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: Shortstop News

With the World Series mercifully over, we turn our attention to the hot stove.  Teams currently have until Thursday to negotiate exclusively with the 148 players who filed for free agency.  For the Brewers, that includes Prince Fielder, Mark Kotsay, Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Yuniesky Betancourt, Francisco Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, and Takashi Saito.  Do not expect many, if any, of those players to reach a deal with the Brewers by that time.

Two pieces of news relevant to that free agent morass the Brewers are about to embark on.  First, the Brewers today announced that they had declined options on Rodriguez and Betancourt.  Both were prohibitively expensive in different ways; the former financially and the latter in terms of number of wins his retention would cost the 2012 team.  Yet because of a weak free agent market for shortstops – or, more accurately, a weak market in the Brewers’ price range – front office officials have left open the possibility of bringing Yuni back at a cheaper price than his $6M option.  You had to sense this coming when Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke defended Betancourt at their end-of-season press conferences.  That doesn’t lessen the blow if the team has to deal with another offensively and defensively challenged shortstop in 2012.

That brings me to the second piece of free agent news:  the Red Sox announced today that they had picked up SS Marco Scutaro’s 2012 option, depriving the Brewers of one potential cost-effective infield component.  I blogged about Scutaro here, indicating that the Brewers should pursue him as a cheap upgrade to Betancourt, but it appears the Red Sox recognized Scutaro’s versatility and effectiveness as well. With Rafael Furcal likely to remain with the Cardinals after a World Series run, the list of available shortstops beyond Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes is becoming quite unappealing.

One bit of housekeeping news:  This is the first post in Cream City Cable’s Offseason 2012 series.  This series will focus on Brewers’ trade and free agency rumors, and will include a position-by-position review in the coming weeks.  Each post in the series will have the Offseason 2012 tag for easy searching.  Stay tuned; the stove is just warming up!

Game 4 Warm Up

Well, at least I was right about one thing:  it didn’t take the Brewers long to score against Josh Collmenter.  Corey Hart led off the third with a home run to left.  Unfortunately that was all the scoring the Brewers would do in Game 3 of the NLDS.

The D’Backs weren’t quite so tame, though, in what was one of Shaun Marcum’s worst starts of the year.  Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt each knocked in a run in the first, Montero added another in the third, and in the fifth Goldschmidt grooved a two-strike fastball into the seats for the D’Back’s first franchise postseason grand slam.

But we’ve so often talked about defense with these two clubs, and that again was what really cost the Brewers the game.  The team had multiple opportunities to end the fifth before Goldschmidt even came to the plate, but Nyjer Morgan badly misplayed a ball to straightaway center field and Marcum dropped a tailor-made double-play ground ball.  A throwing error by Jerry Hairston, Jr. extended the inning and allowed the D’Backs to plate one more run to end the scoring for the night.

The D’Backs appeared to be testing their luck at the plate against the left side of the Brewers’ infield, as Yuniesky Betancourt had more balls hit his way than I can remember so far in the series.  He fielded most of them well, though, but you have to worry that Arizona will continue to try to exploit the Brewers’ weak left side.  Perhaps Kurt Gibson, widely expected to run away with the NL Manager of the Year award, has found this club’s Achilles’ heel.

Randy Wolf gets the ball tonight for the Crew.  Career versus Arizona, he’s 10-5 with 110 strikeouts in 128 innings, all of which are fine.  The problems are his 51 walks, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.64 ERA.  Wolf lost against Arizona his last time out, but gave up only two runs over 7 1/3, which, if replicated, I would be more than happy with.

His opposition, Joe Saunders, has not won a game in two starts against Milwaukee and owns a 5.68 ERA versus the Brewers.

Weeks Returns, But Rest of Offense MIA

My attention was split tonight between the Packers and the Brewers, but I saw enough of the Brewers game to worry slightly about whether this team is ready for the playoffs.

Rickie Weeks was activated from the disabled list prior to today’s game against the Phillies, but did not make an appearance.  That’s a shame, too, as the Brewers could have used him.  They were blanked until the fifth inning by Cole Hamels, who allowed only four hits en route to a complete game victory.  The only blemishes on Hamel’s outstanding outing came off the bats of Yuniesky Betancourt and Corey Hart, both of whom hit solo home runs.

