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2014 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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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 2014 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

The Big Question: Can they bounce back?

The Brewers won only 74 games in 2013 after averaging 85 wins per season between 2007 and 2012. Last year’s squad had a combined rotation ERA of 4.20, which ranked 21st out of 30, and the offense produced a combined OPS of .708, which ranked 18th. The pitching problems were predictable, and Ryan Braun’s 65-game PED suspension can shoulder some blame for the lacking run production.

But diagnosing a team’s issues and that team making the necessary fixes are two very different things.

Braun is back from suspension and destroying baseballs this spring in the Cactus League and the Brewers signed right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million free agent contract in late January to help bring a dose of stability to the starting pitching group. Those two items alone make an improvement over last year’s dismal 74-88 record a fair expectation, but the National League Central now houses three upper-crust teams in the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates, and the Brewers are still lagging well behind those 2013 postseason participants. Bovada has Milwaukee’s over-under win total for the 2014 season set at 79.5. St. Louis leads the pack at 90.5 wins, Cincinnati is listed at 84.5 wins, and Pittsburgh stands just under the Reds at 83.5 wins. The Cubs, for those curious, are at the bottom of the division with an over-under win total of 69.5.

The Brewers do seem poised for a rebound, but not to a level that would push them back into division-title contention. The lineup is good but not great and the pitching staff is still short on dominant arms.

This is an organization deciding between Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds to start at first base.

What else is going on?

  • The Brewers struck gold — not an alternate jersey pun — when they landed shortstop prospect Jean Segura from the Angels in July 2012 as part of a three-player return package for starting pitcher Zack Greinke. Segura batted .294/.329/.423 with 12 home runs and 44 stolen bases in 146 games last season for Milwaukee while playing steady defense at the shortstop position. He was a 3.4 fWAR player in 2013 — ranking sixth in that category among major league shortstops — and he just turned 24 years old. Greinke, meanwhile, is pitching for the other Los Angeles baseball club.
  • Khris Davis was given a chance to claim regular outfield playing time last summer when Braun was suspended and absolutely rose to the occasion, posting a .949 OPS with 11 home runs and 27 RBI in 56 total games. He is now set to open the 2014 regular season as the Brewers’ starting left fielder — Braun is shifting to right — and will look to ride the momentum that he established at the end of 2013. The 26-year-old former seventh-round pick had a .288/.392/.506 batting line in 415 minor league games, so the thought is that last year’s power outburst wasn’t simply a case of small sample size theater.
  • Brewers closer Jim Henderson didn’t break into the bigs until age 29, but he quickly established himself as a highly-reliable high-leverage presence. He posted a 2.70 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 61 appearances last season for Milwaukee while fanning 75 batters across 60 innings. The native of Alberta, Canada notched 28 saves. The Brewers should be able to turn most of their late leads into wins on the shoulders of Henderson and other steady relievers like Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith, and Brandon Kintzler.
  • The Brewers operate in the smallest market in Major League Baseball but still pack the house regularly at Miller Park. They sold more single-game tickets at this year’s annual Arctic Tailgate than they did last year despite a disappointing on-field showing in 2013 and a relatively inactive offseason. A unique pregame atmosphere should keep ’em coming even if the 2014 product is buried in the division standings.

Prediction: A summer of mediocrity nets the Brewers 78 wins. Fourth place in the NL Central.

Eyebrows raised as ESPN cuts Schilling’s segment from a 2004 Red Sox documentary

Curt Schilling
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Several years ago ESPN produced a documentary about the 2004 Boston Red Sox’ amazing comeback in the ALCS called “Four Days in October.” They’ve re-run it a lot. Yesterday, in the run up to last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game, they ran it again, on ESPN2. Only it was a bit shorter than usual. Why? Because it omitted the part about Curt Schilling and his bloody sock in Game 6.

Which, um, that’s one of the signature moments of that series, right? It’s one of the signature moments of the entire modern era of the franchise. Why edit that out? Many Red Sox fans — who also didn’t much care for ESPN’s handling of the DeflateGate story — believe that it was a vindictive act. A figurative airbrushing out of Schilling and his moment given his recent termination by the World Wide Leader. Even Schilling himself snarked about it:

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For its part, ESPN had a simple explanation: the softball game which led in to the documentary ran long and they needed to cut someplace. Which makes some sense. It’s probably also worth noting that decisions about programming on their secondary network on a sleepy Sunday afternoon are not likely made in a board room by mustache-twirling villains. If ESPN really has it in for Schilling at this point, that’s a rather random and passive aggressive way to show it. My gut instinct is that this is just a coincidence.

