10 Keys to Chasing Down Redbirds

First off, I’d like to apologize for the lack of posts over the past few days. As it turns out, there aren’t many merits to procrastination for a freshman in college.  Now, let’s get to the point of this post.

Through the first couple weeks of the 2012 regular season, the Milwaukee Brewers — as well as the rest of the National League Central division — are already looking up at defending World Series champions St. Louis Cardinals, who hold a healthy two-game lead over the rest of the division.

While a lot of baseball has yet to be played this season, there have been more than enough reasons for concern for the Prince Fielder-less Brewers. Hitting has been scarce much more than usual, defense has looked abysmal and the starting pitching hasn’t been up-to-par from where it was last season.

As the season persists and games continue to become more important, how do the Brewers intend on catching the Cardinals for the division title? Here are 10 keys.

*All stats updated through April 25, 2012

Aramis Ramirez Must Get His Power Swing Back

Aramis Ramirez’s brief 2012 stint with the Brewers has been a nightmare situation for both sides. After signing a lucrative four-year contract last December, the tried veteran has struggled mightily through the first three weeks of the season.

In 61 plate appearances, Ramirez has just 10 his to go along with an unsightly .164/.224/.295 line.  His plate discipline has been in question early in the season, amassing a walk rate of just 7.5 percent with a strikeout rate just south of 20 percent. However, those are the least of his worries at this juncture.

Ramirez has yet to truly find his power-stroke this season, holding true to an unpleasant .131 ISO. For a guy well-known for his capacity to hit the long-ball — he has a career .215 ISO — those numbers are more than concerning. If the Brewers expect to catch up with the Cardinals at any point this season, they’ll need Ramirez to get his power-swing back out of the cleanup spot in Ron Roenicke’s lineup.

Rickie Weeks Must Cut Down on His Strikeouts

Expectations were high for Rickie Weeks coming off yet another injury-plagued campaign, particularly with respect to his offensive productivity.  Milwaukee’s second-baseman made his first All-Star appearance for the National League last summer in large part due to his offensive yield.

Through the first three weeks of 2012, however, Milwaukee’s 29-year-old has regressed at the plate tremendously.  In 76 plate appearances, Weeks has managed a .182/.289/.364 line with a team-worst strikeout rate of 27.6 percent. His morbid strikeout rate has in large part stemmed from his inability to hit the curveball, putting just 8.8 percent of all curveballs in play this season.

Weeks’ struggles at the plate haven’t been enough for Ron Roenicke to move him out of the leadoff spot in the lineup. But if his plate discipline doesn’t improve in a timely fashion, it will be near impossible for the Brewers to gain any ground on the Cardinals as the season persists.

Jonathan Lucroy/George Kottaras Must Continue Their Hot Hitting

The Brewers have been a collective mess at the plate this season, but the one bright spot has surprisingly come from catchers Jonathan Lucroy and backup George Kottaras.

Despite batting primarily out of the No. 8 hole in Milwaukee’s lineup, the two have combined for a scintillating .314/.429/.608 line with three home runs, nine runs batted in and eight runs scored. There tremendous productivity at the dish has been enough for a MLB-best 1.3 WAR rating among all team catching units.

Never have the Brewers been able to get so much offensive production from the catching position to start a season. Milwaukee will need a high output from Lucroy and Kottaras all season long if they’re to catch the Redbirds for the division lead.

More Consistent Outings from Randy Wolf

Randy Wolf was an unmitigated workhorse for the Brewers last season, leading the staff with 212.1 innings pitched and finishing second with 21 quality starts. Entering what could potentially be a contract year for the 35-year-old southpaw, many surmised he’d pick up right where he left off.

Unfortunatly, that hasn’t been the case through the first three weeks of the season. In his first three starts of 2012, Wolf finds himself 0-2 with a gaudy 8.80 ERA.  Even more alarming, opponents are hitting .325 with a .373 BABIP, which isn’t all that surprising given the fact he’s struggled to command his changeup.

Wolf turned in a solid outing against the Astros Tuesday night, but in the largely scope of things, there is much improvement to be had from Milwaukee’s No. 3 starter.  Needless to say, those improvements will need to come quickly if the Brewers intend on catching the Cardinals.

Corey Hart’s Slugging Ways Must Persist

Brewers right fielder Corey Hart has always been known for this power potential, and through the first few weeks of this 2012 season, it’s been on full display.

Milwaukee’s 29-year-old outfielder has carried Ron Roenicke’s lineup to the tune of a .286/.388/.679 line with a team-high five home runs. His power stroke has given him a by far and away team-best .393 ISO over the likes of Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Rickie Weeks.

