The drumbeat goes on…and Jerry Hairston, Jr. has new digs

Of course, just as I conclude my review of the shortstop market, the Brewers acquire a new second baseman that can also play the left infield.

Jerry Hairston, Jr., 35, is the newest addition to the Brewers’ revolving door at second base.  He also plays some third and short and some outfield, a true swiss army knife type of guy.  You have to wonder if the end is near for Craig Counsell.

With the Nationals this year, Hairston was batting a respectable .268, with a .342 on base percentage and .385 slugging in 238 plate appearances. He’s shown a bit of pop with 11 doubles and 4 HR.  Hairston’s defense at third hasn’t been great, but he did accumulate a 3.4 zone rating in 381 innings at second in 2010 with the Padres, and 3.9 at short that same year.

This seems like Doug Melvin just hedging his bets in case he can’t put anything else together by Sunday’s trade deadline.  All contending teams are looking for utility pieces, and Melvin would have been foolish not to pull the trigger on a low-salary player like Hairston.

 

Drumbeat to the trade deadline for the Brewers

Following the K-Rod trade, the Brewers front office has been relatively quiet.  Though it is well-known that Doug Melvin is working the phones for, among other things, players at short, second, and center field, the only fruit of that labor thus far has been a minor deal:  reacquiring former Brewer Felipe Lopez from the Tampa Bay Rays for cash.

Amid news that the Cardinals are now one of the Brewers’ chief competitors in the shortstop market, I thought it might be helpful to look at that market and see who the Brewers might be checking out.  Of course, the need has diminished somewhat in recent weeks, as current shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt has heated up to a post-All-Star-break line of .378/.396/.578.  However, over that span Betancourt is also rocking an unsustainable .395 batting average on balls in play, which means he has been incredibly lucky.  The Brewers would be remiss not to continue to seek out infield help.

You can be certain the premier shortstop names are not being shopped, at least not the Brewers and their talent-depleted farm system.  Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez are not going to be in Brewers blue, and it appears the Mets are interested in locking Reyes up long-term. My preferred trade target, former Brewer J.J. Hardy, recently signed a 3-year, $22 M extension with the Baltimore Orioles, so he’s not going anywhere.

There are a number of low-key players that could be a good fit for the Brewers, though.  The most talked about are both Dodgers, Jamey Carroll and Rafael Furcal.

In terms of batting average and on-base percentage, Jamey Carroll, 37, is having a great year with the Dodgers and can play multiple infield positions, making him especially valuable to the Brewers.  Carroll is a career .277 hitter with no power and good plate discipline (think a better-hitting version of Craig Counsell).  He was also, at least until last year, decent defensively in the IF.  The Brewers are known to be in on him, but so are the D-Backs, Cardinals, Indians and Pirates, so the asking price is likely high.

Rafael Furcal is probably the prize of the remaining shortstop crop, but he’s having an off year.  He missed most of May and June, and is hitting only .197 in his 152 plate appearances.  Furcal seems destined to be traded before the deadline on Sunday, but his unappealing batting line, which does not represent an upgrade for the Brewers, coupled with the fact that the Cardinals and Giants are also in the race, means he probably will not find his way to Milwaukee.

Houston IF Clint Barmes might be a good fit for the Brewers, and could join the team immediately since the two teams are in the midst of a 3-game weekend series.  But as recently as yesterday, Houston was apparently telling teams that Barmes, a free agent after this season, was not available.  Barmes has excellent defense and can play short and third, giving the Brewers some late-inning defensive options.  He hasn’t been lighting it up at the plate (.250 BA), but does have a bit of power and would make a nice piece at the bottom end of the Brewers lineup.

Jason Bartlett and Juan Uribe have also been mentioned as available in a weak shortstop market.  Bartlett, an All-Star in 2009 when he hit .320 with 14 HR and 30 SB, isn’t exactly wowing anyone with his glove or his bat this year, and the Padres aren’t thought to be actively shopping him anyway.  Uribe is having a miserable year at the dish and has been frequently injured.  If I were Doug Melvin, I wouldn’t want to touch either of these guys.