The Brewers’ recent reliance on the long ball is somewhat troubling.  In the month of September, the Brewers have hit 13 home runs, second-most in baseball over that time period.  Unfortunately, the team only has a .257 average to pair with that pop.  After demolishing the Astros over the weekend by a combined score of 20-4, the Crew’s offense has withered against stronger competition.  Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook was knocked around for four runs on Monday, but half of those came by the home run.  Though the Crew ultimately got a “W” in that contest, the team has lost the last three games; in none of those have the Brewers scored more than two runs.  The opposing pitching has been high-quality, but that is precisely the point; in the playoffs, all of the pitching will be high-quality.*

Watch to see how the hitting trends over the next few days against the Phillies, who will trot out Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The Brewers have historically hit these regular Cy Young candidates pretty well; Halladay is 1-2 with a 6.41 ERA against the Crew, while Lee is 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA.  If the Brewers expect to find themselves playing deep into October, they will need to continue that kind of success against elite pitching.

*Unless, of course, you are the 2008 Brewers, who had to send perennial All-Stars Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush to the mound.

 

Signs of Maturity

Following a three-game sweep of the Cubs, the Brewers’ record stands at 81-54.  That is a .600 winning percentage and, if it holds up through the end of the season, would represent the best winning percentage in franchise history. The Brewers are 10.5 games ahead of the Cardinals with only a month to go, and a postseason run appears almost certain (99.9%, according to Baseball Prospectus).

The Brewers appear to have handled all of their recent success well, and have sustained it for longer than any past season I can remember.  Since July 26, the Brewers have swept six out of the ten series they’ve played, with no signs of stopping.  The bats may have cooled a bit, but the pitching has more than kept the team in games.  The 2011 Brewers appear to have found their groove, just in time for the postseason.

This team features some of the same cast members as the memorable 2008 team, but its the differences that have fans excited.  Braun and Fielder again cement the middle of the order, complimented by Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks.  Craig Counsell is still there in his utility infielder role, and Yovani Gallardo takes the ball every fifth day.  But the infield looks completely different with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee shoring up left side.  The young catcher Jonathan Lucroy has held up well both at and behind the plate in his second major-league season.  The bullpen has been completely reworked; opponents have lockdown pitchers Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, Francisco Rodriguez, and John Axford to look forward to late in the game.

The 2011 Brewers feature bats that are, on average, slightly older (28.9) than their 2008 counterparts (28.6), and the difference shows.  Rickie Weeks is batting just shy of .40 points over his 2008 average with more pop.  Prince has raised his average nearly .20 points, and his on-base and slugging percentages should easily top his percentages from that year.  Corey Hart will almost certainly beat his 2008 batting average and on-base and slugging percentages.  But the story if you’re comparing the two years has to be Ryan Braun, who in 2008 batted only .285.  Now, he’s hitting .334, and though he will not match 2008′s 37 home-run total, he has exceeded his current slugging percentage only once, in 2007 when he won Rookie of the Year.

Contrast that with a pitching staff that is nearly a full year younger on average than it was in 2008. This was what the Brewers’ pitching looked like in the 2008 playoffs:

31 Dave Bush ………………………………….RHP
38 Eric Gagne………………………………….RHP
49 Yovani Gallardo……………………………RHP
73 Seth McClung ……………………………..RHP
58 Guillermo Mota…………………………….RHP
43 Manny Parra………………………………..LHP
52 CC Sabathia ………………………………..LHP
51 Brian Shouse……………………………….LHP
57 Mitch Stetter…………………………………LHP
37 Jeff Suppan…………………………………RHP
16 Salomon Torres……………………………RHP
12 Carlos Villanueva …………………………RHP

We all know how the Jeff Suppan and Eric Gagne signings played out; Suppan would go on to be released from his four-year contract and Eric Gagne would never pitch in the major leagues again.  Salomon Torres retired after a successful 2008 campaign.  The other pitchers have been traded, released, departed in free agency, or, in the cases of Mitch Stetter and Manny Parra, injured for the year.

The 2011 pitching staff features a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership.  Takashi Saito is the only pitcher on the wrong side of 40 on the active roster, with LaTroy Hawkins not far behind. Though both have had injury-shortened seasons, they have been excellent on the field; Saito has the team’s second-best ERA at 2.33, and Hawkins’ the team’s third-best at 2.63.  Randy Wolf is the only starter over 30, yet he and the team’s youngest pitcher, 25-year-old Yovani Gallardo, share the team’s best ERA among starters (3.37).

