Nothing happened yesterday

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Well, yesterday was pretty ho-hum around Milwaukee.  I mean, pretty much nothing of any significance at all happened, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

It’s not like suspensions from the Easter massacre were announced.  Martin Maldonado didn’t receive a five-game suspension and begin serving it immediately.  Carlos Gomez wasn’t slapped with three games pending his appeal.  On the Pirates side, it wasn’t two games for Travis Snider and one game for Russell Martin.  And Gerritt Cole, who instigated the fracas, didn’t get anything.  Wait a minute …

As for Johnny Hellweg, he’s going to be fine.  Sure, the Brewers’ number four prospect (Baseball America) has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, but who doesn’t now days?  I’m sure the second opinion he’s getting from noted Tommy John doc James Andrews will show he’ll be good as new with rest and Advil.

And the Brewers certainly didn’t play an extra-innings affair which they lost to the Padres, 2-1, in the 12th.  Hopefully tonight a stymied Brewers offense will be among other stuff that doesn’t happen.  It’s Kyle Lohse versus Tyson Ross at 7:10.

 

2013 Position Review & Preview: First Base

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.

Position Depth

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

Corey gets his own bobblehead in 2013, which looks nothing like him.

Corey gets his own bobblehead in 2013, which looks nothing like him.

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.

You Gotta Have Heart: What Being a Small Market Fan Means to Me

You gotta have heart, but a great mustache doesn’t hurt either.

by Kevin Kimmes

Yes, today’s title (well part of it) is taken from the musical “Damn Yankees”.

Already I can hear some of you saying, “A musical? That’s girl stuff!”, but in this case, oh how wrong you would be. See “Damn Yankees” is the story of a devoted Washington Senators fan named Joe Boyd who sells his soul to the devil so that the Senators can acquire a “long ball hitter” and finally beat the “damn Yankees”. It’s a story about unflinching devotion to your team even when you know that the outcomes will probably just break your heart.

Now replace Senators with Brewers, and Yankee’s with Cardinals, and you have a story that most Milwaukee fans can identify with because we, much like Joe, have seen our fair share of suffering over the years. It’s part of what being a small market fan means to me.

It means having the odds stacked against you:

From 1998 to 2012, Milwaukee played in the NL Central, the only division in all of baseball that was composed of 6 teams. So what, you say? Well, due to the fact that the division contained 1 more team than most (2 more than the AL West), Milwaukee’s chances of winning the division in any given year were a meager 16.67%. That’s 3.33% lower than most MLB teams.

It means being thankful for what you have:

When the Braves pulled up stakes and headed south to Atlanta, Milwaukee was left with a gaping hole where baseball had once resided. To their credit, the White Sox did try and remedy this to some extent by playing some games each year at County Stadium, but it just wasn’t the same as having a team to call our own. For this reason alone, I will always respect Bud Selig, not for being commission, but for returning baseball to a city that truly loves the game.

If you need further proof of this point, consider that Milwaukee ranked 11th in overall attendance last year despite being the team with the smallest market.

It means taking the highs with the lows:

My experiences at Miller Park have included being on hand the night that Milwaukee clinched the NL Central title for the first time and the day that they were officially eliminated from the 2012 playoff hunt. You learn to love the highs and accept the lows. It’s all part of loving the game.

It means staying true to your team, even when all hope is lost:

I ended the 2012 season by catching 3 out of the last 4 Brewers home games at Miller Park. Milwaukee was mathematically eliminated from the Wild Card hunt after losing the 1st of the 4 games, but I went to the remaining games anyway. Why? Because, you never know what you might see. In fact, for my troubles I got to see Martin Maldonado hit his first career grand slam, and Kameron Loe and Manny Parra pitch for the last time as Brewers.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and an applicant for the 2013 MLB Fan Cave. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

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.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Bunting

By Nathan Petrashek

“I reflexively hate bunting….

“The reflexive anti-bunt stuff is getting to be a bit much for me, honestly.

