Whether you believe that it was injuries to Dave Bush or Jeff Suppan, or that it was Plan Bs Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung not panning out, or simply that the rotation wasn't strong enough to begin with, it was pretty clear that poor pitching cost the Brewers a return trip to the postseason in 2009. General manager Doug Melvin moved quickly to make the changes necessary to free payroll space for Randy Wolf's three-year, $29.75 million contract.
There is still time for Melvin to trade for another arm or add a bargain option late in the offseason, but the Brewers enter the New Year with only one new arm in a starting rotation that combined for the National League's worst ERA (5.37) last season. Melvin deserves credit for moving so aggressively to acquire Wolf, his top free-agent target, but as the group stands today, the Brewers are banking on another season of growth for Yovani Gallardo, bounce-backs from Manny Parra and Suppan and an injury-free year for Bush. Plenty of gambles there.
Here's the best-case scenario for the group as it stands today: Gallardo continues his ascent to "ace" status, while Wolf has a third consecutive solid year of 30-plus starts, making him a clear upgrade over the departed Braden Looper. Parra rebounds to be at least as good as he was in 2008, when he posted a 4.39 ERA. Bush stays healthy. Suppan does, too, and has a season like he had in his last contract year, when he was 12-7 with a 4.12 ERA for the 2006 Cardinals.
2. Will Wolf be worth it?
Wolf parlayed two healthy seasons following four unhealthy ones into the third-richest pitching contract in Brewers history. Whether he stays out of the training room could go a long way to determining whether Melvin's investment pays off. In 67 starts over the past two seasons, Wolf has a 3.74 ERA for the Padres, Astros and Dodgers. He showed he can pitch at a hitter-friendly park during the second half of 2008, when Wolf was 6-2 with a 3.57 ERA in 12 starts for Houston, including 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA at Minute Maid Park.
Long-term pitching contracts rarely look good in hindsight, and the Brewers appeared to be the only club willing to go to a third year with Wolf. It's a gamble that Melvin deemed worthwhile, given his club's need for a stable starter.
3. Would the real Parra please step up?
If manager Ken Macha didn't already have a head of gray hair entering his first season in Milwaukee, Parra might have given him one. Parra posted a 6.26 ERA in his second full season in the Majors, the second-highest mark among NL pitchers who logged at least 100 innings (to the injured Bush and his 6.38 ERA). Parra's early struggles earned him a demotion to Triple-A Nashville in June.
But club officials are extremely hesitant to give up on Parra, who throws hard for a lefty and has the secondary pitches to be a competent (and home-grown) No. 2 to Gallardo. Part of that patience can be attributed to former Brewers hurler Jorge De La Rosa, who had a 5.85 ERA in his first four Major League seasons for Milwaukee and Kansas City, but is 26-17 with a more reasonable 4.60 ERA for the Rockies in the past two years, ranking eighth in the NL with 193 strikeouts in 2009. The Brewers gave up on De La Rosa in 2006, when they traded him to the Royals for infielder Tony Graffanino, and they want to give Parra every opportunity to find his potential before sending him away.
4. Can Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder maintain their pace?
No. 3 hitter Braun and cleanup man Fielder gave the Brewers baseball's most productive duo in 2009. Their 255 combined RBIs edged the Phillies' Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth (240) for the most of any pair of big league teammates, and Fielder tied Howard atop the Major League leaderboard with 141 RBIs. Braun (113 runs scored) and Fielder (103) became just the fourth Brewers teammates to top 100 runs in the same season and the first in 13 years. Braun led the NL with 203 hits and joined Albert Pujols as the only Major Leaguers to belt 30 home runs in each of his first three seasons.
There is little to suggest that Braun and Fielder cannot do it again. For Braun, the issue is a sometimes-balky back, but he was able to avoid long layoffs in 2009 with help from Roger Caplinger's athletic training staff. Fielder has stayed injury-free, and he was the only Major Leaguer to play all 162 games in 2009.
