Trade Suitors for Lucroy

By Nathan Petrashek

Jonathan Lucroy isn’t penciled in to start for the National League in this year’s All-Star Game, but it is nonetheless a nice showcase for baseball’s third-best catcher by fWAR (2.4).  In addition to being highly skilled, Lucroy is tremendously affordable and under team control through 2017, so he’s not necessarily a one-shot rental for any team looking to acquire him as the Brewers rebuild.

There was speculation that the Brewers could lock up Lucroy to a long-term contract, but in light of Lucroy’s comments yesterday that there were no ongoing extension talks, that outcome seems unlikely.  Although Lucroy doesn’t have much choice in the matter, he did reaffirm that he wants to play for a contender.  As luck would have it, that’s likely to be the nature of the team to make a play for Lucroy.  The Brewers are, by all accounts, demanding a king’s ransom for the 30-year-old catcher, so lets look at some possible landing spots.

  • Texas Rangers.  This has been the team most connected to Lucroy in the past few days.  That’s no surprise; Houston is hot on the heels of the division-leading Rangers, who are middle-of-the-pack in terms of catcher fWAR and are currently leaning on journeyman Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. The Brewers reportedly had a cadre of scouts recently at the Rangers’ Class A affiliate.  Probably not coincidentally, RHP Dillon Tate, MLB.com‘s #31 prospect, pitched in games on July 5th and 9th.  The Rangers have another top RHP prospect, Luis Ortiz, in AA, but the Brewers will almost certainly check in on Texas’s top prospect, Joey Gallo, an MLB-ready 3B/OF whom the Brewers passed on in the 2012 draft in favor of Victor Roache.
  • Boston Red Sox.  The Brewers have already matched up with the Red Sox once this year, trading IF Aaron Hill for two mid-level Boston prospects.  Boston is just two games back in the AL East, and has received terrible production from their catcher position, which currently consists of 27-year-old Sandy Leon and 35-year-old Ryan Hanigan.  A rotation arm no doubt tops Boston’s want list, but if Boston is unable to improve its starting pitching through the trade market, it just might look to build on its offensive strength by adding Lucroy.  Boston has plenty of highly ranked prospects that might interest the Brewers, including top-tier talent in IFs Yoan Moncada and Rafael Delvers.  If Boston is unwilling to offer up one of those elite prospects, the Brewers might consider RHP Anderson Espinoza (MLB.com’s #34 prospect), an international signee currently pitching in A ball who can hit 100 MPH with his fastball and is developing plus secondary pitches.

*UPDATE: Boston has since traded Espinoza to Oakland for Drew Pomeranz.  The Red Sox have one other top-100 prospect, Andrew Benintendi, but being an OF (a position at which the Brewers are stocked), that may not be enough to move the needle.  One other interesting player is Sam Travis, one of the 1B prospects in baseball.  Travis is currently hitting .272/.332/.434 at AAA Pawtucket.

  • Cleveland Indians.  Despite leading their division, the Indians are dead last in baseball for catcher fWAR (-.9).  The once highly touted Yan Gomes has been trending toward awful for a few years now, and this season he’s slashing just .166/.201/.315.  The Indians’ offense hasn’t been terrible, but Lucroy certainly presents an upgrade at the plate.  The Indians may be even more interested in pairing Lucroy’s elite pitching framing skills with their dominant rotation (Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Tomlin, Bauer).  The top of Cleveland’s farm system is outfielder heavy, a position at which the Brewers already have ample minor-league talent.  But there are some attractive options a bit further down on Cleveland’s prospect list, including the powerful lefthanded firstbaseman Bobby Bradley (MLB.com’s #83 prospect).  The Indians’ system also boasts two high-end lefties pitching in the low minors: Brady Aiken, the unsigned #1 draft pick in 2014, and Justus Sheffield, a 2014 first-rounder.

In support of the new IBB rule

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Last Saturday, word broke that Major League Baseball was considering altering the intentional walk rules by allowing the manager to signal an intentional walk, thereby allowing the batter to take first base, without having the pitcher actually throw four pitches outside the strike zone.

Here’s how ESPN led off its article covering the proposed changes:

A new strike zone could be on baseball’s horizon and the old-fashioned intentional walk could be a thing of the past after both were agreed to by the competition committee at Major League Baseball’s owners meetings this week, sources said.

The potentially dramatic changes could be in effect by next season.

For purposes of this article, let’s focus on the “intentional walk” portion of the quote, which is incredibly misleading.  The rule change described above is not a “potentially dramatic change,” nor does it make the old-fashioned intentional walk “a thing of the past.”  The intentional base on balls (IBB) has been around since 1870 and isn’t going anywhere.  It’s still a thing under the proposed rule, and the batters will be recorded as reaching base on an IBB.  The proposed rule doesn’t even burden managers any more than usual, as managers already signal an IBB to their pitchers.  Literally the only change is that a pitcher doesn’t need to throw four “pitches” that more closely resemble soft tosses.

