The Waning Days of Rickie

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

rickie_weeks2With the Brewers eliminated from postseason contention, thoughts are naturally turning to 2015.  It’s as if the late-season collapse that brought the first-place Brewers to their knees hasn’t infected all their fans with endless pessimism about the future.  But before we cast our eyes, gleaming with irrational hope, toward the new season, let’s stop for a second to reflect on  what we’re about to lose.

Rickie Weeks is a lightning rod among fans for a lot of reasons.  His early years on the team were marred by low batting averages and nagging injuries.  Fans were frustrated by high strikeout totals, lackluster defense, and a perceived careless approach at the plate, despite the fact that Weeks led the club’s regulars in on-base percentage in 2006, was second in 2007 and 2010 to Prince Fielder, and third in 2008 … well, you get the picture.  Fan sentiment about Rickie has never actually reflected his skill set, which included a power bat not generally found in the middle infield.

One thing people were generally correct about, even in those early days, was the injury bug.  Weeks is basically Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s had wrist surgery twice (2006 and 2009), and missed additional games because of a wrist injury in 2007.  Weeks had let thumb surgery in 2005 and missed handful of games in 2008 because of a sore knee.  Availability is a skill, as they say, and Weeks took plenty of criticism because he couldn’t stay on the field.

Fan sentiment seemed to shift after Weeks’ first healthy season in 2010.  Weeks was a dynamo for the 77-85 Brewers, playing 160 games and slashing .269/.366/.464 with 29 home runs.  The potential many had talked about for half a decade had finally been realized, and the Brewers moved quickly to sign Weeks to a long-term extension in the offseason.  On the eve of Weeks’ final arbitration hearing, he and the team agreed to a four-year, $38.5 million deal with a fifth-year vesting option covering 2015.  Smartly, the Brewers built outs for themselves if Weeks was not an everyday player in 2013 or 2014.

Unfortunately, Weeks didn’t stay healthy in 2011, and couldn’t quite replicate his success in 2012.  However, he still contributed plenty to to those teams.  In 2011, Weeks shredded his ankle when he landed on first base awkwardly and was limited to 118 games that year, although he still managed to accumulate 20 home runs with a very respectable .269/.350/.468 triple slash en route to his first All-Star berth.  In 2012, Weeks again surpassed 20 home runs in a healthy season but hit just .230.  By 2013, many were calling for Weeks’ ouster at second base in favor of the much-hyped Scooter Gennett.  They got their wish when Weeks suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in August after hitting just .209.

The left-handed Gennett did well in Weeks’ absence, and the two entered into a fairly rigid platoon during the 2014 season.  Weeks has rebounded to his best season since 2011, hitting .272/.350/.451 with 8 home runs in 277 plate attempts.  He declined to move to left field early in the season, preferring instead to market himself as a second baseman as he enters free agency after this year.  The Brewers will not pick up Weeks’ option, and we are presumably watching the last days of Rickie Weeks in a Brewers uniform.

Weeks is one of the last holdovers from the Brewers postseason appearances in 2008 and 2011, and has been a lineup staple since 2006.  Very few players have that kind of longevity with a team, which itself speaks for Weeks’ skills.  While its fair to say there is a certain segment of Brewers fans who have never liked Weeks, even they have to appreciate the 18 career fWAR he has accumulated as a member of the Brewers.  In these final two games, the fans always so critical of Weeks need to step back and admire a guy that not only gave his all when able, but contributed in real, definable ways to bring postseason baseball back to Milwaukee.

 

Scooter Gennett as a liability

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

In Sunday’s uncomfortably close win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the bottom of the seventh inning looked promising.  Up 4-2, the Brewers would bring Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, and Aramis Ramirez to the plate against mediocre right-handed starter Vance Worley – an excellent opportunity to add insurance runs and seal the deal.  Indeed, everything went according to plan after Lucroy grounded out: Braun and Ramirez both singled, leaving two on with lefty Scooter Gennett coming to the plate.

Clint Hurdle did the logical thing at that point and pulled Worley, replacing him with LHP Justin Wilson.  The young Wilson’s splits somewhat surprisingly favor left-handed batters, but he still holds them to a career 247/.311/.337 line.  Scooter, however, has always struggled against southpaws, and as a major leaguer has hit just .132/.154/.145 off them.

