Offseason 2012: Recapping a Busy Winter

It’s been a little while since we last heard from the Brewers’ front office, and this period of relative calm provides an excellent opportunity to review what the Brewers have done so far.

Prospects.  The team’s 40-man roster now stands at 38 with the recent additions of OF Caleb Gindl, 1B Brock Kjeldgaard, RHP Santo Manzanillo, and 3B Zelous Wheeler.  Of the four, Gindl might have the best shot to break with the major league team in 2012 after slashing .307/.390/.472 at Nashville last year.   Wheeler was the only other addition to spend time in Nashville, hitting .275/.383/.431 in limited time there.  Other rostered prospects to keep an eye on include RHPs Michael Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Amaury Rivas, INF Eric Farris, and OF Logan Schafer.

Free Agents.  There were a few notable additions to the Brewers this year in free agency, too.  The team signed 3B Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs to a heavily backloaded 3-year, $36MM deal.  Ramirez boasts a career 33.8 WAR and was good for 3.6 WAR last year after a down 2010 season.  Fielding metrics show that Ramirez is likely to be a liability at third, but the effect of Ramirez’s weak defense should be limited by the Brewers’ other big free agent acquisition, Alex Gonzalez.  Gonzalez’s hitting numbers aren’t much to look at; for his career, he’s slashed just .247/.291/.399.  But his defense has earned him rave reviews, including from Braves (and former Brewers) announcer Jim Powell.  Gonzalez will make about $4.25MM on a one-year deal, a big raise from his 2011 salary of $2.5MM.  Both Ramirez and Gonzalez are in their mid-30’s, which raises questions about durability.

Trades and Departures.  To make room for Ramirez, something had to give with Casey McGehee, who slumped badly throughout 2011.  In early December, the Brewers made it official; McGehee was traded to the Pirates for Jose Veras, a 31-year old journeyman fireballer coming off back-to-back sub-4.00 ERA seasons.  With relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito leaving in free agency, the Brewers got a badly needed middle relief arm and unloaded McGehee’s potentially $3MM-plus salary. Speaking of salary relief, former Brewer Prince Fielder remains unsigned and is reportedly seeking a 10-year deal, or a deal with an average annual value that exceeds Albert Pujols’ $25.4MM.

Braun Controversy.  I’ve hesitated to approach this topic until facts, not speculation, rule the day, but the matter bears attention here.  Several weeks ago, ESPN reported that Ryan Braun had tested positive for performance enhancers in October.  Those reports were later contradicted by releases that indicated Braun’s October samples had highly elevated levels of synthetic testosterone.  Either way, what we “know” right now is that Braun has tested positive for a banned substance; for a first offense, that generally nets a 50-game suspension.  However, there is an appeal process and Braun is exercising that right, the result of which may not be known until January.

International Signing.  The Brewers potentially  added a bit of international flavor to their roster by winning the right to negotiate with Japanese OF Norichika Aoki.  Aoki is a three-time Central League batting champion who has never hit below .300 in a full season, oftentimes features a .400+ OBP.  His arm has been criticized by other writers, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he’s not serviceable in center, with a move to left likely if Braun gets suspended.  This is not a done deal, however; the Brewers do not have a legitimate Japanese scouting staff, and they will work Aoki out in the States before determining whether to offer him a contract.  Signing Aoki would make either Carlos Gomez or Nyjer Morgan expendable.  If he is not signed, the Japanese team that posted him must return the Brewers’ winning $2.5MM bid for exclusive negotiating rights.

Offseason 2012: Introducing SS Alex Gonzalez; K-Rod returns

Late last night, Brewers set-up man Francisco Rodriguez accepted the Brewers’ offer of salary arbitration.  He is projected to earn somewhere between $11-13MM this year, putting the Brewers in a significant financial bind.  Doug Melvin was a little fuzzy on the math when discussing the impact on team payroll, but later stated that he talked to owner Mark Attanasio and that the team is still in the hunt for free agents.  It is not yet clear whether that includes 3B Aramis Ramirez, in whom the Brewers showed heavy interest before learning of K-Rod’s decision.

One glaring hole in the Brewers infield has been filled, though.  The Brewers have apparently agreed to a one-year contract with former Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez.  A career .247 hitter, Gonzalez has the same low-impact bat as the much-maligned Yuniesky Betancourt, but his fielding is significantly better.  While Fangraphs indicates that Gonzalez’s defense slipped a bit last year, his history suggests he is a solid fielder who makes few errors.

