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Springtime Storylines: Is there life after Prince Fielder in baseball’s smallest market?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: A Battered Brew Crew.

The Big Question: Can the Brewers still be successful without their Prince?

Milwaukee put it all together last year, capturing its first-ever National League Central title while tallying the most regular-season victories (96) in franchise history. But a loss to the division rival Cardinals in the NLCS and a winter chock full of speed bumps has dulled some of the shine that only six months ago surrounded this baseball team.

First, longtime slugger Prince Fielder chased a nine-year, $214 million free agent contract to Detroit.

The small(est)-market Brewers never really stood a chance of re-signing him, and barely attempted an offer this offseason, but it’s nonetheless a bitter pill. Fielder batted .299/.415/.556 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI in 2011, good enough for 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

New first baseman Mat Gamel posted a superb .310/.372/.540 slash line with 28 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games last season at Triple-A and should be more than ready to handle the pressures of big-league life at age 26. But he’s been unsuccessful in his limited action with the Brewers to this point and will be lucky to make up for half of Fielder’s offensive production in his first full year as an everyday major leaguer.

Then there’s the Ryan Braun PED scandal, which has been settled on the legal end for weeks but is far from erased from the consciousness of your run-of-the-mill baseball fan. To most, Braun got out of his 50-game suspension by lawyering up and finding a loophole. And whether that thought is right or wrong, it’s a belief that will be expressed loudly and probably vulgarly at every road ballpark that the 2011 NL MVP visits this year.

Maybe Braun will be able to shrug it all off. He’s a confident enough dude. But let’s just note that he went 9-for-41 this spring while hearing a fraction of the jeers he’ll receive once games actually matter.

The Brewers should still be a force this year because they have talent in all areas of their roster and because they play in baseball’s weakest division. But they’re certainly not going to breeze back to the playoffs.

What Else Is Going On?

  • In 2010, the Brewers turned in a hideous 4.58 staff ERA. In 2011, that number fell to 3.63. Such are the yields when a team acquires two top-of-the-rotation arms — Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum — in one offseason. Greinke, 28, registered a 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 201/45 K/BB ratio across 171 2/3 innings in his first go-round with Milwaukee. Marcum, 30, had a 3.54 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 158/57 K/BB ratio in 200 2/3 innings. Combined with Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have a real three-headed monster.
  • The back end of the bullpen is also quite talented. Francisco Rodriguez caught Milwaukee’s higher-ups off guard this winter when he accepted their offer of arbitration, but the two sides were able to reach a reasonable one-year, $8 million agreement. K-Rod posted a lights-out 1.86 ERA and 33/10 K/BB ratio after joining the Brewers in an early-July trade. He will operate as a setup man again this year for John Axford, who tied Braves closer Craig Kimbrel for a league-leading 46 saves in 2011.
  • After watching Casey McGehee fall back to earth last season to the tune of a .626 OPS, the Brewers traded the husky third baseman to the Pirates in December for right-handed reliever Jose Veras and signed free agent veteran Aramis Ramirez to a three-year, $36 million contract with a mutual option for 2015. A-Ram batted .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI for the Cubs in 2011, and should represent a significant upgrade at the hot corner if he can maintain good health.

How Are They Gonna Do?

Braun should again challenge for the MVP and the front end of the starting rotation is beyond solid, but the Brewers lack lineup depth and are sure to miss the heart-of-the-order punch that Fielder was able to provide. They’ll drop to third in the National League Central, finishing behind the Reds and Cardinals.

Clint Barmes retires

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 29:  Shortstop Clint Barmes #12 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws to first to complete a double play to end the seventh inning after forcing out Chone Figgins #18 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Veteran infielder Clint Barmes has announced his retirement.

Barmes was playing for Triple-A Omaha in the Royals system and he simply came to the decision to hang it up during a recent game when he was replaced late in the game to make way for a younger player. He tells Jessica Kleinschmidt of FanDuel that it was a cold night, he was stiffening up and, in a rather matter-of-fact tone, says he just decided that he had played enough.

Barmes, 37, played eight years with the Rockies, three with the Pirates and one each with San Diego and Houston. He was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball for several years but one 23-homer season in 2009 notwithstanding, he never really hit and once the range started to go so too did his justification for being on a big league roster. Last season he hit just .232 with a .633 OPS in 98 games for the Padres. He hadn’t topped a .700 OPS since 2009. His hope to snag a utility infielder role on the Royals this spring didn’t pan out but the club signed him to a minor league deal after releasing him and it’s not crazy to think that he would’ve gotten a chance to play in Kansas City at some point this season.

Still, he sounds pretty fulfilled and content with his decision to hang ’em up. And, unlike a lot of guys, he got the chance to make the decision himself rather than have someone else make it for him.

Bartolo Colon: not always a longball threat

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 05:  Bartolo Colon #40 of the New York Mets heads back to the dugut after he struck out swinging in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles on May 5, 2015 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The baseball world went batty when Mets starter Bartolo Colon hit a homer a couple of weeks ago. That, combined with a few other nice offensive performances from pitchers in the days surrounding that led to a mini groundswell of “this is why the DH is dumb! Pitchers batting provides us with such wonderful entertainment!” chatter.

Which is fine as far as it goes. But for every yin of a serendipitous pitcher home run comes the yang of pitcher hitting futility. Or, in some cases, pitchers not even trying. Colon himself took that to the next level last night, telling the opposition to just groove him fastballs at which he promised not to swing due to a sore back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,'” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.'”

And he didn’t swing. He struck out looking all three trips he took to the plate, watching fourteen pitches sail by in the process.