Maybe it’s ESPN’s hyperbole, maybe it’s that the gut reaction of baseball aficionados to any type of rules change seems to fall somewhere between disgust and paranoia, but there’s been an awful lot of criticism of the new IBB rule.  Bob Uecker and Bill Schroeder spent about an hour combined during last Saturday’s game broadcasts complaining about the proposed change.  There wasn’t a whole lot of reasoning there, just a general kind of grumping.  As best I can tell, their principal objection is that under the current rule there’s a chance a pitcher might throw a wild pitch, or the catcher might allow a passed ball.

That’s true … but so what?  The notion of the intentional walk itself isn’t under attack (although some arguments have been made toward that end previously).  Rather, these are attacks on the manner in which the IBB is achieved.  But isn’t it important that the procedure comport with the game’s strategic objectives?  If we regard a batter reaching base as a strictly averse outcome to the defending team, why shouldn’t that team be able to concede any old base it wants to a batter?

This actually creates a distinction between the IBB and the vanilla walk.  Under the old rule, the mechanism of achieving a BB and an IBB was the same: throw four balls outside the strike zone.  The only difference was the subjective intention of the pitcher, which, admittedly, was often pretty easy to discern.  Under the new rule, an IBB actually denotes a specific way in which the batter reaches base.  The new rule creates a clear distinction and gives the IBB added significance:  An IBB signifies that the opposing manager has chosen to award the batter a base, whereas a BB signifies that the batter has reached base on four balls thrown outside of the strike zone.

Depth Assessment: Colin Walsh & Alex Presley

By Nathan Petrashek

With the red-hot Cubs easily leading the NL Central with a .750 win percentage, these seem like dark days for the 16-22 Brewers.  Fair to say there won’t be October baseball in Milwaukee, but there remains the matter of whether the Brewers can generate a sufficient number of wins to keep fans at least semi-engaged with the team throughout the summer.  In that spirit, today we’ll look at two players who were relative unknowns coming into the season, but have found themselves thrust into important roles throughout April and May.

We’ll begin with infielder Colin Walsh, a Rule 5 pickup from the Oakland Athletics this winter.  Walsh has bounced around the St. Louis Cardinals and Athletics organizations since he was drafted in the 13th round in 2010.  He’s performed reasonably well at every minor-league level, but has played very little baseball above the AA level prior to this season.  Walsh’s claim to fame is that he’s an on-base machine, taking a remarkable 124 walks in 2015 with Oakland’s AA affiliate (.447 OBP).

That on-base trend had continued in 2016 with the Brewers, where Walsh has taken a base on balls in 14 of his 58 plate appearances (.328 OBP).  Unfortunately, that is about the only aspect of Walsh’s offensive profile that has translated to the major league level.  While Walsh was regularly hit well over .250 in the minor leagues, he sports an unsightly .093 batting average on the season, with just one extra base hit.  Power has never been Walsh’s strong suit, but he did display some pop in the minors, so there’s reason to expect Walsh to improve in that regard and from a contact perspective.

The big question is whether he will stick around long enough for that to happen.  As a Rule 5 pick, Walsh has to remain on the MLB roster or be offered back to the Athletics.  Walsh received plenty of starts at 3B at the beginning of the season, but with Scooter Gennett back and Aaron Hill now manning third, his playing time has steadily decreased and he has been mostly relegated to pinch hitting duty (where, as alluded to earlier, very little hitting has occurred).  The Brewers may opt to keep Walsh around as a super utility flier, but there’s very little justification for his presence otherwise on the 25-man roster.

Conversely, Alex Presley has seen his playing time increase steadily as a result of strong early returns from the 30-year old outfielder.  Logging starts at all three outfield positions, including most recently left field, Presley has slashed .267/.348/.433 through 69 plate attempts, including a double and 3 home runs.  His .167 ISO is as good as or better than in any of his other major league seasons, and with a .283 BABIP, there remains slight room for improvement.  In wRC+ terms, Presley has been league average this season, which is not bad for a bench bat occasionally forced into starting duty.

The key to Presley’s success appears to be his ability to keep the ball off the ground.  Presley for his career has typically hit about half his batted balls on the ground, but he’s managed to convert about 10% of those this year to fly balls.  If Presley can continue that trend, as well as something close to his current 11.6% walk rate, throughout the course of the season, Brewers fans might do well to keep an eye on his at bats.

