Results tagged ‘ Christina Kahrl ’

Series 39 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

Wainwright

Adam Wainwright will throw Sunday against the Cubs. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cardinals have spent most of the season at or near the top of the standings in the tough NL Central—meaning they could be considered one of the best teams in baseball—but they do have some weaknesses. Although their league-leading offense is great at piling on runs in blowout wins, they’re 15-14 in one-run games. Add in some problems with outfield defense, and overall they’re fairly mediocre in the field. But when you have the strongest lineup in baseball and two of the league’s best starters, you have to be less than perfect somewhere else, right? The Cards’ veterans—Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—are all having strong seasons, but it’s the rookies who have really made the difference. The youngsters are the main reason St. Louis has been able to withstand a serious rash of injuries.

HITTING: 4.88 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals offense can destroy weak starters and tear middle relievers to pieces. They may not be the sabermetric ideal, with a league-average walk rate and a lot of quick at-bats, but Yadier Molina (fresh off a DL stint), Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter are all hitting better than .314, and they put a ton of well-hit balls in play. Veteran outfielders Holliday and Beltran provide the pop, but when one of them needs a day off, the Cards can rotate Craig to the outfield and spot-start the best bench bat in baseball—sweet-swinging rookie Matt Adams, who carries an .813 OPS into the series. To make matters worse for opposing pitchers, David Freese looks like he’s finally shaking off the rust of his slow start. If there’s anything the Cardinals don’t do well, it’s run. They attempt to steal less often than any other NL team, but with their powerful offense, why risk handing the defense an out?

PITCHING: 3.73 Runs Allowed/Game (5th in NL)
The Cardinals have done well given the body blows they have taken in the rotation, first losing co-ace Chris Carpenter for four months and then Jaime Garcia for the season. But Sunday’s starter Wainwright has a great shot at winning the NL Cy Young Award, and Shelby Miller could claim Rookie of the Year honors. The question is whether they’ll find a third mate to solidify a postseason rotation. Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook (Friday’s starter) are good innings-eaters, but the Cardinals are monitoring Carpenter’s comeback in the hopes he’ll recover from his shoulder injury and round out their rotation for the stretch run. They could also use another reliever with swing-and-miss stuff beyond the hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal. Forkballer Edward Mujica isn’t a classic closer, and while playing matchup games with righty Seth Maness’ heavy sinker and situational southpaw Randy Choate has worked well enough so far, they’ve been auditioning hard-throwing farmhands all year.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 26 Preview: Cubs vs. Brewers

Segura

(Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty)

Not much has gone right for the Brewers this season, as Milwaukee continues its tumble from perennial contender to NL Central also-ran. The Brew Crew suffered a huge power outage in the early going thanks to a rash of injuries, starting with preseason surgeries to two first basemen—Corey Hart and Mat Gamel. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez was also shelved for most of April as he battled knee issues. But as stagnant as the offense has been, the pitching has been even worse. Milwaukee’s starters own a combined 5.00 ERA, by far the highest in the NL, and the bullpen has had troubles as well. To add insult to injury, former MVP Ryan Braun continues to deal with questions about a possible PED link to the Biogenesis Clinic in Florida. A suspension for Braun would put an exclamation point on an already disappointing season in Milwaukee.

HITTING: 4.0 Runs Scored/Game (9th in the NL)
Despite their middle-of-the-road offense, the Brew Crew have profited from one of the top one-two punches in the game, with Norichika Aoki leading off and Jean Segura having a breakout season in the second slot. Aoki’s .367 on-base percentage is one of baseball’s best from the top of the order, while Segura has been doing it all. He’s tied for the league lead in triples, leads the league in hits and is third in stolen bases. And Segura is not the only hitter who has developed In Milwaukee when given a chance to play every day. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has finally become the player many expected him to be when the speedster was a top prospect in Minnesota. On a less positive note, second baseman Rickie Weeks’ game continues to be in free fall, and the Brewers have yet to find a playable bat to man first base when Hart misses time with injury.

PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (15th in the NL)
The Brewers’ initial decision to go with a youth movement in the rotation was moderated by their late-spring signing of veteran free agent Kyle Lohse. But whatever their master plan is—or was—none of it has worked in a rotation that ranks close to the bottom in quality starts. Expected ace Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been able to pitch reliably past the sixth inning; youngsters Hiram Burgos and Wily Peralta have struggled to get their ERAs south of six; and last year’s rookie breakthrough Mike Fiers lost his starting job in early April and hasn’t given the Brewers any reason to think he might earn it back in the near future. Matters aren’t much better in the bullpen, as John Axford pitched his way out of the closer’s role, and replacement Jim Henderson lost time due to injury. Despite being the relievers most often used to put out midgame fires, Burke Badenhop and Mike Gonzalez have struggled to strand even half of their inherited base runners.

Series 25 Preview: Cubs vs. Astros

Altuve

Jose Altuve brings his .293 average and 16 stolen bases to Wrigley Field. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Remember the Astros? No longer a divisional rival of the Cubs, they’re making what they can of their move to the AL West. The organization has come under fire recently for blasting their talent down to the foundation in a full-scale rebuild under GM Jeff Luhnow. It’s a gambit that might cause the team to threaten the single-season record for losses, but it’s also long overdue so many years after the disappearance of the old “Killer B” squad of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman. And there are already signs that Luhnow’s management team has assembled a tremendous collection of talent. That might be cold comfort to Astros fans if their team loses 120 or more games this season, but the new ownership seems more interested in building a lasting winner than notching a fourth-place finish.

HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (23th in MLB)
Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve should once again be the Astros’ lone All-Star—although he’s more than a token, as he provides good power and an OPS around .700. Former Cub Carlos Peña is drawing walks, and third baseman Matt Dominguez can flash some nifty leather at third. Still, the roster is very much a work in progress. Longtime power prospect Chris Carter slugged .535 in the minors for the White Sox and Athletics organizations without getting a chance to play every day in the major leagues. The Astros gave him a long-overdue opportunity, and he’s leading the team in home runs with 14. Of course, he might also strike out 200 times, but in a lineup that whiffs 9.5 times per game, that doesn’t stand out much.

PITCHING: 5.0 Runs Allowed/Game (30th in MLB)
The pitching staff has been brutal from the outset, but the Astros are more than willing to turn over the organization in search of a few acceptable arms. They still have Bud Norris (5-7, 3.64 ERA) atop the rotation, but that may not last beyond the All-Star break, as he’s one of the few bargaining chips the team has left that could return some young talent. Veteran Jose Veras (14 saves in 17 opportunities) is making the most of his opportunity to close for the first time, and he’s supported by serviceable lefties Wesley Wright and Travis Blackley. In other words, the Astros can hold a lead in the odd event that they get one. But with the team struggling to average one quality start by someone other than Norris every turn through the rotation, leads have been exceedingly rare. The absence of quality talent at the upper levels of the farm system suggests that while the names of the pitchers getting pounded might change, the results likely won’t vary anytime soon.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 24 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals

