Everyone panic about bullpen use! and a bit of news

By Nathan Petrashek

bullpenThe Brewers are currently on an 8-game win streak, and everyone has rightfully mentioned what a critical part the bullpen has played in that streak.  Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jim Henderson are unscored upon, and Tyler Thornburg, who leads the ‘pen with 7.2 inning pitched, has allowed just one earned run (1.17 ERA).  Opposing hitters are batting just .155 and have struck out 42 times against the Brewers’ relief corps, with just 8 walks.  The bullpen bears a sparkling 0.83 ERA, easily the best in baseball.*

But have they been overused, as some seem to think?  Probably not.  The Brewers ‘pen has tallied 32.2 innings, the 10th most-used bullpen in the National League and 18th in all of baseball.  Relievers for five teams have pitched over 40 innings, and another five are pretty close.  The Brewers seem to be pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as bullpen usage goes, and they’ve certainly been much more effective than even many less-used bullpens.

What about individual players?  Not much to worry about here either.  Tyler Thornburg is on pace to throw 100 innings; Thornburg tossed 130 last year between Nashville and Milwaukee (and was great in his final starts for the Brewers).  Will Smith (6 IP) is on pace for 88 innings.  Smith pitched 89 minor-league innings and 89 major-league innings in as a starter 2012, and a total of 122 innings between levels last year.  Henderson (4.1 IP)  is on pace for 60 innings and pitched 60 in 2013.  The one guy who is even remotely worrisome is the closer, K-Rod (6 IP), and he’s simply had more work lately because, well, the Brewers are winning lots of games.  That’ll even out over time.  In essence, this is a bullpen that can handle a bigger workload.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of arms, either.  The Brewers haven’t even used Wei-Chung Wang, a lefthanded Rule 5 pick from the Pirates.  And *here’s the news* Brandon Kinzler has landed on the DL with a rotator cuff strain, and Rob Wooten has taken his place.  It sounds like Kintzler’s injury is relatively minor but lingering since spring training.  At least we won’t have to worry about him racking up more innings, I guess.

Although people complain about the starting rotation’s failure to pitch deep into games, it seems to me they’re doing exactly what they need to be at this stage of the season.  Here’s the number of innings each starter has pitched in every game during the win steak: 5.2, 5, 6.2, 5, 6, 6, 7, 6.   I can’t see much wrong with that in early April.

K-Rod takes over as closer “for now”

By Nathan Petrashek

K-Rod-mulls-legal-action-against-former-agents-3O1144NF-x-largeAn Opening Day win is always fun, but this one came with a twist:  the Brewers, nursing a 2-0 lead in the ninth, called upon Francisco Rodriguez, not Jim Henderson, to secure the handshake.  K-Rod managed to do so, despite an eight-pitch at bat by the first batter, Chris Johnson.

Ron Roenicke made the change official after the game, telling reporters he wasn’t pleased with Henderson’s spring:

To be fair, Henderson’s spring wasn’t anything special, as he accumulated a 6.00 ERA over 9 innings with 7 strikeouts and 5 walks (1.56 WHIP).  Still, for a front office who justified jettisoning Juan Francisco by citing the general meaninglessness of spring statistics, the move is odd.

Henderson pitched 60 innings of 2.70 ERA ball in 2013, notching 28 saves and a hefty 75 strikeouts.  He may have had a little luck on his side (3.58 FIP), and struggled against lefties (.786 OPS).  Henderson was developing a change to counter that split and help keep left-handed batters from sitting on his 95 mph fastball.

K-Rod has plenty of closing experience but is a long way removed from his 62-save season in 2008.  He’s been a favorite of the Brewers front office though, and has had three separate stints with the team in as many years. Rodriguez even briefly took over the closer’s role last season, earning 10 saves as the Brewers looked to shop him (successfully) at the deadline.

The 3 Brewers Most Likely to be Traded

By Nathan Petrashek

The non-waiver trade deadline is less than a month away, and the Brewers are securely locked away deep down in the division’s dungeons.  The end of July should raise their spirits a bit, with games against fellow inmates like the Cubs and Marlins, but first they’ll have to face the Reds and Diamondbacks.  In short: hope for any type of sustained winning is dim.  The Brewers remind me a bit of those pirates of Disneyworld, frantically trying to get the cell key from the guard’s dog.  The desperation is palpable.

