2013 Position Review & Preview: Catcher

By Nathan Petrashek

lucroy3Jonathan 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.

Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Win Midwest League Championship

20120917-110332.jpgby Kevin Kimmes

Despite leaving Appleton on Thursday tied at a game a piece, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers were able to overcome the hostile environment of playing on the road and took games 3 and 4 in Fort Wayne in order to win their first Midwest League pennant. The win was the cherry on the sunday of what was an amazing season for Milwaukee’s Low-A affiliate. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the highlights.

8 Timber Rattlers Take Part in the Midwest League All-Star Game

The following players took part in this years All-Star Game held at Kane County:

Greg Hopkins
Seth Harvey
Drew Gagnon
Rafael Neda
Jason Rogers
Tommy Toledo
Mark Williams
Yadiel Rivera.

7 Players Promoted to High-A Brevard County

Jason Rogers
John Dishon
Seth Harvey
Parker Berberet
Tommy Toledo
Drew Gagnon
Andy Moye

Rehab Starts A Plenty

The following Brewers each spent some time on the Appleton Roster this year:

Carlos Gomez
Jonathan Lucroy
Shaun Marcum

For the Record

Brandon Macias set a dubious team record becoming the most hit batsman in team history. Macias was hit 21 times this season, breaking the old record of 18 times held by Luis Tinoco.

Chadwin Stang’s 19 game hitting streak was the 3rd longest in team history behind Luis Tinoco (27 in 1996) and Josh Womack (22 in 2005).

Ben McMahan became only the 2nd player in team history to record double digits in doubles, triples and home runs in a season with 21/11/15. The only other player to complete this accomplishment was Chris Colton in 2004.

The following players had multi-homer games this season:

Tyler Roberts
Max Walla
Cameron Garfield
Greg Hopkins (x2)

Cream City Cables would like to not only congratulate the players, coaches, and staff for all they did to make this championship possible, but also would like to thank the organization for providing us access to the team and players throughout the season. I can’t wait to get the 2013 season started to see what the team does in defense of the title.

Brewers Keep Making Moves; Trade Kottaras to Oakland

By: Ryan Smith (@ryanhenrysmith2)

And just like that, the Brewers have continued in their role as a trade deadline seller.

Recent reports state that the Brewers have come to an agreement to send catcher George Kottaras to Oakland. Kottaras had been recently designated for assignment (DFA) because of the emergence of Martin Maldonado and the return of The Jonathan Lucroy.

Sorry, ladies: Gorgeous George is heading to Oakland.

A career backup, Kottaras became a fan favorite in Milwaukee this year with his late-game heroics, coming through multiple times to help the Brewers claim victories. His ability to come through in clutch situations even created a buzz around Miller Park and on Twitter, with the verb “Kottaras” being introduced into our lexicon. After a game-winning hit, some fans could be heard saying “You’ve been Kottarased!”

As Kottaras came back to Earth after his hot start to the season, Lucroy started to dominate on a nightly basis. When Lucroy broke his hand, many thought it would be a great opportunity for Kottaras to showcase what he brings to the team. But Kottaras ran into an injury bug as well, and Martin Maldonado was called up. From there, Maldonado impressed everyone with his ability to handle the bat while also providing solid defense from the catcher position. It was only a matter of time before Lucroy would return from his injury, and it became apparent that Kottaras was going to be the odd man out.

When he was DFA, Kottaras was told to remain in Milwaukee, as GM Doug Melvin planned on trying to trade the catcher to another team so he could remain in the majors. Oakland, needing help at the catcher position and currently only 4.5 games behind the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, proved to be the destination Melvin was looking for.