Carpenter

Matt Carpenter has been a big contributor this year for the Cardinals. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Is there any organization more indestructible than the Cardinals? In recent years, they’ve managed to replace Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal in the lineup without missing a beat. Plus, the pitching staff has weathered losing co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in consecutive years. But mounting injuries in the rotation could bring the Cards back to the NL Central pack this season. The man trying to hold the staff together is the rock the team has leaned on through all of the previous changes: catcher Yadier Molina, now in his ninth season as the Cardinals’ regular receiver. Yadi not only intimidates opposing running games out of existence (he sees less than one stolen base attempt every two games, and throws out more than 40 percent of runners), he’s also an irreplaceable staff manager and a critical offensive cog.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored/Game (1st in the NL)
Though the Cardinals lack a single signature strength in the lineup, they more than make up for it with balance and depth. The team exploited that depth this season when they moved slugger Matt Carpenter to second base, and he’s shown a fine aptitude around the bag. They also have slugging rookie reserve Matt Adams cooling his heels on the bench. Moving Allen Craig from first to an outfield corner would create playing time, but with Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday manning those spots, there’s little room to cram everyone into the lineup. If there’s one thing the Cardinals lack, especially with Furcal out, it’s speed. They’re last in the league in steals and stolen base attempts, a far cry from the days of Whitey Herzog and Vince Coleman. Still, the Cards’ offense could be primed for a big second half once Holliday and third baseman David Freese start slugging the way they can.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in the NL)
Few clubs can contend with a healthy Cardinals starting rotation. Wainwright has undergone a remarkable transformation since completing his recovery from 2011 Tommy John surgery. This year, he’s drastically cut his walk rate while pushing his strikeout rate to an eye-popping 24 percent. And right-hander Shelby Miller, building off a strong 2012 major league debut, is one of the leading candidates to snag Rookie of the Year honors. If there’s a concern beyond the injury to rotation regular Jaime Garcia, who is out for the year after having shoulder surgery, it’s the bullpen. After losing closer Jason Motte for the season, manager Mike Matheny sifted through multiple alternatives before settling on journeyman Edward Mujica to protect ninth-inning leads. Mujica lacks the pure velocity typically associated with a shutdown closer, but he uses his splitter to good effect. If he struggles, you can bet the Cardinals will be in the market for a closer at the deadline.

—Christina Kahrl

From the Pages of Vine Line: New coordinator Derek Johnson is making his pitch

DJohnson

(Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics)

Pitching guru Derek Johnson has spent years working with talented pitchers at various levels of the collegiate game. This offseason, the 41-year-old signed on to be the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, which means he is ultimately in charge of all the arms in the organization from Triple-A on down. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to Johnson about coaching the college game, adapting to the professional ranks and cutting through communication issues with international prospects.

It’s no secret there has been some serious turnover in the Cubs organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer left the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. A year into the Chicago job, one of their most important—though unheralded—new hires is minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson.

Johnson’s experience working with young pitching talent stretches back almost 20 years to the end of his career on the mound as a college pitcher. Johnson, 41, won All-Mid-Continent Conference honors at Eastern Illinois University before moving into coaching at the school in 1994. He followed that up with three seasons at Southern Illinois and four at Stetson before taking over the pitching program at Vanderbilt in 2002. There, he won pitching coach of the year in 2004 and national assistant coach of the year in 2010.

After a long, introductory spring with the Cubs in Arizona, Johnson took a little time off before diving back in with the minor league affiliates.

“The first week after Spring Training, I got to go home and recover,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun now [that the season has started], because I’m going to see some things I didn’t get to see in Spring Training and interact with players some more—and coaches too. That’s probably more my style, and more what I was hoping to do when I took the job.”

His role with the organization is a marked departure from his coaching career at Vanderbilt, where he oversaw the development of Rays ace David Price, Braves lefty Mike Minor and four other eventual first-round picks. As a coach, it was easy to be hands-on, working directly with every pitcher in his care. As the farm system’s pitching coordinator, numbers and geography dictate he doesn’t get to see every hurler every day. Plus, he’s not just working with the players, but also with the coaches at every level.

“I spend a lot of time with video. I’m not used to it yet,” Johnson said. “I spent a really long time having my hands on everything [as a coach], and now I have to adjust to that—trust the pitching coaches that are at the different affiliates, trust their judgment and get an idea of what they’re seeing to put that together with my thoughts to come up with some sort of a plan. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”

He’s also working with a more diverse collection of talent than in college, including pitchers from Asia and Latin America, and communication can be difficult. But Johnson is excited about the challenge.

“There can be a communication gap, so it can be a challenge to get your point across,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy, because you get great young men from all different walks of life, backgrounds, speaking different languages, with different maturity levels. … I challenge myself to communicate better, to put things more simply to help communicate to players the direction we want to go.”

With so many pitchers under his care, Johnson has to deal with an inevitable bottom-line question: Who is he most excited about in the system? A week into the minor league season, Johnson refused to pick favorites.

