Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Friday, March 12, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part III - The Brewers
Since moving to the National League in 1998, the Milwaukee Brewers have never won more than 74 times in a season. The last two years have seen them finish last in a relatively weak NL Central, winning 56 and 68 games respectively. Sure, last season was an improvement from the previous year's pathetic output - the worst winning percentage in franchise history; worse even than the singular and inaugural season in Seattle when the team went 64-98, 8 games better than their sad 2002 counterparts - but can anyone legitimately say that this team is on its way back to respectability, let alone the glory days of Harvey's Wallbangers?
Gone is the team's one legitimate superstar, Richie Sexson. The $8M he is owed this year was viewed as a luxury on a club that intended to cut its already tiny payroll by 25%, and since the prospects for resigning him after 2004 were dim at best, he was sent to the Diamondbacks in exchange for six players, four of whom will be starters in this season's Brewers infield.
The natives are restless and crying for blood, but while things may look dark at first glance, there are reasons to believe the dawn is coming to Milwaukee. Let's see if we can find the signs.
"I know not what fell spirit o'ertook Melvin,
Yet, he didst sign Geoff Jenkins to a deal
Long in years for considerable coin."
"Geez, that's a buncha moolah fer a guy what hurts himself all the time."
Jenkins is an excellent source of left-handed power who does well getting on base, plays fine defense in left field, and has a blistering cannon for an arm. He will be 29 this year, and appears to be solidly at his peak. Under normal circumstances, his three-year, $23M contract would be a steal, but these are not normal circumstances.
Jenkins gets hurt. A lot. It seems to be less an issue of fragility, and more a symptom of his full-throttle style of play. This is a wonderful quality to have; it's fun to watch for the fans and inspirational to fellow teammates, but minus an exoskeleton and magical powers of recuperation, it has its dangers, which Jenkins succumbs to regularly.
I see two potential lines of reasoning for this deal:
1) The Brewers had a lousy public relations winter. From the slashing of payroll, to the trading of Sexson, to the firing of Ulice Payne, the good people of Milwaukee have become fed up with the financial antics of their team. If the Brewers had let questions about Jenkins status linger, they may have lost even more gate revenue than they already have, as the baseball fans of Wisconsin lost any remaining faith that their club was trying to win. Signing Jenkins is a Declaration Of Intent To Compete.
2) Signed beyond 2004 or not, Jenkins will be trade bait in July, and having him inked to a contract through his peak years could increase his value in trade, assuming the acquiring team is interested in a long-term outfield solution. No one negotiating with Doug Melvin will be able to low-ball him for fear of losing Jenkins to free-agency. He comes with cost-certainty through 2007, and that will allow the Brewers to get the swag they need to help build the younger, better ballclub they're working toward.
I don't know that this was what the Brewers were thinking, but they are they only reasons, on their own or in tandem, that make sense to me. The other option is the hope and prayer that Jenkins stays healthy, and that just smells too much like a Jeffrey Hammonds redux to stomach.
Despite what I may think of the Jenkins contract, the Brewers started to show a keen eye for freely available talent last year, and no player personifies that trend more than Scott Podsednik.
A minor league journeyman, Podsednik won a job as a backup outfielder, and after the team finally got shut of Alex Sanchez, was given a shot at starting in center field. He made the most of his opportunity, hitting .314/.379/.443 while stealing 43 bases at a success rate of 81%. His center field defense is good enough, and since he's 28, isn't blocking anybody, and makes the league minimum, anything close to this level of production will make him a huge bargain in 2004.
Continuing the scrap heap picking, Ben Grieve moves to Milwaukee this year and should be manning right field for the Crew. His first few years in Oakland were very productive, and he was the model of Variation I of what has come to be labeled as the "Moneyball" philosophy, but is more aptly described as the art of exploiting inefficient markets. He didn't hit for a high average, struck out a lot, and played defense like Frankenstein's Monster with shinsplints, but he got on base, and when he put bat to ball he hit it very, very hard.
Then in the prelude to the 2001 season, Grieve got traded to the Devil Rays, and with each successive year he has become more passive, more expensive, and much less valuable. He's now gone from being paid $5.5M in 2003, to a non-guaranteed deal for $700K that allows the Brewers to cut him before the opener and owe him only one-sixth of his promised salary. It's a nice gamble for Milwaukee. Even if he comes north and repeats his performance in Tropicanaland, the low cost makes the risk worth the possible rewards. Grieve will only be 28 this year, and with the potential he's shown early, a return to form could be a boon for Brewtown for several years.
Acquired in a trade last offseason with the Braves in exchange for Ray King, Wes Helms came in and filled the gap at third base admirably and cheaply in 2003. His .261/.330/.450 line from last year was easily a career best, and since he turns 28 in May, it's probably as good as he gets. There's no reason to expect a huge dropoff, though. He's always had power, so if he can continue to walk once every ten at bats or so and hit around .260, he'll continue to be an asset. He's not blocking anyone, either, so the Brewers buyout of his last two arbitration years this winter made sense.
