2001 Central Division Champions: The Milwaukee Brewers??
added 2/23/2001 by Matthew Becker
Miller Park. Billy the Brewer. Jeromy Burnitz. Do these words strike fear into the hearts of Astros' fans everywhere? No, but they soon will.
Who are these guys, anyway? Can this team even compete with a catcher who has never started played in more than 93 games in a single season? How about with a center fielder (Jeffrey Hammonds) who has only played the position 93 times in the last 4 years? This team doesn't even have a "real" closer!
First of all, the Brewers have the best pitcher in the NL Central. The national media hasn't caught onto him yet, but Jeff D'Amico, at just 25 years old, has come back from injury to break out as one of the elite pitchers in baseball. With a 2.66 ERA in 2000, and greater than a 2:1 K:BB ratio, this young man is going to be excellent for a long time to come.
The rest of the rotation can hold their own as well. Jamie Navarro is finally gone, so Jimmy Haynes and Jamey Wright can take over in the middle of the rotation. The final two spots will be a dog-fight between Paul Rigdon, Everett Stull, and John Snyder. This young rotation has been erratic in the past, but if they can pull it together, it will be enough to leapfrog them into the elite of the NL.
The bullpen, although young, shows lots of promise, and can turn into one of the best in the league. With Dave Weathers, Juan Acevedo, and Curtis Leskanic, they have the best three pitchers to put away baseball games this side of the Yankees. Also, young phenom Valerio De Los Santos is expected to put a left-handed threat, giving them an excellent bullpen.
The hitting is nothing short of outstanding. Leading off, the 26 year old Ron Belliard should bounce back from a relatively average 2000 season (.263 AVG, 30 2B). He gets on base often, and showed in 1999 that he could hit extremely well, also. Mark Loretta, batting second, has shown over the years to hit extremely well, especially for a shortstop. His power is sometimes lacking, but he also gets on base on a consistent basis.
When Belliard and Loretta get on base, the opposing team is in critical trouble. The 3-4-5 combination of Geoff Jenkins, Jeromy Burnitz, and Richie Sexson ranks up with the Astros and Red Sox as the best combination in baseball. Jenkins, who turns 27 this season, has flirted with a 1.000 OPS for the past two seasons, and should only improve, as 2001 is his fourth major league season. If Jeromy Burnitz can bounce back from a disappointing 2000 campaign, he should be expected to put up similar numbers to Jenkins. Sexson, the steal of the 2000 trading deadline, is just 26, and is a threat to post a 40-45 homer season. Many baseball people feel he has the skills to be a superstar.
The bottom of the order is a nice finish, as Hammonds and Jose Hernandez can both be expected to put up above-average numbers. Henry Blanco is the only real weak spot in this lineup, and will be tucked away in the 8th spot all season.
Hammonds may have had his 2000 stats (.335 AVG, 20 HR, 14 SB) inflated by Coors Field, but most people don't know that he has had good years in other parks, as well. In 1999, with the Reds, he posted a .279 average with 17 homers in just 123 games. The only question mark surrounding him is his health, as he has never played in more than 123 games in his career. However, Marquis Grissom is ready to come off the bench should something happen to him.
The bench is also a force to be reckoned with. When the outfield is healthy, Grissom can come off in a key pinch-hitting role late in games to provide extra punch. Luis Lopez is a quality infielder, especially as a defensive replacement. However, an extra bat might not be a bad idea for the Brewers to consider.
This team may have a few question marks, but so does every other team in the division. Can Larkin come back from injury, can Griffey keep his head together, and can the pitching staff keep the ball in the park? Can Ankiel come back from "the thing", can McGwire go without getting hurt, and can Kile repeat a good year for the first time ever? Can Lima bounce back, Elarton lower his ERA, can Biggio come back to form, and can Ausmus settle down the brand new, injury-prone bullpen?
With great hitting talent and an comparable pitching to the Astros and Cardinals, there is no reason why the Brewers can't shock the baseball world in 2001. Health is another factor entirely, but if the team holds together, the "Comedy Central" once again turns into one of the best divisions in baseball.