“I saw them all in Spring Training, and I saw them all on video before that,” he said. “I like our nucleus. We have some guys who are a little bit under the radar, where things could really happen for them. At the same time, it’s a little bit hard to tell that without first being at the affiliate, watching them play, watching how they go through the season, how they fight through adversity. So it’s early to say, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys in the system who can turn the corner.”

—Christina Kahrl

Series 11 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

Carpenter

Matt Carpenter has been solid since splitting duties between his regular third base and the keystone. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cardinals certainly had their share of early-season setbacks, but that only made it clearer the broad collection of talent GM John Mozeliak has assembled can carry the team through just about anything. Having to scratch veteran ace Chris Carpenter for the season made it easy to make room in the rotation for potential Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller, and losing shortstop Rafael Furcal opened up an opportunity for last year’s stretch-drive hero, Pete Kozma. The team is so strong and deep that outfielder Oscar Taveras, arguably the best hitting prospect in baseball, may spend the season in the minors waiting for an opportunity. And most pundits believe the Cards have the best farm system in baseball. In the after-Pujols era, this team isn’t just ready, it’s fully loaded to contend for years to come.

4.8 runs scored/game, 4th in the NL
The Cardinals have shifted a few players around to maximize the team’s offensive potential. They asked third baseman Matt Carpenter to split time between the hot corner and second to get his lefty power stroke into the lineup while also making room for first baseman Matt Adams, who could be off the DL by the time the Cards head to Wrigley Field. Carpenter, four-corners asset Allen Craig and utilityman Daniel Descalso give manager Mike Matheny more than enough moving parts to rotate around stars Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. This hitting talent has also made it much easier for the team to endure a slow start from third baseman David Freese. If there’s one weakness in the St. Louis attack, it’s that the loss of Furcal has almost eliminated the running game. As a result, the Cards have become very much a station-to-station, big-inning offense.

3.5 runs allowed/game, 2nd in the NL
Perhaps no rotation in the league has been as strong as the Cardinals’ quintet in the early going. Adam Wainwright put up a 2.03 ERA in six April starts, striking out 43 and walking just three on his way to a 4-2 record. Lefty Jaime Garcia would front many big league rotations, and Miller’s mid-90s, moving fastball made him the top pitching prospect in the league coming into the year. Add in Jake Westbrook’s league-leading 1.07 ERA and Lance Lynn’s power-curve assortment, and there’s no such thing as a day off for opposing lineups. The problem is the ’pen, where Mitchell Boggs struggled to fill in for injured closer Jason Motte and was recently demoted. If there’s another source of worry, it might be the team’s interior defense. Experimenting with Carpenter at the keystone is much like the risk the Cards ran when they converted outfielder Scott Schumaker to second base. The move has worked out so far, as Carpenter’s defensive stats indicate there’s not much of a dropoff, but it remains to be seen how well it will work in the long run.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 9 Preview: Cubs vs. Padres

Cashner

Former Cub Andrew Cashner will throw Wednesday for the Padres. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

While the Giants are busy winning World Series titles and the Dodgers continue to take on huge payroll to try to keep pace, their “small market” neighbors to the south have quietly assembled a team many think has the potential to surprise in the NL West. Manager Bud Black already turned a few heads last season, squeezing 76 wins out of a group many expected to finish at the bottom of the division. But through the first month of the season, the pieces haven’t quite clicked, as the team sits at 9-15 heading into the Cubs series. On the plus side, it helps that the Padres have developed a true superstar in switch-hitting third baseman Chase Headley, who opened the season on the DL with a thumb injury. Headley hit a career-high 33 home runs last year (after a previous career high of 12 in 2009) and drove in a league-leading 115 men. He’s gotten off to a slow start this year, but he has played in only 10 games. With the Friars moving in the fences at Petco Park this season, Headley could be a dark-horse MVP candidate.