Soon the Brewers will begin trading off what they can. It’s fun to conjure up grand scenarios involving high-end prospects for players like Yovani Gallardo and Aramis Ramirez, but the reality is likely to be more mundane.  It takes a prefect alignment of interests to make trades of that caliber work, and it seems the front office is still evaluating whether to take the full plunge on rebuilding.

So with preliminary matters out of the way, here are the three players the Brewers are most likely to trade before July 31.  And they’re all relievers.

RHP Francisco Rodriguez

Rodriguez blew up a bit against the Pirates on Sunday, but that shouldn’t deter many suitors.  After failing to secure a major-league deal to begin the season, K-Rod has shown he still has plenty left in the tank with a sparkling .96 ERA and 19 strikeouts over 18.2 innings.  His 2.69 FIP suggests he has benefited from some excellent defense, but it shouldn’t hurt his stock much.  Teams like Cleveland and Detroit should be looking for cheap relief help, and with with K-Rod due somewhere around $1MM for the rest of the season, he fits the bill.

LHP Tom Gorzelanny

Milwaukee took a stab at Gorzelanny hoping he could replicate his 2.88 ERA 2012 season with Washington, and he’s more than delivered.  Gorzelanny has never been a hard thrower, but his velocity is up just a tick this year over past seasons, which is important given how frequently he uses his fastballs.  All four of his pitches rank above average, and his 8.8 K/9, 2.31 ERA, and 1.07 WHIP could certainly play in long relief.  Gorzelanny performs much better against righties than lefties, so its possible some teams could see him as a LOOGY.  He’s slightly more than a rental, as he’s signed through 2014.  He’s earning $2.6MM this year and will make $2.8MM in 2014.

LHP Michael Goznalez

Oh, Mike Gonzalez.  As much as he’s frustrated Brewers fans, there’s actually a reasonable chance a contender will view him as useful, as the results don’t necessarily reflect what the eye sees.  A 3.30 ERA isn’t terrible, nor is Gonzalez’s 12 K/9.  He’s not the typical southpaw, though, as he’s struggled against lefties, but held right-handed batters to just a .228 average.  That’s the exact opposite of last year, so it’s possible interested teams may not quite know what to make of him.  Gonzalez is currently signed to a 1-year, $2.25MM contract.

That might not be the most exciting list, as the three relievers aren’t standout names and won’t draw a whole lot of intriguing prospects back.  But those factors also make them the most likely to be moved at the deadline.

Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-Dog-with-Keys

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.

Restocking The Pen: Brewers Acquire Tamba Bay Reliever Badenhop

Badenhopby Kevin Kimmes

With the non-tender deadline now past and the Winter Meetings set to begin on Monday in Nashville, Milwaukee has wasted no time in beginning its quest to rebuild a bullpen that at times was more of a liability than an asset in 2012. Their first acquisition comes in the form of former Tampa Bay Rays’ and Florida Marlins’ reliever Burke Badenhop.

Badenhop, a righty, was acquired by The Brewers in exchange for minor league outfielder Raul Mondesi, Jr. Mondesi, who spent 2012 in the Helena Brewers organization, is probably best known for not touching home plate and costing his team an extra-innings comeback victory earlier this year.

Badenhop is coming off of a 2012 which saw him set new career marks in ERA (3.03), WHIP (1.203) and BB/9 (1.7). He holds a career stat line of  16-17 with a 4.08 ERA over 313 innings pitched over 5 major league seasons. Additionally, Badenhop is a ground ball pitcher, a skill which should come in extremely handy in the friendly confines of Miller Park.

Badenhop joins Brewers’ closer John Axford in a bullpen that Milwaukee seems determined to overhaul for the 2013 season. No surprise as the Brewers bullpen ranked last in the Majors last season with a 4.66 ERA and 29 blown saves.

Today’s news comes hot on the heels of the teams decision to non-tender lefty Manny Parra on Friday making him the fifth reliever to be cut loose by the organization this off-season. The team previously cut loose Kameron Loe, Livan Hernandez, Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Veras.

