By Nathan Petrashek
That’s not unwarranted. Weeks is batting .189/.302/.297 on the young season, and his defensive lapses are well documented. So what gives? Why are the Brewers still starting this guy?
To help answer that, let’s take a look at a couple other guys struggling through May 7.
Player A: .208/.255/.296
Player B: .242/.293/.435
Player A is Josh Hamilton, a career .300/.359/.539 hitter. Guess what? Hamilton’s still starting. Player B is Adrian Beltre, who you probably saw tonight. For his career, he’s at .279/.330/.475. But they’re bums, right? Bench them all!
Historical performance plays a big role in determining how long a leash a struggling player gets. Weeks isn’t Hamilton or Beltre, but he’s been a very solid offensive player during his career, slashing .249/.348/.425. Fangraphs says he’s been worth 17.3 wins above replacement (Hamilton is at 23.5 over a slightly shorter period). Point being: we know Weeks’ ceiling, and it’s pretty damn good, particularly at a position not ordinarily known for offensive prowess.
Of course, I doubt anyone would be complaining too forcibly if Weeks hadn’t had the worst year of his career last year. And it got bad last year; really bad. On May 31, 2012, Weeks was batting just .158/.292/.294. And you know what? After that, he looked a lot like the familiar Rickie Weeks, slashing .260/.344/.445.
But even more compelling is the absence of an heir apparent at second base. Scooter Gennett is doing just fine at AAA Nashville, but he’s a hit-first kid who doesn’t really play second well, doesn’t display much power, and doesn’t walk. He’s also played just 24 games at AAA, and is a complete unknown at the major-league level. Yuniesky Betancourt has done fine as an emergency fill-in at first and third bases, but he’s barely played any second base and his .306 OBP just barely tops Weeks’ .302. Betancourt is also a career .260/.290/.395 hitter. It’s all fun and games while he’s whacking home runs, but you’re nuts if you think he’s going to continue that kind of pace all year.
You can argue about where Weeks should be in the lineup right now, but there’s no question he should be in it for the time being. Let’s have this conversation in June.
By Nathan Petrashek
There are about to be a whole lot of roster moves, a reflection of just how crippled the Brewers have been for the first month of the season. Some of them have happened already, some of them will happen tomorrow, some of them will happen during the month of May. Here’s the latest on the Brewers fallen:
Jeff Bianchi activated; Khris Davis optioned: IF Jeff Bianchi was placed on the DL this spring with left hip bursitis, which sounds pretty epic but is really just inflammation that can cause joint stiffness. His unavailability led in part to the Brewers to pick up Yuniesky Betancourt, who’s knocking the stuffing out of the ball, so I guess we should all be thankful for that. In any case, Bianchi is back now, which means the Brewers currently have four – count ‘em, four! – shortstop types on the active roster. OF Khris Davis, who has received just a handful of plate attempts, was sent down to AAA Nashville. Bianchi hit .188/.230/.348 with the Brewers last season, although he sports a minor league career triple slash of .286/.340/.411.
Aramis Ramirez activated; Josh Prince optioned: Ramirez was down for a month after sliding awkwardly into second base. Despite missing nearly all of April, the team will bring him right back into the fold, though he will probably see plenty of time off early on. Josh Prince is being sent down to Nashville in a corresponding move.
Chris Narveson: Narveson has been playing catch as he rehabs a sprained finger on his pitching hand. He’s slated to return in Mid-May.
Mark Rogers: Rogers, officially placed on the DL with “right shoulder instability,” but unofficially with loss of velocity, command, and everything else that makes a pitcher go, started a rehab assignment on April 23. The Brewers will need to decide whether to activate him to the major league club or cut ties with him by May 23; he’s not likely to clear waivers. For what it’s worth, Rogers has not pitched well since beginning his rehab stint; he’s walked 6 over 3.2 innings against just 1 strikeout, and has allowed at least 1 run in 2 of his 3 appearances.
Corey Hart: Hart had right knee surgery in January. He just rejoined the team and is currently throwing, doing water aerobics, and exercising to strengthen his quads. Hart, on the 60-day DL, is eligible for reinstatement on May 30, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll make that goal.
Taylor Green: Green started the season on the DL with a hip injury. He elected to have season-ending surgery in late April.