I guess the Governor’s race isn’t the only thing the state is deeply divided on.  You’ll find many defenders of the sacrifice bunt.  I used to be on of them.

Back then, it seemed to me that any opportunity you had to advance runners was unequivocally good.  Isn’t that the point of the game?  Except now, I’ve realized that is not the point.  The point is to score runs.  Scoring runs = good.  Not scoring runs = bad.

Where a bunt falls between these two poles is defined by the circumstances.  We can pull plenty of examples from Wednesday night’s buntfest:

  1. Gallardo sacrifice bunt in the 3rd with no outs to advance Maldonado to 2nd.

I understand that, as a category of offensive talent, pitchers don’t have much to offer.  Still, Gallardo has a silver slugger to his name and some decent pop, so this isn’t a totally obvious move.  Nontheless, the end result is a runner in scoring position with just one out, and you’ve eliminated the double play possibility.  With two of the team’s best hitters coming behind Gallardo (Corey Hart and Nori Aoki), I am okay with this choice.

2. Aoki sacrifice bunt in the 5th with no outs to advance Hart to 2nd.

These are the bunts that I just completely fail to understand.  Aoki is slashing .319/.380/.473.  He was a batting champion in Japan, and we didn’t bring him over here to act like he doesn’t know how to swing a bat.  But the more alarming issue is what ordering Aoki to sacrifice does to the guy behind him.  Ron Roenicke basically wrapped up the inning in a nice, neat bow for Don Mattingly.  Not only did Roenicke give away a free out, but he virtually guaranteed that the team’s best hitter would not have the opportunity to swing the bat.

Ryan Topp valiantly attempts to define this move as a strategic Roenicke effort to put another runner on base in front of Aramis Ramirez.  I suppose that logic works, if you think having your best hitter intentionally walked  in front of a guy hitting .239 is really worth the price of an out. But even if that was the idea, Aoki still has a .380 on base percent.  There’s a pretty decent chance the guy is going to find his way on somehow, so why not let him swing the bat and keep your out?  To be clear, I don’t think Topp is defending Roenicke here; but his attempt to root out Roenicke’s strategy comes up short, I think.

3. Gomez attempts a bunt single in the 6th with runners on 1st and 2nd and no outs.

Let’s start from this premise:  Gomez is not a good hitter.  I think it’s wonderful that Gomez is batting .324/.342/.459 off of left-handed pitching this year, but for his career that line is .247/.291/.396.  What Gomez does have, though, is blazing speed.  And I have absolutely no problem with using that to our advantage by having him take a shot at reaching first via the bunt.  As Ryan points out, Gomez has successfully bunted for a hit in about 38% of his attempts.

Now, Ryan is also correct that Gomez is visibly not 100% – but he’s still playing.  If he’s really that hobbled, put him back on the DL.  Otherwise, let the dude do what he does.  It didn’t exactly work out as intended – Weeks advanced to third, while Ransom advancing to second was forced out – but these things happen.  As Ryan points out, there was always the possibility of a misplay.

4. Maldonado sacrifice bunt in the 6th with runners at the corners and 1 out.

This goes back to my original point:  scoring runs = good.  A squeeze play is very hard to defend and the Brewers have successfully done it five times this year.  With Gallardo coming up behind the untested Maldonado (versus the reigning Cy Young winner, no less), I have no problem with this bunt play either.  After you’ve made the choice to bunt with Gomez – which I think was a reasonable one – and have the results, this is a pretty easy call.

5. Aoki sacrifice bunt in the 8th with runners on 1st and 2nd and no outs.

Ugh.  See no. 2.

The bottom line is that both Paul and Ryan are right.  Roenicke does bunt too much, and some of the bunt calls in this game were flat out terrible.  But, since I do like bunting more than Paul, I also see a larger role for the tactic than he does, particularly in the post-steroid era.  This is where I’m inclined to agree with Ryan: if you want to highlight how Roenicke’s bunt-happy philosophy has harmed the team, Wednesday’s 6th inning is a pretty weak place to hang your hat.

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.