Stay tuned to Cream City Cables for all of the latest Milwaukee Brewers news as the “hot stove” heats up in anticipation of the 2013 campaign. And, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @kevinkimmes, @NPetrashek, and @ryanhenrysmith2.

Brewers Rumor Roundup

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

A lot of Brewers seem likely to find new digs over the next few days, and we’ll be recapping any credible trade rumors here.  Check back often for the latest updates.

Randy Wolf.  The Brewers rotation is going to look a lot different next year.  Many  speculated that Wolf could be moved at the deadline; the only question is, “for what?”  ESPN’s Jayson Stark reports that the Brewers will trade him for nothing, “if you take the money.”  Wolf is earning $9.5M this year and has a club option for next year at $10M with a $1.5M buyout.

Shaun Marcum.  Marcum is still recovering from an injury that has sidelined him since June 14.  While Marcum isn’t going to be traded before Tuesday’s non-waiver deadline, he may be a waiver trade candidate after he returns to action.

***UPDATE***: Adam McCalvey reports (on Twitter) that Marcum’s second bullpen did not go well.

Zack Grienke.  Opposing GM’s have seemingly done a 180 on Greinke in the last week.  After he was skipped in the rotation, execs were quoted as saying they were “concerned,” even going so far as to call him “scary.”  Other big-market execs said they wouldn’t touch Greinke because of his known anxiety issue.  But after Grienke’s heavily scouted seven-inning masterpiece in Philly, he has become the prize of the trade deadline, especially since Cole Hamels is no longer available.  Teams known to be fawning over the righty include the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, and White Sox.  The White Sox are pushing hard, but they don’t appear to have the pieces necessary to land Greinke; several league sources have reported that Doug Melvin’s asking price is astronomical and includes a top shortstop prospect.  The Braves dropped out after refusing to part with top pitching prospect Julio Teheran, as did the Orioles after Melvin suggested Manny Machado.  At this point, it looks to be a two-way battle between the Rangers and the Angels, though Texas appears to be the frontronner and is presumably very motivated after losing the last two world series.  Still, their top prospect, shorstop Jurickson Profar, is reportedly off the table, even though the Brewers (and other teams) are no doubt asking about him. The Angels don’t seem too confident in their chances to land Greinke.

***UPDATE***: Greinke was traded to the Angels late Friday for a package that includes three of the Angels’ top-10 prospects: SS Jean Segura (#2), RHP Ariel Pena (#9), and RHP Johnny Hellweg (#4).  The Rangers apparently didn’t come close to that offer, refusing to trade Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, or even Martin Perez.  In fact, the Rangers’ best offer appears to have been IF Leurys Garcia, LHP Chad Bell, and RHP Justin Grimm; a pittance compared to what the Brewers ultimately wound up with, if I may offer my editorial opinion.  The Angels’ decision to include Pena led Doug Melvin to pull the trigger, and the Angels now have perhaps the best rotation in baseball.  You can read our own Ryan Smith’s analysis of the trade here.

Francisco Rodriguez.  K-Rod was looking like a sure candidate to be dealt at the trade deadline, but then he became the closer.  Over the last week, he’s allowed 7 earned runs over 3.1 innings of work, with 7 walks against just 4 strikeouts.  The Giants were reportedly in on him until they watched him pitch.  K-Rod apparently alienated the Brewers, too, as Ron Roenicke announced the team would deploy a closer-by-committee.

George Kottaras.  Kottaras was designated for assignment yesterday, a formality designed to open up a roster spot for returning catcher Jonathan Lucroy.  Doug Melvin is reportedly attempting to find a new big-league home for the backup catcher; Kottaras was told to stay in Milwaukee while Melvin shopped him around.

***UPDATE***: The Brewers have dealt the lefty catcher to the Oakland A’s, according to Tom Haudricourt.  The A’s apparently have to make a corresponding roster move, and the deal will not be announced, nor will we know who the Brewers are receiving, until Sunday.  You can read Ryan Smith’s take on George Kottaras’s move here.