It made all the sense in the world to substitute Rickie Weeks, the right-handed portion of the second base platoon and a career .259/.383/.440 hitter against lefties.  The Brewers had dropped the first two games in the series and are locked in a tight NL Central race in which the Pirates, at the time, were just four games back.  The Pirates would get another opportunity to bat the heart of their order against the Brewers’ bullpen, so the game was certainly still within reach for them in the late innings.

Instead, manager Ron Roenicke left Scooter in to hit, and he rather predictably grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, ending the threat.

Fan justifications for this move ranged from “Scooter’s never going to learn to hit left-handed pitching if he never faces them” to emphasizing Scooter’s admittedly superior defense at second base.  Both fall short.

It is true that Scooter is very young and might still adapt to hit southpaws; I don’t want to sell him short so early in his career.  But if he is to learn, the late innings of a tight game against a surging division rival with a man in scoring position is not the place to do it.  Whatever growth might be accomplished in that one at-bat is not worth the potential sacrifice to a team that hopes to secure a playoff berth.

And while Scooter does indeed have a superior glove to Weeks, it’s not as if Weeks is a fish out of water at the position.  He’s been a second baseman his entire career.  To be sure, Weeks’ range leaves much to be desired.  The defensive deficiencies are somewhat mitigated by the short amount of time – just two innings! – he would be stationed at second.  He might have seen perhaps two balls hit his way (in point of fact, Scooter saw one).  Any defensive liabilities Weeks brings to the ledger were overcome by the increased opportunity for a run or two during the seventh inning.

I am not opposed to offensive growth or emphasizing defense.  But there is a place for both, and in the heart of a pennant race, you have to manage for the win.

Brewers make a move, trade for Gerardo Parra; Schafer optioned

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

While the Cardinals have stacked up rotation arms over the last couple days, the Brewers went a different route as they acquired OF Gerardo Parra from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for prospects OF Mitch Haniger and LHP Anthony Banda.

Gerardo ParraParra gives the Brewers a badly needed left-handed bench bat.  Over his six-year career with the Dbacks, Parra has slashed .274/.326/.395, though its worth noting the last couple years have dragged down that career line.  Parra has two Gold Gloves, is an excellent fielder, and can play all three outfield positions.  Predictably, current backup OF Logan Schafer has been optioned to AAA Nashville, and I don’t think any Brewers fan is going to be upset about that.  It’s worth noting Parra has a heavy platoon split, so you shouldn’t expect to see him in any lineup facing a lefty.

The Brewers gave up two recent draft picks in Haniger and Banda, both coming to the team in the 2012 amateur draft.  Haniger, the last of the team’s three first-round picks that year, has struggled at AA Hunstville this season after playing reasonably well with the Class A Appleton and high A Brevard County last year.  Banda, a 10th round pick, has been fine in 83 innings with Appleton this year.  Neither are high-value prospects.

We’ll see if the Brewers make any more moves before the trade deadline this afternoon.  If Doug Melvin has some more magic in his bag, you’ll find it here.  Stay tuned to creamcitycables.com and @creamcitycables on Twitter.

On exercising Aramis Ramirez’s 2015 contract option

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee BrewersAramis Ramirez may be an All-Star in 2014, and it’s pretty easy to see why.  The slugging righty is currently hitting .292/.340/.492 with 10 home runs, has the second-highest wRC+ (a measure of a player’s total offensive value above league average) among NL third-basemen at 129, and he’s shown quite a capable glove at the hot corner.  There are definitely other worthy candidates (Todd Frazier and Matt Carpenter, for example) but there’s no doubt Ramirez is having a great year.

It seems a prudent move for the Brewers to pick up their portion of Ramirez’s 2015 mutual option.  Ramirez is being paid $16M this year, but his 2015 option is for $14M, and the Brewers are already on the hook for a $4M buyout if they decline.  That means the option’s net cost is $10M.  If we assume the cost of a win in 2015 remains around $6M, Ramirez would only have to contribute about 1.6 WAR to be worth the money.  Ramirez accumulated 5.7 fWAR during a healthy 2012 season, 1.4 during an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, and currently has 1.6 in 2014, despite missing most of May.