Washington shortstop Ian Desmond may or may not be available, but doesn’t represent much of an upgrade offensively over Betancourt at .224/.227.303, and strikes out more frequently than any other shortstop in the game.  He is young, but is by position only a shortstop and would not help the Brewers at second or third.

Seattle’s Jack Wilson, 33, is another name sometimes mentioned, but he has barely played this year (50 games), and has not impressed when he has been at the plate (.229/.259/.252).  Wilson still plays good defense, and that could be the lone factor working in his favor.

We’ve known for a while now that there’s not much out there for the Brewers to choose from.  And the few players that might help this team are also coveted by others, driving the asking price beyond what the Brewers are probably willing to pay.  It would not surprise me at all to see the Brewers stand pat on the shortstop situation, especially considering Betancourt’s recent success at the plate.  While I understand that sentiment, I do not share it.  The Brewers should pay for Jamey Carroll.

Brett Carroll, Milwaukee’s newest OF

Brett Carroll will get his first at-bat in a Brewers uniform today.  The Brewers’ most recent call-up gets the start in center field for the injured Carlos Gomez against lefthander Madison Bumgarner.  Carroll has appeared in one game since the Brewers purchased his contract from AAA Nashville, that being yesterday when he was announced as a pinch hitter but pulled in favor of Mark Kotsay after a pitching change.

Carroll was acquired by the Brewers from the Royals in March 2011 for cash.  I noted here that Carroll was unlikely to see the big leagues before rosters expand, though Gomez’s injury changed things quite a bit.  Carroll’s play has certainly justified the call-up.  In 93 games with the Sounds, Carroll is batting .281, with on base and slugging percentages of .356 and .469, respectively.  He’s shown some pop (15 hr), but that number likely won’t transfer over to the much more difficult major league environment.  In addition, Carroll hasn’t always been a good hitter, and had an unimpressive 2009 campaign with the Marlins  in which he found playing time based entirely on his plus defense, mostly in right field.  It was that defense (13.1 UZR) that Jack Moore of Fangraphs deemed “excellent.”

While Carroll’s defense shines, he isn’t quite as good as Gomez and has the potential to be just the liability at the dish that Gomez was.  No doubt, losing Gomez was a blow to the Brewers; but if Carroll can keep up his excellent defense and continue to produce at the kind of level that he has in AAA this year, the drop-off should be subtle.

Carlos Beltran as a Brewer?

MLBTradeRumors.com reports, via Buster Olney, that the Brewers are in play for Mets rightfielder Carlos Beltran, and will acquire him if they can scrape together a decent enough package of prospects.  The fit doesn’t look to be there, though, as Olney says that Mets GM Sandy Alderson is set on attaining a high-end prospect for the impact bat.  And lord knows, no one in baseball thinks the Brewers have many of those anymore.

It’s obvious why a team like the Brewers would want Beltran, a free-agent-to-be and, like K-Rod, another Scott Boras client (are you seeing a pattern here?).  Beltran, an All-Star, is having a fantastic year, batting .293 with a .389 OBP and .917 OPS.  He’s hit 15 home runs, including a dinger last night, with 61 RBI and 58 K to 52 BB.  Beltran also leads the major leagues with 30 doubles.

If true (and you have to take these reports with a grain of salt), this is an interesting trade deadline strategy by Brewers GM Doug Melvin.  The club’s greatest need is clearly an upgrade at shortstop, yet Melvin’s trade for K-Rod and this rumor suggest he’s intent on shoring up other weak areas of the ballclub (the bullpen and the bench).  Perhaps he has concluded that the market simply doesn’t present enough of an upgrade at short to justify the cost, or that a solid supporting cast will compensate for Yuniesky Betancourt’s weak bat and glove.

 

 

Someone to count on

The newly reformed Brewers bullpen got its first test yesterday as starter Shaun Marcum exited with a strained neck after five innings.  A combination of four relievers took the Crew the rest of the way – LaTroy Hawkins (sixth), Takashi Saito (seventh), Francisco Rodriguez (eighth), and John Axford (ninth) –  to preserve a much-needed 4-3 win on the road.

The four are among the top relievers that have appeared in the Brewers bullpen over the course of the season.

Hawkins has been outstanding since returning from the disabled list; in 30 appearances, he has allowed only 5 earned runs and sports a nifty 1.65 ERA to go along with 15 strikeouts and 4 walks.