Offseason 2012: Odds ‘n Ends

A few stories from Brewer nation worth highlighting to sum up a busy week and a half:

Braun wins NL MVP

The Baseball Writers Association yesterday announced that Ryan Braun was the winner of the 2011 National League MVP award.  Braun received 20 first place votes and 12 second place votes.  He finished with 388 points to Matt Kemp’s 332, despite Kemp’s stronger statistical showing during the season.  The award shows decisively that team context counts; the Brewers were a playoff team, while the Dodgers barely managed a .500 season.

A chasm separated Kemp and the third-place finisher, Prince Fielder, with 229 points.  John Axford garnered only 7 points and came in 18th in the voting, behind such head scratchers as Pablo Sandoval and Shane Victorino.  I know the award means different things to different people, but can you imagine the Brewers in the playoffs without Axford’s 43 consecutive saves and and 1.95 ERA?  I thought Axford deserved a far better showing.

Sveum lands with the Cubs

The Cubs tabbed Brewers hitting coach and former player Dale Sveum for their managerial opening last week.  The Cubs are in full-on rebuilding mode, so it might be a while before Sveum sees a winning season.  He has a three-year contract, with a fourth-year option.  Sveum was reportedly a top candidate in Boston as well, but took their time and the Cubs obviously wanted to avoid a competing offer.

The Cubs have also asked to interview AAA pitching coach (and also former Brewer) Chris Bosio, presumably for their pitching coach vacancy.

New CBA

The MLB this week announced a new collective bargaining agreement, which many predict will harm small-market teams like the Brewers.  Ryan Topp of Bernie’s Crew has an excellent summary here.

The most significant changes revolve around draft pick compensation.  There are no more Type A or B free agents; now, in order to receive draft pick compensation, teams must submit a qualifying offer to departing free agents.  That offer must be equal to the average salary of the highest 125 players in the game (something along the lines of $12-13MM right now, if I remember correctly).  But the draft pick compensation doesn’t even go the player’s former team; now, it dumps into a pool, and a lottery is held to determine precisely which small-market team is going to receive picks.  The new CBA also discourages draft spending by imposing a cap, with teams that go over budget heavily taxed.  The net effect is to make it extremely difficult for teams to build through the draft.

Baseball’s divisions finally become balanced in 2013 under the new CBA.  The imbalance has been something of a pet peeve of mine for a long time, and shifting the Astros to the AL’s West division makes perfect sense.  In the short term, the move hurts the Brewers because Houston is a terrible major league team.  In the long term, the Brewers will have one less team competing for the NL Central title.

The new CBA also adds a wildcard playoff, a single game in which the two wildcard teams face off “winner-take-all” style.  Implementation may occur as soon as this upcoming season.

Four added to 40-man roster

The Brewer protected four players from the Rule 5 draft by adding them to the 40-man roster: OF Caleb Gindl, IF Zelous Wheeler, P Santo Manzanillo, and OF Brock Kjeldgaard.  The team’s 40-man currently stands at 35, with several positions to fill prior to the start of the 2012 season.

Offseason 2012: Fielder and K-Rod offered arbitration

As expected, the Brewers have offered arbitration to Prince Fielder and Francisco Rodriguez, and declined to make an offer to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

Fielder is a lock to decline the offer.  The team eventually signing him will forfeit a first- or second-round draft pick, depending on last year’s record, and the Brewers will also receive a supplemental pick sandwiched between the first and second rounds.

K-Rod may or may not accept arbitration.  If he does, he will receive a raise from his $13.5MM salary last season, but the Brewers will have addressed an area of need in the bullpen.  If he does not, under the terms of the new CBA he will not cost the signing team a draft pick, but the Brewers will receive two supplemental picks; one immediately before the signing team’s first pick, and another sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.

Yuniesky Betancourt was not offered arbitration.  The salary just would not have made sense given the $2MM buyout the Brewers exercised earlier this offseason.  Betancourt has stated he wants to come back to the Brewers, though, and with Clint Barmes signing in Pittsburgh and Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes likely too expensive for the Brewers, the shortstop market is thinning out.  Betancourt may yet find his way back to the team at a lower salary.