The Brewers don’t have a lot of other third base candidates.  Internally, the closest the team has to a major-league 3B is Taylor Green, who was drafted in 2005 and is already 27.  Green has had an up-and-down career in the minors, but lost all of last season to a hip injury that required surgery.  Green currently sports an OBP below .300 at AAA Nashville, and hasn’t hit will in limited time with the big-league club.  He’ll also be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015.

The Brewers best 3B prospect is probably Nick Delmonico, who was acquired from the Orioles in 2013.  Delmonico, who currently plays for A Brevard County, will need more development in the advanced minors before he’s ready for the prime time, though.

Externally, the Brewers could do a few things, but none as good-or realistic-as bringing back Ramirez.  They could attempt to resign Mark Reynolds in 2015 and play him exclusively at third; this has the advantage of being relatively cheap.  Despite Reynolds very good year with the glove, I’m not sure it’s the wisest choice giving Reynolds’ reputation for defensive lapses.  Pablo Sandoval-the only full-time 3B free agent under the age of 30-is reportedly looking for a deal upwards of $100M and comes with health and performance concerns.  If the 31-year-old Hanley Ramirez doesn’t work out an extension with the Dodgers, he too would look for a big-money deal in likely his last long-term contract.  There’s Chase Headley, also 31, who may in the midst of a severe decline, raising questions about his fielding and plate discipline.  Beyond those four, it’s really just a bunch of guys, the most appetizing of which may be former Brewer Casey McGehee, currently hitting .309/.375/.392 with the Florida Marlins.

Of course, the option isn’t completely in the Brewers hands.  Ramirez, who turns 36 tomorrow, may think he can get a better deal on the free agent market and decline his half of the mutual option (though that wouldn’t necessarily preclude the Brewers from bringing him back).  Ramirez has also had lots of nagging injuries over the last few seasons.  In 2013, he missed time during both spring training and the regular season with knee issues, and a hamstring strain this year cost Ramirez almost all of May.  He left the game last Saturday with back tightness.  The injuries cut both in favor and against the Brewers:  they might scare off a few teams from a long-term deal and lower Ramirez’s market value, encouraging him to exercise his half of the option (resulting in the $4M buyout if the Brewers elect not to do the same).

On the whole, it seems that barring some catastrophic injury, the Brewers best plan for competing in 2015 might be to pick up Ramirez’s option and hope he reciprocates.  His big bat won’t be matched by any internal candidates, and the external candidates who could perhaps contribute equally will cost much, much more.  Even if Ramirez is true to his history and suffers some minor injury during the 2015 season, his expected contributions during healthy periods make it a worthwhile gamble.

Roenicke botches the 7th, causes loss

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

I’ve watched a lot of baseball, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like what happened in the 7th inning of yesterday’s 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

The wheels started to fall off a quality start for Matt Garza when, with the Brewers up 4-2, he allowed a pair of singles to start the bottom of the inning.  Garza departed with one out, and Brandon Kintzler was summoned to face righty Gerald Laird, who hit a ground ball to third that deflected off Mark Reynolds’ glove and trickled into left to score Chris Johnson. MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks

That’s when things took a decidedly damning turn for Ron Roenicke.  With Ryan Doumit batting, Roenicke summoned a lefty … only none had been getting loose.  When Roenicke walked out to the mound, the bullpen was visibly panicked.  Zach Duke wound up emerging from the gates, but Roenicke had already made the substitution for Will Smith.  So Duke returned to the bullpen and the cold-armed Smith took the mound.  Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez insisted on adherence to the eight-pitch rule, and that’s all the warming Smith was able to do.

Home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth was so concerned about the potential for injury that he tried to bend the rules and get Smith more warm-up pitches.  He even initiated a psudo-replay review to see if there was any way to help Smith, but nothing could be done.  And that falls squarely on Ron Roenicke.

The results were predictable, and as Rock said on the broadcast, Smith showed all the signs of coming in cold.  Smith allowed back-to-back singles and walked the third batter before being lifted.  Roenicke compounded his bullpen mismanagement by bringing the infield in with only one out and the go-ahead run on second, and the Braves took a 5-4 lead on the first single.