Nyjer Morgan.  Morgan was a great pickup last year, but this year has been a struggle for the lefthanded hitter; he’s batting just .228/.299/.274.  The Brewers would love to move his $2.35M salary, especially with Carlos Gomez playing so well, but there don’t appear to be many suitors right now.

Kameron Loe.  Loe may be the only Brewers reliever to be moved before the trade deadline.  After a two-inning, three-strikeout scoreless showing on Thursday, Loe should draw some interest from teams looking for bullpen help (i.e. Cincinatti Reds, Rangers, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, etc.).  Loe has allowed just two runs over his last nine outings.

Manny Parra.  Manny Parra, like Rodriguez, was a great trade candidate until this week.  With plenty of scouts in attendance in Philly, Parra walked three on Tuesday and gave up four earned runs.  That came on the heels of another three-walk performance the day earlier.  It’s a shame, because Parra had pitched well through July up until that point (7.1 ip, 2 bb, 10 k, 1.23 era).  Nothing simmering on the trade front here.

***UPDATE***: According to CBS’s Danny Knobler (via Twitter), the Brewers have received some inquiries about Parra, but may keep him and re-convert him into a starter again.  That didn’t end well the first time.  Parra as a starter is 23-26 with a 5.44 era, 1.692 whip, and 1.71 k/bb ratio.  As a reliever, he has a 3.82 era, 1.406 whip, and 2.62 k/bb.

Corey Hart.  The Brewers are listening on Hart, but would have to be “bowled over” by the offer to move him, reports Tom Haudricourt.  Still, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hart included in the Greinke deal if it nets the Brewers a top shortstop and pitching prospect.

Aramis Ramirez.  Like Hart, the Brewers are listening, but the price is high.  The team is not motivated to sell simply to rid their books of the $16M Ramirez is due in 2014 (he’ll earn $10M next season, too).  Early reports linked the Dodgers to Ramirez, but they appear to have satisfied their desire for a bat with Hanley Ramirez.

Jose Veras.  No doubt the Brewers would love to unload Veras and his 1.72 WHIP, but I can’t imagine a contender that would want to play with that kind of fire.  By the same token, I couldn’t figure out why the Brewers would want to play with that kind of fire back in December.  Veras has the third-most walks among MLB relievers and I can’t see him going anywhere.  K-Rod is tied for fourth, incidentally.

History in the Making?

By: Ryan Smith

I remember watching Monday’s game against the Phillies fearing that a win would once again convince GM Doug Melvin that this year’s Milwaukee Brewers could be contenders. It didn’t matter that the Phillies currently reside in the cellar of the National League East; a win against Roy Halladay could have been just the type of win that Melvin and Manager Ron Roenicke would have used to say that the team was still in it, even though the Brewers just got swept in their “do-or-die” series over the weekend.

Then Roenicke went to the bullpen.

Roenicke has had to make too many trips to the mound this year because the relievers have not done their jobs.

You know the rest. One lead blown. Then another. Then another. With the bullpen for this year’s Milwaukee Brewers, no lead is safe.

After Tuesday’s debacle of a bullpen appearance, many Brewers fans started flooding Twitter and Facebook with claims that this had to be the worst bullpen ever.

This got me to thinking: where exactly does this bullpen rank among other historically bad bullpens?

There’s not really one stat that you can look at to figure this out. Some people would argue that Blown Saves would be the place to start, but that isn’t fair to the terrible bullpens on terrible teams. It also doesn’t take a look at the entire picture because the Save didn’t even become an official stat until 1969. You could look at ERA, but that is oftentimes quite dependent on team defense as well as pitcher performance. I’m sure most Brewer fans would make a case for BB/9 because that seems to be the Achilles heel for this year’s squad.

So since there’s no single stat to tell the story, I decided to look at all of them.

Let’s start by looking at Blown Saves. The Major League record for Blown Saves in an entire season is 34 by the 2004 Colorado Rockies, followed by the 2002 Texas Rangers with 33. As of right now, the Brewers have 18 official Blown Saves on the season, three behind this year’s Rockies. The Crew is on pace for 30 Blown Saves over the span of 162 games, which would be tied for seventh all-time. So in the Blown Saves category, the Brewers are up there, but they are not the worst bullpen ever.

