Interleague Intrigue

I was able to watch firsthand the carnage in Boston, an agonizing 1-2 series that at the time I thought was a harbinger of things to come in a crucial stretch of interleague games that may well decide the Brewers’ playoff fate.  The Brewers did nothing to disprove my hunch in the second interleague series against the Tampa Bay Rays, which concluded this afternoon with a 6-3 loss.

So, the Brewers are 2-4 in interleague play in 2011, with two series against the Minnesota Twins and one against the Yankees yet to play.  Both are perennial playoff teams and will challenge the Brewers’ hitters and pitchers.

The Twins, who started off stone cold (17-37), have won a remarkable eight games in a row.  Although they sit at seven games under .500 (32-39), don’t let the record fool you; Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are back, and Jim Thome and Joe Nathan could soon join them.  A healthy Twins lineup will face the tail end of our rotation in the first series:  Randy Wolf, Yovani Gallardo, and Chris Narveson.

And then there’s the Yankees.  How a team with so many offseason pitching questions is hanging around the AL East in first place (43-29) is beyond me, but they’re riding a four-game win streak.  We can expect Greinke, Marcum and Wolf to take the mound, so there is hope here.  If the Yankees’ rotation falls into place the way I think it will, the Brewers should miss former teammate C.C. Sabathia.  Unfortunately, the aforementioned starters will have to deal with Mark Texiera, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez.  At Yankee Stadium.  Yeesh.

The Brewers’ main competition, the Cardinals, don’t have to worry about running this kind of gauntlet.  They went 2-1 against the bottom-dwelling Royals, and still have to face the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rays.  Anything can happen in baseball, but there’s no denying the Brewers have a much more difficult interleague schedule.  And in a division that could come down to the final days, we might be able to look back at this stretch of games and see precisely where things slipped away for the ‘Crew.

Of course, the Brewers are no stranger to interleague struggles.  Through 2010, the ‘Crew was 93-106 in interleague play, good for a .467 win percentage and among the worst teams in baseball (8-7 as an American League team in 1997).

I’m not calling for an end to interleague play; I really enjoy some of the matchups, so much so that I spent a ton of dough to go see the Brewers play in Boston.  And what’s more, it can really help a team like the Brewers, I think, to see what it will be like to face American League competition if and when they make the playoffs.

But – Bud Selig, are you listening? –  you CAN NOT give one divisional opponent a cupcake schedule, and another a schedule that looks like it was designed by Tony LaRussa.  If we are to continue interleague, it needs to be a balanced, division-versus-division fight.  If indeed the Brewers do wind up missing the playoffs by one or two games, or even three, we already know why, and it’s only mid-June.



The end of the Nieves experiment

In a move that should surprise precisely no one, the Brewers today purchased George Kottaras’ contract from Triple-A Nashville.  In a previous stint with the Brewers this year, Kottaras went 7-26, a respectable .269 with 4 rbi in 26 at bats.  But Kottaras has raked since his demotion, to the tune of .343 with 4 hr and 21 rbi.  He returns to the major league club just in time for a series with his old team, the Boston Red Sox, for whom Kottaras played in portions of 2008 and 2009.

I highlight Kottaras’ offense in the paragraph above to contrast it with that of the player sent down in his place, Wil Nieves.  In 50 at bats with the Brewers this year, the backup catcher has hit only .143 with no rbi.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for a backup catcher (Nieves is, after all, very proficient defensively), but that Randy Wolf refuses to allow Jonathan Lucroy to catch for him.  That means Nieves’ bat finds itself in the lineup essentially every fifth day.  And when you combine his weak bat with those of Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee, or Carlos Gomez, it is no wonder the Brewers have had trouble scoring runs.

Take Monday’s game against the Cubs, for instance.  In both of his at-bats, Nieves came to the plate with runners on.  In the first attempt, he ground into a double play to end the inning after Hart reached on an error.  In the second attempt, Nieves ground out after Betancourt doubled to lead off the inning.  I’m not trying to pin all of the Brewers’ offensive woes on Nieves, but the Brewers lost that game 0-1.  You’ve got to find some way to get those potential runs home.

