The Mets head back home to Citi Field tonight to begin a quick two-game set with the Milwaukee Brewers and that means that it's time for another edition of Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five series preview! At the outset of this series, the Brewers sit at 15-19, tied for fourth place in the NL Central with the Astros. They're five games behind the division leading Cardinals. Over the weekend, I spoke with Kyle Lobner, Manager of SB Nation's Brewers blog Brew Crew Ball and this is what he had to say about the team (I also answered some Mets questions over at Brew Crew Ball):
SS: The loss of Prince Fielder to the Tigers in the offseason created a big hole for the Brewers in the middle of their lineup. Mat Gamel took over first base and struggled before getting hurt. What is the team’s plan for first base in the present and down the road?
KL: Mat Gamel did a lot this spring to earn himself an opportunity at first base, but unfortunately his injury makes the position a big question mark in the short and long term. Travis Ishikawa is the Brewers' best option at the position defensively now, and will probably get the big share of the at bats unless someone else plays their way into the spot. Taylor Green is a top prospect and has also seen some time there since Gamel went down, but he's still learning the position. Sunday was just his 27th professional game there.
Those are just the top two of half a dozen internal options the Brewers either have considered or likely will consider to fill the gap the rest of this season. It's possible outfielder Corey Hart, utility infielder Brooks Conrad, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and catcher George Kottaras could all see time over there at one point or another. And, of couse, it's possible external options could also come into play.
Looking further ahead, Gamel has to be considered the most likely candidate to man the position in 2013 if he's healthy enough to do so. His play at the position was a pleasant surprise during his limited opportunity this spring.
SS: The Brewers, at present, sit at 15-19. While the loss of Fielder was key, the Brewers still have some excellent offensive players in Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, to go along with an outstanding rotation led by Zach Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum. Do you think the Brewers can compete this year for the division title as is or do you think the loss of Fielder and the lack of an adequate replacement may hurt too much?
KL: On paper this is still a very good team, even without Prince Fielder. Losing Fielder hurt, but upgrading at third base and shortstop (Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez) helped negate some of the loss and there was still reason to believe this team could contend.
Unfortunately, injuries (including Gonzalez) and a really slow start have made it a little more unlikely they'll find a way to win this year. The Brewers were in a similar position last season (when they started 13-19), but that team was getting healthy at that point while this team seems to be trending in the wrong direction.
There's still a lot of talent here and it's possible this team could still contend for the NL Central title or a Wild Card spot, but it will take a pretty impressive turnaround for them to do so.
SS: It’s been a slow start for John Axford, who has a 6.10 ERA despite racking up 20 strikeouts in 10.1 innings and sporting a sparkling 1.11 FIP. Would you chalk this up to small sample size noise or is there an issue there, perhaps with his command, considering all of the walks (6.10 BB/9)? How has the rest of the pen looked so far?
KL: Axford's numbers are a little deceptive at this point: The worst of his meltdowns have come in the final innings of blowout games, when the Brewers have put him in just to get him some work. He's still only blown one save this season (Friday night, when two of the three runs he allowed were unearned), and as you mentioned his strikeout numbers look really good right now.
Control was an issue for Axford before he became a dominant closer, though, and it's been an issue at times again this season. Walks will occasionally come back to haunt you when you're walking the tightrope in a close game, and they certainly have for Axford this season. With that said, he's only walked two batters in his last eight outings so it's possible that problem is behind him.
In the end I think most of us are pretty confident in Axford's ability to get outs. Until this weekend he had converted 49 straight saves, the fourth longest streak in major league history. I think his early struggles will even out in time.
SS: Defensive shifts seem to have become the latest trend in baseball and the Brewers are known around the league as one of the teams that has utilized them often. Personally, I would love to see the Mets use more shifts to help out some of their lesser skilled defensive players. Having watched the Brewers play more than I have, how would you rate the effectiveness of shifts in improving the team's defense over the last year or so?
KL: Using the shift as often as the Brewers have certainly draws a lot of both positive and negative attention. When the shift saves a hit everyone praises it, but the opposite also happens when what would have been an easy groundout or double play ball passes through the spot where a fielder normally would be. The shift certainly helped the Brewers make the most they could have out of a bad defensive infield last season.
In the end, the shifts become just like a lot of other baseball strategies: There are fine lines between not using it enough, using it effectively and using it too much. The Brewers deserve some credit for trying something new to get the most out of a bad defense, but also have to be careful not to outthink themselves.
SS: We all heard about Ryan Braun’s steroid test in the offseason. For all of the typical steroid hysteria in the media, Braun has come out of the gates raking in 2012, to the tune of a career high wOBA and Slugging Percentage through 31 games. How has Braun been treated by the fans and media in Milwaukee, as well as on the road by other teams’ fans?
KL: The home crowd has rallied around Braun in a big way. The fact that Braun had his suspension overturned has given people who wanted to believe him enough evidence to do so. It's possible he did nothing wrong. He's the Brewers' first MVP in decades and, with Prince Fielder gone, he's the single most recognizable and beloved Brewer by leaps and bounds.
On the road, Braun is getting roughly the reaction one would expect. He's been booed everywhere the Brewers have gone this season, although in some places more than others. It doesn't seem to bother him or impact the team, and it's probably just something we'll have to get used to.
The fact of the matter is that we'll never actually know the full story regarding Braun's positive test this winter. The people who want to believe him have evidence on their side, and the people who want to assume the worst have ammunition too. There's no final resolution coming on the matter, so the questions about him will likely follow him for a long time.
A big thanks again to Kyle Lobner of Brew Crew Ball for taking the time to answer these questions for us! You can catch the start of this series tonight at 7:10 PM on SNY. The pitching matchup features Miguel Batista taking the hill for the Mets, while Yovani Gallardo throws for the Brewers.