But when it’s ESPN and Schilling it’s understandable when people assume there’s something more to it than coincidence. Both sides have, in the past, behaved in curious enough ways with respect to innocuous things that the benefit of the doubt is not something which is likely to be given automatically by some. Especially in Boston.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws to the plate during the second inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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WE’RE GOING STREAKING!

Well, we’re talking  a lot about streaks or the end thereof. The end of a lot of losing streaks. The end of some winning streaks. Getaway day games can be momentum disruptors. Anyway, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Padres 0: Clayton freakin’ Kershaw, man. A three-hit complete game shutout with fourteen strikeouts AND he drove in the only run of the game with an RBI single. That’s some one man gang action there, buddy. Still, I wonder if it’s yet safe for me to note, again, that the Padres are terrible. Phillies fans got mad when I said that after Vince Velasquez dominated them. Maybe Dodgers fans won’t get mad if I note it again given that, you know, a pitcher being great and a team sucking aren’t mutually exclusive things.

Nationals 6, Cardinals 1: When people ask me why baseball can’t market its young players like the NBA does, I point to games like this one in which the biggest star in the game, Bryce Harper, goes 0-for-4 with 4Ks and the Nats still cruise to victory. If you tease a big Cards-Nats matchup with “Watch Bryce Harper take on the Cardinals!” he might go 0-for-4 and strike out four times and the Nats could still win easily. Or, he might have a big game and the Nats may still lose. Thing is, in lots of games what a big star does doesn’t matter a lick to the outcome. If someone neutralizes Steph Curry like that, the Warriors probably aren’t winning. There are so many moving parts in baseball, however, that no one game is ever likely to live up to NBA-style hype, especially with respect to one big star. Anyway, Max Scherzer is a star too and he pitched seven shutout innings and struck out nine. That helped. That’s a three-game sweep of the Cardinals for Washington. The Redbirds have lost four in a row overall and now go to take on the [checks glasses] dangerous Philadelphia Phillies.

Phillies 2, Indians 1: Six straight wins for a team most thought would be garbage. They’re 15-10 now. They may wilt, but once you bank wins no one takes them away from you. Vince Velasquez pitched six shutout innings and struck out six.

Astros 2, Athletics 1: Houston only got two hits but one of them was a Jose Altuve homer. It was his seventh, by the way. That’s a 40+ homer pace for the diminutive second baseman. Doug Fister allowed one run in six and two-thirds. He needed that one. He’s been pitching like a dog this year.

Giants 6, Mets 1: The Mets had won eight in a row before this one and lost due to a dominant performance from one of the best pitchers in the game in Madison Bumgarner, so no reason to feel ashamed. Bumgarner has shut the Mets out for the last 18 innings in which he has faced them. Hunter Pence homered and drove in three.

Blue Jays 5, Rays 1: It was Marcus Stroman‘s birthday yesterday. He partied too, allowing one run in eight innings on only three hits and struck out nine. Still, when he left the game he had every reason to think he’d get a no decision, as it was tied 1-1 through eight. The Jays rallied for four while he was still pitcher of record, however, capped off by a Troy Tulowitzki three-run homer.

White Sox 7, Orioles 1: Chris Sale‘s amazing start continues, as he allowed only one run, five hits over five and a third. Walked four too, as he wasn’t particularly sharp, but he’s now 6-0 on the year in six starts.

Reds 6, Pirates 5: The Reds end their six game losing streak. The Pirates’ six game winning streak is snapped. This is very satisfying for those of us who seek out the symmetrical in life. Scott Schebler hit a go-ahead double in the ninth inning for Cincy, they blew that lead, so then he hit another RBI double in the 11th. “I can do this all day,” he would’ve said evenly, if this was some kind of movie and he was a badass. Instead I assume he said something bland about finding his pitch to hit and then credited his teammates more than himself. That’s another reason baseball can’t market young stars, by the way. Most of them don’t act like the sorts of stars who are easy to market. And when they do, they’re criticized for being all me-first. Why this occurred to me in response to a guy like Scott Schebler I have no idea, but the point stands.

