The return of Thirty Pitches

By Nathan Petrashek

Here, Jaymes Langrehr ‏(@JaymesL) from Disciples of Uecker foreshadows K-Rod's return

Here, Jaymes Langrehr ‏(@JaymesL) from Disciples of Uecker foreshadows K-Rod’s return

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.

Some Thoughts on Ryan Dempster

By Nathan Petrashek

Atlanta Braves v Chicago CubsI get the sense that Doug Melvin is one of those newfangled GMs that love advanced baseball statistics but also reserves a place for old-school baseball judgment.  Given that, and his past history with veterans like Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf, it doesn’t exactly surprise me that he’s interested in Ryan Dempster.  Dempster has always dominated the Brewers at Miller Park, throwing over 100 innings of 2.66 ERA ball while holding opposing batters to a .221 average and striking out 8.6 per nine.  MLB Trade Rumors reported today that the sides had mutual interest, although the Suppan and Wolf experiments no doubt convinced Melvin that three or more years on aging pitchers is too great a risk.

Dempster, age 35, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2012.  Everything about that should scream “red flag.”  His other really good seasons came in 2000 and 2008, but sandwiched between them, he pitched just 790 innings over 7 years (an average of about 113 innings per season).  His fastball has been slowly but steadily losing velocity.  Dempster compensated by throwing fewer of them (which seems to have increased the effectiveness of those he does throw); he’s also developed a pretty good split-finger and, just this past year, a cutter (which was pretty awful).  There’s no sense in diminishing how well he pitched for the Cubs in 2012 (2.25 ERA over 104 IP and a career-low 2.3 BB/9), but Dempster fans also have to acknowledge how poorly he pitched after being traded to the Texas Rangers (69 IP, 5.09 ERA, 1.44 WHIP).  This looks for all the world like a guy at the end of his career who is going to cash in on one more big contract.

And make no mistake, someone is going to give him three years.  Once you get past Zack Grienke, the free agent market is stocked with risky plays like Anibal Sanchez, Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse, and Carl Pavano.  Dempster, particularly after his strong year, looks like a pretty good candidate when stacked up against the field.  Someone will overpay.  Someone always does.

This is not to say that Dempster is a bad pitcher; he’s really not.  But he’s not nearly as good as his 2012 season would suggest, and anyone signing him should expect more modest returns.  The Brewers are wise to limit their risk with him at two years.  I haven’t seen specifics regarding Dempster’s desired contract, but you can be sure that given the way the pitching market has developed the past few years, he’ll be looking at an average annual value exceeding what he earned with the Cubs in 2012 ($14M).  Given the Brewers stated desire to return to an $80M payroll in 2013, that would likely place him outside the Brewers’ price range.

If so, the team might well dodge a bullet.