Takashi Saito’s contract prohibited the Brewers from offering arbitration.  The Brewers will not receive any draft picks for his departure.

Offseason 2012: Offering K-Rod arbitration the right move

The Brewers have four arbitration decisions to make by Wednesday night, but only one is truly a “decision” in the sense that we traditionally use the word. In order to receive draft pick compensation for losing highly or moderately rated free agents, teams are required to offer one-year contracts to the player at a value to be set by an arbitration panel.  These offers can sometimes be risky for teams; if the player accepts, he generally receive a raise from the previous year’s salary.  On the flip side, accepting arbitration can be risky for the player, because it deprives him of the chance to look for a multi-year deal.  This year, the Brewers must decide whether to make offers to four former Brewers:  Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, and Yuniesky Bentancourt.

Fielder will obviously receive an offer.  He would receive a substantial raise from the $15.5MM he earned last season, but is looking for a new deal somewhere in the range of $180-$200MM, and definitely would not accept a one-year contract.  Because Fielder is a Type A player, or one of the most highly rated, the Brewers will receive the signing team’s first- or second-round pick, depending on where it finished in the standings the previous year, as well as a supplemental pick between the first and second round of the draft.

Saito and Bentancourt are obvious nonoffer candidates.  Saito’s contract precludes the Brewers from offering arbitration, meaning the Brewers will receive nothing for his departure.  The Brewers exercised Betancourt’s $2MM buyout earlier this offseason, so risking a one-year contract valued at more than $6MM on Betancourt is not something the Brewers want to do.  And as a Type B, or moderately rated, player, the Brewers would receive only a supplemental pick for losing Betancourt; definitely not worth the risk.

But somewhere in the middle lies Francisco Rodriguez.  Offering Rodriguez was very risky under the previous collective bargaining agreement, because the prospect of forfeiting a draft pick served as a major disincentive to his signing in a market flooded with closers.  Still, I felt it was in the Brewers’ best interests to make an offer then.  I’ve become even more convinced that the Brewers should offer arbitration in light of the new collective bargaining agreement signed this week, which eliminates the draft pick forfeiture for a small class of elite relievers that include Rodriguez.  This makes Rodriguez far more palatable to many teams and increases his marketability.

The risk, of course, is that Rodriguez will accept arbitration.  His services would cost the Brewers somewhere north of the $12MM he earned last season, which is a substantial amount for any player, let alone a set up man. But even that is not as much of a downside as you might think.  With Rodriguez, Saito, and LaTroy Hawkins departing, the Brewers are in serious need of bullpen help.  A quality set up reliever at market value will still cost somewhere between $3-4MM per year on a multi-year deal, so assuming the Brewers go the free agent route, Rodriguez represents only a $9-10MM premium for one year.  The Brewers are not likely to be in the market for one of the major free agents this offseason, and will probably settle for inexpensive, solid players or internal options to fill the voids in the bullpen and at 1B, 3B, SS.  In other words, Rodriguez’s salary would not cripple the team for a long period, and the Brewers – who are still in a position to contend next year – could do worse than Rodriguez again setting up John Axford.

There is, of course, a reward if Rodriguez does not accept: a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft.  And for a depleted farm system (at least, relative to other teams), the Brewers certainly could use the help.  Given that Rodriguez is stuck behind John Axford and desperately wants to close on a multi-year deal, I’d say the balance certainly tips in favor of K-Rod rejecting the Brewers’ offer.

So I don’t see how the Brewers lose by offering Rodriguez arbitration.  Best case scenario, he declines and the Brewers receive an extra draft pick.  Worst case scenario, he accepts and a contending team is stuck with – god forbid – an elite reliever in a depleted bullpen.  He may be an expensive reliever, but, hey, not too long ago the Brewers were handing out $10MM like candy (see: Eric Gagne, Jeff Suppan).  The Brewers could do much worse than another year of K-Rod, even a hefty price tag.

 

Offseason 2012: Craig Counsell Returns?

After a disappointing 2011 season, many assumed that, at 41, Craig Counsell would head happily off into retirement.  Not the case, reports Jon Morosi.  Morosi apparently spoke with Counsell’s agent, Barry Meister, who informed him that Counsell intends to play in 2012.