As the backup catcher for Milwaukee over the last three seasons, Kottaras appeared in 174 games, hitting 17 homeruns with 55 runs batted in and 49 runs scored. Over the last few years, Kottaras received a majority of his playing time serving as Randy Wolf’s personal catcher, guaranteeing Kottaras a start every fifth game. In 49 games last season, Kottaras really showed what he could do by producing a line of .252/.311/.459. This season, his numbers dropped a bit, with a line of .209/.409/.360, which is still an upgrade over what Oakland catchers have combined to do on the year (.198/.250/.269). Oakland’s primary catcher, Kurt Suzuki, bats right-handed, so the left-handed Kottaras could create a natural platoon with him.

As of right now, there has been no report as to what Milwaukee will receive in exchange for Kottaras, and Melvin has stated that he doesn’t believe the deal will be finalized until Sunday. Considering Kottaras is a 29-year-old career backup who was recently DFA, I would not expect much in return. The Brewers probably will receive a low-level project prospect or two. This trade was most likely more about Doug Melvin doing Kottaras a favor by sending him to a team that will keep him in the majors.

Check back with Cream City Cables as the Brewers continue to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline.

Lucroy Not Rattled About Return To The Bigs

by Kevin Kimmes

On Thursday, Jonathan Lucroy made the all important first step on the road back to The Show, making a rehab appearance for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and sharing the kind of experienced advice with the team that only a tenured player can.

“When the guy ahead of me, (Brandon) Macias, came up with a runner on third, I was like, look, you’ve got to get something out over the plate, be patient, and hit it the other way. For me, with a runner on third and nobody out or one out, you try to get a guy to roll over. I was trying to give the guy a tip, go the other way, hit the ball up in the zone, and he did. He got the ball up in the zone and drove it.”

Lucroy’s guidance was seen on defense as well. While behind the plate, Lucroy assisted starter Matt Miller in putting together a scoreless performance through 5 innings only allowing 2 hits and a walk.

“I just tried to help him through everything, help him with little stuff: keeping his elbow up, working down in the zone. If you can do that, you’re going to be successful. As far as you go up the ladder, if you stay down with those strikes, you’re going to be successful.”

Offensively, Lucroy looked sharp going 2-3 with a single and a double.

So, what is the next step for Lucroy?

“After my first two ABs, our trainer called Pax (Jeff Paxson), who is the trainer here, and said give him another at bat and another inning behind the plate. It let me get that last AB right there. Hopefully we just continue to move up and increase in at bats. I think one day I might DH, I’m not sure. Towards the end of this home-stand, Saturday and Sunday, I’ll probably be in there for the whole game. Then, I go to Nashville after this where I’ll be catching all nine.”

And for those wondering, he has no lingering resentment towards suitcases.

“I still carry one around, but it looks at me weird some times, so I’ve got to watch it.”

More pictures below.

 

 

 

 

Addressing Milwaukee’s Dependence on the Bandwagon Fan

By: Ryan Smith

The term “bandwagon fan” is one that carries a negative connotation. The bandwagon fan only starts to support a team when that team is having some level of success. If the team is a historically bad team or is a team that is experiencing tough times, the bandwagon fan is nowhere to be found. To be labeled a bandwagon fan is often meant as an insult. The “true fans” have a sort of animosity towards the bandwagon fans because, well, they’re bandwagon fans.

I grew up a fan of two teams: the Milwaukee Brewers and the Boston Red Sox. I was a fan of the Brewers because I grew up in Wisconsin and was lucky enough to attend a game or two every year at County Stadium. I was a Red Sox fan because I actually got to see them play of television occasionally. I also wanted to be a pitcher when I was young, and Roger Clemens became my favorite pitcher for quite some time. When he bolted to Toronto, I stayed with Boston. To this day, I cheer for Milwaukee and Boston. It’s what I’ve always done, and while I may be more of a die-hard for Milwaukee as I attend more and more games each year, I assume I’ll always root for both teams.

Boston and Milwaukee. I’m not sure if there could be two more opposite markets outside of New York than those two. Red Sox Nation spreads far across the globe, with many lifers and bandwagon fans sporting Boston gear on a daily basis. Even when Boston struggles from time to time, they still sell out every game and do very well when it comes to merchandise sales. Frankly, Boston is such a large market naturally that the bandwagon fan does not make much of an impact to the day-to-day and season-to-season operations of the Red Sox front office.