The Case for Keeping Chris Carter

By Nathan Petrashek

Its undeniable Chris Carter is on a tear.  In his last three games, he’s cleared the fence four times, chipping in a double and single to boot.  On the season, Carter has a robust .287/.356/.713 triple slash line, a dramatic improvement over last season’s .199/.307/.427 line, which got him non-tendered from the Astros last season.  As further evidence, Carter is rocking an elite 167 wRC+.  For context, Trevor Story, whose performance has arguably been the story (pun intended) of April, has a 132.

Carter, who is on a one-year deal but is arbitration-eligible and under team control for the next two seasons, will undoubtedly be talked about as a trade candidate for the rebuilding Brewers.  But there are clues that David Stearns has not committed to a “full” rebuild, and keeping Chris Carter may just be in the team’s best interests.

There’s no doubt Carter is one of the premier power bats in the game.  Carter has hit the 8th most home runs in baseball between 2013 and 2016.  He’s also 8th in ISO over that span, with .252.  There are certainly fleas (33.4% K rate, worst in the major leagues over that stretch), but when he makes contact, the ball flies.

Carter’s power is a bit of a big deal this season because the Brewers don’t have a lot of true home run threats, a departure from years past.  Ryan Braun, who has five so far, will get his share, but beyond that the power situation doesn’t look so hot.  Domingo Santana (3 HR, 7 2B) is probably the next best power hitter on the team, and while his future looks bright, he’s generally hitting leadoff and is still a bit of an unknown quantity.  Jonathan Lucroy is a good pure hitter, but struggled last season and is only slugging .420 so far this year.  And beyond that … woof.  The Brewers are currently middle-of-the-pack in HR and SLG, and a fair amount of that is due to Scooter Gennet (4 HR, 4 2B) who has never been a power bat and is, in any event, currently on the DL.

On the whole, the benefits of keeping Carter and letting him play out the year well exceed the benefits of a potential trade.  Carter can make baseball in Milwaukee watchable for 2016, and potentially beyond.  I mean, the guy hits 430-foot home runs.  That IS an asset, as it keeps folks interested and helps put butts in seats as the Brewers rebuild.  The cost of keeping Carter the next couple seasons will be minimal.  Contrast these matters with the potential benefits of a trade.  While Carter is a premier slugger, the problems inherent in his game mean he is not nearly as important to other clubs.  It is not reasonable to expect Carter to return anything close to a high-end prospect.

That’s not to say the Brewers shouldn’t trade him if they get a great offer.  They should.  I just don’t see that forthcoming, and meanwhile, Brewers baseball is pretty fun.

 

Second Thoughts on Scooter

By Nathan Petrashek

One of my pet peeves is people who buy so completely into an idea that they have completely closed their mind to any opposing, or even slightly contrasting, viewpoint.  This “tunnel vision” makes having a reasonable discussion at best difficult, at worst impossible.  So regardless of how firmly I might believe in something, I always try to entertain the possibility that I could be wrong.  This is a worthwhile exercise in humility.  And so far in 2016, Scooter Gennett is handing me a big helping of humble pie.

By midseason last year, I had pretty much written off Gennett as a platoon bat.  Gennett’s struggles against left-handed pitching have been well documented; he owns a paltry .123/.183./.172 slash line, although in recent years he’s had reduced opportunities against lefties thanks to the poor results early in his career.  But in the first half of 2015, Gennett couldn’t hit anyone.  He slashed just .239/.275/.384 in the first half and did a month-long stint in the minors as penance.

Gennett turned it on in the second half of 2015, dominated this year’s spring training (.457 OBP, 4 HR), and has continued his hot streak to start the regular season.  On opening day, Gennett rewarded manager Craig Counsell’s decision to give him increasing playing time against lefties, taking Giants’ ace Madison Baumgarner deep to right field.  On the young season, Gennett has tallied 3 HR and is slashing .237/.383/.474, which doesn’t account for two doubles in last night’s abbreviated loss to Minnesota.

Most notable about the “new” Scooter Gennett is his plate discipline. Gennett has benefited from Counsell’s well-documented philosophy of patience at the plate.  According to Fangraphs, Gennett has historically swung at over 40% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone; in 2016, that’s down to 25%.  He’s swinging at slightly fewer pitches in the zone as well (73% career, 66% 2016), presumably looking for better contact.

This new approach has led to a marked increase in Gennett’s walk rate.  Last year, Gennett drew a walk in just 12 plate appearances; in 13 games in 2016, he’s already walked 9 times.  The 16% increase in Gennett’s walk rate probably isn’t going to continue at that clip, but it’s easy to see how even a modest increase will add considerable value, particularly if Gennett continues to bat from the #2 position in the lineup.

