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Brewers Look to Youth for Some Help

February 25, 1986|RICHARD L. SHOOK | United Press International

"Bambi's Bombers" are about to become "Bambi's Babies."

The Milwaukee Brewers went from the top of the American League East in 1982 to the bottom in just two years.

Last year they climbed up four games to 71 wins and one notch in the standings to sixth.

"It's too bad, but athletes get old and sometimes they don't perform up to their former level of ability," Milwaukee manager George Bamberger said before leaving his Florida home for the Brewers' training camp in Mesa, Ariz.

The decline happened too swiftly for Milwaukee to catch in time. But last year, after Bamberger returned and saw what had happened since last he managed the Brewers in 1980, he and General Manager Harry Dalton decided it was time for a change.

The decision on what to do was an easy one. Milwaukee's farm system, according to the widely respected publication Baseball America, is riper than two acres of strawberries in June.

"Kids," Bamberger said. "You have to make way for kids. You can't keep them down."

Milwaukee will thus enter the 1986 season with more new faces than a kid who just bought his first 16 packs of bubble gum cards of the year.

Bamberger, who's been around the block a few times, knows all the new faces and inexperience will make it extremely difficult if not impossible to compete at the level necessary to win the tough AL East.

And his frankness at saying so during the Brewers' winter press tour fluffed more feathers than a cold north wind.

"One thing you don't want to do is insult the fans' intelligence," said Bamberger, who has not a mean bone in his body. "I probably used the wrong words.

"But I think most of the fans would admit, 'George, you're right. Let's improve the ball club first.

"You can't insult the fans' intelligence," he reiterated. "You have to crawl before you can walk. But we do know miracles can happen. And it would be a miracle if we won."

Milwaukee is entering spring training looking at a completely remade starting pitching rotation -- only rookie left-hander Ted Higuera (15-8, 3.90 ERA) returns from a staff that posted a 4.39 ERA. It ranked ninth in the league.

"The first time I was with Milwaukee the strength of our team was power," Bamberger said. "This team looks pitching-strong. We didn't have pitching then, but we got the job done.

"Pitching. That's what gets you in the thick of it real quick. If you have a pitcher go 24-4, like Dwight Gooden, you're right there."

Bamberger is looking at a rotation including Higuera, who was outstanding the second half of last season, plus Bill Wegman, Tim Leary and another left-hander, Juan Nieves.

"Higuera won 15 games and was the rookie pitcher of the year," Bamberger said. "He's our No. 1 at the present moment.

"Leary, in 1981, the Mets thought was their Dwight Gooden at the time, although they didn't have Dwight Gooden then. He went from Double-A to the majors.

"Then he got sidetracked with injuries but he's made the move back up. He was throwing 93 miles per hour last year.

"Nieves has done nothing but win," the Milwaukee manager said of a prospect who began last season at the Double-A level and impressed in Triple-A at the end. "He is going to get every chance.

"Then there's Wegman. He pitched two games for us last September and pitched very, very well. Those four have a chance to be our four starters."

The Brewers have another prospect, Dan Plesac, "who at this moment doesn't have the command of his pitches," Bamberger said. "He'll probably start the season in the minors. But he has the potential to be as good or better than the others.

"We can't hold them back," he said. "Because they have to produce right now."

Milwaukee showed how serious it is to youth but cutting Rollie Fingers, who did have 17 saves but a 1-6 record and a 5.04 ERA.

"Relief pitching his is where I'm really hurting," Bamberger said. "I have to concentrate on that this spring."

Bamberger will find a relief pitcher, though. And if he doesn't find one, he'll make one. That's how he got the Milwaukee job in the first place -- by building a new corps of outstanding pitchers for Baltimore year after year.

Two candidates are right-hander Bryan Clutterbuck and a second Bryan, left-hander Duquette. That is in addition to holdovers such as Bob McClure and Bob Gibson.

The transition from "Bombers" to "Babies" will be helped by a largely veteran infield.

Jim Gantner must rebound from his .254-5-44 season of a year ago. Earnest Riles showed well at short as a 25-year-old rookie. Paul Molitor rebounded from injury to reclaim third base.

Juan Castillo will replace Ed Romero as the backup infielder with Randy Ready available to play third or outfield.

B.J. Surhoff is still a couple of years away from catching so Bill Schroeder and Charlie Moore will share again. Ted Simmons is also available in a pinch.

Milwaukee added perennial San Francisco prospect Rob Deer in hopes he would displace one of the club's outfielders.

Incumbents there are Paul Householder (.258-11-34), Ben Oglivie (.290-10-61) and Robin Yount (.277-15-68).

One of the best young outfield prospects in baseball is Glenn Braggs, but the Brewers don't want rush him. He'll start the season in Triple-A.

"Braggs reminds you of Don Baylor," Bamberger said. "We'll probably send him back for another year. He has power, can hit and can run."

Cecil Cooper won't be at first when the season opens. Poetically named Billy Joe Robidoux is the hope of the future with Joey Meyer--a 260-pound hulk who hits home runs and "makes good contact for a power hitter," according to Bamberger--behind him.

"Robidoux will open the season," Bamberger said. "Cooper will DH when he's able. And when he's ready to play, we'll think about playing him at first. I won't worry about that until the time comes."

One other surprise for Milwaukee in 1986: the Brewers intend to start the season with a 24-player roster.

"We're kinda happy with our kids," Bamberger said. "We're looking forward to getting started."

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