I’m pointing all of this out because the Milwaukee Brewers are getting very close to the point where the bandwagon fans are going to disappear. And I have one message for Brewer Nation:

The Brewers need the bandwagon fans.

Without bandwagon fans, Miller Park might start looking like it did back in 2003.

It’s no secret that Milwaukee is the smallest of the small-market teams in Major League Baseball. From 2002-2006, the Brewers ranked no higher than 17th in total attendance in any of those seasons. In 2007, when Milwaukee finished above .500 for the first time since the ’92 season, Milwaukee’s attendance jumped to 12th in all of baseball. After that, the Crew finished 9th (2008), 9th (2009), 11th (2010), and 7th (2011). In 2012, the Brewers are currently sitting in 11th place once again.

It should be no surprise that as the Brewers started to find more success on the field, they also found more success at the ticket office. That’s how this whole system works. If the team is winning, the bandwagon fans will find their way to the ballpark. And when the team starts to struggle, the bandwagon fans will scatter.

Without the bandwagon fans, the front office might not spend the way they have in recent years.

But as those attendance numbers so clearly point out, those bandwagon fans are immensely important when it comes to stimulating the Milwaukee Brewers economy. And when the Brewers are selling more tickets, more jerseys, more concessions, more everything, the front office is going to be more inclined to spend some of that money they are making. When those attendance numbers drop, so will the payroll of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Here’s my point: the self-proclaimed “true fans” of the Milwaukee Brewers should not be so quick to vilify the bandwagoners when they jump ship because, unlike Boston, we need them.

The cold, hard truth is that the next few years could be very lean ones in Miller Park. Zack Greinke could (and should) be traded in the next few weeks. Shaun Marcum’s recent trip to the DL should be seen as a blessing to Doug Melvin, because Marcum was quickly pitching himself out of Milwaukee’s comfort zone as far as his next contract is concerned. Rickie Weeks hasn’t been Rickie Weeks ever since he legged out an infield single last July against the Cubs, spraining his ankle in the process. The farm system has some decent pieces, but there’s not a lot that’s ready to be harvested for a while yet. Outside of Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, and The Jonathon Lucroy, Milwaukee doesn’t have a lot of long-term promise on the current roster.

And if the bandwagon fans don’t find their way to Miller Park every now and then, things might not get much better any time soon.

So, to the bandwagon fans out there, I would just like to remind you about the fun times we’ve had these last few years. Remember the Sabathia craze? Prince’s monster shots? Braun’s MVP? T-Plush and Beast Mode? The NLCS? The tailgating? Even though times are rough right now, that can’t erase all of those memories, can it?

And to the “true fans” out there, I just want to remind you to invite those bandwagon fans out when you go to catch the game at a local sports bar. And when you are planning a weekend trip to Miller Park, remember to include those same bandwagon fans in your evite or your Facebook event. Above all else, do whatever you can to keep those bandwagon fans from straying too far.

Bandwagon fans, don’t be strangers to Miller Park. On behalf of Brew Crew Nation, this die-hard member wants to let you know that you are always welcome here.

Dealing with Loss

By Nathan Petrashek

Another day, another injury.  This time it’s Jonathan Lucroy, one of the few bright spots for a 2012 team that has seen expectations of a repeat division title slowly fade.  The team announced yesterday that Lucroy will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand, the result of a dropped suitcase at the team hotel.  We’ll leave it to the television and radio folks to test the veracity of that claim. The rookie Martin Maldonado will handle primary catching duties for the time being.  It looks like those folks desperately hoping for a Kottaras trade won’t be getting their wish.

