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.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

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Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.