Brewers looking to step up on 'D'
Key acquisitions, internal adjustments have Yost optimistic
PHOENIX -- When it was suggested to Ned Yost that improved defense could be the difference between his club contending and winning, the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers took that concept one large step further."That WILL be the difference," the manager said on Saturday at Maryvale Baseball Park. "That is the difference. There's no 'might be' the difference. That will be the difference. We have everything we need to be successful. We need to play defense. "We can score runs, we can hit, we can hit with power. We can pitch, we've got a good bullpen. We need to play defense." The 2007 Brewers spent 133 days in first place in the National League Central. Although they eventually finished two games behind the Chicago Cubs, they did put up their first winning season in 15 years and their core of indisputably talented young players demonstrated real promise for the future. But no, the Brewers were not particularly good at catching the ball, or if they caught the ball, they did not throw it with particular accuracy. They made 109 errors last season. Only five teams committed more, and none of those was anything like a contender. If you accept the rest of Yost's judgment about this team, and it is not an unreasonable judgment, an improvement in team defense would be, could be, will be -- somewhere in there -- the telling factor. To that end, the Brewers made two acquisitions and a few internal moves. Instead of having Johnny Estrada as their primary catcher, they will have Jason Kendall. This should be an upgrade both defensively and in the handling of the pitching staff. And they added a superior defensive center fielder in Mike Cameron. Cameron will begin the season with a 25-game suspension for use of a banned stimulant, but his track record says that at the very least he will solidify the Brewers' outfield defense. Cameron's acquisition created a ripple effect. Bill Hall, who had been moved from the infield to center for the 2007 season, will go to third base. And Ryan Braun will move from third to left field. With the solid veterans Cameron and Kendall in place, if the adjustments of Braun and Hall go well, defensive improvement should be in the immediate future for this team. "All the signs are pointing that way in Spring Training, and I mean markedly improved," Yost said. "Braun has made a tremendous transition to left field. He's really been far better than I even dreamed he would be. I was hoping that he'd be OK. He's far more advanced than I thought he would be at this point in Spring Training."
Braun, of course, was the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year. His .634 slugging percentage was nothing less than prodigious for a rookie. But he committed 26 errors in 112 games at third. He had originally been a shortstop. You could see his athleticism. But the Brewers no longer have time to patiently develop players at the big league level."If he'd stayed at third base, he would have been a pretty good Major League third baseman in a couple of years," Yost said. "But we just don't have the time to develop him as a third baseman right now." Braun, a supremely self-confident fellow, seems to be not only rising to the challenge of learning a new position, but absolutely thriving with it. "I know I would have been a good third baseman in time, but I also recognize that last year defense was a big issue for us," he said on Saturday. "Whenever you have an opportunity to bring in somebody like Mike Cameron, you do it. "Overall, I'm really comfortable out there. It's difficult to duplicate a lot of the scenarios that come up during the game, just trying to figure out what base to throw to or when to try to throw guys out and when not to, but I'm trying to learn through everything I go through. "Enjoying being out there is making it easier. I'm having a lot of fun; I'm enjoying the early work, enjoying the extra work, just trusting in my instincts and my athleticism." Hall came up as a middle infielder and has also played 84 games at third in the Majors, so his transition should be less abrupt. "I've been fielding ground balls since I was 5 years old," Hall said. "Once you know how to field a ground ball, you know how to field a ground ball. Obviously, I had to scrape the rust off a little bit, but once I did, it was like riding a bike." If there was an award for doing whatever the team asked you to do, without carping, complaining or generally creating a disturbance, it should be named after Bill Hall. The Brewers took a lifetime infielder, and, counting on his ability and his attitude, made him a center fielder, assuring him that was his permanent position. Just when he got the hang of it, they decided he would be a third baseman. "Hopefully, this is going to be it," Yost said of position moves for Hall. "We didn't want to keep moving him from year to year to year, but we had to figure out what was best for our club, and that was Billy playing third. We talked to him about it, and there was no 'I'm tired of this,' there was no selfishness. It was: 'Whatever will help us win, I'm willing to do, as long as I can be a part of it.'" Hall's attitude has remained consistently helpful throughout his journeys from position to position. "Obviously, there's a lot of things you can do to make your team better, and that's not always putting up great numbers," he said. "Every now and then it's kind of taking one for the team. "I think this is the last move. Last year we thought it was the last move, but things changed, we felt like we needed to improve our defense, and that's what we've done. So I moved to third base and hopefully that's where I'm going to be for the rest of my career." The Brewers have directly addressed their single largest shortcoming of last season -- defense. Their moves, while requiring some major adjustments from some of their Most Valuable Players, are still sensible. But the healthiest thing about these developments is the indication that the Brewers are solidly in a win-now mode.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.