Mat Gamel: Gamel had season-ending knee surgery on March 8.
By Nathan Petrashek
The Brewers bullpen falls squarely in “meh” territory right now. They’re league average just about everywhere, which is still an improvement over last year. But let’s just say trotting Mike Gonzalez (2-something WHIP) and John Axford (4.8 HR/9) doesn’t do much to light my fire.
Not to sound too summer blockbusterish, but an old terror is returning to haunt the Brewers organization. You might remember him by his pseudonym, Thirty Pitches of Terror, or simply K-Rod. Either way, Francisco Rodriguez has a visa and has been assigned to Class A Brevard. If he can make it back to the Brewers, he’ll get around $2 million on a minor league contract signed this spring.
“Thirty Pitches of Terror” isn’t exactly fair to the formerly elite reliever, the guy who, but for a colossal screw-up by his agents, might still have a closing gig today. In 2012, K-Rod tossed over 30 pitches just twice, though he came close to that in a handful of other appearances. Generally, it took K-Rod a reasonable 15-17 pitches to get through an inning. But “Fifteen Pitches of Terror” doesn’t quite have that doomsday ring to it.
Brewers fans are perhaps understandably apprehensive about the looming reunion with this menace. 2012 was undoubtedly the worst year of K-Rod’s career. He amassed a 4.38 ERA over 72 innings, walked batters at a higher rate than anytime since 2009, and his strikeouts per nine dropped to a career low. On the heels of a stellar 2011 campaign, K-Rod managed to completely destroy any trade value by midseason 2012, and didn’t even get a major league offer this offseason.
Thing is, K-Rod’s 2012 wasn’t all bad, and where it was, it was historically so. The last two months of the season Rodriguez appeared in 27 games and amassed a 2.81 ERA, with a 26/5 strikeout to walk ratio. He actually gained a few ticks on his fastball in 2012, and that and his change were both well above-average pitches last season. Rodriguez’s FIP was over a half-run better than his season ERA, which ballooned in part because of his career-worst strand rate. And K-Rod’s homerun-flyball ratio of 12.3% was nearly double that of 2011. So there’s some room for hope.
I obviously believe Rodriguez’s time as an elite closer is over. But it looks to me like a decent chance that at 31, Rodriguez still has something left. K-Rod has a few weeks to show his wares in the minors before the Brewers have to make a decision on him, so we’ll have to see where he’s at. Basically, he’s on a minor league deal with a trial period and reasonable big league salary, should he make it that far. I’d roll the dice on that, and it could very well be another win for GM Doug Melvin.
By Nathan Petrashek
Yovani Gallardo clearly didn’t have his best stuff last night, but battled through 6.2 innings against a tough (sarcasm) San Diego offense. Gallardo was in great shape heading into the seventh after throwing just 86 pitches. He was aided by quick innings in the third, fourth and fifth, during which he threw just 32 pitches. The sixth inning required a bit more effort thanks to Jedd Gyorko’s six-pitch flyout and Gallardo’s only two strikeouts of the night. But it certainly looked like Gallardo had another inning in him.
He didn’t, and the seventh is where the wheels really fell off for Gallardo. His night ended after walking three consecutive batters. Here’s how Gallardo’s seventh inning went down:
1) Alexi Amarista grounds out.
Gallardo threw two outside curveballs to Amarista, not a bad strategy since Amarista has historically swung at nearly 40% of pitches out of the zone. The first one flattened out and landed high and outside; not Yo’s finest work, but Amarista didn’t swing at it. Oddly enough, he did swing at the second curve, which was even further outside and much lower. The result: routine grounder for Jean Segura, and a two-pitch at-bat.
2) Everth Cabrera grounds out.
Gallardo retired Cabrera, but it obviously wasn’t pretty. The first two pitches, a fastball and slider, respectively, weren’t even close. Then Gallardo hung a curveball that plenty of batters could have done something with, but not Cabrera the human groundout. I call this at-bat “the beginning of the end,” even though it ended with a three-pitch out.
3) Will Venable walks.