This is a venial sin, not a mortal one, as pitchers have been mailing it in at the plate since the game was invented (pitchers’ inability and lack of need to hit was being noted in the 19th century). But it is rather ironic that the majority of anti-DH sentiment comes from people who like to cite the purity of the game and all that jazz. I get the strong sense that folks who care about such things would, in all other instances, lose their minds if a player not only took three plays off in a game but literally told the opposition he wasn’t going to try.

Tony Gwynn’s family sues tobacco companies for wrongful death

Tony Gwynn
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The widow of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and their two children, former major leaguer Tony Gwynn Jr. and Anisha Gwynn-Jones, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court arising out of Gwynn’s death of oral cancer in 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Gwynn started dipping as a 17-year-old while playing baseball for San Diego State. According to the complaint, “Once Defendants got Tony addicted to their products, he became a self-described `tobacco junkie”‘ who used 1 1/2 to 2 cans of Skoal per day.” The suit seeks unspecified damages against Altria Group Corp., the parent company of Philip Morris, and US Smokeless Tobacco Co. LLC.

It will not be an easy lawsuit for the Gwynn family to win. While Gwynn himself cited his copious tobacco use as the cause of the salivary gland cancer which eventually killed him — and while it makes a lot of intuitive sense to assume that smokeless tobacco use + time = oral cancer — Gwynn’s specific form of cancer, of the parotid gland, is not associated with tobacco use. The gland which developed the cancer was around his ear and there has been no observed link between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of that particular gland, let alone any sort of consensus on the matter. There are strong links, obviously, between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, and throat, in addition to other health problems.

None of which is to say definitively that tobacco didn’t cause Gwynn’s cancer — there just isn’t enough medical data on this form of cancer to be so certain — or that the defendants in this case may not settle with the Gwynn family to avoid the expense, risk and bad p.r. of defending a suit arising out of the death of a beloved figure. But it is certainly not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, and Gwynn’s family will have the burden of proof.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 23:  Hunter Pence #8 and Matt Duffy #5 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after Pence hit a walk-off rbi single to score Brandon Belt #9 (not pictured) against the San Diego Padres in the bottom of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on May 23, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won the game 1-0.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Reds 0: Clayton Kershaw with a two-hit shutout. And he only needed 102 pitches to do it. His opponent, Brandon Finnegan was almost as good, allowing one run over eight innings. And that run came on a double play. Low offense and both pitchers going the distance led to a game time of two hours eleven minutes. Welcome to 1966.

Giants 1, Padres 0: Johnny Cueto tossed a two-hit shutout of his own. And he had to, as the Giants and Padres traded zeroes until the ninth inning when Hunter Pence doubled in Brandon Belt for the walkoff win.

Mets 7, Nationals 1David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker all homered, with Cespedes and Walker going back-to-back in the fifth inning. Bartolo Colon allowed only one run over seven innings. Colon also did this, due to a stiff back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.”

If you’re going to all gaga and anti-DH when pitchers hit homers, you kinda gotta contend with this too, do you not?

Cardinals 4, Cubs 3Randal Grichuk hit a walkoff homer. He’s also the latest addition to the “Describe in Literal Terms What Happened” All-Star Team:

“I was trying to battle and get a pitch in the zone and put good wood on it and get on. Luckily, I was able to get a homer.”

ESPN is busy preparing a seven figure offer sheet for him to be an analyst when his playing career is over.

White Sox 7, Indians 6; Indians 5, White Sox 1: The old Doubleheader of Existential Stasis, as the clubs split and ask themselves if it would have been better to never have left bed that morning. Todd Frazier hit a solo shot and Brett Lawrie hit a three-run homer for the White Sox in the first game. In the nightcap Jose Ramirez, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe went deep for the Tribe. It doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway. Eat at Arby’s.

Pirates 6, Rockies 3: A scary moment when Pirates starter Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the face with a pitch. He’s been admitted to a hospital but seems alright. Wilfredo Boscan was the emergency reliever, allowing two runs on two hits and himself hitting an RBI single in four innings. It was a bad game all around for folks near home plate: umpire Jeff Nelson left the game after some debris hit him in the eye during a play at home.

Tigers 5, Phillies 4: Two homers for Miguel Cabrera who apparently did not feel any bad effects from that bruised knee on Sunday. Miggy also doubled and scored a run on a Victor Martinez single. J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos also homered for Detroit, which has won six of seven.

Marlins 7, Rays 6: Four hits for Ichiro, bringing the future Hall of Famer to 2,960 in the U.S. portion of his career. More importantly, one of his singles contributed to an eighth inning rally which helped the Marlins come from behind. Suzuki is 10 for 13 in the past three games. As a part time player he ain’t exactly as important to Miami as David Ortiz is to Boston, but he too is going out on top, presuming he is going out, hitting .417/.478/.467 on the season.

Angels 2, Rangers 0: The Angels were supposed to be a carcass on the highway after losing 40% of their pitching staff to ligament injuries but they’ve won eight of 11 because, well, baseball. Albert Pujols‘ homer in the third inning was his 569th, which ties him for 12th in career homers with Rafael Palmeiro. Nick Tropeano allowed four hits and one walk while striking out six while pitching into the seventh inning.

Royals 10, Twins 4: Sal Perez went 5-for-5, hitting a double, a triple and three singles while driving in one. Omar Infante only had one hit, but it was a two-run double and he added a sac fly to give him three driven in on the night. Ricky Nolasco gave up six runs on eight hits in less than three innings of work, so that continues to be a great situation for the Twins. Between this season, next season and his inevitable buyout, Nolasco is owed $25 million by the end of next year. The Twins have the worst record in baseball, which is saying a lot given that the Braves are in this league.

Athletics 5, Mariners 0: Rich Hill tossed eight shutout innings and notched his seventh win of the year, which is a pretty good trick for a guy pitching for a team that’s in fourth place and six games under .500.