Morgantown

Morgantown has come to Miller Park.  The speedy outfielder, picked up in a trade with the Washington Nationals, is expected to spell Carlos Gomez in center, but has potential to receive the bulk of the playing time.  I haven’t had much of an opportunity to look into the Brewers’ newest acquisition, but my initial impression of the trade is a favorable one.  In Cutter Dykstra (what a great name), the Brewers traded a guy who was not likely to make the big league roster in the near future, if ever.  In return, they received much-needed outfield depth.  Let’s look at Morgan’s offense, speed, and defense.

  • Offense:  Morgan broke into the big leagues on September 1, 2007, with a hit against his new team.  In four seasons of major league play, his slash line of .283/.344/.360 shows Morgan is a contact hitter with virtually no power (a career-high 3 HRs in 2009).  His 2010 strikeout and walk rates (17% and 7%, respectively) were nothing exceptional, but were also down from about 16% and 7.5% in 2009.  If Morgan performs at historic levels, he looks to be about league-average offensively.  However, that would represent a big upgrade over Carlos Gomez’s below-average plate production.  If Gomez cannot continue his hot spring and falls back to old habits, he will almost certainly cede playing time to Morgan.

  • Speed:  One of Morgan’s greatest weapons is his speed.  He nabbed 42 bags in 2009, and 34 last season.  But his speed is also one of his greatest downfalls; Morgan was caught stealing a league-leading 17 times in both 2009 and 2010, leading Fangraphs to describe his approach as “reckless.”  I don’t envy Ed Sedar’s job with Morgan this year.

  • Defense:  Morgan’s defensive metrics are rock-solid.  He has done very well defensively in both left and center, but most do not believe his defensive skills overcome his offensive deficiencies.  For the Brewers, defense is less essential, as starting CF Gomez is more than capable of running down balls.  Both Gomez and Morgan appear to have strong arms, with Morgan probably being slightly better in that respect.

The bottom line: In Morgan, the Brewers have protected themselves against injury (or ineffectiveness) to Carlos Gomez.  Morgan could ultimately challenge Gomez for playing time if Gomez’s hitting skills sag, and that might be a welcome thing.  The Brewers have lacked a solid number two hitter, and a cursory review shows Morgan could fit the bill.  They could pretty seamlessly insert Morgan into the lineup without giving up much in terms of defense.

Of course, the Morgan-Dykstra swap goes hand-in-hand with the Brewers’ decision to trade outfielder Chris Dickerson to the Yankees for spot-starter/long-reliever Sergio Mitre.  While Dickerson was widely expected to make the club, injuries to starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum forced the Brewers to find a serviceable arm out of the pen.  Although neither Dickerson nor Mitre will dazzle, the Brewers took a position at which they had a surplus (outfield) and turned it into something they were short of (long relievers capable of starting in a pinch).  If the Dickerson/Mitre trade indeed helped pave the way for the Morgan trade, it must be viewed as all the more positive.

Looper Retires

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Braden Looper officially announced his retirement today (many of us already considered him unofficially retired) after being told he would not make the Cubs’ opening day roster.

A 1st round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996, Looper also had stints with the Marlins and Mets during his 12-year career.

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Of course, folks around here will remember Milwaukee as the last place Looper every threw a major league pitch.  In 2009, Looper started the most games in the majors while with the Crew (34), yet accumulated only 194.2 innings en route to a 5.22 ERA.  He also gave up a league-leading 39 home runs.

It’s fair to note that Looper did have some very good years with the Mets and Marlins, but Milwaukee is not the place to come to resurrect your career (just ask Eric Gagne).  Best of luck to you in retirement, Loop.

On the Importance of Spring Training

I’ll be the first to tell you that spring training games generally don’t
matter.  It’s a reliever locating, a hitter adjusting his stance, a
starter working on a new pitch.

There are exceptions.  For some
guys, spring training is their only opportunity to make the big league
club.  They have limited time to impress and need to give it their all. 
So even though they’re playing against guys with numbers like 83 and 98, we have to take what they do a little more seriously. 

Wily Peralta, who was expected to go 5 innings today, falls in the latter category. 

What he gave us was a third of an inning of forgettable baseball.