Axford is 25-27 in save opportunities, one  of the best save percentages in the majors, with an acceptable 2.84 ERA (11th best of current closers).  Axford is not a shutdown closer by any means, as he illustrated in yesterday’s game by allowing a double and a walk before striking out All-Star Troy Tulowitzki to end the game.

But Axford is getting the job done so far, and despite Francisco Rodriguez’s two scoreless frames in a Brewers uniform, Rodriguez does not look like a real threat to permanently displace Axford as a closer.  Earlier this week the Brewers agreed to increase K-Rod’s buyout to $4 M (from $3.5 M) in exchange for nixing the $17.5 2012 vesting option with 55 games finished, so there is no longer an urgency to keep K-Rod from closing games.  Still, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.  Axford has been able to get out of the messes he creates, and if he can keep doing so there’s no need for a switch.  It’s worth noting, though, that K-Rod has been able to strike out three in his two innings despite the lack of velocity on his fastball (regularly clocked at 91 yesterday, while once touching both 92 and 93).  His also allowed a double on a changeup, which was not quite as effective (between 84-86).

Finally, Takashi Saito, who was on the disabled list until recently, has been serviceable.  His 7:1 K:BB ratio will fly, but his WHIP (1.57) and HR/9 (2.6) will not.  Keep in mind those numbers are based on a rather small sample size of seven innings, and can be attributed to shaking off the rust after being shut down for so long.  Saito really only had one bad outing on July 15.  For his career, he has a 1.03 WHIP and allows only .6 HR/9, so there shouldn’t be much to worry about here.

The rest of the Brewers bullpen isn’t nearly as good, but Kameron Loe (3-7, 4.53 ERA), Marco Estrada (2-6, 4.70), and Tim Dillard (1-1, 5.00) have all shown flashes of greatness.  But having allowed third-most runs in the NL, the Brewers bullpen was desperately in need of help in the late innings.  The K-Rod trade has perhaps turned one of the Brewers’ greatest weaknesses into one of its greatest strengths.

Turning the tide

The Brewers are off to an unimpressive start in the unofficial second half of the season.  In two games against Colorado, the Brewers have scored a combined 3 runs, all three of them coming in the first game against angry Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez.  The Brew Crew was shut out last night against – you guessed it – a rookie.  In only his ninth major league start, Juan Nicasio blanked the Brewers over seven innings, allowing only four hits.  He even ended Ryan Braun’s 23-game hitting streak.  Now, Nicasio is not a good pitcher.  He was coming off a five-run, two inning drubbing against Atlanta, and sported a 4.91 ERA.  But, the Brewers, as they often do, simply could not get anything going against a relatively inexperienced pitcher.

Zack Greinke gets the start tonight, the Brewers purported ace.  If ever there was a time he needed to step up, this is it.  As I’ve explained in the past, Greinke’s poor outings have generally been a combination of bad luck and poor defense, but he also occasionally leaves the ball up in the zone.  That will not work at Coors Field.  It’s up to both Greinke and the defense to turn the tide tonight.  If they do, the Brewers offense shouldn’t need to do much to get a win.

Getting to know K-Rod

We now understand why Doug Melvin was so vague when asked who would close for the Brewers in the aftermath of Tuesday’s blockbuster trade for Francisco Rodriguez.  According to Ron Roenicke, who intends to sit down with both K-Rod and current closer John Axford today, “I think there are going to be times that both of them are used in that setup role.  We’ll just see how that goes. I know [K-Rod] really wants to play for a winner — that’s big on his mind.”

I can’t say I’m a big fan of a closer-by-committee arrangement here.  Since blowing the save on opening day, John Axford has been stellar.  If he has one Achilles’ heel, it’s that he allows too many guys to reach base (1.36 WHIP), many via the walk (3.7 BB/9).  But Rodriguez isn’t any better in that regard (1.41 WHIP), and Axford is also striking out slightly more batters.  Axford also has better velocity; his fastball regularly sits in the 95-96 range, while the velocity on Rodriguez’s fastball has annually decreased and now clocks in at just 90-91.