Next, I had to take a look at walks and BB/9 because it seems like Milwaukee relievers can’t take the mound without issuing a free pass or three. On the year, Milwaukee relievers have issued 145 walks, which is the third-highest total in baseball. All-time, the most walks ever issued by a bullpen in a season was 347 by the 1996 Detroit Tigers, with the 2000 Pittsburgh Pirates coming in second with 343. in case you were wondering, the 2012 Brewers are on pace for roughly 242 walks, which wouldn’t even be in the top-30 for most walks ever in a season.

If I look at BB/9, I have to adjust what I’m looking at a bit. If you go all the way back to 1871, the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) had a 108.00 BB/9. Of course, if you look closer, you’ll see that the Brooklyn Superbas only had one pitcher make a relief appearance. That pitcher was Pembroke Finlayson, and he walked four batters in one-third of an inning.

Manny Parra is just one of the guys who issues far too many walks.

If you don’t go back any further than 1970, you would find the 1971 Chicago White Sox with a 6.89 BB/9 and the 2000 Pirates with a 5.92 BB/9. Right now, the Brewers have a 4.39 BB/9, which is the second-highest mark in the league behind the Cubs at 5.00 BB/9. So you can see that, while they are one of the worst bullpens this season when it comes to issuing walks, they are nowhere near the worst bullpen ever in this area.

Finally, I had to look at ERA and True Runs Allowed (tERA) to gauge where this Brewers bullpen ranks among the most ineffective units in the history of the game. This year, the Brewers have the third-worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 4.76. Once again, I had to limit my research to no later than 1970 because the highest 100 ERAs of all-time all occurred before 1970. Using a more modern-day comparison, the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had a 6.16 bullpen ERA, which easily beat out the ’96 Tigers (5.97). Once again, this year’s Brewers bullpen is bad, but they are not historically bad when it comes to ERA.

The sample-size for tERA is even smaller because this stat wasn’t even calculated until 2002. Even with this smaller window, you can see that Milwaukee’s tERA of 4.79 is only the fourth-worst mark in baseball in 2012. Historically, the ’12 Crew is no match for the Rockies of 2003 (6.37) and ’02 (6.32).

I do want to point out that at no point during this article was I defending the performance of the Brewers bullpen this year. I spent a good chunk of the early months of the season coming to the defense of John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, telling fans to give them time, to have faith.

All too often, Roenicke finds himself without the answers during postgame press conferences.

And now, here I am, feeling like a damn fool.

The harsh truth is that we’re more than likely stuck with these guys for the rest of the season. Whatever trade value Rodriguez had going into this last series was pretty much left for dead in Philadelphia. John Axford has looked better as of late, but I’ll believe he’s figured it out when I see it. Manny Parra can’t find a strike zone big enough to hit consistently. Hell, I’m actually happy when Roenicke calls Livan Hernandez on in relief. Frankly, it’s not pretty out there.

The entire purpose of this article was to point out that, while 2012 has been a frustrating year for the Brewers bullpen, it has not been the worst season ever. Maybe Brewers fans were just spoiled by the 2011 ‘pen that always seemed to come through. LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, and Rodriguez locked down innings six through eight, and we all know how dominant Axford was last season. This year has just been one of those years where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And it seems that much worse after a year of complete domination.

But let’s slow down the talk of the 2012 Milwaukee bullpen being the worst bullpen ever. Those other squads have quite a lead on our guys.

Then again, if there’s one thing these guys can consistently do, it’s make a lead disappear.

Axford for MVP

By Nathan Petrashek

I’ll admit it; I thought John Axford should have been the 2011 NL MVP.

Well, not really.  Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp’s qualifications were beyond question, but I think Axford got the short end of the “pitchers-can’t-be-MVP’s” stick in only placing 17th.  Axford posted a 1.95 ERA last year and saved 46 for the Brewers.  He blew a whopping two saves during the regular season, and both of those came early on.  The guy was an absolute rock and, after the team acquired Francisco Rodriguez, the 8th and 9th innings were absolute locks. 