This happened on six pitches. Gallardo continued his wild streak by throwing a change at Venable’s feet to begin the at bat. He followed with two more changeups low, but Venable hacked at them anyway, fouling off both. Gallardo’s fourth pitch was a well-located cutter clearly intended to induce a swing. But the next two pitches aren’t even close. I see the strategy in changing eye level, but it works better when you’re at least in the vicinity of the zone.
4) Chase Headley walks.
I find the Headley sequence really fascinating. Here the dugout finally gets the picture that Gallardo is done, and Tom Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop start frantically warming up. Meanwhile, Gallardo misses low with a first-pitch curve. His next pitch, a fastball, hits plenty of the corner, but Gallardo has lost all credibility at this point. Headley doesn’t offer, and umpire Gary Darling doesn’t give him the call. Gallardo then shows that he can’t even command his fastball anymore, spiking one in the dirt before climbing the ladder a little too high. Headley was taking all the way; a four-pitch walk. Rick Kranitz goes out to talk to Gallardo, presumably to buy some time for the warming arms.
5) Carlos Quentin walks.
Gallardo starts Quentin off with a beautiful curve, but follows that up with a pitch in the dirt. Gallardo’s third pitch, a slider, isn’t well located at all, but Quentin isn’t able to pull his bat back in time. Gallardo gets a cheap strike.
Ahead 1-2 in the count, you’d expect Gallardo to burn a pitch, but he bounces a curve about a foot in front of home plate. Lucroy’s fast footwork keeps the runners from advancing, but it really doesn’t matter. Gallardo busts a fastball and a couple sliders too far away, and Quentin takes his base on Gallardo’s third consecutive walk.
As for causation, there aren’t a lot of firm conclusions we can draw from this information. Fatigue is a tough sell; Gallardo threw around 100 pitches in his first two starts, then scaled back to around 90 in his next two. Maybe it was something more pervasive; Gallardo didn’t locate well all night, throwing just 58 of his 108 pitches for strikes. But one thing I think this does illustrate is the psychological battle between hitter and pitcher. When a pitcher is off, the hitters may alter their approaches to take advantage of that fact. The Padres did just that on Tuesday, but ultimately weren’t disciplined or talented enough to really make it sting.
*All strikezone plots from Brooks Baseball.
By Nathan Petrashek
The Brewers finally ended a three-game skid on Sunday, but not before recording a franchise-worst 32 scoreless innings. That’s right; before Ryan Braun’s 8th inning dinger, the Brewers hadn’t scored a run since the 2nd inning in Chicago on Tuesday. The Brewers (specifically, the much-maligned Yuniesky Betancourt) managed to tie the game in the 9th, and might have taken the lead if not for some (attempted) bunting foolishness. Still, Jonathan Lucroy hit his first home run of the season to put the Brewers ahead for good at the top of the 10th. The Brewers have their third win, and all is right with the world.
Well, not so much. For fans who like to see runs scored (basically, if you’re not Old Hoss Radbourn), there was plenty of bad news to accompany the victory. Aramis Ramirez, who jammed his knee sliding into second base early in the season, isn’t likely to come off the DL when he’s eligible for reinstatement. I know, it’s a little cringeworthy when Ron Roenicke uses a phrase like “play it safe.” After all, this is the manager who just days ago-down a run in extras, with men on, and no other position players due to Roenicke’s own poor roster construction-declared Ryan Braun unfit to appear as a pinch hitter, and batted Kyle Lohse(!) in his stead; Braun would go 3-for-4 the next day and play nearly the entire game. But given Ramirez’s age and the lack of any other suitable options defensively at third base, it’s probably a good thing that Ramirez take whatever time he needs to get right.
The good news is that, offensively, the team has been fairly productive, even with Braun, Ramirez, and 1B Corey Hart missing time. To date, the 2013 Brewers have scored 36 runs. That’s just 3 shy of the number they scored as of this time last year, when the Brewers showcased the National League’s best offense. That those runs have come with some of the team’s best hitters (Rickie Weeks, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Gomez) enduring mini-slumps is a testament to the team’s offensive potential. With those players returning to form, and Ryan Braun healthy again, it’s not unreasonable to expect this team’s offensive output to increase significantly in the coming days, even with prolonged DL stints for Ramirez and Hart.
