Pick six: Stretch run evaluation time for Crew

Pick six: Stretch run evaluation time for Crew

SEATTLE -- The Brewers took a day off Monday, with seven weeks remaining in the regular season and less than one-tenth of one percent chance of making the postseason, according to the website CoolStandings.com.

Yet coaches, players and general manager Doug Melvin have been insisting that those remaining weeks have meaning.

"It's important to them as individuals, and it's important to the ballclub how we go out and play," said Melvin. "I think they've shown very good signs of going out and competing at a high level, and knowing what's expected of them. We have some positive things happening."

Here are six reasons to keep watching:

1. Rotation roulette

The Brewers are populated with starting pitchers with something to prove. Wily Peralta, with a 2.10 ERA over his last 10 starts, wants to finish strong his first full season in the Major Leagues. Marco Estrada returned last week from the disabled list with a desire to cement his spot for next season, and Yovani Gallardo should be back from his own hamstring injury later this week against the Reds. Right-handed prospect Tyler Thornburg has at least one more start Wednesday to make the statement he fits as a starter instead of middle relief. And if he continues to pitch well, Tom Gorzelanny has a chance to begin 2014 as Milwaukee's lone left-hander.

Poor pitching hurt the Brewers during their disastrous 6-22 month of May, when the starters owned the worst ERA (6.72) in the Major Leagues, more than a run worse than the next National League team. But they improved to 11th of the 15 NL teams with a 4.18 starters' ERA in June, to eighth with a 3.78 ERA in July and, with Peralta's eight innings on Sunday, currently rank third in August, at 2.35.

"It's gotten better each month as we've moved on, and I want to continue to see the progress," Melvin said. "I don't want have the pitching go backward. Our improvement with the pitching is important."

Manager Ron Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz have some decisions in the coming days and weeks. First, where precisely to slot in Gallardo, and who gets bumped. By September, the team also figures to bring back Johnny Hellweg, who has dominated at Triple-A but struggled in the Majors, and top prospect Jimmy Nelson. Both have a shot in 2014, barring major offseason pitching additions.

2. September callups

Melvin predicted the club will make only three or four callups, because many of the players who would otherwise be under consideration are already in the big leagues. The most highly anticipated will be Nelson, who leads all Milwaukee Minor Leaguers with 130 strikeouts in 130 innings between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville this season (including five more in a win at Colorado Springs on Sunday), and Hellweg, who leads the Pacific Coast League's qualified pitchers with a 2.75 ERA.

Another potential callup is first baseman Hunter Morris, who entered Sunday ranked second in the PCL with a team-leading 22 home runs; it's his third straight season with at least 20 homers.

"We haven't finalized that yet," Melvin said about possible callups. "We'll probably try to see some of the younger kids if we can."

3. Who's on first?

Speaking of Morris, this may be the biggest question for the Brewers heading into next season. They lost three first basemen before the 2013 season began -- Corey Hart to two knee surgeries, Mat Gamel to a torn ACL for the second straight season and Taylor Green to hip surgery. Shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt filled in with limited success, so the Brewers traded with the Braves in early June for Juan Francisco, a slugging third baseman to whom they have handed the reins at first.

Defensively, Francisco has been deficient. When he let a popup drop at his feet on Saturday, it was his ninth error in 46 games at first base.

But Francisco has hit enough (.337 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage) and is young enough (26) to make Melvin think.

"He's shown some signs," Melvin said. "Somebody pointed out the other day that his first 600 at-bats are as good as [the Pirates'] Pedro Alvarez's first 600 at-bats."

In Francisco's first 633 Major League at-bats, he has 29 home runs and 102 RBIs. Alvarez had 24 home runs and 90 RBIs through the same number of at-bats before breaking through to hit 30 home runs last season and 28 so far in 2013.

Might Francisco be Milwaukee's first baseman heading into next season?

"We don't know," Melvin said. "We won't have those answers even in the offseason."

4. What about second?

A strong finish could help Scooter Gennett wrestle away second base from longtime starter Rickie Weeks, who is out with a season-ending injury. Weeks is deciding whether to undergo surgery for a torn tendon in his left hamstring or to just rehab the injury. He should be ready for the start of Spring Training in 2014, when he will enter the final guaranteed season of his contract.

"Rickie plays hard, and that's probably why at times he gets injured as much as he does," Melvin said. "But he gets on base, and a lot of players have good months, bad months, whatever. You can't take away [the bad months], but you just look for consistency."

Weeks has been inconsistent in each of the past two seasons, sporting sub-.300 on-base percentages as late as June 10 in 2012 and June 8 this year. Gennett is less of a power threat, but he will not turn 24 until May and will be the Brewers' regular second baseman down the stretch.

"I don't know if you say it is an 'opening,' but there is a great opportunity for him right now to play," Roenicke said. "I don't mean that to put pressure on him, to see he has to go out there and play great, hit .300. But it's a great opportunity for a guy that a lot of people really like and have wanted to give the opportunity to. It's there for him."

5. Outfield options

Ryan Braun's season-ending suspension opened playing time in left field for some young outfielders, who represent an area of depth for the franchise. Logan Schafer figured to see the majority of time there, but he has struggled with a sore knee, giving left-handed hitter Caleb Gindl and right-handed hitter Khris Davis chances to shine.

With Braun expected back in 2014 along with regular center fielder Carlos Gomez and right fielder Norichika Aoki, Milwaukee has a logjam, but for now, "Opportunity is there," Melvin said.

"It's just the time for these guys," Melvin said. "When Braun was here with Aoki and Gomez, they weren't going to get an opportunity. This is a window of opportunity for them to show what they can do."

6. Where's Ryan?

Someday -- perhaps someday very soon -- Braun will break the silence that has been in place since he admitted "mistakes" in a written statement the day he was suspended, and he will begin the long effort of repairing his tattered reputation. His teammates say they are very eager to hear a full explanation of Braun's mistakes.

"I think Ryan will find his time to do what he has to do," Melvin said. "But we've been playing well here, and playing well as a team."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.