into the HOF this year.

Pittsburgh made as good a hiring as any team could make, bringing in Clint Hurdle. Not only did he bring a personality and presence to the team, but he also brought a positive attitude. Hurdle has the Pirates talking about ways to win instead of coming up with excuses for losing.

St. Louis outfielder Lance Berkman and Colorado first baseman Todd Helton, who looked like they were at an end a year ago, focused on fitness and strength in the offseason and find themselves battling for NL Comeback Player of the Year. Neither has shown any sign of slowing down, either, which bodes well for the impacts they can have in the second half this year and all of next year.

ON THE MOVE

San Diego’s major rebuilding plan is not a quick fix. The Padres feel they can beef up a depleted farm system by dealing closer Heath Bell and outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

The Mets already dealt Rodriguez; they also would like to unload free-agent-in-waiting Carlos Beltran. The Giants are interested and have budget space to take on salary, but they aren’t looking to give up many prospects.

Cincinnati needs a veteran pitcher and is willing to give up the potential of a package built around Travis Wood if it can find the right arm, such as Jimenez from Colorado.

The Yankees need rotation help, and the Dodgers are willing to move Hiroki Kuroda.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Brewers, Yankees, Cubs, Mets, Cardinals, Padres, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Francisco Rodriguez, Jorge De La Rosa, Prince Fielder, Pablo Sandoval

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