You won’t find any extraordinarily young pitchers shoring up the remainder of the pitching staff; a handful are nearly 30, like Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, and Kameron Loe.  John Axford and Marco Estrada are 28, and Rodriguez is 27.  Zack Greinke is 27, too, but, like Rodriguez and most of the staff, has ample experience under his belt.  Unlike any other member of the staff, he also has a Cy Young award.

Though many parallels will be made in coming days to the 2008 team, one thing is for certain; this team is older and far more experienced.  Though some veteran members of the team have made some rookie mistakes (for example, Betancourt and Jerry Hairston, Jr. missing bunt signs), the team as a whole has matured to a point where it should be able to handle the high-pressure and high-stakes nature of postseason play.  That’s a good thing, because the 2011 Brewers look destined to be playing October baseball for only the second time since 1982.

Magic Number Watch:  18

Sky’s the Limit

Brewers fans have come to expect substantial drop-offs in performance after good stretches of Brewers baseball.  That’s understandable, given the way the team has performed in the clutch in recent seasons (2008 excluded), and may have some questioning the Brewers’ recent offensive success.  Over the last 30 days, the regular cast* in the Brewers offense has done remarkably well, as the following batting averages indicate:

  • Yuniesky Betancourt:  .371
  • Ryan Braun:  .346
  • Nyjer Morgan:  .318
  • Prince Fielder:  .310
  • Corey Hart:  .295
  • Casey McGehee:  .291
  • Jonathan Lucroy:  .284

Unbelievably good, right?  Well, there’s every reason to expect it to continue.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is one measure often used to identify when a hitter is headed for a correction.  Without getting into all the math involved, it is the percentage of plate appearances that result in a hit, except for home runs; that means it does not factor in things like strikeouts and walks.  If we assume that, over the course of a season, about 30% of the balls a given batter puts in play will fall in for a hit, we can roughly determine how dumb luck factors into a batter’s success or failure over a given stretch of time.  A high BABIP means the batter is likely headed for a correction in the future; a low BABIP means the batter will probably come around.  This is not universally true, and BABIP can’t measure all of the subtle things that impact a batter’s performance (better defenses, mechanical adjustments, etc), but its useful as a rough stat if you keep those qualifiers in mind.

Let’s start with Yuniesky Betancourt, who as it turns out might be the one regular hitting over his head.  Betancourt is a career .271 hitter.  Over his career, about 28 percent of balls he puts in play have fallen for hits.   After his recent hot streak, Betancourt is approaching those averages this season (.268 BA/.275 BABIP).  But there’s simply no way that Betancourt can continue to have the kind of success he has recently enjoyed at the plate.  Over the last 30 days, Betancourt has a shocking .390 BABIP, nearly a full .100 points over his career number.  Now, there’s no denying Betancourt has looked much better at the plate lately; his approach, as Bill Schroeder has repeatedly noted on telecasts, has changed dramatically from the first half of the season when he hit only .237.  We suspected then that Yuni was not that bad, and with good reason given his 2010 numbers with the Royals.  But the point here is that Betancourt is nowhere near as good as he has been over the past month.  His plate discipline and balance may have improved (and I’m just going by observation on that), but that isn’t enough to account for the kind of numbers he’s putting up.  Regression is in the air, which is why I suggested that it might be worth it for Doug Melvin to overpay for a guy like Jamey Carroll.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, of course, are not in the same boat.  Over the last 30 days,Braun and Fielder have BABIPs of .371 and .333, respectively, but they’ve always been skilled batters who can find gaps (career BABIPs: .337 and .300).  We already know that these are elite hitters, and their recent production is certainly not uncharacteristic of what they’ve done in the past (though Prince’s 2011 slash line of ..304/.420/.571 is a welcome improvement over last year’s near-career low of .261/.401/.471).  You could reasonably expect Braun and Fielder to continue on this way the rest of the season.

