With the trade deadline here and gone, the Brewers are preparing for their final 54 games of the 2003 season. While the team will again post a losing record and finish at-or-near the bottom of the National League, there are nonetheless a number of important questions yet to be answered. And while none have the excitement of a September pennant race, they remain important to fans of a franchise that hasn't enjoyed a winning season in more than a decade. The following are ten of the most important questions that are thus far unresolved.
01. Will the Brewers win 70 games for the first time since 2000?
Despite their improved play, Milwaukee is on-pace to go 66-96 and will need to win 44 percent of their remaining games to reach that mark. Since back-to-back 74-win campaigns in 1998 and 1999, the Brewers' win total has consistently dropped - first to 73 wins in 2000, then to 68 in 2001, and finally to a dismal 56 in 2002. No matter what happens, it is almost guaranteed that this year's club will improve on it's .345 winning percentage from a year earlier. Winning 70, however, will be much more difficult.
02. Will the Brewers climb out of the NL Central cellar?
With their two closest competitors in the midst of monumental firesales, the Brewers have a chance to move out of their division's basement. The Reds are currently 49-59 (.454) and the Pirates are 49-57 (.462), but both teams have recently dispensed with many of their biggest contributors. While the Cubs would need a historic slump for the Brewers to move into third, fourth place does not seem out of the question.
03. Will the Brewers finish in last place in the National League?
The first pick in next year's Amateur Draft will go to the NL team with the worst record. While the Brewers have a chance to win 70 games and even finish fourth in their division, they also have a chance to earn this dubious honor. Currently, only the Padres (42-67, .385) have a worse record than Milwaukee while the Mets are dead even. The Reds and Pirates are next and every other team in the league is over .500. San Diego will get Phil Nevin back from the DL and will likely improve over the last two months. The Mets are firmly in rebuilding mode and both the Reds and Pirates could easily freefall in their remaining games. The race for last place is by no means resolved and any one of the five clubs could end up with the first pick in 2004.
04. Will anyone be dealt in an August waiver-wire trade?
While Doug Melvin elected not to trade veterans John Vander Wal and Eric Young before the July 31st trading deadline, there is still a chance that they (or someone else) will be dealt before the end of August. In order for a trade to occur, a player must first pass through waivers, giving every other team in baseball an opportunity to claim the player's services. Vander Wal would likely be claimed but Young almost certainly would not. Other possible trade candidates include Glendon Rusch, Mike DeJean, and Royce Clayton.
05. Will any top prospects be called up in September?
The organization has often talked about its commitment to patience with regard to the development of prospects. However, the temptation to showcase some of the club's top minor leaguers will no doubt be great, particularly if the big league club continues to struggle down the stretch. Luis Martinez is the only Top 10 prospect at Triple-A Indianapolis and the southpaw, who is already on the 40-man roster, will likely be called up. The Double-A team at Huntsville is where the real cream of the crop resides, but that club will hopefully be competing for a Southern League title come September. Still, there is a small possibility that J.J. Hardy or David Krynzel could see some action in Milwaukee before the end of the year.
06. Will Enrique Cruz and Billy Hall see much playing time down the stretch?
At the beginning of the season, the Brewers set 150 at-bats as their goal for Rule-5 pick Enrique Cruz. So far, they have fallen woefully short of that total and the 21-year old infielder has only 58 at-bats, 27 of which have come as a pinch-hitter. Worse yet, Cruz was given only 11 at-bats in July, 9 of which came in a pair of starts. The Brewers compounded their playing time problem by recalling Billy Hall from Triple-A. The 23-year old former top prospect had finally started to hit consistently with Indianapolis and reports from that club were very positive. The call-up appeared to be a reward for the youngster's improved production but instead he has accumulated only 19 at-bats in the team's 10 games since joining Milwaukee. The likelihood that either of these two will receive any significant playing seems small and we will have to wait and see whether this treatment will negatively impact their development.
07. Will attendance continue to lag behind last year's total?
With only 27 home games remaining, attendance at Miller Park has been anything but promising. The totals are down more than 300,000 through the same period last season and the average is down from 24,420 last year to only 19,330. An early September series with the Cubs will help but only a three-game series with the Braves next week will likely draw significant crowds. The team's final two home games come on September 23rd and 24th against the Cardinals but by then it might be too late to salvage a respectable attendance total.
08. Will any of the starting pitchers make a late-season surge?
The Milwaukee rotation has been a sore spot all year but recent signs point to an improvement. Ben Sheets has looked more and more like an ace as the year has progressed but he is again fighting a back injury that has plagued him all season. If he stays healthy, Sheets has a chance to finish the year with 15 wins and 200 innings pitched. Beyond that, however, the starting pitchers have each had their struggles. Wayne Franklin has been consistent but his walk totals need to come down in order for him to finish the year strong. Glendon Rusch has been perhaps the worst pitcher in all of the majors but he has been solid since a stint at Triple-A earlier this month. Matt Kinney started the year strong but he has struggled mightily as the innings have piled up. Wes Obermueller has looked good in two starts, Matt Ford will likely be back and challenging for a spot in the rotation, and guys like Luis Martinez, David Manning, Pasqual Coco, and Doug Davis could all receive starts before all is said and done.
09. Will Scott Podsednik continue his outstanding rookie campaign?
After a stellar first half that included a 47-game streak of consecutive games in which he reached base, Scott Podsednik got off to a slow start after the break. He seems to have righted the ship, however, and should challenge for the Rookie of the Year Award. While Dontrelle Willis seems to have that honor locked up, it would nonetheless be encouraging if Podsednik was able to restore his batting average to the .320 range and his on-base percentage back up over .385. If he continues to play well, Podsednik should provide the Brewers a solid lead-off hitter while ensuring that David Krynzel receives ample time to develop in the minors.
10. Will Richie Sexson hit 50 home runs?
The most consistent offensive force for Milwaukee the last several years, Sexson stands at 29 homers and 81 RBI while maintaining a .377 on-base percentage. The 28-year old slugger is on-pace to reach 44 home runs and 123 runs batted in but a late-season power surge could get him to 50. After leg injuries limited him to 29 homers a year ago, Sexson has an excellent chance to match his 2001 production. In that campaign, he hit a career-high 45 homers and knocked in a career-high 125 runs while posting an .889 OPS. Strike-outs are still a problem, however, and the fact that he has played in all of his team's 108 games might take its toll as we head toward the finish line.
While none of these stories has the appeal of a playoff race, Brewers' fans have come to appreciate the little things that make a losing season bearable. Compared to last year's 106-loss campaign, 2003 has been a pleasant-albeit-limited improvement. The organization has a chance to finish the year with a positive impression on the future of the club. Whether this team and its management are able to salvage something to build on is the most important question of all.
Like so many others, the answer remains to be seen.