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Macha more comfortable in second year

Macha more comfortable in second year

MILWAUKEE -- On the verge of his second season at the helm, Brewers manager Ken Macha looks back and concedes that he might have gotten off on the wrong foot with some of his players last spring. Year 2, he figures, should begin a lot more smoothly.

In his first meeting with the team's position players last year, Macha remembers distributing a handout heavy with statistics. The idea was to illustrate with charts and graphs the importance of smart baserunning, of going from first to third, of taking the extra base on a play at the plate, and conversely of playing smart defense to limit the other team's advances. It was esoteric stuff, and it might not have been the best tone to set on Day 1.

That's especially so considering that the Brewers were coming off the franchise's best season in a generation, and that virtually the entire lineup had returned intact. Macha was the new guy in the room.

"In the back of their minds, they were probably saying, 'Hey, dude, we made the playoffs last year,'" Macha said with a chuckle this week. "It's like, 'What are you talking about? We know what we're doing.'"

But Macha didn't back down then, and he doesn't plan on doing so in 2010. He's just banking on the fact that players will understand where he's coming from this time.

"I understand that they made it to the playoffs [in 2008], but the idea is to get the best we can get out of the talent we've got," Macha said. "That's all I ever wanted last year, and it's what I'm going to want this year, too. In the long run, there are some areas that I would like to see a sizeable amount of improvement."

The project begins in earnest on Monday, when Brewers pitchers and catchers participate in their first official workout. Position players will formally join the fold five days later.

Macha has had a full four and a half months to prepare this time, having been spared some offseason uncertainty last Oct. 4, when general manager Doug Melvin made it clear that Macha would serve the second year of his contract. For an added bit of security, Melvin tacked on a club option for 2011.

"I have confidence in him," Melvin said then. "I think he's a smart baseball guy. The qualities that made me believe he was the right guy when I hired him showed up."

Macha said he will still stress fundamentals in 2010, and while every manager says that in February, those "little things" might be more important than ever for the Brewers, given some of the team's lineup changes. Gone are center fielder Mike Cameron and shortstop J.J. Hardy, along with some serious home run potential, leaving speedsters Carlos Gomez and Alcides Escobar at those positions and some degree of concern about how the Brewers will score runs.

Macha isn't too concerned himself, partly because Gomez and Escobar will bring top-flight defense and partly because Melvin remade the pitching staff. If Macha wasn't silver-haired already, he would have been after cobbling together the National League's worst starting rotation last season.

"We were fourth in the league in runs scored last year, and it goes to show that it's not just how many you score; it's how many you give up," he said. "You have to score more runs than the other team. That sounds like a Yogi Berra thing, but it's true. We were outscored by 33 runs and we were two [games] under .500. What happens if we reverse that? I think we would be in the hunt."

If he put together a lineup today, Macha said it would look like this:

1. Rickie Weeks, 2B
2. Casey McGehee, 3B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Prince Fielder, 1B
5. Corey Hart, RF
6. Gregg Zaun, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Pitcher
9. Alcides Escobar, SS

That's subject to change over the next six weeks, of course, especially the idea of batting the pitcher in the eight-hole. The Brewers have tried that alignment a number of times over the past two seasons with varying results, and Macha remains intrigued by either Gomez or Escobar in the nine-spot. The idea is to get another man on base in front of the Brewers' fabulous No. 3 and 4 hitters.

"We'll have to see," Macha said. "I tried Escobar there last year, and the key is you've got to get on base. If you get somebody who gets on at a .360 [on-base percentage] rate, then it has some advantages. It may be something to look at a bit further."

As for the starting rotation, Macha said that all six primary competitors for the rotation -- Dave Bush, Doug Davis, Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf -- would be on an even playing field. Barring injury, though, it seems extremely likely that Gallardo, Wolf and Davis will lead the group into the season.

Macha wasn't ready to officially name Gallardo his Opening Day starter, but it comes as no surprise that he's the leading competitor.

"It would be nice to put it out there for him this year," Macha said.

While options for the lineup and rotation bounce around his head, Macha plans to focus on a couple of areas in Spring Training workouts:

Baserunning

"It's not necessarily the amount of stolen bases that you get, it's when you steal these bases," Macha said. "And it's also going from first to third, scoring from first base on a double or from second on a base hit. Moving up a base on a ball in the dirt. I think we can improve on those areas, and I have an idea about some things to implement."

Defense

"We didn't have many outfield assists last season," Macha said. "It's also about hitting the cutoff man, keeping the other guys from taking extra bases."

Controlling opponents' running game

"Controlling baserunners doesn't come from the catcher," Macha said. "It comes from the pitchers, and that's got to improve."

Macha will have a strong ally in that final endeavor in new pitching coach Rick Peterson, who also worked with and then for Macha in Oakland. The arrival of a veteran pitching coach should allow Macha to be more hands-off in that area than he was in 2009, when longtime bullpen coach Bill Castro was promoted but then dismissed in August.

Peterson is the only new addition to a staff that otherwise returns intact. That fact puts Macha more at ease than at this time last year.

"And it's not just me knowing them, it's them knowing me. That's going to be key," Macha said. "That should go for the players, too."

Maybe he will get fewer blank stares when he distributes that handout this time.

"Now that they've been through it for a year, maybe they'll look at that chart and say, 'OK, this makes some sense," Macha said. "There's some familiarity there, and that's going to help."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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