This year, Axford has doubled his blown saves and more than doubled his losses from last year, and it’s only July.

The Brewers currently stand at 33-41, 8.5 games back of the division-leading Reds.  If you assume Axford had converted all of his save opportunities, the Brewers would be an even .500 at 37-37, well within striking distance.  If you take a further leap and assume that the Brewers had found a way to win each of the games for which Axford was charged with a loss – like last night, when Axford entered in a tie game and gave up the go-ahead run – the Crew would be 40-34.

The point of this is not to place all of the blame for the Brewers’ 2012 woes on Axford’s shoulders (the remainder of the bullpen and the offense share plenty of fault).  The point is to illustrate how absolutely incredible Axford’s 2011 season was, and how critical he was to winning the division.

In this sense, Axford is not unlike Peyton Manning, whom many NFL writers jokingly said would get their MVP vote in 2011 despite being injured the entire season.  With Manning in 2010, the Colts were 10-6 and easily won the AFC South.  Without him in 2011, they had the worst record in football.  The only difference is that Axford is still pitching for the team; he’s just not doing a good job.

In a way, Axford probably set the fan base up for disappointment by throwing so well last year.  Axford was never one to toss a clean 1-2-3 inning, but he found his way out of jams the vast majority of the time.  After a season and a half of sustained success, the Brewers no doubt thought they had their closer for the future, going so far as to negotiate an extension that was ultimately never signed.  Casey McGehee, anyone?

If you follow him on Twitter, it’s pretty clear he’s having a tough time mentally overcoming his struggles, first brushing them off with self-deprecating humor, then lashing out at his critics with a #TwitterToughGuy hashtag.  Maybe it’s time for Axford to take a break from closing games.  That certainly seems to be the way the tide is flowing, as Roenicke was set to bring in K-Rod for the save last night if the Brewers managed to scratch across a couple runs in the 9th.  The truth is, when you’re finding every way imaginable to lose games, what’s the harm in switching things up?

Just how bad was the Brewers’ offseason?

by Nathan Petrashek

Doug Melvin has taken a lot of heat for some terrible past signings.  Jeff Suppan, David Riske, Braden Looper, Eric Gagne, Bill Hall; you could write a book on his bad transactions.  But you have to give the guy credit where it’s due, too.  C.C. Sabathia, Francisco Rodriguez, Nyjer Morgan, and the Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo extensions are among his greatest hits.

You might have picked up a theme for this post based on that first paragraph.  It’s judging fairly.

Over at the Sporting News, former Journal-Sentinel writer Anthony Witrado grades each MLB team’s offseason.  I honestly expected a B- for the Brewers.  Prince slipped away, but that was inevitable.  In his place, Melvin acquired one of the best free-agent sluggers, Aramis Ramirez.  Sure, his defense will drive us mad next year, but having his bat firmly cemented in the cleanup spot is worth the risk.  The addition of Alex Gonzalez at short should make Ramirez all the more palatable at third, and Melvin obtained some much-needed bullpen help in exchange for the embattled Casey McGehee.  Offering K-Rod arbitration was the right move, and his decision to accept a reduced rate contract ($8MM) means the Brewers eighth and ninth innings will once again be cost-effective.  In short, I think Melvin did what he had to do to preserve the Brewers’ chances of winning a pennant in 2012.

I skimmed, first through the As.  Then Bs.  No sign of the Brewers.  Down past the Cs.  Nothing.  Nothing until I hit number 25: The Milwaukee Brewers.  D-.

Let that sink in for a minute.  Of all the clubs, the Brewers ranked sixth from the bottom.  Witrado gave the Red Sox a B+, and they didn’t do much of anything besides fire a successful manager and trade all of their shortstops.  The Cardinals got a C, and they lost their best hitter.  And the San Francisco Giants, whose offense only got worse thanks to the loss of Carlos Beltran to the Cardinals, even managed to generate a C-.  How in the world to the Brewers garner a full letter grade below that?