Brewers 14, Marlins 5: Lots of streak-ending yesterday. Here the Marlins’ seven-game winning streak ended. Chris Carter went 3-for-5 with two homers as the Brewers got 18 hits in all. After the game Carter, who had been struggling, said “You can’t let the past get to you. You’ve just got to focus on looking forward.” “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cried incredulously in response. “Why, of course you can!”

Tigers 6, Twins 5: The Tigers’ bats have warmed up and, less than a week after Victor Martinez complained about their “horses**t” offense, they’ve won five games in a row. Jarrod Saltalamacchia doubled home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning and Nick Castellanos hit a three-run homer

Braves 4, Cubs 3: Julio Teheran pitched seven scoreless innings striking out nine, but the Braves’ bullpen blew it. Nothing we’ve seen from this team suggested that they wouldn’t just wilt after that, but they showed a bit of fight for once when Daniel Castro singled and scored on Nick Markakis‘ sacrifice fly in the 10th inning and they held on. It wasn’t all glory, however, as the Braves were playing with only 24 men because the front office messed up a transaction yesterday morning. I’ll post on it later. Let me enjoy a win for a few minutes.

Angels 9, Rangers 6: L.A. stops the Rangers four-game winning streak. Starter Garrett Richards was pulled after four innings because of dehydration, but the pen responded with four shutout innings before running into some trouble in the ninth. Kole Calhoun got three hits and drove in two.

Royals 4, Mariners 1: The Royals’ five-game losing streak ends. The last two of those losses were shutouts to the M’s so the fact that Eric Hosmer homered, Lorenzo Cain had an RBI single and Alex Escobar had three hits would’ve been welcome even if they lost again.

Rockies 6, Diamondbacks 3: Nolan Arenado had two hits and three RBI. One of those hits was his major league-leading 11th. I have no idea if the Dbacks will turn their season around and challenge in the NL West like many thought they would, but if they do and fall short, they’ll recall that they dropped five of their first six against the Rockies this year and that’s not the sort of thing a would-be contender does.

Red Sox 8, Yankees 7Christian Vazquez hit a two-run homer to break a tie in the seventh. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts each had three hits and Travis Shaw homered. The Sox have won seven of eight and are in first place in the AL East. The Yankees have lost five in a row and six of seven. You’re gonna see some “if the Boss was still alive!” action in the coming days. Count on it.

Tim Lincecum to hold long-awaited showcase on Friday

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 16:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the game at AT&T Park on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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At long last, the Tim Lincecum showcase has an official date: this Friday, May 6 in Scottsdale, according to CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic (citing a report from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman). Lincecum, still a free agent, has been allowed to throw at the Giants’ facility in Arizona.

Lincecum, 31, has reportedly still drawn the interest in at least half the league. San Francisco remains Lincecum’s preferred landing spot, however, per Pavlovic.

The right-hander showed better results in 15 starts last season after three consecutive tough campaigns. He finished the 2015 season with a 4.13 ERA and a 60/38 K/BB ratio in 76 1/3 innings. Given how starting pitching is always in demand, Lincecum should walk away with a handful of offers.

Video: J.J. Hardy collects carom off Manny Machado’s glove, converts the out

A ball hit by Chicago White Sox' Todd Frazier gets by Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Baltimore. Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, not seen, was able to get the ball and throw it to first to get out Frazier on the play. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Some great defensive plays leave you saying, “Wow!” This one will leave you saying that, and, “How the heck did that happen?”

In the top of the fourth inning at Camden Yards, White Sox slugger Todd Frazier lined a Ubaldo Jimenez offering right at third baseman Manny Machado. The ball skipped and caromed off of Machado’s glove, creating what seemed to be an easy single for Frazier. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, however, was ranging to his right and used his cat-like reflexes to snag the redirected ball. He planted and threw a one-hopper to Chris Davis at first base to convert the out.

The replay at about 21 seconds really does the play justice. Outstanding stuff by Hardy. The Orioles, however, wound up losing 7-1 to the White Sox.