Unfortunately, I can’t completely change my tune on Gennett.  While 6 of his 9 walks have come against left-handed pitching, the aforementioned home run off Baumgarner is Gennett’s only hit against southpaws in 2016; he’s 0-for-8 against them otherwise.  As a result, Gennett hasn’t necessarily changed my opinion about him as a platoon player – but I’m intrigued enough by his new plate approach to at least give him further opportunities to prove me wrong.

 

 

A Trade!

Nathan Petrashek

K-Rod-mulls-legal-action-against-former-agents-3O1144NF-x-largeThe Brewers haven’t really made any significant player moves since the end of the season, but that ended today with new GM David Stearns flipping Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers in exchange for two prospects.  Although Stearns claims otherwise, the motivation for the move appears fairly straightforward: Rodriguez was guaranteed $7.5 million in 2016 and has a $2 million buyout on a $6 million club option in 2017.  Detroit is reportedly eating that entire amount, so there are significant cost savings for the rebuilding Brewers, for whom retaining an expensive, aging closer seems foolhardy.

Not that K-Rod wasn’t effective during his time with the Brewers.  He wound up pitching all or part of five consecutive seasons with the Brewers, despite being the subject of repeated trades (and trade rumors).  K-Rod racked up a serviceable 2.91 ERA over 268 appearances, finishing 154 games and accumulating 95 saves.  That places him at fourth on the franchise all-time saves list, just two shy of mustachioed great Rollie Fingers.  Rodriguez was particularly effective in 2011, coming to the Brewers at the trade deadline and tossing 29 innings of 1.86-ERA ball to help the team secure the team’s first division championship since 1982.  And despite a great year in 2015 (57 IP, 2.21 ERA, 38 SV), the Brewers couldn’t find a willing trade partner at the deadline – possibly because of K-Rod’s noted off-field issues that include repeated allegations of abuse, including an incident in the Met’s clubhouse.

In return, the Brewers will receive a player to be named later and a Betancourt – not THAT Betancourt, but rather infield prospect Javier Betancourt.  Betancourt, who hovers somewhere around 10th on most of the Tigers’ prospect lists, is a light-hitting second baseman noted for his defense, but also has the ability to play at third base – two positions in which the Brewers do not have much current depth.  Betancourt doesn’t necessarily have that much upside, but he is a capable body at a scarce position and you can only expect so much when the other team is taking on a sizable salary commitment.

Waiting for the other shoe

By Nathan Petrashek

With the trade deadline looming on Friday, the Brewers, owners of a woeful 43-57 record and currently residing in the cellar of the NL Central, have made only one trade.  To the Brewers’ credit, that trade involved Aramis Ramirez, a player I figured the team would have a tough time moving since he’s battled injuries in recent years, has an obviously declining skill set, and has announced his retirement at the end of the year.  So kudos to the Brewers for getting at least Yhonathan Barrios back in return, a pitcher nee infielder who is extremely raw but was closing games somewhat effectively for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

Still, as we approach the deadline, I can’t help but wonder whether the team could be doing more to shop players that clearly will not be essential to the team’s future success.  Chief among those players is Gerrardo Parra, a left-handed gold-glove outfielder having a career year who will be a free agent at year’s end.  Carlos Gomez, the gold-glove centerfielder and (despite last night’s result) constant threat on the basepaths is as good as gone after next year, and would presumably be worth more to many teams because he is more as a short-term rental.  There’s Adam Lind, who has routinely crushed right-handed pitching this season, and Francisco Rodriguez, who has a 1.54 ERA and has converted 22 out of 22 save chances.  The Brewers actually have a lot of tradeable assets, record notwithstanding.

To be clear: I’m not upset these players haven’t been traded yet.  The dominoes really just started to fall for the trade market last week when Athletics ace Scott Kazmir was traded to Houston.  There’s still more than three days until the deadline, and the Brewers no doubt want the best offers they can possibly get.  My concern, rather, is that the front office might be pricing themselves right out of the trade market for certain players.  The latest word is that the team “doesn’t seem especially eager” to trade Carlos Gomez, and will have to be blown away by any trade offer.  That’s a fine position to take publicly, particularly when Gomez has been injured for part of this season.  But if this is also the sentiment privately circulating around 1 Brewers Way, I wonder whether the team might be overplaying its hand a bit.

Gomez would certainly require a premium prospect or two, but that’s not the return to expect for many of the players named above.  In fact, the Brewers could use as many lottery tickets as possible in the farm system at the moment if they’re eyeing a competitive window opening in 2-4 years.  I’m not saying they should give Parra, or Rodriguez, or Lind away, but I definitely would not set the bar too high for a trade of any of those players.  If no team offers prospects the Brewers like, that’s one thing; but it’s another to value your players so much that you don’t feel a reasonable offer is “enough.”  Hopefully I’m being clear, which is difficult with this level of abstraction: for the Brewers, something is better than nothing.