Okay: Imagine a team four games under its Pythag that, having survived a daring offseason surgery that separated them from their franchise first baseman, has spent most of the 2012 season disappointing its fanbase with feats of individual brilliance that cohere not-often-enough into team wins. A ton of home runs, an enormous offensive breakout from their defensive-minded catcher, broad-based offensive cromulence—none of it's really worked.
Solid pitching from their ace hasn't helped, and neither has the unexpected emergence of a first-year starter who's striking out a batter an inning. You could blame the feast-or-famine offense, and a lot of people have, but there's another possible explanation, and it doesn't involve looking deep into the heart of their MVP-caliber left fielder: Their bullpen's just bad.
Also they have a long-standing connection to an American mega-brewery purchased by foreign interests and have issued multiple paychecks to Chris Narveson.
Obviously all this is to say that I traded questions with Kyle Lobner of Brew Crew Ball, and some of his answers might strike you as a little familiar. Moral hazard fever: Catch it! After the jump, five questions about the bizarro-Cardinals, answered.
1. I noticed the Brewers, like the Cardinals, have underperformed their Pythag pretty severely. Are people ascribing that to some moral failure like they are here?
Usually when a team plays as poorly as the Brewers have for most of this season you can't tie it to one scapegoat, but the 2012 Brewer bullpen might be the exception to that rule. They were the strength of a 96-win team last season but they've been dreadful in 2012, posting a 4.68 ERA as a unit and blowing dozens of saves. The worst stretches of this season have come on days when it felt like no one could throw strikes and no lead was safe.
With that said, it does feel like the situation has gotten somewhat better lately. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have pitched their way back into late inning roles and longtime minor leaguer Jim Henderson has also helped steady things a bit.
2. How's year one of the post-Prince-Fielder era treating Miller Park? Sometimes I forget Albert Pujols was ever a Cardinal, or is a person, which I was not expecting.
I can relate to your feelings about Pujols, because I feel the same way about Fielder. He was a great player and Brewer fans will always have great memories of him but when Opening Day came and he was in another uniform and another league it was easy to put him out of mind. This team would certainly benefit from having him, but offense really hasn't been the problem this season with him gone.
It also probably doesn't hurt that Corey Hart, thrust into a somewhat unfamiliar position mid-season, has been surprisingly good there. Hart has gone from being an outfielder playing out of position to the likely long-term answer at first in a matter of months.
3. What areas will the Brewers target for improvement in the offseason?
The Brewers have some really interesting questions to answer in their rotation this winter. Yovani Gallardo will be back, but everything behind him is somewhat uncertain. Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf are all gone. Rookies Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers have been great this year, but neither is likely ready to take a spot in the top half of the rotation, nor are veteran holdovers Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada or top prospects Tyler Thornburg and Wily Peralta. So I expect the Brewers to make some kind of move to acquire at least one veteran to join Gallardo on the staff.
Also, as I mentioned above the bullpen has been awful this season. I'm expecting something somewhere between "moderate changes" and "burn it down and start from scratch" out there.
4. Where will they stand pat?
The 2013 starting lineup is more or less set at this point. Catcher (Jon Lucroy and/or Martin Maldonado), second base (Rickie Weeks), third base (Aramis Ramirez) and the three outfield spots (Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki) should all be filled by holdovers from 2012, Corey Hart will likely stick at first base and Jean Segura has a strong chance to be the everyday shortstop. The only real question marks are Hart (who could move back to the outfield to make room for Mat Gamel or be traded) and Segura (who could go back to the minors for more seasoning).
5. Is Mike Fiers the name of a real person?
Mike Fiers is one of the Brewers' best stories and biggest surprises from the 2012 season. He was already 24 years old when the Brewers drafted him in the late rounds in 2009 but skyrocketed through the organization, posting a 1.86 ERA across two levels in 2011 and earning a September callup. He was forced into action in the majors due to injuries this season and has been brilliant, posting a 3.11 ERA and striking out nine batters per nine while walking just over two.
Fiers doesn't throw hard or have phenomenal stuff, but his control is very good and his delivery is just unique enough to add a little deception. It's possible teams will eventually figure him out but right now he's one of the reasons this team has stayed in position to make a push at relevance. Without minor league surprises like Fiers and Martin Maldonado this season could have turned into a dumpster fire.
Update: Kyle's posted my responses to his questions over at Brew Crew Ball.