I thought it might be helpful to see just what else our new part-time closer is working with.  K-Rod is throwing his fastball about 60% of the time, the highest amount for years where pitch f/x data is available, despite the fact that it it slightly below average (-1.3 runs above average per 100 fastballs).  Rodriguez also has a plus curve that falls in at about 77 mph, but his real filth pitch is his changeup, which he throws about 15% of the time and is regularly clocked at 82-83.  K-Rod will throw an occasional two-seamer with good movement in the same range as his fastball (90-91).

Although K-Rod has been good this year, his best stuff might still be ahead of him.  He’s been somewhat unlucky with a .342 batting average on balls in play, the highest of his career in any season where he’s pitched more than 50 innings (actually, K-Rod’s BABIP has never hit .300 before).  His expected ERA (2.98), which adjusts ERA for defense, is slightly better than his traditional ERA (3.16), though his traditional ERA could rise with the Brewers’ porous defense behind him.  K-Rod’s fastball may be losing velocity, but he’s adjusted by inducing more ground balls than ever before (51.7%), while his percentages of line drives (14.2%) and fly balls (34.2%) are at career lows.  That should play well at Miller Park.

Of course, we’re still not sure in what situation Rodriguez will be utilizing his stuff.  Roenicke is on record as supporting defined roles for his bullpen,* which makes his decision to use both Rodriguez and Axford in save situations all the more surprising.  The fact that Roenicke is unwilling to assign a role to the Brewers’ new acquisition is somewhat troubling, but it may have to do with his prior relationship with K-Rod as a coach for the Angels.  Roenicke provided this scouting report, which may help explain his thinking:

“He’s a gamer.  The tighter the game is, the more he wants the ball, which is really nice. You’re not always going to have clean innings with him, but he always makes the big pitch when he needs to.”

*Kam Loe in the eighth, anyone?

EDIT: Lest anyone misconstrue this post, there is still no way that the Brewers will allow K-Rod to finish 21 games and vest that whopping $17.5 M option for 2012.  So we know he isn’t going to close all that much, but why use him in that role at all when Axford has been so good?  Not unless Axford is injured or unavailable, I say.

Big Red on the farm: Epilogue

Some sad news today in that the Rangers have released former Brewers’ righthander Seth McClung, whom I recently blogged about here.  McClung had been pitching for the Rangers’ AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express.  After a poor outing on July 6 (3 IP, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4K), the Rangers apparently decided to part ways with the former big leaguer.  McClung has not pitched in the majors since his stint with Milwaukee in 2009.  Best of luck to Seth if he decides to continue his baseball career elsewhere.

From MLBTradeRumors.com

The Midsummer Classic and an odd acquisition

How good is Prince Fielder?  On a night reserved exclusively for the best in baseball (or at least their replacements), Fielder managed to steal the spotlight again with a three-run dinger that pretty much decided the contest for the National League.  It was the first All-Star home run by a Brewer in franchise history, and Fielder’s subsequent MVP trophy was also a franchise first.

It was as bittersweet a victory as they come.  I couldn’t help but to think that next year Fielder could easily find himself in the other lineup swinging out of the DH spot.  Or at the very least wearing another team’s uniform.  The awards he piles up for the Brewers’ franchise are great, but also tough to take seriously when Fielder has not displayed the kind of commitment to the organization that our other annual All-Star slugger, Ryan Braun, has.

But, Fielder’s ringing jack is not the only reason for Brewers nation to rejoice tonight; indeed, it may not even be the primary reason.  In a stunning move, Doug Melvin and the Brewers announced that they had acquired New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez and enough cash to cover his salary (about $5 M) for two minor league players to be named later.  At 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA and a 2.88 K/BB ratio, Rodriguez is poised to contribute significantly to the bullpen going forward.

It’s an interesting move, if for no other reason that Doug Melvin seems to have addressed one of the club’s strengths by creating a bit of a closer controversy.  Closer John Axford, also 2-2, has performed even better than K-Rod, and sits at 2.83 with 3.12 K/BB.  While Doug Melvin insists there’s no confusion about the closer role, well, there is, because he has thus far refused to say who the primary closer would be.  “John has done a good job for us, and I still have confidence in him,” said Melvin. “I’m not going to get into (a possible controversy). This is just a chance to get a quality arm that’s not easy to get.”  But as Tom Haudricourt points out:

One thing is certain: The Brewers will not let Rodriguez finish 21 more games over the remainder of the season. He already has finished 34 games, and if he gets to 55 games finished for the season, the $17.5 million option for 2012 automatically vests.

