The Milwaukee Brewers were NL Central champions in 2011, posting a club-record 96 victories.
They knew they'd have a tougher time of it in 2012, with Prince Fielder departing as a free agent. Still, NL MVP Ryan Braun is back, and Corey Hart managed to come back early from a spring-training injury, and the starting rotation was intact, and they returned the NL's top closer-setup tandem in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. And the NL Central was being weakened by the Cardinals' loss of Albert Pujols and their management team of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.
What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. The Brewers have been bit hard by the injury bug, for one thing; they have lost both first baseman Mat Gamel and shortstop Alex Gonzalez to season-ending torn ACLs. (That seems to be a contagious injury this year, spreading from baseball to the NBA.) Meanwhile, Braun's hitting at MVP level; Hart has hit about at his career line and Milwaukee has received unexpected production from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who entered Wednesday's game hitting .344/.390/.568 with 27 RBI in 39 games. But those are the only three regulars hitting at an OPS+ level of 100, though Aramis Ramirez is getting close.
Pitching has also failed the Brewers. They entered Wednesday having allowed the second-most runs in the National League. Axford's consecutive-save streak was broken (by the Cubs, of all teams) and the starting rotation, beyond Zack Greinke (who's been very good) and Shaun Marcum (who's been solid), is in tatters.
Those tatters got even more tattered in the first inning of Wednesday's game against the Giants. Marco Estrada, who replaced the out-for-the-season Chris Narveson in the rotation, doubled in two runs and then pulled up at second base limping. Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has the bad news for Brewers fans:
The Brewers just announced that right-hander Marco Estrada left the game with a right hip flexor strain. I'm guessing that will result in a trip to the disabled list, especially with the Brewers' pitching staff being a bit overworked right now.
So the Brewers are down offensively and now need another starting pitcher. They don't really have much help at Triple-A; they recently re-signed castoff Claudio Vargas, who has made one start at Nashville for them, but he's 34 and, considering Milwaukee let him go almost two years ago and he's been through two other organizations since then, he's probably not the answer. They could look to Josh Stinson at Double-A, but then you're reaching for a guy who might not be ready, considering Milwaukee's supposed to be contending.
Then there's the problem at shortstop; Cesar Izturis drove in a run Wednesday. That gave him four for the season, and his OPS coming into the day was .437. Haudricourt says the Brewers might be addressing that issue:
It does appear that the #Brewers are looking for SS help but it won't be easy finding a significant upgrade there. A shortage in MLB now.— Tom (@Haudricourt) May 23, 2012
There will likely be some pitching help around, as we get closer to the trading deadline, but that's two months away. One thing the Brewers might do is see if they could pry Kevin Youkilis away from the Red Sox to play first base. Or maybe give Derrek Lee a phone call; Lee never got an offer as a free agent last offseason. Lee is 36 and nearing the end of the line, but he did hit .337/.398/.584 in 28 games for the Pirates after they acquired him last July. Lee has plenty of NL Central experience, he's solid defensively and he wouldn't block the return of Gamel in 2013.
The Brewers did make a roster move after the game Wednesday:
INF Cody Ransom claimed off waivers from Arizona; INF Edwin Maysonet optioned to Nashville; SS Alex Gonzalez transferred to 60-day DL.— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) May 23, 2012
Somehow, this doesn't seem like the season-saving move they need. The Brewers ran out to an 8-0 lead on the Giants on Wednesday, but had to hang on for an 8-5 win. Even after that, they still remain just 2½ games ahead of the Cubs for last place in the NL Central (and the worst record in baseball). One thing's for sure -- they didn't expect to be in that spot in late May. They're going to have to replace some or all of their injured players with better-than-replacement-level spare parts, or they'll be watching the postseason at home this October.