Where have all the good times gone?
Let us backtrack. The year was 2011, the Major League Baseball playoffs were upon us, and who had just accomplished the task of winning the National League Central Division crown? Well, none other than the Milwaukee Brewers, of course.
You see, just two seasons ago, the Brewers were the talk of the baseball world. There was “beast mode,” there was Tony Plush (aka Nyjer Morgan), but most importantly there was this small market team in Milwaukee winning baseball games. So, where did this 96-win season come from? And, where has it gone since then?
As it often does in the game of baseball, the success of the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers ultimately came down to pitching. It appeared General Manager Doug Melvin was in a win-now state of mind when he dealt top prospect Brett Lawrie straight up for Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays. That apparent state of mind was clarified just a couple of weeks later when Melvin struck another deal, this time sending a handful of prospects to the Kansas City Royals for Zack Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young award winner, in return.
With Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson holding down the fourth and fifth spots, respectively, the rotation was set. Suddenly, the Brewers had become a National League threat before the season had even started. As a team that season, the Brewers went on to post a very respectable 3.63 ERA, good enough for 9th in all of baseball.
The offense, on the other hand, was never an issue. In 2011, the Brewers led the NL in home runs hit with 185, while ranking 3rd amongst NL teams in batting average at .265. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks combined for 117 of those 185 round-trippers.
The offense was there, the pitching was there, and the execution was there. Along the way, the Brewers added stud reliever Francisco Rodriguez to bolster an already nearly untouchable back end of the bullpen and cruised to their first division title since 1982, immediately setting their sights on the National League Division series. They went on to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks in five games before falling victim in the NL Championship Series to their NL Central rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, who went on to win the World Series that season.
Then, the wheels began to loosen.
Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL Most Valuable Player, was revealed to have tested positive for performance enhancers, Prince Fielder signed a 9-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers, and suddenly the middle of the order for the Brewers was facing potentially major problems.
Astonishingly, in February of 2012, Braun won his appeal and would not miss any time during the 2012 season due to what would have been a 50-game suspension. But of course, it didn't end there.
While the Brewers signed accomplished hitter Aramis Ramirez to a three-year contract to soften the all but inevitable blow of losing Prince Fielder to free agency and the 50-game suspension looming over Braun, problems popped up elsewhere.
Mat Gamel, who would finally get his chance to be the club's every day first basemen, had his season cut short early on in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a torn ACL. Even worse, during spring training in preparation for the 2013 season, Gamel again tore his ACL.
While the Brewers went on to hit a National League-leading 202 home runs in 2012, which was impressive considering they hit 17 more as a team without Prince Fielder around, it was the lack of pitching from the club that doomed their season.
Behind Rodriguez and Axford in 2011, the Brewers did not lose when leading a game going into the 8th inning. In 2012, the Brewers led all of baseball with 29 blown saves. Not only that, but their team ERA jumped from 3.63 in 2011 to 4.22 in 2012, just about a half run higher. Randy Wolf struggled, Shaun Marcum followed up his stellar 2011 campaign with injury problems, and suddenly the Brewers had pitched themselves out of a season.
They did win 24 games in a 30-game stretch to remain competitive up until the final week of the season, but ultimately they were too late. From a team who came away with 96 wins and a division title in 2011, they had fallen to a modest record of 83-79, missing the playoffs entirely.
Along the way the trade deadline had arrived and the Brewers were undoubtedly sellers. In a move that was disappointing to Brewers' faithful but sensible for the team, Melvin dealt ace Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels for three prospects, including Jean Segura, who is now their current and hopefully future every day shortstop.
Much like the case had been with Fielder, Milwaukee would have had no chance to retain Greinke, who was sure to be the top pitcher on the market in the off-season. This was set in stone when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Greinke to a staggering six-year, $147 million deal. For Milwaukee, the best they could do was to get what they could before it was too late.
And then came spring training for the 2013 season. This Brewers team had many new faces from top to bottom, and not too many old ones from their franchise best 2011 season.