Nyjer Morgan is an interesting case because he had some success with the Pirates/Nationals  in 2008-09 but very little success with the Nationals in 2010.  In 2011, he’s showing what a fluky year 2010 was by hitting .324 with a .387 BABIP.  Over the last 30 days, Morgan is batting .318, with about 39 percent of balls put in play falling for hits.  While those certainly looks better than his 2010 numbers (.253 BA, .304 BABIP), they are not far off from what Morgan did in 2008-09 (2008: .294 BA/.364 BABIP; 2009: .307/.355).  The likelihood of regression here is tough to measure; it’s not likely that Morgan will fall back on tough times the remainder of the season, but there is some room for him to cool off.

Corey Hart is sporting a warm .295 BA and .319 BABIP over the last 30 days, and those numbers are pretty legit.  Hart has career averages of .276 and .311, but has replicated his recent success in several past years (2006:  .283 BA/.337 BABIP;  2007:  .295/.321;  2010:  .283/.324).  Hart may well be able to sustain his recent performance.

Casey McGehee’s career numbers (.273 BA/.300 BABIP) suggest he might continue to hit around his 30-day averages of .291/.333.  And after a ridiculous slump in the first half in which McGehee hit only .223, the guy is definitely due for some upward adjustment.  Although he’s not going to come near his 2010 batting average of .285, there’s every reason to believe McGehee will not finish the season at his current average of .237.

Jonathan Lucroy is the final regular I want to profile, but assessing the role of luck in his recent success is difficult given his lack of a track record.  Lucroy hit a disappointing .253 in 2010, but it was his first big league experience and he had to cope with the mental challenge of becoming the starting catcher mid-season.  Lucroy has taken the reigns this season and over the last 30 days has hit right in line with his 2011 averages (.284 BA/.345 BABIP vs. .283/.341).

With the exception of Yuni B, there is a good chance that the Brewers’ recent offensive success is not a fluke.  Very rarely have Brewers fans had the pleasure of seeing all players in the lineup contributing at the same time.  If this is the way it will go for the rest of the season, Brewers fans are in for a real treat.

*Yes, I know that technically Nyjer Morgan remains in a platoon.  Also, there’s really no regular right now at second base with Rickie Weeks out; if I had to pick one, it would be Felipe Lopez, who is only batting .233 in the past 30 days

A good week

Life is pretty good for Brewer nation these days, with the Crew having won nine of their last ten.  Their primary competition in the Central, the Cardinals, are three games back, well within striking distance but needing to make up some ground with only fifty games left to play.  The other Central competition has fallen off; the Pirates are sporting a nine-game losing streak, sliding back in the standings to where most people expected.  Cincinnati has had its share of problems, too, and is now nine and a half games back.

The picture wasn’t quite as rosy a week ago.  The Cards were only a game and a half back, with the Pirates right on their heels at three and a half.  Even Cincinnati was only a nice win streak away at six and a half.  But what a difference a week can make.

After completing a sweep of the Cubs at home, the Brewers absolutely mowed down the Astros to complete rare back-to-back sweeps.  Although unexpected, these victories were not really that impressive.  You need to beat bad teams to get to the playoffs.  The Brewers are better in virtually all aspects of the game than both the Cubs (49-65)  and the Astros (37-76).

Then, starting last Monday, the Cardinals came to town.

Chris Carpenter looked dominant for four innings, but fell apart in the fifth as the Brewers hung five runs on him.  The day highlighted a Brewers offense that has been consistently finding itself lately.  Since the All-Star Break, the team is batting .279, a far cry from the .257 it showcased between March 31 and July 10.  Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan were a big part of that offensive day, each going 2-5 with a run; one of Morgan’s hits was a three-run double that cleared the bases.  Hart has been red-hot since the break, with a .298 average and a .359 OBP to go with 6 HR and 13 RBI.  The numbers are even more amazing if you look over his last five starts (.435 BA, .458 OBP, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R).  Morgan, for his part, has been getting it done all year; Paul Molitor’s old nickname “The Ignitor” would be an accurate description to apply to the eccentric lefty hitter.  Morgan isn’t a power guy, but his skills are well-suited to the two hole, and he has done a great job finding ways to contribute to the offense since the break (.329 BA, .365 OBP, 6 R, 8 RBI, 4 HBP).