Of course, that may just be agent speak, indicating Counsell will gauge the market before making a decision on retirement.  That market may be slow-developing.  Counsell’s age works against him, as does his declining bat.  In 187 plate appearances in 2011, Counsell managed only a .178 average, though his .280 on base percentage was considerably better.  Still, Counsell is a versatile player, capable of manning second, short, third and, as we learned this season, left field.

It isn’t clear right now whether the Brewers will be interested in bringing Counsell back.  Doug Melvin recently said he would sit down and talk to Counsell at some point in the future.  But the team’s first priority, as far as infield depth, should be Jerry Hairston, Jr., who is only 35 and was an absolute revelation in the postseason.

*UPDATE*  Doug Melvin will not ask Counsell to return to the team in a playing capacity, but it is possible that Counsell would join the front office in some capacity if he can’t find playing time.

Offseason 2012: Projected Brewers Arbitration Salaries and Projected Payroll

Matt Schwartz, as explained on MLBTradeRumors.com, has developed a very accurate system for projecting player arbitration salaries.  That is an important matter for the Brewers, as seven players are arbitration-eligible entering the 2012 season.  Using that information and the current team payroll obligations listed on Cot’s Baseball Contracts, we can make some educated guesses about how the Brewers’ offseason will look.

First, the arbitration salaries:

Shaun Marcum (SP) – $6.8M

Casey McGehee (3B) – $3.1M

Kameron Loe (RP) – $2.8M

Nyjer Morgan (CF) – $1.9M

Carlos Gomez (CF) – $1.8M

Manny Parra (SP/RP) – $1.2M

George Kottaras (C) – $0.8M

None of the projected arbitration salaries are truly shocking.  Shaun Marcum nearly doubles his 2011 salary, which is to be expected after the kind of year he had.  Nyjer Morgan and Casey McGehee get big raises in their first years of arbitration.  McGehee certainly does not deserve $3.1M for what he did last season, but panel will look at his 2010 and 2009 season, too, if it comes to that.  Despite the big paycheck, I think the Brewers will give McGehee another shot this year rather than nontendering him.  Manny Parra is an interesting nontender case, but given the Brewers’ struggles finding a quality left-hander this past year, I think they’ll hold on to Parra too.  At $2.8M, Kameron Loe would probably not be offered a contract but for the departures of Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, and Francisco Rodriguez in free agency.

If we assume the Brewers tender each arbitration-eligible player a contract, the Brewers will spend $18.4M on arbitration.  That’s about 22% of their 2011 Opening Day payroll ($83.59M).

Add those arbitration salaries to the Brewers’ guaranteed obligations for 2012, and the team has already spent $76.48M.  That’s nearly the amount the Brewers spent on their Opening Day rosters in 2008 and 2009, and just $7M shy of the team’s 2011 Opening Day payroll.  Fans’ speculation that Prince’s $15.5M 2011 salary would free the team up to spend big is a misconception; those salary savings are largely eaten up by the extensions for Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and Yovani Gallardo.  Collectively, those four players will receive a nearly $13M raise from their 2011 salaries.*

With $76.48M already committed to the 2012 roster, the Brewers still have some big holes to fill.  They will need infield talent, as Prince Fielder and Yuniesky Betancourt have both likely reached their ends with the team.  The Brewers will need to revamp their bullpen, as some of its best players (Saito, Hawkins, and K-Rod) will be leaving.  And though that $76M accounts for the outfield and starting pitching, the Brewers will need some quality bench depth, as Craig Counsell, Jerry Hariston, Jr., and Mark Kotsay are also free agents.  If we assume the Brewers will look to strike near the $87-88M range for payroll this year, that leaves about a $1.7M average per roster spot for the departing free agents (and that number doesn’t account for pre-arbitration players like Jonathan Lucroy and John Axford, who generally make somewhere around $400-500K per year).  I don’t envy Doug Melvin’s job.

Speaking of which, Doug Melvin is also in the final year of a three-year extension signed in 2008.  Look for the Brewers to extend his contract again this winter.

*By the way, I’ve heard some rumbling about Braun’s extension, signed this past year, not being so team-friendly at about $20M per year in its late stages.  Braun’s salary in 2012: just $7M.  Last year the MVP hopeful made only $5M.  This year, Greinke, Randy Wolf, Corey Hart, and Rickie Weeks will all earn more than Braun.