The Diamondbacks got their first extended look at Lyle Overbay last season, and they thought so much of him that they traded for Richie Sexson. He's a solid player, though, just not the type of offensive package one normally likes from a first baseman. Think of Mark Grace, except without all that pesky power. He should hit for a decent average, solid OBP, and a slugging percentage in the low .400's. He'll do for this year, and maybe one more as he keeps the position warm for Prince Fielder.
The imported placeholder parade continues as Junior Spivey comes over from the desert to hold down the keystone for Rickie Weeks. Spivey broke out for Arizona in 2002 with a very impressive .301/.389/.476 line, showing nice power and strike zone judgment. However, a slow start in 2003 and a torn ligament in his left ankle in June paved the way for the "emergence" of Matt Kata and made Spivey expendable. Junior won't duplicate his 2002, but he plays a good defensive second base, and even if he doesn't return to his previous heights, he should still outplay the likes of Eric Young, and at nearly the same cost.
As the Stopgap Express pulls into the final station we find the Human Corkscrew, Craig Counsel, waiting for us on the platform. Part of the fun in being a rabid baseball fan is that you can identify a lot of players just by looking at their batting stance. They could have their back turned to you, or they could be silhouetted against the sun, but you can still tell who it is from the placement of their hands, the bend in their knees, the shape of their back. Counsel's stance could be identified by blindfolded sherpas who had recently ingested a metric ton of peyote.
He's been a solid shortstop in his relatively short exposure at the position, and there are worse hitters in the world. Getting on base is pretty much his only offensive skill, as evidenced by his career .266/.349/.351 batting line. While a versatile bench player, he's never really been starter quality. Luckily, that may not be required of him for long. J.J. Hardy will be the worst hitter of the Brewers' young infield trinity, but he's the oldest of the three and has spent the most time above A-ball, so there's a reasonable chance that he'll be the first to reach Wisconsin. If he plays well in AAA, he could join the club before September.
Catcher wasn't the weakest position for the 2003 Brewers, but it was awfully close. Chad Moeller will be a welcome change at backstop, even if he isn't the second coming of a circa 1999 Dave Nilsson. Moeller is patient enough and has decent power, but he leaves something to be desired behind the plate. Then again, so did Eddie Perez, and he couldn't hit either, so at least the Brewers have fixed part of the problem. One thing at a time, boys, one thing at a time.
This is where the Brewers are in trouble for both the present and future, and it is precisely this situation that makes a potential Jenkins-for-prospects trade a near necessity. As you will see below, something has to be done about getting some young, talented arms into the system, or all the great infield prospects in the world can't help them win. Just ask the Rangers.
Ben Sheets is a decent pitcher, but that's the best you can say about him. His strikeouts are decent, his walks are decent, his hit rates are decent, and he throws a lot of innings. On a good club, he would be a nice pitcher to have in the fourth spot. On the Brewers, he's the ace, and the only starter with a guaranteed rotation slot.
Despite the lack of pre-season assurances, it's fairly safe to pencil in Davis, Franklin, and Kinney into three of the remaining four slots. Their order of deployment is irrelevant, as they are all likely to sport ERA's north of five, with Kinney being the only one of the group with a chance to post a strikeout rate much over five per nine.
Wes Obermueller is the most likely candidate for the final rotation spot, but that has more to do with familiarity than with any special talent he brings. Chris Capuano, one of the flock to come north in the Diamondback deal, is a legitimate contender for the job. He certainly has more upside than Obermueller, being two years younger and sporting snazzier peripherals in the minors and majors. If he looks ready to go, they'd be foolish not to give him the gig.
Adrian Hernandez is 28, and has only had "success" recently as a swingman in the Yankee's system at Columbus. His time as a regular starter has never been positive. Travis Phelps hasn't started regularly since 2000, and Ben Ford is a journeyman reliever/swingman who hasn't seen the majors in three years. None of these gentlemen has much chance of earning a slot, and if they do, something has gone badly, indeed.
This isn't a bad looking group. Everyone appears to be near league average, with a couple of guys who should do better. In fact, they should be considerably better as a group than the starters. That may be more of an indictment of the rotation's quality than an endorsement of the bullpen's talent, but there are some gentlemen here who could be the beginning of a solid relief corps for the next couple years.
Danny Kolb saw a sliver of light peeking through the entryway and he kicked the door down with both feet. When Mike DeJean was struggling as the closer, Kolb was given an opportunity to do the job, and do it he did. His numbers for the year were excellent, posting a 1.96 ERA over 41.1 IP, giving up 34 H, 2 HR, and 19 BB to go with 39 SO. It's a great story, as Kolb came into 2003 with only 77.2 Major League innings under his belt as a 28 year-old journeyman, and like Joe Borowski sans the side trip to Mexico, he was given a chance to shine and took full advantage. I, for one, will be rooting for him 145 times this year.
The primary set up man should be Mike Crudale, but that's assuming he's made a full recovery from the control yips he had throughout last season. Strangely, he managed to keep his ERA down to 2.61 between St. Louis and Milwaukee in 2003, and that's primarily because he only gave up one homer with a .167 batting average against. He needs to cut the walks down severely (18 in 20.2 IP last year), because he just can't keep being that lucky.
