Brewers' woes reach beyond Yost
Bullpen issues, defensive shortcomings hurting Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE -- If the Milwaukee Brewers believe they have solved all their problems with the dismissal of Ned Yost, they will be badly and sadly mistaken.
Mid-September is a strange time for a managerial dismissal, but then this is already a difficult time for the 2008 Brewers. They followed a 3-7 homestand by suffering a four-game sweep in Philadelphia. They are 3-11 in September. In the process, what was a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card has completely disappeared.
So perhaps the dismissal of Yost was a bold move by Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Or, it might have been a move made in true desperation, one last-ditch effort to do something, anything to salvage the season.
The problem is that the shortcomings of this club go well beyond the identity of the manager. Yost has been a popular punching bag for local critics since last season, when the Brewers started fast and then faded.
The truth is that when Yost took over as the Milwaukee manager in 2003, he did a job that was admired throughout baseball. He brought structure, discipline and a positive outlook to a team and a clubhouse that had been mired in a culture of defeat.
He is still respected throughout the game.
"It's unfortunate," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of Yost's dismissal. "Ned's a good man. I've got a lot of respect for Ned. He's a good baseball man and he'll be back."
Yost was a major factor in bringing the Brewers back from oblivion to respectability. Apparently, he was not ideal for the next task of leading the Brewers from respectability into the postseason.
Yost learned the managerial trade while coaching for one of the truly great ones, Bobby Cox of the Braves. Like Cox, Yost never criticized his players in public. Yost went one step further, going as far as saying, less than two weeks ago, that he was so confident in his players that he had absolutely no concerns about this team.
The relentlessly positive approach worked for Cox because for many years he had, for instance, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and a cast of talented, veteran players. It was one thing to be endlessly, publicly confident about that group. It was another thing for Yost to be endlessly, publicly confident in players who were struggling while everyone, including the players involved, knew that they were struggling.
The Brewers are making third-base coach Dave Sveum the interim manager. If there had to be an interim manager, the obvious choice would have been bench coach Ted Simmons, a real presence, and one of the most intelligent men in the game -- a great baseball mind. It may be that the Brewers are seeking a more soothing managerial presence. One former Brewers player refers to Yost as "Nervous Ned."
It may be that the managerial change will suddenly lift a burden from the Brewers and they will collectively relax and charge forward from this moment, salvaging the season and gaining the franchise's first postseason berth in 26 years. But there are good and valid reasons to believe that won't happen.
The bullpen is in tatters. The Brewers have received more than they could have expected from the man who was pressed into duty as the closer, veteran Salomon Torres. But between the starters and the ninth inning, serious trouble looms.
Melvin's tenure as general manager has been characterized by astute personnel moves, terrific scouting, shrewd drafting and successful player development. But one move stands out on the debit side of the ledger -- the $10 million signing of reliever Eric Gagne, just days before the Mitchell Report named Gagne as a user of performance-enhancing substances.
To the surprise of no one, Gagne is nothing like the pitcher he once was. He lost his spot as Milwaukee's closer. His ERA is 6.41. Yost's insistence on using him in meaningful, eighth-inning situations exacerbated the problem.
Another big signing that didn't pay off was the $42 million for four years for starter Jeff Suppan. When the Brewers have needed him most, Suppan has helped them least. Sunday night in Philadelphia, when the last of the Brewers' NL Wild Card lead was lost, Suppan surrendered six earned runs in 3 2/3 innings.
On a daily basis, the defense on the right side of the Brewers' infield is a liability. First baseman Prince Fielder has immense potential as a hitter, but in the field he is incapable of digging a throw out of the dirt. This may or may not be a direct result of his physique, but at this point, he appears to be a designated hitter playing in the wrong league.
And at second, the Brewers are seemingly alone in their insistence that Rickie Weeks is a Major League second baseman. "I don't know what he is, but he's not a second baseman," a National League manager said. Weeks has made some improvement defensively, but not enough.
On offense, this is a team with indisputable talent, but the Brewers have evolved into an all-or-nothing proposition. It is possible that with the departure of Yost, the Brewers will suddenly move runners and manufacture runs, but again, there is not much in the record to suggest this as a viable possibility.
The trade for CC Sabathia was a masterstroke by Melvin, sending the message that the organization was doing whatever it could to win now. Sabathia's 9-0 record with a 1.59 ERA in 13 starts has been a godsend.
With somebody else making those 13 starts, the Brewers could be 15 games behind the Cubs instead of eight. With somebody else making those 13 starts, the Brewers could be seven games behind in the NL Wild Card race, instead of being tied for the lead. Sabathia, a premium rental, has given the Brewers a chance at the postseason. But that chance has also masked some of the underlying problems this club has.
The dismissal of a manager on a postseason contender 150 games into the season is a highly unusual move. Perhaps it can magically transform the Brewers, for the season's final 12 games, making them into the team they want to be, rather than the team they have been for the past two weeks. There isn't much precedent to go by at this late date, but managerial changes have provided teams with a fresh-start, cleared-atmosphere kind of lift.
But this team, with major issues in the bullpen, and shortcomings on defense, has problems that go beyond the manager. Yost, who couldn't manage his way out of these issues, took the fall. The timing was surprising, but the manager taking the fall, that was as old as the game itself.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.