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I’ve noted Peralta’s control issues before.  His minor league stats suggest he his control is getting increasingly worse at each level.  So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised Peralta is having trouble against major league hitting.  We have to assume Peralta brought his best stuff, but in a game where the chips were down and Peralta’s job was perhaps on the line, he couldn’t even make two outs.

Michael Hunt of the Journal Sentinel had even less flattering things to say about Peralta’s performance:

All over the place with his control, Peralta was absolutely shelled.
Getting just one Colorado hitter out, the 21-year-old righty gave up
five runs on five hits and two walks. Of the 32 pitches he threw to get
one out, 13 were strikes and most of those were smoked.

Ron Roenicke finally had to come get Peralta after he bounced one to
the plate for ball four to No. 8 hitter. Chris Iannetta. The skipper,
who brought in Tim Dillard, didn’t even let Peralta throw to pitcher for the sacrifice bunt. Yikes.

Peralta may very well be ready for the big time someday, but its not right now.  And with Mark Rogers still on the mend, it’s a very open question who will be the #5 in the rotation behind Chris Narveson.  Kintzler or DiFelice still get my vote, but they’d have to be stretched out immediately.  And with that not appearing likely, my money’s on Tim Dillard, who pitched a decent, though not outstanding, 2 and 2/3 in relief of Peralta.

Handicapping Carlos Gomez

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There are three events that stick out prominently when I think of Carlos Gomez

The first was when Gomez was acquired by the Brewers from Minnesota for shortstop J.J. Hardy.  At that moment, my thought was, “Who’s Carlos Gomez and why didn’t we trade for a pitcher?”

The second event was when I got my first in-person look at Gomez.  I watched him nearly fall over reaching for a slider down and outside.  “Oh my God.”

The third event was on May 21, 2010, when the Brewers played the Twins at Target Field.  I was at the game with my boss, a huge Twins fan, and the Brewers were getting absolutely hammered.  With the Brewers down a bazillion runs, Gomez launched an 8th inning      (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)                                  HR off Nick Blackburn to left field.  After watching it from home plate for what seemed like an eternity, Gomez flipped his bat and hit Joe Mauer.  “Kill me now.”

Gomez has never endeared himself to fans or teammates.  Several Twins players said as much after his home run celebration.  Jim Edmonds essentially accused Gomez of wasting his talent.

Talent is something Gomez has plenty of; blazing speed on the bases and in center field, and a good arm.  But he’s never been able to parlay those skills into a breakthrough offensive campaign.  Gomez’s main downfalls are his lack of plate discipline and his swing-for-the-fences mentality. 

Some believe Gomez is improving.  He is, after all, only 25, and has had a great spring (14 for 35, .400 BA, 2 HR, 3 SB, with only 4 K). 

You can place me firmly in the “skeptic” category, though.  Gomez has a .293 career OBP, and although he’s said all the right things about taking a restrained approach at the plate, he has yet to work the count for a walk this spring.  I’m certainly hoping Gomez has a breakthrough year, but I’m not expecting it by any means.  Dale Sveum is going to have his work cut out keeping Gomez off that slider.

Gomez can almost certainly be expected to steal 30-40 bags if he remains healthy all year.  I think we’ll see modest bumps in Gomez’s batting average (.247) and on base percentage (.298) if he remains committed to his new approach at the dish.  His strikeouts should also decrease from 72 in 2010 (291 attempts).  But I think projecting anything above a .255 BA and .315 OBP is overly optimistic. 

Speed Either Way

While wildly speculating about Corey Hart’s upcoming season in a previous blog, I found myself wondering where exactly he would find himself in the batting order.  I profiled him as a potential 25/25 candidate, but noted that those chances might diminish if he was batting in front of Braun and Fielder for the simple fact that you don’t want to make outs on the bases with your sluggers coming up.

Ron Roenicke had some interesting comments on that point today.

“There’s no reason not to [run Hart with Braun at bat],” Roenicke said. “If he gets in scoring
position and they don’t want to pitch to Ryan, they have to pitch to
Prince (Fielder).”

Certainly doesn’t sound like Hart will have any trouble getting the green light even if he does bat second.

Still, I’m not convinced second is the best place for Hart.  He had a career-high on base percentage of .340 last year; I predicted he would replicate that by continuing to be selective at the dish.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for regression, and I think his skill set works much better in the number five or six spot.

