Ruben Quevedo gives the Crew something to get excited about as the season closes. It isn't a new sensation for fans to watch the Brewers tamely coast toward the end of another losing season (that's nine straight if you've lost count). But it certainly seems to sting more than in the recent past. That's mostly because there had been some real expectations and anticipation before the 2001 season began. Regardless, it's time for that annual late August ritual of Brewer fans: looking toward next season. Still, there is a whole month of Brewers baseball remaining to be played, and believe it or not there might be some real reasons for fans to continue to pay attention. For those of us who continue to suffer our Brewers affliction, win or lose, here are 10 things to watch as the Brewers close out 2001.
1) Nick Neugebauer. This one is pretty obvious. The first Brewers pitcher to have been born in the '80s sent an adrenaline rush to Brewers fans everywhere with his dazzling 5-inning debut against the Cincinnati Reds. 'Neuge' is a rookie, and will certainly see his share of pitfalls, but his brand of fireball tossing hasn't been seen coming from a Brewers uniform for a long time. (It's too bad he can't take a crack against the Brewers lineup, there'd be records in the making!) Look for the youngster to get himself acclimated just enough to be ready next spring to seize the third or fourth spot in the 2002 rotation.
2) The incredible strikeout pace. Actually, there isn't a whole lot of drama surrounding this one. The Brewers will undoubtedly obliterate the major league record for team strikeouts in a season. Things have slowed down a little bit most recently with the loss of free swingers like Ron Belliard and Geoff Jenkins, but Jose Hernandez and Richie Sexson are still there to carry the torch. Speaking of Sexson, he's been flirting with the pace to break Bobby Bonds single season strikeout record of 189. Yet another item to watch for during September.
3) Miller Park Attendance. They won't meet their stated goal of 3 million that was inexplicably set, just as everyone told them they wouldn't. But Miller Park has been everything the team and fans could have hoped it would be. With the team's recent disgusting play at home, it will be interesting to see whether the inevitable September drop-off will be magnified and perhaps carry over some into next season. The All-Star Game will certainly provide next year a boost, but not as much as would inking a proven young player in free agency that could get the town talking.
4) Dac and Carew. Baseball Weekly recently reported that the Brewers have already decided not to retain at least hitting coach Rod Carew and pitching coach Bob Apodaca after this season. While Dean Taylor quickly disputed the report, it will be interesting to see what transpires in this regard and whether or not events in September might have an effect.
5) 73-89. You can bet the ranch that the club is hoping against hope that the Brewers can finish above their dismal record of last year, so that the front office can perform its usual positive spin operation on the season's results. Despite the recent resurgence in Cincinnati and Chicago, the fact that 20 of the final 29 games come against playoff contenders St. Louis, Arizona, and Brewers-killer Houston does not bode well for the club's chances of avoiding 90 losses.
6) Young Guns. We've already discussed Nick Neugebauer, but who can forget the original 2001 rookie hero Ben Sheets and the impressive recent string of outings by young Cubs import Ruben Quevedo. If your September tickets don't put you in position to catch 'Neuge' in action, don't give them away without first checking to see if Quevedo is due on the mound, because the portly right-hander can be plenty fun to watch as well. As for Sheets, the status of his prized right shoulder merits attention, if not genuine concern, as he will very likely come to spring training next year as one of the team's "veteran" starters. Let's not forget ancient-by-comparison Jamey Wright, who has really put some solid starts together at times this year, particularly against good competition. If Wright can get some real momentum going through all of September, and get to 11 or 12 wins, he could have the inside track to be the opening day starter next season. 7) Big Daddy. Yes, Jeff D'Amico is still in the Brewers plans. 2001 was yet another washout season for the Brewers annointed ace, but his dominate July of 2000 still causes people around the Brewers to salivate, at least enough to continually offer the injury-plagued righty a contract. The team is hoping D'Amico can make a September start or two at the big league level, and if the results are good, maybe the Brewers can convince him to put in a little off-season strength and conditioning for a change. Big Daddy will probably never be able to start more than 20 games in a season, but getting those 15-20 starts out of his semi-artificial right arm would be a big boost to the Brewers' chances in 2002.
8) Jimmy Haynes. The Brewers most durable starter the last two years could be nearing the end of his Brewers career. His maddening inconsistency and inability to come up with big starts when needed may be wearing out the patience of a front office with plenty of young, promising alternatives waiting in the wings. The team certainly hopes Jimmy can finish the season strong and perhaps make a case for himself in the trade market.
9) Burnitz's last days? If Dean Taylor is to find the leadoff hitter and speedster that the Brewers so desperately need, that player may very well be an outfielder. The chances of the Brewers making another significant financial commitment to that area without ridding themselves of one of the current contracts leaves Burnitz as the most expendable. This was evidenced in the Glendon Rusch - Burnitz trade with the Mets that almost went through. Of course, if Jeffrey Hammonds is unable to recover well enough from his shoulder surgery, then the Brewers would be fools to bid Jeromy farewell, especially considering the hot streak he has recently gone through.
10) Houston and Jenkins return? The Brewers clearly were a better team when their only .300 capable hitters were in the lineup. Jenkins injuries are of concern because he could be required to undergo off-season surgery. Geoff was poised for a breakout season following his monstrous April weekend against Montreal. However, he immediately hurt his shoulder and was never the same. Houston was also starting to come into his own. The left-hander had even begun to have some success against left-handed pitching. Tyler's defense at third base had also been stellar. All of which points to his being penciled in as the team's regular third baseman next season. The Brewers are hoping both players can return to action for the final few weeks of the season.