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Brewers Season Grades: Top of the Class

We’ve done the bottom of the class.  We’ve done the average and above average “students.”  Now it’s time to take a look at the valedictorians of the 2009 squad, if you will — when we think back about the 2009 season a few years from now, chances are we’ll still remember the performances of the following players.  If there’s good news for the Brewers after a disappointing season, it’s that most of these guys will be around again next year.

A’s
Todd Coffey (A-): After watching Coffey implode during his last days in Cincinnati, it’s been incredible watching him perform as a great set-up man for Trevor Hoffman.  With Hoffman set to return for 2010, the Brewers should have an extremely solid 1-2 combination at the back end of the bullpen.  Next year’s squad will greatly benefit if Coffey and Hoffman can team up to essentially make it a 7-inning game for opponents.
Trevor Hoffman (A): Hoffman’s performance was on a steady decline the last few years in San Diego, but he’s outperformed any expectations we had coming into this season.  For the first time post-Cordero, a lead in the 9th inning always seems safe.  I’m a bit skeptical that Hoffman will be able to duplicate this year’s numbers in 2010, but signing him to a new deal so soon after the season ended shows he wants to be here, and it shows the fans that the team will be trying to contend for a playoff spot again next year.
Prince Fielder (A+): If it weren’t for a guy named Pujols, it’s a safe bet Prince would be getting some real MVP hype.  If this is his last year in a Brewers uniform, he’s at least made it a memorable (yet short) stay.  
Felipe Lopez (A-): Despite some concerns about work ethic and defense, Lopez has filled in admirably at second base since being traded to the club.  He hit .320/.407/.448 since the trade, and while the power numbers weren’t quite there (only three homers post-trade), he’s done a great job of getting on base at the top of the order.
Ryan Braun (A-): He’s improved his OBP from .335 last year to .386, led the National League in hits, continues to develop into a solid defensive left fielder, and has become one of the more vocal team leaders the club has had in years.  It’s easy to see why fans of other teams can’t stand him, but we should be thankful he’s “ours” for the foreseeable future.
With that, we close our player grades series.  Thoughts?  Comments?  It’ll be a long cold winter before Spring Training 2010, but if the few short days after the season have told us anything, we’ll have plenty of news to talk about.
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Milestones Give Fans Reasons to Watch

While the team is likely out of the playoff race and watching this team try to pitch on a nightly basis has become a bit of a chore, there are still quite a few reasons to watch this team — mainly, they can really hit.  In honor of Alcides Escobar hitting his first career home run yesterday afternoon in Washington, here’s a look at some other Brewers on the verge of reaching some important milestones.

– Ryan Braun needs 3 home runs to reach the 100-homer mark.  Ryan Howard currently holds the record for quickest to 100, reaching the century mark in just 325 games.  Braun won’t break that record — as of yesterday, he’s already appeared in 384 contests — but Braun can potentially join an exclusive club by the end of the year.

The amazing start to Braun’s career has often been compared to that of another NL Central rival, Albert Pujols.  Pujols burst onto the scene by hitting 114 home runs in his first three professional seasons, tying the record that Ralph Kiner held for over 50 years.  While it seems unlikely that Braun can reach 114 by the end of this season (he’d need 17 more in the final 39 games), it is likely that he can join Mark Teixeira and Joe DiMaggio in a tie for fourth place on that list.  Both Tex and Joltin’ Joe hit 107 homers in their first three seasons. 

Of course, Braun is at a bit of a disadvantage in this race, due to him only playing in 113 games his rookie year and 151 games last year.  He’s on pace to set career highs in both games played and home runs this year, though, and if you go by games played instead of full seasons, he’s still hitting the ball out of the park at a historic rate.  Only five players have hit 100 home runs in their first three seasons.  At any rate, Braun will become the 6th…not bad company to have, is it?

– Prince Fielder needs 17 RBI to break the team record for RBI in a season.  Fielder has racked up 110 RBI to this point, and at the rate he’s been driving in runs this year, he’ll obliterate the current record of 126 currently held by Cecil Cooper.  Fielder made a run at the record in 2007, but fell short by ending the year with 119.  Richie Sexson nearly broke the record in 2001 (125) and 2003 (124), but was the victim of poor lineup support.  Fielder has had high-OBP players in Braun and Craig Counsell hitting in front of him all year, and with Felipe Lopez tearing the cover off the ball in the leadoff spot since coming over from Arizona, he’s had no shortage of possibilities.  RBI is a stat of opportunity, and Prince has done well to capitalize on the opportunities he’s been given this year.  Fangraphs has the Rest of Season ZiPS projections on Fielder, which predict he’ll finish the year with 44 HR and 142 RBI — MVP-type numbers if it wasn’t for that Pujols guy.

– Fielder is on pace to shatter another team record…Jeromy Burnitz’s mark for walks in a single season.  No Brewer has ever eclipsed the 100-walk mark — Burnitz’s mark is 99 — but Fielder has already taken 82 free passes to first in 123 games.  Part of Prince’s improved walk totals has been the lack of a solid #5 hitter to provide protection (the spot’s been a revolving door of Corey Hart, Casey McGehee, and Mike Cameron all year), but he’s also done a fantastic job of laying off pitches he normally would’ve hacked at.  The result?  Fielder’s on the verge of hitting over .300 for the first time in his career, and seems likely to finish the year with an OBP north of .400 for the first time, too.