5. Which Corey Hart will show up?
While Braun and Fielder have been steady as she goes, Hart has been up and down over the past two years. In 2008, he finished his second consecutive season with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases on a decidedly low note, batting .173 in September before going 3-for-13 in the NL Division Series. The Brewers tried to make him a more patient hitter in 2009, and indeed his walks were up (from 27 in 2008 to 43 in 42 fewer games in 2009) and so was his on-base percentage (from .300 in 2008 to .335 in 2009). But Hart paid the price in home runs and RBIs, making for a disappointing season even before he was lost for August following an appendectomy.
Assuming he's on the team in 2010 -- Hart seems to pop up in lots of trade rumors -- he will try to find the proper medium between patience and aggressiveness. The Brewers are very dangerous when Hart is producing in the five-hole.
6. Will the kids produce?
When the Brewers traded J.J. Hardy to the Twins on Nov. 6, it signaled a youth movement at two key positions. In return from Minnesota, they received center fielder Carlos Gomez, who has since turned 24 and whose arrival meant the end of veteran Mike Cameron's Brewers tenure. At the same time, Milwaukee freed a starting spot for shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar, who didn't turn 23 until Dec. 16.
Both are relative unknowns. Gomez has already played parts of three Major League seasons, but has lots of developing to do as a hitter, according to Melvin and Macha. Escobar showed promise by hitting .304 as Hardy's replacement in August and September, but he still qualifies as a Major League rookie. Both players have tremendous speed but struggle at times to avoid being home run-happy. They ensure that hitting coach Dale Sveum will be busy in 2010.
7. Will the old guys produce?
While the Brewers went younger at shortstop and center field, they went older behind the plate and signed free agent Gregg Zaun, who will turn 39 in April. Zaun has started more than 100 games behind the plate only twice in his career -- 2005 and '07 in Toronto -- but got assurances that he would be the Brewers' regular catcher in 2010. He should bring a more potent bat than the man he replaced -- Jason Kendall -- which is key, according to Melvin, considering that the Brewers lost some power with the departures of Hardy and Cameron. Zaun is also a switch-hitter, which is key for a righty-heavy lineup that often struggles against the division's tough right-handed pitchers.
Then there's 42-year-old closer Trevor Hoffman, who shows no signs of age. Hoffman missed the start of 2009 with a rib-cage strain, but then ranked fifth in the NL with 37 saves, running his Major League saves record to 591. His 1.83 ERA was the second-lowest of his career to his 1.48 mark in 1998 with San Diego. Hoffman signed a one-year deal to return to Milwaukee on the day after the regular-season finale, meaning he will chase his 600th save in a Brewers uniform.
8. Will the skipper really let them run?
With Gomez and Escobar in the starting lineup, Hart back after his appendectomy and second baseman and leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks back from a year lost to wrist surgery, Macha says he's planning to open up the running game in 2010. Macha is adamant that players had the green light during the second half of '09, but many of those players said privately that they felt discouraged from taking chances.
Macha said he might even put the speedy Braun in motion ahead of Fielder. Braun stole 20 bases in 2009 to lead the team.
"We've got some guys that can run this year, so it's going to be a little different," Macha said at the Winter Meetings. "The games may be a little more exciting with the guys who do get on base."
9. Will the turnstiles keep turning?
After drawing a franchise-record 3,068,458 fans on the way to the 2008 postseason, the Brewers welcomed 3,037,451 to Miller Park in 2009, a remarkable achievement for a team in one of baseball's smallest cities. Will an 80-82 finish, coupled with lingering concerns about the economy, mean that the Brewers will play in front of more empty seats next season?
10. Does the GM have a move up his sleeve?
Don't discount the chances of Melvin making another move to bolster the pitching, whether before the season or ahead of July's non-waiver Trade Deadline. He and principal owner Mark Attanasio showed with the July 2008 pickup of CC Sabathia that the Brewers are not averse to "all-in" moves, and with free agency looming for Fielder after the 2011 season, the time may be right to take some chances.