Among the many names, several familiar faces that were gone included: Manny Parra, Kameron Loe, Nyjer Morgan, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum, and Zack Greinke. While Greinke was traded mid-season in 2012, Wolf was claimed through waivers at the end of August by the Baltimore Orioles. Loe and Morgan were sent outright to the minor leagues, but both elected to test free agency.
In 2011, T-Plush had a career season, hitting .304 while posting a .357 on-base percentage. In 2012, however, he regressed substantially, hitting just .239 over the course of 122 games. Where is Mr. Morgan now? Well, playing in Japan, of course.
As for Loe, he was also a key component out of the Brewers' bullpen in 2011, posting an ERA of 3.50 with a WHIP of 1.13 over the course of 72 appearances. In 2012, he struggled mightily and lost his effectiveness, posting an ERA of 4.61 with a WHIP of 1.43 over the course of 72 appearances.
In order to fix the bullpen issues that plagued the club in 2012, Melvin went out and signed Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny, while also making a small trade for Tampa Bay Rays' reliever, Burke Badenhop.
But while Melvin was out shoring up the bullpen, there was still the issue of starting pitching. Michael Fiers, who came on strong in 2012, had lost his effectiveness and began having injury issues as the 2013 season opened.
With Greinke, Marcum and Wolf gone, the Brewers' number 2 starting spot in the rotation belonged to spot-starter/long relief man, Marco Estrada. This was an issue, so when free agent starters Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, and Anibal Sanchez were all signed for more money than the club was willing to spend, it became increasingly clear the Brewers were running out of options.
As the 2013 season drew closer, it seemed as if the Brewers weren't going to be able to compete for another division title, let alone a playoff spot. But owner Mark Attanasio would have none of that as he became the driving force in the eventual signing of Kyle Lohse. The Brewers had to give up their 1st round draft pick for the 2013 season in order to sign the right-handed starter, which in hindsight looks like an awful move as the Brewers are currently staring at an abysmal record of 54-70, which places them nearly 20 games out of first place and well out of contention.
By month, the team ERA for the Brewers is as follows: 4.16 in April and 4.91 in May. Pitching so poorly during the first two months of the season effectively removed Milwaukee from any sort of contention early on, which is unfortunate considering how well they've pitched as a team over the last 3 months.
With ERAs of 3.44, 3.63, and an unbelievable 2.34 in June, July and August, respectively, it seems as though the Brewers figured it out a couple of months too late.
Adding to the woes were season-ending injuries to Mat Gamel and his backup, Corey Hart. Ryan Braun was eventually suspended for the remainder of the 2013 season due to previous PED use and his connection to the defunct Biogenesis Clinic.
Since Fielder's departure, 12 players have filled in at first base for the Brewers. If that number wasn't staggering enough, imagine having 7 different starters at first this season alone.
That is how 2013 has gone for Milwaukee. All of their power from 2011 (Fielder, Braun, Hart and Weeks) were lost to free agency, suspension, and season-ending injuries. The ever-regressing Weeks was the most recent player to have his season cut short. And while Aramis Ramirez provided a huge lift in production during the 2012 campaign, injuries have allowed him to play in just 59 games this season.
With a gutted rotation, the Brewers have had to turn to replacement-level players in Donovan Hand, Alfredo Figaro, Hiram Burgos, and Tyler Thornburg.
Prospect Johnny Hellweg, who came over via the Greinke deal, had a horrendous stint in three starts at the major-league level. And while rookie Wily Peralta has logged just about 149 innings this year for Milwaukee, he has shown a considerable lack of consistency.
Three bright spots for the Brewers have included first time all-stars Jean Segura (shortstop) and Carlos Gomez (center fielder). The final gem has been 30-year old hurler Jim Henderson, who has locked up the closer role by posting an ERA of 1.79 and converting 18 saves over the course of 46 appearances.
Due to an injury-ridden roster, the suspension of the now disgraced face of the franchise, and an overall lack of experience, the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers are a long fall from grace compared to the delight that was the 2011 season.
The Brewers rise in 2011 was quick, even euphoric. Unfortunately, their fall these past two seasons has come just as quick, if not quicker. Maybe in a couple of years we'll be discussing the Milwaukee Brewers as one of the top teams in the league again.
By: Shaun Ranft