Brewers-Getting Greinke

Springtime Storylines: Did the Brewers improve enough this offseason?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Is something abrew in Milwaukee?

The Big Question: Did the Brewers make enough improvements this offseason?

There was one clear winner this winter on the trade and free agent market: GM Theo Epstein and his Red Sox. But the Brewers, if we’re ranking teams based on how well they conducted the months of November through February, would come in a close second.

Milwaukee had plenty of offense last year, finishing seventh league-wide in team OPS, fifth in home runs and fifth in total bases, but their dreadful starting rotation killed any hope for a division title by the middle of the summer. Dave Bush was awful for most of his 32 outings, Manny Parra completely fell apart and Chris Narveson’s strong second half was weighed down by a horribly weak beginning.

One thing was clear as things began winding down for the Brewers last September: without an influx of high quality arms, the team wasn’t going to be any better in 2011.

So the front office responded. The Brewers had a need and they addressed it, snagging Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays in a crafty early-December trade and then adding Royals ace Zack Greinke a couple of weeks later. The Brewers sapped their farm system along the way and downgraded defensively at shortstop in moving from Alcides Escobar to Yuniesky Betancourt, but they finally formed a rotation that can sufficiently complement the production they have been getting — and should continue to get — at the plate.

Marcum was superb in the ever-tough American League East last season, registering a 3.64 ERA and striking out 164 batters across 195.1 innings. Then there’s Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner and holder of one of baseball’s best fastball-slider combos. Both should shine in the National League Central, where the designated hitter is still outlawed and where the Pirates and Astros frequent the schedule.

But is that going to be enough? Will Greinke be able to rally from his spring training rib injury and a relatively underwhelming 2010 campaign? Are the new potential aces going to make enough of a splash?

Maybe, but first place in the National League Central is not going to come guaranteed. Beyond speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez and maybe second baseman Rickie Weeks, the Brewers are not a strong defensive team. They’ll have to outperform expectations on that end to assist the revamped starting rotation and to capture the club’s first division crown since 1982.

So what else is going on?

  • The Brewers have basically acknowledged that they aren’t going to have the cash available to re-sign first baseman Prince Fielder when his contract runs out at the end of this season. They’ll try, sure, but even general manager Doug Melvin has admitted that the big man has probably priced himself out of the organization’s range. That means one last year with Prince and his explosive bat. It’s part of why they were so aggressive this winter in fielding a potential World Series contender.
  • Young reliever John Axford introduced himself to the baseball world in a big way last season. As Trevor Hoffman’s replacement at closer, the 27-year-old Ontario, Canada native turned in a 2.48 ERA and fanned 76 batters in 58 innings. He issued only 27 walks and closed the year with 24 saves. The Brewers are thinking that he will only improve in the ninth inning as a sophomore.
  • For right fielder Corey Hart, 2010 was a tale of two seasons. In the first half he compiled a .288/.349/.569 batting line, 21 home runs and 65 RBI, earning All-Star honors and landing a surprise invitation to All-Star weekend’s Home Run Derby. Unfortunately he couldn’t keep that pace all year and slugged just 10 home runs against an .802 OPS over his final 64 games while also missing time due to back and hamstring injuries. Was his early-season production a fluke and are the injury issues a sign of what’s to come? He’s already experienced oblique problems in camp this spring.
  • Writing a preview piece on the Brewers and failing to mention Ryan Braun’s name would be odd and we do enough odd things around these parts as it is, so let’s dish out the love where the love is due. A 27-year-old from the University of Miami, the big-bopping left fielder has averaged a ridiculous .307/.364/.554 batting line, 36 home runs, 42 doubles, 118 RBI and 18 stolen bases per season over his first four years of top-level ball. Between Braun, Fielder, Weeks, Hart and third baseman Casey McGehee, the heart of the Milwaukee batting order certainly carries some fire power.

So how are they gonna do?

As soon as the Greinke trade was made final in late December, the talk about a run at the National Central division title began. That chatter picked up furiously when Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright was diagnosed with a ligament injury in his throwing elbow and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The Reds are going to challenge again for first place, the Cubs have improved, and St. Louis can’t be completely counted out, but the Brewers are gunning for 90 wins this year and they have the pieces to get it done if their defense proves adequate. A rotation buoyed by Greinke, Marcum and Yovani Gallardo could be deadly come October.

Mets Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.

Blue Jays walk off Red Sox, 10-9, as Travis scores Martin

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TORONTO (AP) Devon Travis drove home Russell Martin with two out in the bottom of the ninth as the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the Boston Red Sox 10-9 on Saturday.

With the Blue Jays trailing 9-8 on a David Ortiz home run in the top of the inning, Boston closer Craig Kimbrel retired Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders. But Justin Smoak singled on a line drive to center, and with Ezequiel Carrera pinch running for Smoak, Martin drove in his third run of the day on a double to tie the game.

