The news that Zack Greinke hurt his ribs playing basketball evokes memories of Aaron Boone, whose hoops-induced, season-ending knee injury in 2004 prompted the Yankees to acquire Alex Rodriguez.
I’ve got a more recent and ominous parallel: Cliff Lee.
A year ago the Mariners were drawing praise for their offseason makeover, just as the Brewers are this spring. Then Lee suffered a right lower abdominal strain in mid-March and remained out until April 30. The Mariners still were in contention when he returned, but unraveled in May and ended up losing 101 games.
The Brewers are not going to collapse in such fashion. In fact, they are likely to contend even though they will be without Greinke for at least three starts. But all winter I’ve wondered if the Brew Crew are the Mariners of 2011, overrated by fans and media after a series of impressive moves, better on paper than in reality.
I’m still wondering.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin did a better job in the offseason than Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-10; Zduriencik acquired Lee, third baseman Chone Figgins and outfielder Milton Bradley, but left his club with too little offense.
In truth, not even big spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox can patch every hole, and mid-revenue clubs such as the Brewers often are decidedly imperfect. Melvin fixed his starting rotation without compromising his offense, a nifty trick. But the additions of Greinke and righty Shaun Marcum cannot mask every flaw.
Here are the problems, in no particular order:
The issue will surface immediately, thanks to Greinke’s injury. And a full-blown crisis is possible if something happens to one of the Brewers’ other starters: Marcum, right-hander Yovani Gallardo and left-handers Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson.
“If you look at our current starting pitching, the five guys we have to start the season are tremendous,” left fielder Ryan Braun said before learning of Greinke’s injury. “But if you look after that, we don’t have a lot of proven depth.”
Melvin said the team would look within for Greinke’s temporary replacement. The only way the Brewers would want a pitcher from the outside is if that pitcher had minor-league options remaining and could be easily demoted.
The leading internal candidates, as listed by Melvin, come with questions.
Right-hander Mark Rogers, a former No. 1 pick who missed all of 2007 and ’08 while recovering from two shoulder surgeries, experienced shoulder stiffness early in camp. Righty Amaury Rivas is dealing with a tooth infection, while righty Wily Peralta has thrown only 42 innings above Class A and issues too many walks.
No question the Brewers can slug — they ranked third in the NL in runs in 2009 and fourth last season. But according to advanced metrics, their best offensive players are below-average defenders.
The infield — first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and third baseman Casey McGehee — is a particular concern.
McGehee at least figures to show better range after undergoing a cleanup on his right knee in October. The Brewers want Betancourt, a whipping boy of sabermetricians for both his offense and defense, to be more aggressive going after balls; new manager Ron Roenicke says Betancourt tends to lay back and rely on his hands and arm.
Center fielder Carlos Gomez is an excellent defender. Braun showed improvement in left last season. Corey Hart regressed in right and is out with an oblique injury.
“I don’t see the bad defensive team I heard about,” Roenicke says.
Well, the Brewers last season ranked next to last in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs.
They don’t figure to be much better, if at all.
Bottom of the lineup
Gomez produced a whopping career-high .298 on-base percentage last season. Betancourt was at .288 even as he produced 16 homers and 78 RBIs for the Royals. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, recovering from pinkie surgery, had a .300 OBP in 297 plate appearances as a rookie, though he has hit well in the minors.
On the bright side, Betancourt might not be worse than the player he replaced, Alcides Escobar. And Roenicke actually is excited about Gomez, who is trying to stay up the middle with his approach.
Hitting coach Dale Sveum told Roenicke that Gomez got to a point last season when he said, “I’m tired of doing this.” The trick for Gomez will be to lay off sliders down and away, but Roenicke believes that after more than 1,400 major-league plate appearances, Gomez might actually come around.
“This is the best I’ve seen him,” Roenicke says.
The Brewers don’t view it as a problem. I’m not so sure.
Closer John Axford was a terrific story last season, but his walk rate is high and one scout describes his delivery as “awkward.” Lefty Zack Braddock, another hot 2010 rookie, is struggling this spring. Righty LaTroy Hawkins is trying to bounce back from shoulder trouble, and righty Takashi Saito, while quite effective when healthy, is 41.
Melvin rattles off a number of other names: righties Mike McClendon, Brandon Kintzler, Kameron Loe and Sean Green, lefty Mitch Stetter. The depth is encouraging. But the Brewers, like many clubs, might spend the entire season trying to make the pieces fit.
Listen, I’m not trying to pick on the Brew Crew; Fielder’s final season before free agency could prove memorable for the franchise. The Cardinals took a major hit when they lost right-hander Adam Wainwright to a season-ending elbow injury. The Cubs’ early defensive lapses are alarming. The Reds look like clear favorites, but it’s not as if they’re invincible.
I can see the other side of this — Greinke making a quick return, the bullpen becoming a strength instead of a weakness, Fielder, Braun and Co. going nuts offensively. But I remember how excited so many people were about the Mariners last spring. And I cringe, fearing the expectations for the Brewers are just too high.
Raves for Roenicke
Liberated from the unpopular Ken Macha, the Brewers are at the “Kumbaya” stage with their new manager, Ron Roenicke.
Everything always is rosy until the first five-game losing streak, but Roenicke’s thoughtful, organized approach and excellent communication skills indeed could set him apart.
“All the guys are relaxed around him,” says Hawkins, a 16-year veteran. “He has a professional personality. He puts everyone at ease.
“It’s not like you can’t come up and talk to him. You can always talk to him. He is open to everything — everything. And guys appreciate it.”
Roenicke, like the Rays’ Joe Maddon and Padres’ Bud Black, came from Mike Scioscia’s Angels coaching staff. However, Hawkins drew a surprising comparison to one of his former managers, the Twins’ Tom Kelly.
“His preparation reminds me of Tom Kelly. What he expects out of the team reminds me a lot of Tom Kelly — a lot,” Hawkins said.
Wasn’t Kelly a lot tougher than Roenicke, who is decidedly mild-mannered?
“Yep. He sure was,” Hawkins said. “(Roenicke) is easygoing, but he has those qualities. He can get you to do things. And you want to do those things because he’s such a nice guy.”
Players often take advantage of such managers, but Roenicke said his relaxed demeanor should not be misinterpreted.
“I’m trying to do it the way I think a manager should do things in communicating with the players,” Roenicke said. “I’m trying to do things for them that will give them the best opportunity to succeed.
“There are times when I’m not just going to be all buddy-buddy with them. And they’ll know that. But first off, I’ve got to get to know them. I want to know their personalities, things about their family. I want to know what they’re all about.
“It makes my job easier if I know more about who they are. I treat them the way they want to be treated. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to have rules and can just do whatever they want. That has nothing to do with it.
“I really believe there should be a structure to it, that they should definitely do the things the coaching staff wants them to do. But I also want them to individually know that they can come to any of us if there is something they need to help them succeed.”