I don’t, of course, mean to suggest that this team couldn’t use Ramirez or Hart in the lineup. Even at 36 runs scored, the Brewers’ offense ranks as one of the worst in the National League, down there with the lowly Pirates and Marlins. Although I’m certain that having Ramirez and Hart in the lineup would make the Brewers more dangerous, it’s hard to quantify how much. I love Ramirez’s bat, but (even if not entirely true) the notion that he’s a slow starter persists, and last season provided ample evidence to support that theory. That same concern doesn’t exist for Hart, but some of his lost production has been offset by Jean Segura’s and Norichika Aoki’s stellar runs, and Hart can be prone to prolonged slumps.
Bottom line: we all know that when this offense is finally healthy, it will be great. But it is fully capable of treading water for the next month or so until that happens.
By Nathan Petrashek
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of our 2013 review & preview series. You can read the rest here.
Despite a tumultuous season at the position, first base actually turned out to be a pretty productive spot for the Brewers in 2012.
Last season was supposed to be Mat Gamel’s time to shine. Things hadn’t gone so well in his smattering of prior opportunities as a utility player, but this was the first time Gamel could finally claim a position as his own. We were bullish based on his minor-league success, projecting him at a .284/.346/.500 triple-slash line over a full season of work. That, of course, all went out the window when he shredded his ACL in early May, ending his season after just 70 at-bats. Practically a full season removed from this disaster, I often hear people speak glowingly of Gamel’s brief starting stint in 2012. This is almost certainly a case of rose-colored glasses; over 21 games, Gamel hit just .246/.293/.348, a far cry from his much healthier minor league .304/.376/.498. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Fortunately, a relatively obscure offseason signing provided the perfect contingency plan. When the Brewers brought Norichika Aoki over from Japan, they thought they were getting a fourth outfielder. But Aoki’s play begged for more opportunities, which Gamel’s injury provided by allowing RF Corey Hart to shift to first. Defensively, this move should have accommodated Hart just fine, as he had always been at- or below-average in RF. And Hart looked fine at first, from what I saw. But the numbers paint a different picture, suggesting his only positive value defensively came from his ability to prevent errors. Offensively, Hart put up one of his typical Hart seasons, batting .270 with 30 home runs and an .841 OPS. Put together, Hart was a solid 3-win player in 2012.
Unfortunately, neither Gamel nor Hart will be manning first base on opening day. Both are recovering from injuries; Gamel’s was season-ending. Hart is slated to return from knee surgery sometime in May. Until then, you’ll see plenty of Alex Gonzalez (who doesn’t like the position, hasn’t often played it, and doesn’t have a great bat) and Martin Maldonado (who also has not played it and doesn’t have a great bat). Yikes.
Hart will be a free agent after the season. Rumors of an extension have been thrown around for years, but this is probably not likely given the recent Carlos Gomez extension and Kyle Lohse signing. It will be interesting to see what the team’s plan for first base is this offseason.
Corey Hart’s Projected Stat Line (ZiPS)
141 G, 589 PA, 27 HR, 78 R, 80 RBI, 6 SB, .265/.330/.485
By Nathan Petrashek
If we lived in a reality in which the Brewers were expected to win 89 games and a wild card, I could perhaps understand the Kyle Lohse signing. He makes the Brewers better in the short-term, but only marginally. Pencil him in for an extra couple wins over, say, Chris Narveson.
That’s not the reality we live in, though. The Reds are the clear frontrunners in the division, with the Cardinals close behind. Under the guise of giving their young pitchers an opportunity to showcase their stuff, the Brewers had cut costs dramatically from a 2012 payroll approaching $100 million. It was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year.
That approach was completely thrown out the window on Monday, when the Brewers signed 34-year-old RHP Lohse to a 3-year, $33 million deal.
The dollar value is shocking enough. Lohse is coming off career-bests in just about every category: wins, ERA, WHIP, hits per nine, walks per nine, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was pretty good in 2011, too. Before that? Over a 10-year career, Lohse sports a 4.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and averaged just 157 innings per season. Even with the extreme improvement of the last two years, Lohse sports a career 4.34 FIP. If you like the Lohse signing, you believe Lohse suddenly figured things out as a 32-year-old. And you must also believe his stuff (which includes a high-80s fastball, with a decent slider and change) will play well in hitter-friendly Miller Park.