After Martin advanced to third on a wild pitch, Travis forced third baseman Travis Shaw to stretch to corral a shot, and though he tried to throw Travis out at first, his throw was dropped by Hanley Ramirez and Martin scored.

The walk-off win was Toronto’s second of the season, the first coming against Texas on May 3, and completes the series win over the Red Sox, snapping a two-series home losing skid.

Martin hit his third home run in four games with a solo shot over the right-field wall in the sixth inning, while Xander Bogaerts and Shaw both had home runs for the Red Sox.

Ortiz’s 13th home run of the season and league-leading 46 RBI had seemed to be enough for the Red Sox, who watched an 8-4 lead disintegrate in the eighth inning as the Blue Jays rallied to tie the score.

Reliever Gavin Floyd (2-3), who gave up Ortiz’s shot, got the win, while Kimbrel (0-2), on his 28th birthday, was tagged with the loss.

Bogaerts, who went 3-for-5 with three runs, extended his hitting streak to a career-high 21 games with a homer off the top of the left-center-field wall in the fourth inning. The streak is the second longest in the majors this year, behind teammate Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 29-game run, which ended Thursday.

Ramirez drove in three runs, while Dustin Pedroia had a pair of doubles and two RBIs as he extended his hitting streak against Toronto to 22 games.

Boston starter Rick Porcello gave up four runs on seven hits while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings.

Marcus Stroman tied his shortest outing of the season, also against Boston, surrendering seven runs on 11 hits while striking out five. He was chased in the fifth inning with one out.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: SS Troy Tulowitzki (right quad) was placed on the 15-day DL. Tulowitzki, who is batting just .204 this season with eight home runs and 23 RBIs, had sat out two games this week with the injury. Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are expected to split time at shortstop until the veteran returns. Toronto activated left-handed reliever Aaron Loup from the 15-day DL to take Tulowitzki’s place. Loup, who has yet to play this season, has been recovering from a forearm strain and just completed a rehab assignment with Triple-A Buffalo.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: LHP David Price (7-1, 5.34) returns to a happy hunting ground Sunday. The former Blue Jay makes his first start of the season at Rogers Centre, where he is 11-1 in 15 career starts with a 3.34 ERA.

Blue Jays: RHP R.A. Dickey (2-6, 4.60) is 0-5 in his last eight starts against the Red Sox. He is looking for his first win against them since going 4-0 in 2014.

Hendricks pitches 5-hitter, Cubs beat Phillies 4-1

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CHICAGO (AP) Kyle Hendricks pitched a five-hitter for his second career complete game, Dexter Fowler hit a leadoff homer and the Chicago Cubs beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 on Saturday.

Hendricks (3-4) struck out seven and walked none. He was in line for his second career shutout before giving up a run in the ninth.

Fowler sparked a two-run first against Jerad Eickhoff (2-7) with his sixth home run.

Jason Heyward had two doubles for Chicago, which has won four in a row. Ben Zobrist had two hits, including an RBI double, to extend his streak to 14 games.

The Phillies lost for the sixth time in eight games.

Philadelphia had just four hits before right fielder Heyward and second baseman Zobrist allowed Freddy Galvis‘ fly to drop between them for a leadoff double in the ninth.

Galvis scored from third when Ryan Howard struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt. The Cubs had a shift on with the lefty at the plate, allowing the runner to take a huge lead.

Catcher Miguel Montero looked him back, but Galvis took off for home as he threw to first on the strikeout, spoiling the shutout and drawing boos from the crowd. Hendricks then retired Cameron Rupp on a groundout.

Dominant in a rare win over struggling Atlanta in his previous start, Eickhoff came up short against the team with the best record in the majors. The right-hander went six innings, allowing four runs and eight hits while striking out seven and walking one.

The Cubs, tops in the majors in run differential, wasted no time grabbing the lead.

Fowler drove a 3-1 fastball just over the wall in left-center for his second leadoff homer this season and the 16th of his career. Heyward followed with a double and scored on a two-out double by Zobrist, who came in on a 22-for-50 tear.

The Cubs made it 3-0 in the third on back-to-back singles by Addison Russell and Hendricks and a double by Heyward. Hendricks got thrown out trying to score to end the inning, but the way he was pitching, it didn’t matter.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Phillies: Galvis came up limping in the sixth inning after Hendricks hit him in the right leg with a pitch. He walked gingerly to first and stayed in the game after being tended to by a trainer.

UP NEXT

RHP John Lackey (4-2, 3.38 ERA) goes for his first win in more than three weeks for Chicago while RHP Vince Velasquez (5-1, 2.75 ERA) tries to shake off his shortest outing of the season for Philadelphia. Lackey is 0-1 in his past three outings, although he has lowered his ERA from 4.02 to 3.38. Velasquez lasted four innings against Detroit on Monday, allowing three runs and nine hits.