Witrado notes the Brewers lost Fielder.  Fair enough.  He also notes the Ramirez, Gonzalez, and Norichika Aoki signings, which you have to believe goes a long way toward restoring the value lost with Fielder.  So if you’ve made up for the loss of an elite first baseman by improving your club in other areas, you’d think that’s a win, right?  But Witrado’s focus is on something completely out of the club’s control: Ryan Braun’s potential 50-game suspension.  And though he recognizes that this is no fault of the organization, Witrado still calls the offseason a total loss.

It’s not, though.  Even if Braun sits out the first 50 games, Melvin’s moves have made it possible for the team to tread water until his return.  And once he does come back, the team could certainly do worse than a 1-2 punch of Braun and Ramirez.  Gonzalez at short should improve the starting rotation’s collective fate, and once you get to the late innings, it’s once again lockdown mode thanks to the K-Rod deal.  This was not a D- offseason, even considering Braun’s looming suspension.  And if you remove his positive drug test from the equation – something that the front office has no control over – the organization deserves no worse than a B.

The Winter of Our Discontent…

One Brewer fan’s attempt to talk Brewer Nation off the ledge

Have you ever been in a relationship that, right from the start, has you constantly smiling? It seems to be clicking on all cylinders, yet you know it doesn’t have staying power? No matter what you did – weekend getaways, fancy dinners, experimental roleplay – you just always knew that a dark cloud hung over the entire relationship. Well, if you were a fan of the 2011 incarnation of the Milwaukee Brewers, you’re all too familiar with this type of volatile relationship.

Think about it. You had the exciting can’t-sleep-at-night feeling when it all started (trading for Marcum and Greinke). You had the initial rough patch (the 14-20 start). You had the moment when things couldn’t be going better (the August domination), even though that dark cloud still seemed to be waiting ominously over everything else (Prince’s impending departure). And of course, you had the moment when it all fell apart (the NLCS).

So where does that leave you now?

Well, now you are newly single. Your friends are trying to set you up with someone new, but it doesn’t have that same feeling to it. No offense to Aramis Ramirez – who, by the way, is a huge upgrade from Casey McGehee and I don’t care how much you like McGehee or how nice he is – but Ramirez’s signing in no way compares to how we felt when we traded for Marcum (a battle-tested arm from the AL East) and Greinke (I was literally checking my phone for updates as I sped from Green Bay to Madison upon hearing about this trade). Instead of looking forward to another year of watching possibly the best hitting duo in baseball, we have one of them heading for greener pastures and one looking at a 50-game suspension.

(To keep the relationship parallel going, finding out Braun tested positive for some banned substance would be like finding out your ex cheated on you and then gave you herpes – that one’s pretty clear-cut)

Oofta.

So why even bother with a new relationship when the fallout from the last one still stings?

Because this could be the one.

I know what you’re thinking. I must be nuts to have such optimistic feelings about 2012. Just bear with me for a moment. While the glaring differences between last year’s Brewers and this year’s seem to suggest a precipitous fall, I see things quite differently. Let me tell you why. (Thanks to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the following stats)

    1) No more Yuniesky Betancourt. The only hole bigger than the one in Betancourt’s swing was the one that resided where a team’s shortstop should typically be playing. Alex Gonzalez provides similar value at the plate (Gonzalez OBP+ was 76 in 2011, Betancourt’s was 75) while adding defensive value on a team that so desperately needed to improve the defense of the left side of the infield. In fact, Gonzalez’s UZR/150 of -0.3 was his worst since 2005 (and only his second year with a negative UZR/150) while Betancourt’s UZR/150 of -7.4 was his best since 2007. Basically, Gonzalez at his worst is still much better than Betancourt at his best. And Gonzalez’s noticeably superior defensive metrics don’t even tell the whole story – truth is, Gonzalez makes a play on a lot of balls that easily get to the outfield with Yuni out there. Upgrade.