But Lohse isn’t just a liability on the payroll sheet. The Cardinals made Lohse a qualifying offer last year, meaning he costs the Brewers a draft pick to sign (#17 overall). Even more damning, the Brewers also lose the slot money associated with that pick, around $2 million. Conversely, the Cardinals will gain a pick in the late first round, adding about $1.5M to their draft pool. The Brewers don’t just lose a high pick; they potentially lose the ability to snag a player later who falls due to signability concerns, and help out a division rival whose farm system is already stocked.
Even Lohse’s salary structure is puzzling. The Brewers apparently remain intent on cutting costs in 2013, as they’ll pay Lohse just $4M of his $33M deal this year. The remainder of the deal will be paid between 2014 and 2018: $11M in 2014 and 2015, and $7M over 2016-18, when Lohse won’t even be pitching for the team.
I’ve heard a few arguments in favor of the deal, but they all fall short. Some say Lohse will help the team immediately; that’s true, but they really weren’t expected to compete anyway, and Lohse doesn’t push them over the top. Some say Lohse is a veteran innings-eater. Maybe. Lohse has surpassed 190 innings pitched in 5 of his 12 seasons. That doesn’t exactly classify as “reliable.” You could flip a coin as to whether he’ll surpass 180 innings in any given year.
Some point to the fact that the young rotation has struggled in spring. If anything, that’s a reason for caution; why go out and spend $33 million amid such uncertainty? And it isn’t as if Lohse is an ace, riding in on a white horse to save the day. Indeed, even in the formal press conference, Doug Melvin used buzz words like “experience” and “competitiveness” to describe Lohse’s primary attributes. That’s pretty lukewarm praise.
It’s hard to fault Melvin for the signing. For all outward appearances, he’s seemed disinterested in forfeiting a high pick to sign Lohse. Instead, Lohse’s agent, Scott Boras has reportedly been courting Mark Attanasio personally. This looks for all the world like meddling by the Brewers’s principal owner. If that’s true, Attanasio should be prepared to pay the price for ignoring his baseball minds, a price that the team will feel all the way into 2018.
By Nathan Petrashek
Carlos Gomez has decided to settle down, and not just at the plate. While the buzz so far this spring has been his five walks and .529/.652/.765 triple slash line, the 27-year-old outfielder had another reason to smile on Wednesday.
The Brewers rewarded Gomez for last year’s strong second half with a 3-year, $24M extension. According to Tom Haudricourt, the deal will pay Gomez $7 million in 2014, $8 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016.
Gomez’s hot streak in 2012 apparently played into Doug Melvin’s decision. The GM said Gomez has recently “come into his own.” That’s true at least offensively, but Gomez has always been a superior defender in center, and so long as he continues to roam the outfield, it look like he’ll be worth the money on defense alone.
Which brings an interesting point: why would Gomez, one year shy of free agency, decide to sign a below-market deal now? And make no mistake, it is below market. B.J. Upton, with much better power but his own plate discipline problems, just inked a 5-year, $75M deal with the Braves. Gomez was never going to command that much, but with another season like last year’s, a 3-year deal might well have topped $40M. The move is uncharacteristic-to say the least-of Gomez’s agent, Scott Boras, who sure enjoys the bidding war that free agency sometimes brings.
One possibility is that Boras doesn’t necessarily buy in to Gomez’s second half, and wants to “sell high” while Gomez is also having a hot spring. Or maybe the suggestion came directly from Gomez, who sees an opportunity for financial security and stability in Milwaukee. Whatever the reason, the Brewers are getting a fairly good deal on a young middle defender.
By Nathan Petrashek
OF Khris Davis is making all kinds of noise with his bat in Brewers’ camp this year. After a 2-for-3 day, Davis is now slashing .300/.333/.650 this spring. That slugging percentage might seem ridiculous, but his power is real. As he moved up through three levels of the minors last year, Davis slugged .604 with a ratio of about 17 at-bats per home run. Today, Davis crushed a two-run tater to left, his second of the spring.