– On a different note, Braden Looper is 6 home runs away from surrendering more homers in a season than any other pitcher in Brewers history.  It’s safe to say that Looper hasn’t pitched as well as anyone hoped this year — the Brewers paid him to be a #4-type starter, and he’s actually pitched below replacement level.  No one expected him to put up a sub-4.00 ERA like he did in St. Louis, but no one thought he’d lose so much velocity on his fastball and lack movement on every pitch in his repetoire.  Before the season it seemed like a lock that the Brewers would pick up his 2010 option, but now his future with the club is a little hazy.  You have to figure that four rotation spots on next year’s club are already relatively locked in — Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Manny Parra, and Jeff Suppan.  If the Brewers are planning on upgrading the rotation, they’d likely have to either let Looper go, find a taker for Suppan’s ridiculous contract, or both.  Of those, turning down Looper’s option is probably the easiest route to take.

Fielder Fined, Not Suspended

Prince Fielder and the Brewers may have dodged a bullet.  On an off day before starting a big weekend series in Houston, league officials announced that they’re fining both Fielder and Los Angeles’ Guillermo Mota following the beanball/seek-and-destroy fiasco on Tuesday night.

The fact that Fielder won’t be missing any time on the field is huge, and it may be because he waited until after the game to take out his frustrations on the Dodgers reliever.  Had Fielder charged the mound during the game, you’d think that both players would’ve been suspended.  I’m sure Prince (and the Brewers) will happily pay the fine and move on.  Still, it’s a little alarming how many times this year the Brewers have found themselves in the middle of beanball wars — players from both Pittsburgh and St. Louis have made it known that they strongly dislike the Brewers, and there’s been multiple promises for retribution through the media (specifically, Ryan Braun and Mike Cameron).

One thing I can say — it’s a good thing Ken Macha doesn’t believe in intentionally putting guys on base and partaking in beanball wars, otherwise there would be a slew of Milwaukee players serving suspensions this year.  It’s something I couldn’t say about Ned Yost (who once put Seth McClung in the game for the sole purpose of hitting Albert Pujols, knowing full well that McClung would get tossed after one pitch, so he had another pitcher warming in the bullpen).

The Journal-Sentinel has the story on the fines.

Thoughts on the Dodgers Series

Well that Dodgers series was…surprisingly not bad.  I’ll admit to not being that optimistic about the Brewers’ chances in the series heading into Chavez Ravine, but those worries were calmed a bit when Manny Parra pitched so well in the opener (hey, sweep averted!).  Those worries flared up again when Yovani Gallardo inexplicably struggled on Tuesday night meaning the Brewers would have to win with Braden Looper on the mound.  

Luckily, Dodger Stadium is Looper’s kind of place.  Having already given up a career high for home runs allowed (Rafael Furcal’s leadoff homer Wednesday made it 27 in 23 starts), Looper was able to recover from an early hiccup to throw what was possibly his best game of the season.  Just like that, the Brewers walk out of California at 3-3, and head into Houston for a big series that could go a long way in getting back into the thick of the NL Central race.

I was unable to comment on the Fielder Fiasco in LA due to Internet connection problems, but here’s my (belated) two cents.  While the whole thing might seem unusual or surprising to those who haven’t been following Prince Fielder since the day he was drafted, I don’t think many Brewer fans thought much of the incident.  I can understand why it happened — Fielder and Ryan Braun have been plunked at an alarming rate this year as the team’s star players, and the Brewers are third in the majors in team HBP.  Things have been frustrating for the Brewers lately, and Fielder’s always been one to carry that frustration on his sleeve — if he’s got a problem with you, he’s going to tell you…just ask Manny Parra.

Ironically, Fielder’s march to the Dodgers’ clubhouse came exactly one year after the much-ballyhooed dust up with Manny Parra in Cincinnati last season.  The Brewers wound up going on a long win streak following that incident, prompting all the national experts to point to the incident as some kind of “turning point” en route to a fantastic month of August (and, as a result, a playoff spot — the Brewers would’ve been out of contention with that September slide if they didn’t play so well in August).  I have a problem with those who point to incidents like these as “turning points.”  

Fielder trying to kill Guillermo Mota (and really, what Brewer fan didn’t want to kill Mota at some point last season) isn’t going to spark this team to a huge winning streak.  Even if the Brewers do make a surge, it’ll be the result of finishing the August schedule against Houston, San Diego, Pittsbugh, Washington, and Cincinnati.  There wasn’t a lack of effort by the team’s offense during this mid-season skid — the pitching just stunk.  So unless the rotation starts pitching better for fear of their large first baseman sitting on them, any “spark” would have to be considered coincidental.

On a side note, Fielder’s post-game tirade has prompted the Dodgers to up security in the stadium’s tunnels.  For some reason it reminded me of the scene in “Happy Gilmore” where Adam Sandler is being lectured for breaking a rake over his knee and throwing it into the woods after missing a putt.  Sandler responds by saying, “What?  I didn’t break it — I was just testing its durability.”

So, there you go.  Prince didn’t break through Dodger Stadium security, he was simply trying to test its durability, and helped make it a safer place for all players.

(I felt the Fielder/Braun punch out home run celebration was a fitting image for this post, isn’t it?)