Brewers poised for postseason run
Suppan, Estrada bolster deep young Milwaukee squad
MILWAUKEE -- Jeff Suppan is only one player, a 32-year-old journeyman at that. He's won more than 13 games twice in 10 full big league seasons. He's posted a sub-4.00 ERA once, and he has never made an All-Star team.
But when Suppan agreed on Christmas Eve to the richest deal in Brewers history, it signaled more than ever that club officials see the team poised to make a move in the National League Central.
Will 2007 be the year the Brewers fans finally have something to celebrate besides a dusty American League pennant from 1982? With Suppan in the mix of perhaps the division's most complete starting rotation, players and club officials are anxious to find out.
"We're very deep," general manager Doug Melvin said after handing Suppan his Brewers cap and jersey. "The timing of this was right for us. Our expectations are high."
They're always high, Melvin added. But the Suppan deal -- which guarantees a club-record $42 million over the next four seasons and could go as high as $52.75 million over the next five -- took things to a new level.
"If we can win ballgames, we can add free agents in the following years," Melvin said. "Maybe this is where we start getting recognized as a club that will step up and add free agents to our young players."
Milwaukee is high on its stable of young hitters, including prospects-turned-performers Bill Hall, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy. Outfielders Kevin Mench and Geoff Jenkins will get a chance to bounce back after poor seasons. Newly acquired Johnny Estrada filled a need for more offense out of the catcher's spot.
But more than anything else, the Brewers' 2007 hopes are predicated on that projected starting rotation of right-handers Suppan, Ben Sheets, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas, and left-hander Chris Capuano.
"There's really no weak spots in there," Capuano said.
Suppan apparently agreed. He received interest from the Mets and Pirates, and before making his choice, according to agent Scott Leventhal, Suppan analyzed the Brewers' depth chart, including talent in the Minor Leagues.
"You want to put yourself in a position to win, and once that analysis was done, we realized that Milwaukee was in really, really good shape," Leventhal said. "That made it an easier decision."
The Brewers finished a disappointing 75-87 last season, suffering from pitching problems in the first half of the season and offensive woes after the break. Losing Sheets and Tomo Ohka in May to shoulder injuries represented a major blow before the All-Star break, and losing slugger Carlos Lee in a late-July trade with Texas left the offense with little punch.
They hope to have both of those problems fixed for 2007. Suppan's arrival means the team likely will be able to send pitching prospects Yovani Gallardo, Zach Jackson and Carlos Villanueva back to the Minors for more seasoning, with Villanueva almost getting the first call should the Brewers need help. Last year, the Brewers went 6-17 in games started by replacements for Sheets and Ohka.
Offensively, the Brewers hope simply to stay healthy. Hardy will be back at shortstop and, to maximize their talent on the field, the team intends to move Hall to the outfield. Weeks, like Hardy, is returning from surgery to repair a loose tendon.
In the view of club officials, the missing piece was one experienced starting pitcher, and they targeted Suppan in mid-December. He is 5-0 in seven career starts at Miller Park, and also was coveted for his two World Series appearances with the Cardinals in the last three seasons.
Suppan has made 301 career starts and is the veteran of the staff. But the junior member, Bush, has 72 Major League starts on his resume and led the '06 Brewers with 12 wins.
Capuano compared the Brewers' starting rotation to the rest of the National League Central and said it stacks up quite favorably. The Cardinals and Astros will be trying to rebuild rotations that suffered major losses. The Cubs have spent millions this offseason, mostly on offense, but figure to face the same old questions about the health of co-aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The Reds have a half-dozen question marks behind Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. The Pirates have potential, but budding stars like Zach Duke are still young and building.
So when Suppan signed, Brewers fans were not the only ones taking note.
"That's a lot of money, and I'm glad they're willing to spend it," said Bush. "It shows you the kind of commitment this team is making to winning."
Said Capuano: "Suppan could have gone anywhere he wanted, and he came here. That says something, and it's a good sign that the organization is heading in the right direction."
Brewers pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Feb. 17.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.