The evidence of loss is almost overwhelming.   Only half of the original starting infield remains.  At first base, the Brewers are fielding Corey Hart and Brooks Conrad (in his second go-around with the team this year) after Travis Ishikawa, who had been filling in admirably (or at least adequately) for Mat Gamel, was placed on the DL with an oblique strain.  The situation isn’t much better at shortstop.  Alex Gonzalez gave way to Cezar Izturis, who has now given way to Cody Ransom, a recent waiver claim from Arizona.  The only two members of the infield left standing are Rickie Weeks and Aramis Ramirez, who is still shaking off the effects of a bruised elbow thanks to an errant pitch.  Weeks might as well be on the bench.  He hasn’t even performed at replacement level (.156/.290/.293), and we’re now two months into the season.

The injuries extend to the pitching side, too.  The Brewers started the year with some depth at SP, but that is almost entirely eroded thanks to a season-ending injury to Chris Narveson and a more temporary situation with his replacement, Marco Estrada.  This sets the stage for Michael Fiers’ first major-league start tonight against the Dodgers.

By my count, that’s three positions at which the Brewers are down to replacements of replacements.  People are starting to lose hope.  In the latest Brew Crew Ball tracking poll, only a slim majority of Brewers fans still think the Brewers have a shot at the playoffs.  Those are mostly fans, mind you.  More objective folks are probably less inclined to be optimistic.  This feeling of despair apparently knows no limits, and is starting to reflect on GM Doug Melvin, whose approval rating dropped significantly for the first time.

I’ve often thought that the most telling sign of a person’s character is how they react when bad things happen.  This is true in baseball too.  Doug Melvin can’t conjure up players to fill a baseball roster; not good ones, at least.  His options are limited.  He could go out and trade for some front-line talent, though most teams aren’t selling and the price tag even if they were would probably cause sticker shock.  He can sign one of the few remaining free agents out there, though there’s likely a reason they haven’t caught on yet – price (Roy Oswalt), injury (Ross Gload) and lack of reciprocal interest (Derrek Lee) being prime candidates.  Or – and this is the approach he has taken – he can rely on minor league talent to get by.

It’s worked before.  Jonathan Lucroy was a promising, though not exactly highly touted, prospect once.  He punched his big-league card straight from AA on the heels of an injury to every day catcher Gregg Zaun.  Two years later, he has blossomed into one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

By not trading the farm or dumping loads of salary in pursuit of an increasingly unlikely playoff berth, Melvin is taking a responsible approach to the injury plague.  He’s conserving resources while at the same time evaluating the players of the future, and making inexpensive, low risk tweaks – like adding Cody Ransom – where necessary.  We’ll see two new pieces of the puzzle tonight in Fiers and Maldonado.  Try not to expect too much from them; watch them for the promise they might hold for the future.

And don’t judge Melvin too harshly; he’s doing the best with what he has.  Whether than is also true of Ron Roenicke will be the subject of another post.

Addressing Milwaukee’s “Personal Catcher” Situation

By: Ryan Smith

The Brewers had just experienced a four-game losing streak at the hands of the Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins.  To make matters worse, the Crew only managed to score 10 runs over the course of those four games.  Some fans – myself included – couldn’t help but start to wonder if it was too early to be genuinely concerned about this season.  At that given moment, the Brewers were pathetic.

Pathetic.

Then last Sunday’s outburst happened.  The Brewer bats woke up to the tune of 16 runs.  Sure, a good portion of those runs came against the very mortal Jason Marquis, whose less-than-stellar performance that day forced him into unemployment.  Still, it was nice to see the team wake up at the plate.

For Brewers fans, Sunday’s game was a damn good time.

Helping to lead the charge on Sunday was The Jonathon Lucroy. (I’ve decided to refer to him as “The Jonathon Lucroy” because of the way he’s dominating at and behind the plate this season.)  Already having a breakout season, The Jonathon Lucroy continued his success at the plate with a monster performance, crushing two home runs and knocking in seven runs along the way.  I couldn’t help but think that Sunday might have been just what the doctor ordered: a game to build some confidence for our struggling lineup.