Please stay healthy, John.

The move certainly shores up a bullpen that has struggled as of late, with recently demoted set-up man Kameron Loe sitting at 3-7 with a 4.50 ERA.  Long reliever Marco Estrada has also fallen off, compiling a 1-5 record and 4.65 ERA since his last start on May 4.  And with Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins potential injury risks, its hard to pan Melvin for the move too much, especially if Rodriguez is used primarily as a set up man.*

Yet you hope Doug Melvin isn’t done working his magic, because the much more pressing need is at shortstop.  Melvin has been very active at the trade deadline in past years, and I’ll be handicapping the shortstop situation in the next few days.  There’s reason to like the K-Rod move, though, and not only because it keeps a really good closer out of the Cardinals hands.  But there also has to be cautious optimism that there is more to come before the July 31 trade deadline.

*Scott Boras apparently doesn’t consider his client K-Rod a setup man (“”Closers don’t make good setup men. Does anyone want an unhappy setup man in their clubhouse?”).  You have to wonder if the Brewers’ intention to use K-Rod in that role to prevent the vesting of his 2012 option will harm whatever (slim) chance the team has to keep Fielder.  But Scott Boras has said a lot of things, and its simply not clear how all this will shake out right now, including whether K-Rod will be a detriment in the clubhouse.  There’s certainly potential for that.

EDIT:  As Tim Dierkes over at MLBTradeRumors notes, the best case scenario for Scott Boras commission-wise is to have K-Rod become a free agent at the end of the season.  So, he can’t be too upset with a set-up arrangement for the righty.  Still, Jon Heyman, who views the trade favorably, reports that Melvin and Boras discussed K-Rod’s role with the crew, and for now Boras seems to be sticking to his “historic closer” shtick.

Kotsay comes through

The Brewers’ bench once looked like a place where veterans and youngsters alike go to end their careers.  Rotating through such light hitters as Juan Nieves (.140), Carlos Gomez (.224), Brandon Boggs (.158), Craig Counsell (.172), and Josh Wilson (.241), perhaps the biggest bench disappointment was 35-year-old OF Mark Kotsay.

Through June, Kotsay looked like he would never live up to even his modest $800k salary. April and May brought difficulties as Kotsay adjusted to a limited bench role, but his worst month would come in June when he hit just .194 with a .226 slugging percentage.  As injured bullpen arm Takashi Saito reached the terminal stages of his DL stint, Kotsay, set to earn a $100k incentive bonus, must have been considered internally as a prime candidate for release.

Kotsay must have received the message.  This month, he’s gone 10-25 with 2 HR and 6 RBI.  His biggest contribution:  a walk-off 2 RBI single to take the Brewers past the Reds tonight, 8-7.  Kotsay also chipped in with a solo home run in the sixth, which temporarily gave Milwaukee the lead.  Kotsay’s prowess at the plate could not come at a better time, either, as Ryan Braun has sat out the past six games with a calf strain.

Ron Roenicke claims he saw the turnaround coming.  “Early in the season, I know his batting average wasn’t real good, but he was really hitting the ball hard.  We went into Chicago, and he got a little out of (sorts) there and stayed that way for a couple of weeks.  He bounced out of it. He put together some unbelievable at-bats today. To hit that last one, a fastball in, that was impressive.”

It sure impressed Reds starter Mike Leake, who called the loss “by far the toughest one of the year.”

The bench continues to present problems for the Brewers.  Counsell has value because of his versatility in the field, but his .172 average coming off his unproductive pinch-hit at bat tonight would be the worst mark of his career. Carlos Gomez, who has settled into a full platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center, has still failed to use all of his talent at the dish.  George Kottaras and Josh Wilson have been somewhat productive, but the Brewers still lack a clutch player to bring in at critical junctures.  Hopefully, everyone else on the pine was taking notes from Kotsay today.