Unfortunately, Davis isn’t making any noise at all with his glove. Entering the lineup as DH, he didn’t even need to bring it to the park today. For an outfielder, Davis doesn’t have a good arm, and Ron Roneicke has all but said he won’t play Davis in right field. Unfortunately, a premium defensive position like center field isn’t a good option either. That leaves left field, where Davis is blocked by Ryan Braun. You see the dilemma.
At first blush, the injuries to Corey Hart and Mat Gamel seemed like a great opportunity for Davis. Sure, he’d have to learn first base, but it isn’t like he’d have to become a pitcher or backstop. It’s definitely do-able. Corey Hart did it just last year.
Apparently that won’t be happening, though. From various reports, it sounds like Davis had tried first base a few times earlier in his pro career and it didn’t go well. I’ve also heard the Brewers had him doing a little work there earlier in camp and came away unimpressed.
That doesn’t change the fact that, for the first month or two, the Brewers are going to need someone to play first base. It doesn’t look like they’ll be signing anyone, so it’s strictly internal candidates at this point. And with the kind of pop Khris Davis has, he should be the leading candidate. But he’s not. And I find that really puzzling. Is Davis’s glove going to be a bigger liability than, say, Alex Gonzalez’s bat? Or Taylor Green’s, for that matter? I have a hard time believing so.
Davis is 25 and entering his prime. Unless he changes positions, he’s simply not going to get a shot with Ryan Braun in the way. Sink or swim, it’s time to see what the kid can do.
By Nathan Petrashek
Jonathan Lucroy showed such promise in 2011 that the Brewers extended him for five years last spring, buying out his arbitration seasons and securing a club option for 2017. Lucroy rewarded the team’s faith with the hottest start of his career, hitting a ridiculous .345/.387/.583 through the first two months. That torrid pace would be put on hold in late May, as a freak accident cost Lucroy nearly the next two months. When he returned at the end of July, though, Lucroy showed no ill effects from the hand injury, hitting .299/.354/.458 the rest of the way.
All told, Lucroy ended the year with an incredible .320/.368/.513 triple slash line, well in excess of our projected .274/.328/.382. Needless to say, there’s reason for caution. Because Lucroy collected just over half a season’s worth of plate attempts, the usual small sample size alert applies. But more importantly, Lucroy’s power and hit tools shouldn’t be mistaken for Buster Posey’s. Lucroy’s .193 ISO exceeds his historical power indices, and even if he is developing a bit of a power stroke, 15 dingers over the course of a full season is probably as good as it will get. In addition, Lucroy’s average was supported by a likely unsustainable .338 BABIP. His more aggressive approach at the plate (and increased contact) might explain a bit of that, but an average in the .280s is probably more realistic.
While Lucroy’s hand injury derailed an otherwise banner year, it did give the Brewers an opportunity to look at the 26-year-old Martin Maldonado. Historically, Maldonado has been a bit of a liability with the bat, and that trend continued as Maldonado hit just .198/.270/.347 to start the year in AAA. But thrust into major league service thanks to Lucroy’s injury, Maldonado went on to slug a serviceable .408 on 8 home runs, though his batting average (.266) and on-base percentage (.321) were just league-average.
Though Maldonado isn’t going to wow anyone with his hit tool, the same is not true of his defense. Maldonado, like Lucroy, is excellent at framing pitches. He also threw out just under 50% of would-be base stealers last year. If last year’s offensive showing is a sign of true development, Maldonado could eventually be a tantalizing trade piece with Lucroy locked up long-term.
Defensively, Lucroy is the first to admit he doesn’t have the strongest arm, and it shows. Opposing runners took full advantage of that weakness, as Lucroy managed to throw out less than 30%. However, Lucroy is one of the best in the league at pitch-framing, and he’s often able to snag wild pitches that others would miss. Overall, Lucroy is a serviceable defender, but he’ll need to control the running game much better in 2013.
With heavy turnover the past few years at most of the infield positions, it must be nice for the Brewers to have two reliable options in Lucroy and Maldonado. There isn’t any starter controversy here; as long as Lucroy is healthy, he’ll get the lion’s share of starts. But Maldonado will see plenty of time at backstop, probably starting close to once every fifth day.
And don’t be surprised to see both Lucroy and Maldonado on the field together early in the season. Maldonado is expected to fill in occasionally at first base until Corey Hart returns in mid-May.