Unfortunately, any hope of a third consecutive sweep was washed away on Tuesday, as the Cards topped the Brewers 8-7 in extras.  The game wasn’t really all that well-played; the Brewers had plenty of opportunities to win the thing but, as I’ll explain, failed to capitalize in a drama-filled battle.  Takashi Saito came inside on annual All-Star Albert Pujols, striking his wrist and causing visible pain.  The pitch was not intentional, simply an errant throw that happened to catch Pujols on a previous injury.  In the bottom of the inning, Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa, or as he shall henceforth be known, Cardinal Jackass, summoned reliever Jason Motte with one purpose in mind: to bean leadoff hitter Ryan Braun.  Motte actually missed with his first pitch; Braun ducked out of the way.  But Braun wasn’t able to escape the second.  Fast forward a few batters and the Brewers had an opportunity to make Cardinal Jackass look really foolish with the bases loaded and no outs.  But the offense came up empty handed and the Brewers went on to lose the game in the eleventh on a Lance Berkman bloop single.

What was remarkable was Tony LaRussa’s rambling and bizarre postgame interview in which his decision to throw at Braun was repeatedly questioned.  LaRussa admitted the pitch that struck Pujols was not intentional, and cautioned that throwing inside can be dangerous as there are lots of bones in the hand and face.  Apparently LaRussa tried to educate the Brewers by … imagine that … throwing up and in at Braun.  And LaRussa’s assertion that hitting Braun was not intentional is nothing short of laughable.  “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message. If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.”  Whatever, Tony.  Add to all that LaRussa’s pregame accusation  that the Brewers were intentionally adjusting videoboard lighting levels to favor the team, and the fact that LaRussa felt it necessary to call Brewers colorman Bill Schroeder because Schroeder accurately described LaRussa’s retaliation as “bush league,” and it is obvious that LaRussa has become completely unhinged.  This has been a long time coming, but the constant whining of this Cardinals team has me hating them more than the Cubs.

Fortunately, the Brewers were able to get back on track the following day to salvage a series win.  Randy Wolf did not look good (6 IP, 5 ER, 2 K), but that really didn’t matter as Casey McGehee provided most of the offense the team would need.  McGehee hit three home runs off Edwin Jackson and accumulated five RBI out of the five-spot, an amazing offensive outpouring when you consider that McGehee had only five HR coming into the day.  Another model of post-All-Star Break success, McGehee is batting .319 since July 14 and slugging .507 with 10 R and 14 RBI.

And of course I would be remiss not to note that Yuniesky Betancourt is one of the hottest offensive shortstops in baseball right now, hitting .343/.365/.529 to go with three HR and fourteen RBI.

This offense is really starting to gel and has become very exciting to watch.  After struggling to put runs across the plate at times in the early part of the season, the Brewers have hung at least five runs on the opposing team in every game they’ve played over the last week, including an 8-1 victory at Houston yesterday and a 7-5 victory today.

And with the Brewers’ outstanding starting pitching (I believe a recent number was something like 15 quality starts in a row), this team looks like a real playoff threat.  And perhaps the Brewers can shut the Cardinals up in the next road series in the only way that matters; by winning the whole damn thing.

 

Drumbeat to the trade deadline for the Brewers

Following the K-Rod trade, the Brewers front office has been relatively quiet.  Though it is well-known that Doug Melvin is working the phones for, among other things, players at short, second, and center field, the only fruit of that labor thus far has been a minor deal:  reacquiring former Brewer Felipe Lopez from the Tampa Bay Rays for cash.

Amid news that the Cardinals are now one of the Brewers’ chief competitors in the shortstop market, I thought it might be helpful to look at that market and see who the Brewers might be checking out.  Of course, the need has diminished somewhat in recent weeks, as current shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt has heated up to a post-All-Star-break line of .378/.396/.578.  However, over that span Betancourt is also rocking an unsustainable .395 batting average on balls in play, which means he has been incredibly lucky.  The Brewers would be remiss not to continue to seek out infield help.

You can be certain the premier shortstop names are not being shopped, at least not the Brewers and their talent-depleted farm system.  Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez are not going to be in Brewers blue, and it appears the Mets are interested in locking Reyes up long-term. My preferred trade target, former Brewer J.J. Hardy, recently signed a 3-year, $22 M extension with the Baltimore Orioles, so he’s not going anywhere.

There are a number of low-key players that could be a good fit for the Brewers, though.  The most talked about are both Dodgers, Jamey Carroll and Rafael Furcal.