If Crudale can't get it done, the next best option is Luis Vizcaino, who after having an excellent 2002, suddenly started getting smacked around last season. The question is which year was the outlier, 2002 or 2003? The answer is probably "both." Vizcaino should be able to settle in as a league average pitcher whose nice K-rate and lousy HR-rate cancel each other out. He'll bounce back from his 2003, but he'll never again see the heights of 2002.
In the role of long man/spot starter we have the venerable Dave Burba. Morphing into a pen pal seems to have given his career new life. He's 37 now, so knowing he only has to throw an inning or two at a time may be allowing him to get a little velocity back. No need to pace yourself when you won't be in the game 40 pitches later. The numbers bear it out, too, as he had an ERA at 5.59 in his two spot starts, and 2.94 in relief.
Ah, now my favorite, Brooks Kieschnick. Is there anyone who doesn't think this two-way player thing is cool? It's the perfect deal for a guy like Brooks. He's not a great pitcher, and when given regular exposure, he's not a great hitter, either. But let him do both, and suddenly he's worth something. It's a great example of the whole being worth more than the sum of its parts, and I hope his success inspires other teams to find players to use in similar roles. There's no reason to waste a decent pitcher on the last bullpen spot, so why not find someone with a strong arm and no position who can knock the cover off the ball and teach him to throw a curve?
The only lefty worth taking north, Matt Ford doesn't get lefties out. Or at least he didn't in the 46 at bats he had against them last year. I don't have minor league splits for him, so I don't know if this is a career trend or just a small sample size blip. The one thing that is apparent is that he was much more comfortable coming out of the pen than he was starting. Again, it's small sample sizes, but in 14.1 IP as a starter he posted an 8.79 ERA, while his 29.1 IP in relief saw him put up a 2.15 ERA.
Ford came to the Brewers as a Rule 5 pick last year, and his exposure to the Majors in 2003 was his first work above A-ball. With an overall ERA of 4.33, I'd say he fared well. There's a lot more to learn about him, but if he can build on last year's experience, he has a chance to be an asset out of the pen.
Barring a decision to take twelve pitchers to Wisconsin, Leo Estrella will probably be the man pushed out of a job by the ongoing Kieschnick experiment. It's no great loss. His ERA was about league average, but his peripherals (66 IP, 75 H, 10 HR, 21 BB, 25 S0) don't inspire much confidence. He'll probably be the first right hander called up from AAA when a replacement is needed.
Unless they're desperate for a second lefty, Chris Michalak won't make the team. He spent all of last season in AAA for two different teams, and was unimpressive at both stops. The Brewers might try to stash him in Indianapolis in case someone breaks.
Jeff Bennett gets mention as a possible back of the bullpen man, but it looks like there are already too many right-handers around, and Bennett's lack of success in his 23.1 innings in AAA last year make him a longshot.
I like Keith Ginter. He's got patience and a bit of pop, and he can hold his own at multiple infield positions. As a reward, he received a three year deal for $1.925M just over a week ago. I don't know how necessary it is to lock up your super-sub for multiple years, but if he winds up starting a lot of games at second for some reason over the next season or two, he's good enough to get more money in arbitration. Normally, I'd say he's fungible, but there just aren't that many middle infield bench types who can post a .350 OBP. I say good for him, and good for Milwaukee.
Still young and still cheap, that's what I have to say about Bill Hall. You want more? Okay, it looks like he fields at about Ginter's level. More still? Fine. He's got some power, too. What, again? Alright, you asked for it. Bill Hall has yet to show any indication that he is capable of posting an acceptable on base percentage. He is completely and totally hacktastic, and any positives that his power might bring to the table are totally destroyed by the spectacular number of outs he creates. But he's still young and still cheap.
A solid sub on the outfield corners, Brady Clark could wind up starting if Ben Grieve can't shake his Tropicanafunk. That wouldn't be good, because Clark doesn't have much in the way of power. Hopefully, it won't come to that, and he can spot start and pinch hit like he's meant to do.
He's not Keith Osik, and that's good, but he's still Gary Bennett. On the either/or query posed of all backup catchers - "catch and throw" or "grip and rip" - the answer Bennett provides is "could you please rephrase the question?" I honestly have trouble finding a discernable skillset for him, so if anyone out there has insider info, please enlighten me.
The last two spots on the roster will be filled by some combination of Matt Erickson, Trent Durrington, Chris Magruder, and Jon Nunnally. None are likely to inspire rapture or suddenly become franchise cornerstones, but all have shown at least occasional discipline, and most have decent contact skills. I suppose, of all of them, I'd love to see Nunnally make the team. He's the oldest, having turned 32 in November, and he's the only one of the four who represents a power threat. He won't hit for much of an average, but when he does make contact, it'll be fun to watch it fly.
For the first time in recent memory, the Brewers are moving in the right direction. It's a little early to start making room in the rafters for those division title flags, but they are finally in a position to inspire some of that "hope and faith" the Used Car Salesman was hocking. This season is more about waiting for the future than playing for the present, and while that may seem like a continuation of a long running theme, this time there's an end to the wait in sight.