TROUBLE BREWING IN MILWAUKEE Thin in pitching, shaky on defense, Brewers trying to plug the holes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chandler, Ariz.--The Milwaukee Brewers' pitchers have been little more than high-priced pitching machines this spring, but not nearly as accurate.

Hitters were delighted to see the Brewers coming last season, when they posted a 4.08 ERA, 10th in the league. Opponents hit a league-high .275 against Milwaukee.

Ugly numbers? Yes. But compared with what might be ahead this season, they might not look so bad after all.

The Brewers will start the year without ace left-hander Teddy Higuera, who was found to have a torn rotator cuff during spring training.

"I am anticipating getting Higuera back sometime during the first half this season," manager Tom Trebelhorn said. "I'm not sure when. But when he's ready, he'll be back."

Yesterday, the Brewers placed Higuera, who has chosen rehabilitation over surgery, on the 15-day disabled list.

The Brewers chose to put Higuera, who signed a four-year, $13 million contract during the off-season, on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to Friday rather than the 60-day disabled list because they believe he will be able to pitch again by midseason.

"Say you put him on the 60 and he's ready in 35 days, which is a possibility, then you are getting around 25 days with nothing to do," Trebelhorn said. "The 15 gives us the luxury of bringing him back when he's ready to go."

Without Higuera, the Brewers were hit hard in the Cactus League. Against the California Angels and Chicago Cubs on March 20 and March 21, Brewers pitchers gave a clue to what might be ahead, surrendering 39 hits and 27 runs.

"I don't think pitching without Teddy Higuera has caused us to pitch so poorly," said Trebelhorn, who is in the last year of his contract after a 74-88 season and sixth-place finish in 1990. "I really don't think our pitchers go out there and say to themselves, 'Teddy is out; I think I'll go 3-1 on this guy.'

"Our pitchers are getting behind too much. I have seen nothing in the game of baseball of a productive nature that happens when you don't throw strikes. You've got to let them hit it. You don't have to strike everyone out.

"Any time you go out and throw strikes, good things will happen."

The Brewers' pitchers are caught in a vicious cycle. The fewer strikes they throw, the more runs they give up. The more runs they give up, the more hesitant they are to throw the ball over the plate.

"I think there's kind of a lack of concentration," pitching coach Larry Haney said. "But I've seen guys come out of spring training with 8.00 ERAs and win 22 or 23 games."

The wins this season will have to come from a committee of

starters.

Ron Robinson, who was picked up from the Reds last June, finished the season with the best numbers of his career (12-5, 2.91 in 22 starts with Milwaukee). Chris Bosio, who was 15-10 with a 2.95 ERA in 1989 but 4-9, 4.00 in an injury-shortened 1990, also will be relied on.

"The whole staff is going to have to shoulder the load," Haney said. "It's got to be a combination of the starters and the relievers. Everyone has to pitch well on an everyday basis."

After Bosio and Robinson, the rotation gets questionable. Right-handers Jaime Navarro (8-7, 4.46 in 1990) and Mark Knudson (10-9, 4.12) and left-hander Kevin Brown (1-1, 2.57 after he was acquired from the New York Mets in September) are likely to start, though none of them was outstanding in the Cactus League.

"We're concerned about the pitching," Trebelhorn said. "We're not the type of club that's going to score 875 runs in a season -- nobody is -- but if we pitch the way we have in the spring, that's what we're going to have to do to be competitive."

The Brewers' bullpen, which has the potential to be good, revolves around left-hander Dan Plesac, who had 86 saves and a 2.47 ERA from 1987 through 1989 but slumped to 24 saves and a 4.43 ERA in 1990.

But the Brewers reportedly were shopping Plesac late in spring training in hopes of acquiring a starting pitcher.

"I think it's important for us to have some leads in the eighth and ninth innings for [Plesac] to get some saves," Trebelhorn said. "We want our starters to close the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, then our middle relievers to close the seventh and eighth. Then Plesac can get a save."

Behind the Brewers' pitching is a defense that finished last in the American League in 1990.

Once again, the vicious cycle. The fielders sit back and are more prone to errors behind pitchers who fall behind in the count, Trebelhorn said.

The Brewers' defense improved slightly with the spring trade of designated hitter Dave Parker to the Angels for right fielder Dante Bichette. The trade allows veteran Paul Molitor, whose arm is too sore to allow him to play defense, to move to DH. Free-agent pickup Franklin Stubbs, who was uncomfortable in right field, moves to first base.

At third base, Gary Sheffield, who made a team-high 25 errors in 1990 after being moved from shortstop, is expected be more dependable this year.

"A lot of [Sheffield's errors] were because of inexperience," said Molitor, who played third for the Brewers' 1982 pennant-winning team. "The more he plays, the better he is going to get. I think now he's accepted that he's going to play third base. Last year he still had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to play shortstop."

At the plate, Sheffield, who led Brewers' regulars with a .294 average in 1990, will be counted on more to produce runs in 1991. Two of the club's top run producers, Parker (21 homers and 92 RBI) and Rob Deer (27, 69), are gone. Deer signed as a free agent with the Detroit Tigers.

Trebelhorn is hoping that Stubbs, Bichette and Candy Maldonado, whom the Brewers invited to camp after the Cleveland Indians chose not to re-sign him, can replace the lost offense. Maldonado and Bichette were impressive in the spring, and Stubbs hit 23 homers while playing half his games in the spacious Astrodome last year.

Then there is always Robin Yount. The two-time AL Most Valuable Player hit a career-low .247 in 1990, but he said he hopes to rebound.

"Personally, I don't know how many more years I'm going to play this game," the 35-year-old center fielder said. "I'd sure like to have one more postseason.

"But this team has a lot of hard questions to answer. Only time will tell."

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Stats and facts

Manager

Tom Trebelhorn (339-318 overall in four-plus seasons with Brewers).

1990 record 74-88, 6th place, 14 games behind.

offensive leaders BA: Gary Sheffield .294 HR: Rob Deer* 27

RBI: Dave Parker* 92

SB: Gary Sheffield 25

* -- no longer with team.

1990 pitching leaders Wins: Ron Robinson 12

ERA: Ron Robinson 2.91

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