In terms of batting average and on-base percentage, Jamey Carroll, 37, is having a great year with the Dodgers and can play multiple infield positions, making him especially valuable to the Brewers.  Carroll is a career .277 hitter with no power and good plate discipline (think a better-hitting version of Craig Counsell).  He was also, at least until last year, decent defensively in the IF.  The Brewers are known to be in on him, but so are the D-Backs, Cardinals, Indians and Pirates, so the asking price is likely high.

Rafael Furcal is probably the prize of the remaining shortstop crop, but he’s having an off year.  He missed most of May and June, and is hitting only .197 in his 152 plate appearances.  Furcal seems destined to be traded before the deadline on Sunday, but his unappealing batting line, which does not represent an upgrade for the Brewers, coupled with the fact that the Cardinals and Giants are also in the race, means he probably will not find his way to Milwaukee.

Houston IF Clint Barmes might be a good fit for the Brewers, and could join the team immediately since the two teams are in the midst of a 3-game weekend series.  But as recently as yesterday, Houston was apparently telling teams that Barmes, a free agent after this season, was not available.  Barmes has excellent defense and can play short and third, giving the Brewers some late-inning defensive options.  He hasn’t been lighting it up at the plate (.250 BA), but does have a bit of power and would make a nice piece at the bottom end of the Brewers lineup.

Jason Bartlett and Juan Uribe have also been mentioned as available in a weak shortstop market.  Bartlett, an All-Star in 2009 when he hit .320 with 14 HR and 30 SB, isn’t exactly wowing anyone with his glove or his bat this year, and the Padres aren’t thought to be actively shopping him anyway.  Uribe is having a miserable year at the dish and has been frequently injured.  If I were Doug Melvin, I wouldn’t want to touch either of these guys.

Washington shortstop Ian Desmond may or may not be available, but doesn’t represent much of an upgrade offensively over Betancourt at .224/.227.303, and strikes out more frequently than any other shortstop in the game.  He is young, but is by position only a shortstop and would not help the Brewers at second or third.

Seattle’s Jack Wilson, 33, is another name sometimes mentioned, but he has barely played this year (50 games), and has not impressed when he has been at the plate (.229/.259/.252).  Wilson still plays good defense, and that could be the lone factor working in his favor.

We’ve known for a while now that there’s not much out there for the Brewers to choose from.  And the few players that might help this team are also coveted by others, driving the asking price beyond what the Brewers are probably willing to pay.  It would not surprise me at all to see the Brewers stand pat on the shortstop situation, especially considering Betancourt’s recent success at the plate.  While I understand that sentiment, I do not share it.  The Brewers should pay for Jamey Carroll.

Tony LaRussa approves

Well, it appears that Tony LaRussa, along with every fan in Brewer nation, approves of the way the Brewers handled their three-game series against the Cardinals.  Following a disappointing 1-2 series against the Mets, the Brewers came back with a vengeance against the Central-division leaders, sweeping the Redbirds and claiming sole possession of first place.  LaRussa was uncharacteristically complimentary:

“I don’t want to be melodramatic. This is June and we have to be ready for Washington on Tuesday. We came in here to win a series and they outmanaged us and outplayed us.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the series.  Ron Roenicke tinkered with the lineup early and often, giving the offensively inept Yuniesky Betancourt consecutive days off on Friday and Saturday.  Craig Counsell, who received consecutive starts in his stead, had a huge day on Friday, going 3-3 with 3 runs and a walk.  That change allowed Roenicke to keep the slumping McGehee in the lineup, who came up with two hits and a walk in the series and smoked a few balls for outs.*  On Sunday, Mark Kotsay got the nod in center field and came up big with an RBI double in the sixth, which sparked a Brewers rally.  Clinging to a one-run lead, Roenicke replaced Kotsay with Carlos Gomez at the top of the ninth, a genius move that may have saved the game when Gomez made a spectacular grab on a ball Colby Rasmus hit to deep center. 

So, I’d say that, with respect to the question posed here, Ron Roenicke has definitely shown he can play with the big kids.  After all, it’s not often that a first-year manager receives praise from a future hall-of-fame counterpart.

*I continue to believe that McGehee is the key to consistency in this team’s offense.  If McGehee comes around, Roenicke doesn’t have to worry about also starting Gomez and Betancourt; but a slumping McGehee combined with those two (or Nieves at catcher) spells disaster.  Without McGehee, this is a two-dimensional offense (Braun and Fielder) that does not look consistent enough for a deep playoff run.