HITTING: 3.6 RS/G 12th in NL
The shorter fences at Petco won’t help just Headley. Former White Sox slugger Carlos Quentin managed to slug .504 in a half season after coming back from knee surgery last year. Despite that lost time, he also achieved the rare feat of leading different leagues in hit by pitches in consecutive years. The Padres have high hopes that first baseman Yonder Alonso will blossom into a power source as a sophomore after ripping 39 doubles as a rookie. Black runs an aggressive offense, platooning to advantage, getting runners on base and then moving them to keep defenses guessing. Shortstop Everth Cabrera led the NL with 44 steals (against just four times caught stealing) in 2012, spearheading an efficient running game that generated 155 swiped bags. Add in the potential for a power boost in their previously pitcher-friendly home park, and it’s a lineup that should be better than their 3.6 runs a game might indicate.

PITCHING: 4.6 RA/G 13th in NL
The problem with the Padres’ pitching staff is simple: Some of the team’s best starters opened the season on the disabled list. Of course, not having to face Cory Luebke early in the season works to the Cubs’ advantage. In the meantime, San Diego will rely on some starters that should be very familiar to Chicago fans—ex-White Sox southpaw Clayton Richard and ex-Cub Andrew Cashner. They will also run out inconsistent Cincinnati import Edinson Volquez. One thing to watch for is Black’s deft touch with the bullpen, where his best weapon is the rubber-armed Luke Gregerson, who has become one of the best set-up men in baseball. Also keep an eye on Dale Thayer and lefty Joe Thatcher in situational matchups and tight spots.

—Christina Kahrl

Cubs take on division champs Cincinnati

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds

Shin-Soo Choo takes over in center field for the Reds. (Photo by John Grieshop/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The Reds entered 2013 with the expectation that the division was theirs for the taking yet again, thanks to a deep rotation, a lineup stacked with power hitters who take advantage of the homer-happy Great American Ballpark, and the addition of a top-shelf leadoff man in Shin-Soo Choo.

Things are still going according to plan as Cincinnati leads the NL Central, though there are a few question marks running through the organization. Staff ace Johnny Cueto went on the DL in mid-April after straining his lat, and there isn’t a true timetable for his return. And the verdict is still out as to whether Choo can handle center field, a position he hasn’t played regularly since A-ball.

An even bigger source of early-season drama was the spring argument over what to do with the Cuban Missile. Is Aroldis Chapman’s triple-digit velocity more valuable in the rotation, or should the Reds leave him in the bullpen as their closer, where he has already had success? After testing him in the front five this spring, the team moved him back into the closer role prior to the season. We’ll see how it all plays out.

—Christina Kahrl

Cubs play host to tough Rangers squad

Holland

The Cubs will face lefty Derek Holland Tuesday night. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)

The following is from Vine Line‘s April Gameday Edition. Fans can purchase the full version of the official program and scorecard of the Chicago Cubs at various kiosks around Wrigley Field.

The previously high-flying Rangers come into 2013 trying to recover from the shock of blowing their AL West lead to the A’s in the season’s last week, and then losing the Wild Card play-in game to the upstart Orioles. That debacle triggered even more turbulence this offseason. Texas endured a winter of front office power struggles over former President Nolan Ryan’s role, saw star center fielder Josh Hamilton defect as a free agent—to the division rival Angels, no less—and traded away longtime fan favorite Michael Young to the Phillies.

The Rangers feel they’re strong enough to contend in 2013—and they still have one of the top prospects in the game in Jurickson Profar—but it’s easy to anticipate how a slow start could incite panic for a team that’s taken a tumble after winning back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and 2011.

3.7 Runs Scored/Game — 21st in MLB

With Hamilton gone, the Rangers lost a premium bat from the left side. To replace him, they had to settle for two aging veterans, Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. But the 37-year-old Big Puma is coming off a season ruined by injury, while the 36-year-old Pierzynski is likely due to come down from a surprising 27-homer year with the White Sox. Cuban center fielder Leonys Martin joins second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus to give the Rangers a lot of offense at the up-the-middle skill positions. But it will be interesting to see how much offense they get at the corners from Berkman, David Murphy and Mitch Moreland. One player they won’t have to worry about is Adrian Beltre, a premium defender with an MVP-caliber bat at the hot corner.

