MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' highly touted young core is being shaken up.
General manager Doug Melvin made his biggest statement this season about the team's future, sending former All-Star shortstop J.J. Hardy to the minors, cutting third baseman Bill Hall and firing his pitching coach.
A year removed from a magical NL wild-card run, Milwaukee has faced a stark reality after injuries on top of the free agent departures of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia. The Brewers (55-57) came into July with a two-game lead in the NL Central before losing 22 of the last 35 to fall 6½ games out of the lead and the wild-card race coming into Wednesday.
"You're afraid of this. It happens sometimes. We knew we lost CC, we knew we were going to lose Ben Sheets. We knew that we had to play very well," Melvin said. "Right now, I get the impression we're 20 games under .500. We're two games under .500."
Just last year, eight of the nine starters on opening day came up in the organization, including Hardy, Hall and Sheets. But second baseman Rickie Weeks (wrist) and right fielder Corey Hart (appendectomy) are injured and Tony Gwynn was traded to San Diego, leaving only All-Stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.
"I'm shocked," Weeks said. "I don't have the words to say right now. I'm frustrated."
The shakeup will give top prospect Alcides Escobar a chance to show he's the shortstop of the future and a potential leadoff man the club sorely lacks. He's batting .298 with four homers, 34 RBIs and 42 stolen bases in 109 games at Triple-A Nashville. Escobar won't start on Wednesday night, but manager Ken Macha plans to put him in the lineup Thursday.
It's the promise of Escobar that may end up costing the Brewers this season. Melvin repeatedly said he had no plans to deal the prospect at this year's trade deadline, which took the Brewers out of the running for any top starting pitcher they sorely needed.
Hardy, an All-Star two years ago, has been mired in a season-long slump, batting .229 with 11 homers and 45 RBIs. He will go to Triple-A Nashville.
"I told him like I told any player, they don't have to accept the decision we make," Melvin said. "Somebody's got to make decisions. He's still young enough to bounce back."
The Brewers will eat about $11 million in salary to Hall, who was designated for assignment.
He is owed $2,006,557 from the remainder of his $6.8 million salary this year, $8.4 million next season and a $500,000 buyout of a $9.25 million club option for 2011.
Hall has struggled since hitting .270 with 35 homers and 85 RBIs in 2006, which led to his new deal. He was hitting .201 with six homers, including one Tuesday night.
"I'm happy about the time I spent here," an upbeat Hall said. "I'm appreciative of all this organization's done for me, but it's time for a new chapter in my life."
Hall will be replaced by speedy outfielder Jason Bourgeois, hitting .316 with 36 stolen bases in 105 games at Nashville.
Melvin said Macha has no reason to worry about his own job security. The club dismissed Ned Yost with 12 games left last year in favor of Dale Sveum before qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
"You're not totally always happy with the results, regardless," Macha said. "We've had some obstacles to jump over here and still have some and I just want the guys to go out there and give it all they've got and for the most part, they've done that. The record speaks for itself."
Pitching coach Bill Castro, who'd been with the organization the last 18 years, is being replaced by Triple-A pitching coach Chris Bosio.
He will have a lot of work to do.
The Brewers are first in the majors in homers allowed (151) and 27th in ERA (4.84), ahead of only the Nationals, Orioles and Indians. The starting rotation has a 5.16 ERA, worst in the National League, with Dave Bush (triceps) and Jeff Suppan (oblique) on the disabled list. The organization hopes both will return by Sept. 1.
"It's not all gloom and doom -- we can make it gloom and doom if you want to make it gloom and doom, but it's not," Melvin said. "It's a matter of making changes."