On Monday, my excitement would be put on hold.

Even animals are frustrated with the idea of a “personal catcher” in Milwaukee.

Randy Wolf was pitching.

Now let me point out that I am a fan of Randy Wolf.  I was never a big fan of Randy Wolf as the second guy in our rotation, but as our fourth?  Sign me up.

My problem with Randy Wolf is George Kottaras.

Let me point something else out: I like George Kottaras.  As a kid, I grew up cheering for Milwaukee and Boston, and I’ve continued to do so for quite some time, so I liked Kottaras well before most Brewers fans started using his name as a verb early this season.

My problem with George Kottaras is Randy Wolf.

I can buy into the idea of a pitcher having a “personal catcher” for a few reasons.  Tim Wakefield always had a specific catcher in Boston, and if you remember Jason Varitek trying to catch the knuckleballer in the ’04 playoffs, you completely understand why he has his own catcher.  I would understand if someone like Daisuke Matsuzaka had a personal catcher because he came to the big leagues with a rumored seven pitches.  I would even understand if someone like Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay requested a personal catcher because, well, I’d give those guys whatever the hell they wanted.

But Randy Wolf?  As Tom Haudricourt tweeted during Monday’s game, Randy Wolf has exactly eight 1-2-3 innings this season.  He’s pitched 46.1 innings thus far.  That performance warrants a personal catcher?

Sorry.  I don’t buy it.

I’ve heard other arguments for this whole “personal catcher” situation that Wolf and Kottaras have going.  I get the idea that giving The Jonathon Lucroy an off-day every fifth game will help save his legs and keep him fresh into September.

But does the situation have to be so rigid?  Does it have to be every fifth game?  What about every seventh game?  Wouldn’t that still give him more off days than other top-tier catchers have throughout a given season?

Or if they insisted on giving him that fifth game off, couldn’t they juggle it around from starter to starter, based on the each game’s pitching matchup?

The Jonathon Lucroy has been in perpetual Beast Mode all season, especially against lefties.

Monday’s game against San Francisco was the perfect example of my last point.  The Giants were sending southpaw Madison Bumgarner to the mound.  The Jonathon Lucroy is, quite simply, hitting the crap out of the ball against lefties, sporting a line of .419/.455/.742 in 2012.

The left-handed George Kottaras, in limited at-bats, has a line of .167/.500/.167 against lefties this season.  So basically, he knows how to draw a walk against left-handed pitching but isn’t as gifted when it comes to actually swinging the bat in those same situations.

So I have to ask Ron Roenicke one thing: why?

Why take out a guy who is hitting the ball with reckless abandon regardless of where you put him in the batting order?  Why give him an off-day against a left-handed pitcher when he might be our most dangerous bat against lefties outside of Ryan Braun?  Why not wait and give Kottaras his turn in the lineup against Matt Cain on Tuesday?

Why?

Because it was Randy Wolf’s start.  And George Kottaras is Randy Wolf’s personal catcher.

Before the game, when asked about possibly changing this philosophy, Roenicke said, “I like them both out there. I think there should be some   times when I’d rather put ‘Luc’ in there catching Randy. Tonight would  be one of them. But we need to talk to them more about that if we decide   we’re going to go that way.”

Once again, sorry.  I don’t buy it.

Mr. Roenicke, I’m a fan of yours.  I like the style of game you preach to  the players.  I like your aggressiveness on the bases.  I love seeing a  suicide squeeze once a week.

But I also know that you’re the manager and they are your players.  It is your job to try and put out the lineup that gives us the best chance to win the game on any given night.  “We” don’t need to talk about anything if “we” are going to make a decision.

You need to make that decision.  The next time Randy Wolf is matched up against another lefty, you need to put out the best lineup possible.

You need to make sure you have The Jonathon Lucroy out there.  Because right now, The Jonathon Lucroy trumps any “personal catcher” system that you have in place.