Will the Brewers Fall Prey to the Sophomore Jinx?
by Matt Foust - 03/18/2008
Everybody in Milwaukee probably has their fingers crossed in hopes that their beloved Brewers don't fall victim to that invisible but deadly foe - the "sophomore slump". Nobody expected the Brewers to contend for the NL Central crown last year, but for much of the 2007 season they looked like the team to beat. However, the Brewers faded down the stretch and the Cubs eventually ended Milwaukee's improbable run to the playoffs. So, after a breakout year the baseball world is now wondering if the Brewers can build off last year's success or if they will fall victim to baseball's most notorious phantom. We're asking the same question, but to answer it properly we'll have to turn to more than sorcery and superstitious thinking.
First, let's look at what the organization lost as well as what they acquired in the off-season. On the departing front, Milwaukee saw 2007 contributors Francisco Cordero (bullpen), Geoff Jenkins (outfield), Scott Linebrink (bullpen) and Johnny Estrada (catcher) hit the door. They in turn welcomed catcher Jason Kendall, outfielder Mike Cameron, setup man David Riske, and closer Eric Gagne into the fold. It would appear -- at least on paper -- that the Brewers more than made up for their losses. The only position that appears to have been possibly downgraded is catcher. Kendall is not what he once was, but he still is an adequate presence behind the plate. There certainly isn't anything here than would cause a Brewer slide.
Second, we'll need to see how the current starting rotation matches up to the 2007 version. In 2007 Milwaukee sported a reliable staff that finished toward the middle part of the league in most statistical categories (ERA, Opponent Batting Average, Runs Allowed, etc.) and toward the top in strikeout-to-walk ratio. They did this with arguably their best pitcher, Ben Sheets, out for the months of May, June, and July. Can they out perform this in 2008? The answer is almost certainly yes. The second half of last year saw the emergence of Yovani Gallardo, who figures to be a second or third starter from the outset this year. Milwaukee also has two talented young pitchers in Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra that will likely push the weaker links in their 2007 rotation, Chris Capuano and Dave Bush, to the bench. Additionally, the Brewers hope to have a healthy Ben Sheets for the length of the 2008 season. All of these factors point to the rotation having more talent and more depth this season. A slump should not originate on the mound for this squad.
Where is the next likely spot for a collapse to occur? Usually it would stem from a feeble batting order. Feeble doesn't apply to Milwaukee's lineup in any way. Even if one player were to have an off stretch, the Brewers have no shortage of gifted bats to protect them against such an occurrence. This is a team that averaged 4.94 RPG in 2007 and in division play they increased that number to 5.43. It's not plausible that Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Mike Cameron are suddenly going to forget how to hit the ball. These guys protect each other in that they force pitchers to pitch to each guy. A collective collapse would have to occur for this to be the cause of a major fall backward in the standings.
Another area that must be looked at is where any additional Milwaukee losses would come in division competition. Who in the NL Central has improved enough that they are going to overtake the Brewers in the standings? The answer is nobody. While Houston made a number of good offseason moves and is likely to be much better in 2008, they are still chasing Milwaukee. Cincinnati could be better as well but they have way too many question marks to even consider them as a spoiler. St. Louis appears to be in a state of transition and the Pirates are in a constant state of horrendous. The short answer is that the NL Central is a slump elixir for any team with reasonable talent.
Lastly, to get an indication of how the Brewers might do in 2008, take a look at the odds that most major sportsbooks are giving Milwaukee. After all, these people make a living doing this type of thing so it's a good place to check. Most MLB futures show the World Series to be a reach; however the Brewers are getting good odds on the NL Central title. Bookmaker, for example, has Milwaukee at +230 odds to win their division. They are not alone in their positive outlook for the Brewers, both Bodog and Sportsbetting.com have Milwaukee's odds for winning the NL Central listed at 9/4.
So, it looks like the Brewers have all the inside and outside intangibles to safeguard them this season. Despite what superstitions baseball players and fans cling to, talent usually overcomes them. Based on that, I'd say Milwaukee is a pretty safe bet to avoid a drop off in 2008. In fact, I would say they are a safer bet to cause a slump than to experience a one.