Of course, the alternative at #2 is Carlos Gomez, who hasn’t exactly made selectivity his trademark.  At times last year, Gomez was just painful to watch; it seemed like he swung at everything, and the stats certainly back that impression up (.298 OBP, 72 K in 291 AB). 

In short, there’s nobody on this team like Robin Yount, who dominated the number two spot in the 1980s.  So it’s really not all that surprising that Roenicke doesn’t know who will find themselves batting second on March 31.  It sounds like he’s leaning towards Hart, but there’s plenty of qualification:

“[Hart's] not your typical second hitter. But he’s done really well when
he’s in that spot. And he likes it in that spot. If you put in there, I
wouldn’t want to pitch to those first five guys. It makes it really
dangerous up front in that lineup. If (Carlos) Gomez can turn into a
.350 on-base percentage, Gomez would fit real nice in that second slot. I
don’t know if he can be a guy who can all of the sudden change that
much.”

Either way, there will be plenty of speed at the top of the Brewers lineup, with Weeks leading off and either Hart or Gomez following.  And it doesn’t sound like Roenicke is afraid to let guys on base show off their speed even with the big boppers at the plate.  It’s an interesting strategy, and an aggressive approach that I like.  While it might get frustrating watching Hart or Gomez run into an occasional out, over the course of the season we could very well see a lot more runs come across as a result.

Starters Announced

As predicted, Yovani Gallardo gets the opening day start versus the Reds, followed by Wolf and Marcum.  Chris Narveson will pitch the home opener at Miller Park.  Brewers have yet to name a fifth starter.

I’ve caught some flack for dismissing Wily Peralta as a candidate for the number five spot.  I’m willing to consider that I underestimated him, but he hasn’t pitched above AA and his numbers there are hardly Strasburgian.  He’s not having the kind of spring I’m sure he wishes he’d be having, either, with a 6.00 ERA over 6 innings a 4 walks to 3 strikeouts. 

If Mark Rogers is ready, he’s the obvious choice, but I have my doubts.  If he’s not, I’ll stand by my Kintzler and DiFelice recommendations.

Disaster Strikes

Seems like there are only about six baseball players who manage to avoid the disabled list every year.  Zack Greinke isn’t one of them.

Of course, everyone knew it would happen eventually.  I was only half joking when I suggested the other week that the Brewers pick up Kevin Millwood now to fill in for whomever would get hurt down the road.  Fortunately, Greinke’s cracked and bruised ribs (injuries he received in a game of pickup basketball, of all things) aren’t expected to keep him out for more than four weeks.  But that’s long enough that Greinke will likely miss opening day.  So what do the Brewers do in the meantime?

Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson are the pitchers still standing.  My guess is Roenicke decides to start Gallardo on opening day, followed by Marcum and Wolf in games two and three versus the Reds.  That would give us Narveson for the home opener.  Not exactly a name that inspires a ton of confidence in the fans.  But hey, if that’s how it shakes out, good for the kid.

So who becomes the #5?  Manny Parra, who has been maddeningly inconsistent in his past starts, is pretty much out of the question.  I get the sense he is now exclusively a bullpen arm, a role in which he was very effective last year.  Besides, he’s only pitched a third of an inning in Spring Training due to lower back tightness. 

Mark Rogers, one of the Brewers’ big-league-ready prospects, hasn’t pitched at all this spring because of shoulder tightness.  Shoulder injuries have sidelined him for a few years now, so you can expect the Brewers to take a cautious approach.  No help here either.

I’ve heard Wily Peralta’s name mentioned as a spot-start candidate, but I’m skeptical he’s the right guy.  Although he has logged more innings than many other candidates, those innings have been pretty unremarkable; in 42 innings of AA ball last year, Peralta pitched a respectable 3.61 ERA, but had almost as many strikeouts (29) as walks (24).  And he hasn’t really distinguished himself this spring, either, with a 4.50 ERA in four innings and 3 walks to 1 strikeout.

But I am intrigued by two other guys:  Brandon Kintzler and Mark DeFelice.