Roenicke’s post-game explanation made virtually no sense.  The Brewers were down pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell, both of whom were attending family graduations.  But there were fill-ins in minor-league pitching coordinator Rick Tomlin and bullpen coach Marcus Hanel, respectively.  Roenicke said Kranitz usually takes care of calling the bullpen, and he simply assumed-wrongly-that Tomlin would, too.  But then, for some reason, he also sent Martin Maldonado to the bullpen:

“You do things the same way every day and when it changes, it just changes what goes on. I had to make the change. I sent Maldy (backup catcher Martin Maldonado) to run down to the bullpen because we needed two guys up. Maldy went down there and said, ‘I think it’s (Zach) Duke,’ but he never got the call on who it was. So, we didn’t call.”

While the situation provides an interesting glimpse into the daily work of the pitching coach and the importance of his relationship with the manager, the failure to get it right in this case is utterly inexplicable.  There are monitors showing a feed of the bullpen in the Atlanta dugouts.  There’s a phone in the dugout with a direct line to the bullpen.  And it’s apparently pretty easy to send someone to personally check on the bullpen during a game.

How, then, it was possible for Roenicke to mess this up is beyond me.  But rarely do you see a loss traceable so directly and tangibly to mismanagement.  After the game, Roenicke said the loss was “going to be hard on me.”  It should be.

Braun hits the DL

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

BraunAs expected, Ryan Braun is headed to the disabled list.  The stint is retroactive to April 27, a day after Braun last appeared against the Cubs and strained his oblique.  He’ll be eligible to return on May 12, which means he will miss the entirety of the series against the Yankees.  Not exactly ideal timing.

The team has been playing shorthanded while they evaluate Braun’s health, but oblique injuries are tricky.  It became pretty apparent Braun would require a DL stint earlier this week, and it’s better to let the muscle fully heal now than have the problem linger through July or longer.  Logan Schafer was activated from the DL in a corresponding move.

This says nothing of the nerve issue in Braun’s thumb, which prevents him from feeling how hard he’s gripping a bat.  That remains concerning and will likely impact Braun for the remainder of the season.  It sounds like there’s no guarantee surgery will fix the nerve, and could take Braun out of the lineup for a very long time.  So for now, he’ll continue to manage the injury.

Reviewing a crazy week for the outfield and bullpen

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

It’s been a interesting few days for the Brewers. Injuries to Ryan Braun (oblique), Aramis Ramirez (elbow), and Jean Segura (bat to the face) have left the team shorthanded on the bench, and heavy bullpen use has left it short on relievers, too.

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Mercifully, Martin Maldonado returned from a 5-game suspension on Monday, only to find himself pitching on Wednesday in the final inning of a blowout loss to the Cardinals.  After an abbreviated start from Matt Garza and another three-inning disaster for the seldom-used Wei-Chung Wang, there really weren’t many better options. Most of the high-leverage players had been used the previous two days, and it made no sense to toss them in for mop-up duty. The Wang story has been fun, but instinct tells me it won’t last the year.

Yesterday, the Brewers somewhat addressed their reliever crunch by adding Rob Wooten to the mix, but at the outfield’s expense. Utility man Elian Herrera was optioned to Nashville, leaving Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis as the Brewers’ only true outfielders. Mark Reynolds started in right field in the first game against Cincinnati. If you saw Herrera play right during the Cardinals series, you’ll probably agree he wasn’t missed much.

Wooten, for his part, was a mess yesterday. He inherited a bases-loaded jam from Jim Henderson, who also gave up a go-ahead two-run Great American shot before departing.  Wooten walked the first batter, allowed a two-run single, and hit a batter before recording the final out of the inning.  After the smoke cleared, the Reds had scored five in the frame.

Fortunately, Segura and Ramirez both returned to the lineup yesterday. Ramirez went 0-4, picking up right where he left off, but Segura had a pair of hits and a RBI.  Braun remains out indefinitely, and my strong suspicion is that he will wind up on the DL tomorrow, when Logan Schafer is likely to be activated.

That doesn’t help much for tonight, though, so this afternoon the Brewers placed Henderson on the DL with shoulder inflammation and called up OF Caleb Gindl, who is starting in right tonight. If that seems a little too convenient for you, Disciples of Uecker does note that Henderson was again struggling with his fastball velocity yesterday.

The outfield crunch won’t be entirely solved when Schafer returns, as Gomez’s appeal of his three-game suspension for the Pittsburgh brouhaha remains pending.  Word is that will be heard on or around next Monday (UPDATE: The Brewers say it’s Friday), so don’t expect lineup consistency any time soon.