3.0 Runs Allowed/Game — T-3rd in MLB

Wherever else the Rangers have problems, they still have an outstanding front three in their starting rotation. Second-year Japanese import Yu Darvish more than lived up to lofty first-year expectations, while Matt Harrison and Derek Holland give the Rangers a pair of quality lefties who are both just coming into their own. Harrison is currently on the DL with a lower back strain and should return soon. But what the team does after those three is open to question. Even after seeing relief ace Neftali Feliz blow out his elbow after a move to the rotation last year (likely costing him most of 2013), the Rangers are doing the same thing with Alexi Ogando. Like Feliz, Ogando is talented enough to merit the move, but the Rangers can’t afford to see him break down as well. Once injured veterans Colby Lewis and Joakim Soria join the staff later in the season, the team might have the kind of depth to contend.

—Christina Kahrl

Cubs set for injury-plagued Brewers

Lohse

Former Cardinal pitcher Kyle Lohse joined Milwaukee in the offseason. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

The following is from Vine Line‘s April Gameday Edition. Fans can purchase the full version of the official program and scorecard of the Chicago Cubs at various kiosks around Wrigley Field.

For years, it seemed like the Cubs and Brewers were constantly sparring for NL Central supremacy. But those days are over for the time being, with the Cubs trying to rebound from a 101-loss season and the Brewers perhaps dealing with a rebuilding year after a third-place finish in 2012. The offense, which carried the team last year, should still be solid, but the pitching staff is a big question mark—though the late-spring signing of former Cardinal Kyle Lohse should help.

The Brew Crew were already planning on breaking in a few youngsters in their rotation, signaling they probably wouldn’t be running with the Reds and Cardinals atop the division. But between losing slugger Corey Hart for the first two months of the season and having to do without Mat Gamel for the entire season, they’re dangerously short on depth in the lineup and counting on a pitching staff in transition.

3.7 Runs Scored/Game — 8th in NL
The heart of Milwaukee’s Opening Day lineup looked tough, as would any that had sluggers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez batting third and fourth. But it appears the Cubs might catch a bit of a break. The Brewers likely won’t get a 100 percent version of Braun as neck stiffness has kept the 2011 NL MVP out of action since April 3 and the North Siders will entirely duck Ramirez, who was recently placed on the DL with a knee sprain.

The injuries and lack of a strong bench will certainly take the Brewers’ 2012 league-leading offense down a peg in the early going, but skipper Ron Roenicke is one of the most active offensive tacticians around. He loves to get runners moving, bunt and slip in the occasional late-inning squeeze play to pressure opposing defenses. With young shortstop Jean Segura settling in, Roenicke might have a quartet of 30-steal players. In the absence of Hart’s power bat, it will be interesting to see if Milwaukee green-lights the running game even more aggressively. One key will be whether center fielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jonathan Lucroy retain last year’s power gains as they hit their prime, age-27 seasons. If they don’t, things will likely get a whole lot worse for this lineup in 2013.

6.5 Runs Allowed/Game — 13th in NL
Yovani Gallardo is a familiar face at the front end of the rotation, and Lohse (who is slated to pitch against the Cubs Wednesday) should be solid after a few career years in St. Louis. But after that, there’s a whole lot of wish-casting. Can Chris Narveson come back from a torn rotator cuff? Will top prospects Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers break through? Has the NL caught up to Mike Fiers, who did well his first time around the league last year before fading late? With that many question marks, a career utility pitcher like Marco Estrada is sure to come in handy.

The bullpen has experienced some turnover as well. The Brew Crew brought in veteran lefties Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny to set up John Axford. The hirsute closer will have to prove he’s back from a season in which he almost lost his job due to a rash of titanic home runs. But when Axford is on, his swing-and-miss stuff rates among the league’s best. The Brewers need him to be that pitcher again if they hope to contend.

—Christina Kahrl

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