In a Brewers lineup in desperate need for production without Prince Fielder, Hart has quickly become Roenicke’s most reliable hitter for power who can drive the ball to any corner of the field. The graph below illustrates exactly what I’m talking about.

If Hart’s ability to drive the ball to the opposite field persists, it will be awfully difficult for pitchers to try and pitch around him. Needless to say, the Brewers will need his dynamic bat in the middle of their order if they have any shot of catching St. Louis.

Seventh Inning Relievers Must Be Steadfast

One of the biggest question marks facing the Brewers coming into spring training was whether or not their bullpen would be able to effectively bridge the gap from the starters to setup man Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford, particularly in the seventh innings. So far, things have looked rather shaky.

Jose Veras, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Marco Estrada and Tim Dillard have held down the fort adequately so far, but they will have their work cut out for them as the season progresses. As a unit, they’ve managed a 3.50 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, .286 BAA and .375 OBP in the seventh inning.

If the Brewers have any plans to catch up with the Cardinals, who’s staff has been nothing short of outstanding so far this season, they’ll need to show signs of progress in bridging the gap from their starters to their late-inning relievers.

Francisco Rodriguez Must Command, Develop Confidence in His Changeup

Francisco Rodriguez was once upon a time the best closer in baseball, thanks in large part to a devastating upper-90 MPH fastball and low 80 MPH changeup combo.  However, age has taken a palpable toll on the former all-world closer.

Now in his first full season with Milwaukee, Rodriguez’s fastball has worked effectively, however, his changeup has been noticeably lacking. Last season, K-Rod aggregated a strike percentage of 68.6 with his changeup but has garnered just a 39.5 strike percentage with the pitch in 11 appearances this season.

The chart below depicts Rodriguez’s changeup location plot so far this season.

Ryan Braun Simply Cannot Try to Do It All

Reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun took a whole lot of flack from baseball fans this past offseason for his connectivity to performance-enhancing drugs, despite the fact he was vindicated of the charges against him through an appeal from the league office.

But while Braun remains legally exonerated, his obvious struggles this season have only given his doubters more reason to question his innocence. In 74 plate appearances, Braun boasts a .266/.338/.516 line with just three home runs and nine runs batted in. He’s aggregated a strikeout rate of 23 percent and a walk rate of 8.1 percent, as well, and his tendency to swing at pitches has moreover magnified without the protection of Prince Fielder.

All things considered, though, Braun simply cannot try to do it all by himself. The pressure to produce on-par with his 2011 yield will only continue to mount, and if he caves in to that pressure, the Brewers will have no shot at catching the Cardinals for the division lead.

Ron Roenicke Must Push the Envelope on the Bases

Brewers head-skipper Ron Roenicke has been a longtime advocate of aggressiveness on the bases since his days as a understudy to Mike Scioscia in Los Angeles. Since being hired to run the show in Milwaukee at the beginning of last season, his mentality hasn’t changed — and the results are finally beginning to show.

This season, the Brewers have become one of the best base-stealing clubs in baseball.  As a unit, they’ve hoarded 15 stolen bases while only being caught five times, which has in turn led to an MLB-best 6.5 SPD rating according to Fan Graphs.

The Cardinals aren’t heavily dependent on their base-stealing capabilities, however, the Brewers are.  If Roenicke continues to push the envelope on the bases this season, that will give them a whole new weapon to produce runs with against the competition.

Marco Estrada Must Remain the No. 5 Starter

Marco Estrada was thrust into the starting rotation last week when word broke that lefty Chris Narveson, Milwaukee’s inherent No. 5 starter, would have to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Estrada would proceed to toss five complete innings of two-hit ball while striking out a team-high nine batters against the Colorado Rockies last Saturday

While Narveson’s injury is an unfavorable one for the Brewers, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Estrada has a considerable amount of experience as a starter and from the way he pitched against the Rockies, he could bring a whole new dynamic to the back-end of Ron Roenicke’s rotation: velocity.

Both pitchers are effective in their own right, however, Estrada has the ability to run his four-seam fastball up into the 93-94 MPH range, while Narveson typically tops out at roughly 86-87 MPH. This distinction in velocity could prove to be exactly what the Brewers will need in order to catch the Cardinals in the coming months. For that reason, Estrada must remain Milwaukee’s No. 5 starter through the rest of the season.

Alec Dopp covers the Milwaukee Brewers as a featured columnist at Bleacher Report.  Follow him on Twitter @alecdopp and read his blog.

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