    2) Aramis Ramirez. For the last 8 ½ seasons, Ramirez has been a thorn in the Brewers’ side. Since 2003, Ramirez has posted an OPS+ of 105 or greater in every season other than 2010. Ramirez’s 2011 WAR (3.6) absolutely crushed McGehee’s (0.3) as did his wOBA (.373 for Ramirez, .272 for McGehee). Defensively, I was surprised to find that McGehee’s numbers are quite a bit better than Ramirez’s (UZR/150 of 7.3 for McGehee vs. UZR/150 of -10.9 for Ramirez). Still, the naked eye test suggests that Ramirez will add defensive value if only for the fact that he has greater range than McGehee – though he’s certainly lost a step or two with age, it’s not hard to beat the half-step range that McGehee provided. If the Brewers are going to stay in the NL Central race for the first 50 games without Braun, Ramirez is going to be a key factor.

    3) The bullpen. I don’t expect John Axford to have the kind of year he had last year – that just doesn’t happen often. But even if he doesn’t rack up save after save as he did in 2011, he has the type of mentality to be able to bounce back from one rough outing. And don’t forget that we still have K-Rod for the eighth inning. Now, like many of you, I was not ecstatic that we offered arbitration to him – that’s a big number to be paying a setup man. But he’s going to be auditioning to be someone’s closer. He knows that. He wants that. So if he needs to audition, let’s have him audition with us. Add to that Kameron Loe in a role that he’s comfortable in (not setup), a hopefully healthy Zach Braddock, and the additions of Seth McClung and Jose Veras, as well as the typical movement that a bullpen sees from year-to-year, and the Brewers bullpen has the potential to be as reliable as last year’s version.

    4) Jonathon Lucroy. When was the last time you remember the Brewers having a catcher that you were excited about? A young, up-and-coming catcher that wasn’t some other team’s reject? A catcher who seemed to have the snarl of a pitbull while still knowing how to control a pitching staff of varied temperaments? Seriously, pay attention to Lucroy this year. This one might just be a gut feeling, but I’m calling this his breakout year. He’s going to need to take on a leadership role this year to help fill the void of Prince and Braun, and I think he’ll thrive in that role.

    5) Rickie Weeks. In case you forgot, Weeks was having a pretty impressive season last year until he legged out an infield single, spraining his ankle in the process. We always heard about his potential, and he’s been starting to show that potential for the last few years now. Whether he’s batting leadoff (he’s become a valuable table-setter for the team in the last few seasons) or filling in at the 3/4 hole for 50 games, Weeks has the ability at the plate to put runs on the board.

    6) The rotation. Yes, I know. I watched the playoffs. I saw Gallardo embracing the moment and everyone else fading from it. But we know the potential is there. Greinke has ace material and has shown it on more than a few occasions. Marcum suffered from a dead arm more than anything else in the playoffs. He’s a good pitcher, and I’m thrilled to have him as our third starter. We know what Gallardo is – a strikeout machine who is starting to figure out that seven innings and six strikeouts is better than five innings and ten strikeouts. Wolf is a veteran who doesn’t let his previous start affect his next one. We actually have a rotation that isn’t a glaring weakness. For the second year in a row.

I’m not saying that we’ll automatically be as good as or better than last year’s 96-win team. Replacing Prince is not going to be easy. Losing Braun for 50 games is not going to be easy. As entertaining as he is, T-Plush is in his second year in Milwaukee. In sports, crazy players typically win you over in the first year and then show off their crazy side in year number two. So that could be interesting. All I’m saying is that things aren’t as bad as many Brewer fans seem to think they are. And I didn’t even mention the biggest reason to have hope for 2012.

    7) The NL Central is very winnable. No Albert Pujols. The Cubs are rebuilding. Again. The Astros might field one of the worst teams in history. The Pirates really haven’t done much to change last year’s first-half wonder team. The Cardinals are expecting Lance Berkman to have the same season as he did last year. The Reds pitching rotation got stronger, but still remains an issue.

The NL Central will be a three-team race between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos will improve each of their respective rotations, but they will not fix all of the problems that either team faces this year. St. Louis has to replace the man who has been the face of their franchise for the last decade. Cincinnati needs more consistency from their rotation and bullpen. Trust me; the NL Central is wide open.

I know that the sting of last season might still be there for some of you. You’re afraid to get back in the saddle when there’s a good chance for another relationship that has a disappointing end. But 2012 is a new year. This is a new team. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should give them a chance.

After all, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers might be the one.

Next Up: 2012 NL Central Division Team-by-Team Breakdown