Kintzler was signed by the Brewers in 2009 and was immediately placed with AA Huntsville.  Since then, he’s had stints with AAA Nashville and appeared in 7 games for the Brewers last year.  Kintzler didn’t do so hot with the big league club (7.36 ERA in 7.1 innings with 9 K to 4 BB), but has some impressive minor league stats (2.95 ERA with a 5.50 K/BB ratio in 2 AA seasons; 2.36 ERA with a 3.50 K/BB ratio in 1 AAA season).  He’s performed admirably so far this spring, too, with a 1.59 ERA over 5.2 innings with 3 strikeouts and no walks.

Everyone probably remembers Mark DiFelice, who last pitched for the Brewers in 2009.  He lost the entire 2010 season to shoulder surgery and is currently on a minor league contract with a spring training invite.  DiFelice has made the most of it, going 3 innings with a 3.00 ERA with 5 K and 1 BB.  DiFelice was pretty decent with the Brewers in 2009, too, making 59 appearances for a 3.66 ERA and a 3.20 K/BB ratio. 

What’s clear is that someone who didn’t necessarily expect to pitch in the big leagues at the start of spring training might very well get an opportunity here.  Both Kinsler and DiFelice have shown promise and are likely making an impression on the Brewers’ new skipper, which could help their chances considerably. 

Early Returns

Notable Brewers spring training stat lines (Runs / HR / RBI / Average / OBP / SLG):

Almonte (1B): 4/2/6/.360/.385/.640
Betancourt (SS):  2/0/2/.412/.444/.588
Boggs (OF):  2/1/7/.318/.375/.545
Farris (2B):  4/0/1/.400/.500/.533
Gomez (OF):  4/1/3/.316/.316/.579 (And in 19 AB, only 2 Ks!)

And I realize there is more to the backup catcher job than offense, but what a race this is shaping up to be:

Kottaras (18 AB):  4/1/3/.278/.278/.556
Maldonado (7 AB):  1/0/1/.286/.286/.286
Nieves (10 AB):  1/0/0/.300/.364/.300
Rivera  (8 AB):  2/1/1/.250/.333/.625

Handicapping Corey Hart

Corey Hart had the kind of year that will drive you nuts.  After a down 2009, Hart became a lightning rod for fans after winning a $4.8 million payday in arbitration.  He lost his right field starting gig to Jim Edmonds in spring training last year, only to win it back in epic fashion with career highs in both HR (31) and RBI (102).  He earned his second all-star berth and a 3-year, $26.5 million contract extension that bought out two free agency years.  So what can we reasonably expect this year?

We know Hart brings average to slightly below-average defense to right field.  Having the speedy Gomez in center might take a little pressure off of him in that respect.  But most of the questions seem to revolve around his offensive numbers.

Now, I’m not a fortune teller.  But I can say with relative certainty that a healthy* Corey Hart is going to hit at least 20 home runs.  Hart has been fairly consistent when it comes to the long ball, hitting a round-tripper in about 4% of his plate attempts.  25 seems ambitious, but it’s not a stretch.

In fact, Hart could very well be a member of the 25/25 club in 2011.  Now, I realize he’s never hit that 25-steal plateau before, but bear with me.  He had 23 in each of his first two full seasons with the club (2007 and 2008).  His stolen bases dipped precipitously in 2009 and 2010, but Ken Macha was notoriously afraid of making outs on the bases and didn’t test defenses like Ron Roenicke is expected to.  Admittedly, the 25 steal projection might be overly optimistic if Hart bats second in the order.  Roenicke may not want to green light him with Braun and Fielder coming up.

What about batting average and on-base percentage?  Hart’s best year for BA and OBP came in 2007 (.295 and .353, respectively).  I’m guessing he’s not going to reproduce those numbers, nor his .283 average from 2011.  But he should hit pretty close to his career average at .275, and if his improved plate patience sticks, I expect his OPB will fall somewhere close to 2011’s .340.   

If Hart can put up those kind of numbers, I think he’s best suited to follow Prince in the number five spot (assuming Gomez can get on base more and bat first or second).  Although Hart’s SB and RBI opportunities will largely be determined by his place in the batting order, you know you’re going to get a .275 hitter with decent power and league-average defense.

*Hart was diagnosed with an oblique strain early in spring training.  Although he’s expected to be out only two weeks, those things have a way of hanging around and the Brewers will have to be careful in the early going.  Hart has shown he is not nearly as effective in injury-shortened seasons.