Hopefully Kottaras can add some much-needed pop to the lineup.  He will likely find himself catching Randy Wolf every fifth day (what is it with that guy, anyway?), so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue the success he had on the farm.

Earning your way

Early returns are in, and our hometown leftfielder Ryan Braun leads the NL vote for the 2011 MLB All-Star game.  He’s not the only Brewer in the hunt, though.  Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Jonathan Lucroy are all in the running, though it would take a small miracle to get them there through the fan vote.

Those are all guys I’ve voted for on my ballot, but lord knows I’m not a complete homer.  I just couldn’t bring myself to punch that hole for Yuniesky Betancourt.  Or Carlos Gomez or Casey McGehee, for that matter.  Instead, Jose Reyes, Matt Kemp, and Placido Polanco got my vote.  I try to keep my ballot pretty fair; I think defensible arguments can be made for all of the Brewers I voted for.*

Unfortunately, the voting totals show that’s just not the way most people do things.  Albert Pujols should not be the leading candidate for first place, let alone the second-highest vote-getter in the NL.  Prince has more hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, and walks than Pujols, and also has a better average, OBP, and OPS.  Any objective observer can see that Fielder deserves to be an All-Star over Pujols.  And yet Pujols has such a legacy of success that people are willing to throw him votes based on his name alone.

Second base has its problems, too.  Brandon Phillips, the current leader, and Weeks should both be in that conversation, but the third-highest candidate, Chase Utley, has over 1.2 million votes and didn’t see his first major league pitch until May 23.  He’s rocking a .261 average.  But that looks good compared to the fourth-highest second baseman, Dan Uggla, who has a .183 average and is in the worst slump of his career.

All this has prompted Sean Clair at the Bleacher Report to call for an end to fan voting.  Can’t say I’m not sympathetic to that argument.  MLB voting is already a bit of an absurdity, with voters able to cast 25 online ballots per email address, plus as many in-stadium ballots as possible without suffocating oneself in the resultant pile of chads.**  Not only that, but it makes absolutely no sense to have fans vote for position players, but not pitchers.  And then there’s the fact that the MLB All-Star game is actually a contest with high stakes; the winner enjoys home field advantage in the Fall Classic, a substantial benefit.  So why are we trusting this thing to people who will cast ballots en masse for a guy batting under .200?

Baseball wouldn’t exactly be breaking new ground by doing away with fan voting.  In 1957, Reds fans stuffed the ballot box and elected all but one of their starting position players to the roster.  Commissioner Ford Frick wound up replacing two Reds players with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and stripped fans of the ability to vote.  Voting rights wouldn’t be restored until 1970.  Maybe it’s time to think about whether that was a wise choice.

* Not that my ballots don’t occasionally reflect my nostalgia for, say, the 2010 Shin-Soo Choo.

** The frequency of hanging chads on the in-stadium ballots make me wonder whether we’re someday in for a Bush v. Gore style showdown.  I’d love, just once, to see a jilted first baseman petition for a recount.

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.

Is Yuniesky Betancourt replaceable?

In light of Craig Counsell’s blockbuster night in relief of Yuniesky Betancourt-Counsell featured a hot bat, plate patience, exceptional base running and stellar defense-now seems like a good time to inquire into Betancourt’s future.  While Ron Roenicke has said he is satisfied with Betancourt’s defense,* which was widely considered a liability coming into the season, it is Betancourt’s bat that has been most disappointing.  Through June 11, Betancourt is batting only .230, with a paltry 2.56 on base percentage.  That, in turn, has prompted Roenicke to say that he is looking elsewhere for production from the shortstop position.  At this point, it seems inevitable that the Brewers will exercise their $2 million buyout and allow Betancourt to become a free agent at the end of the season.

But what are the chances that the Brewers can pull off a trade to replace Betancourt before then?  In short, not that good.  If we assume that teams will be most motivated to move shortstops in their walk year, the list of available players shortens to ten (excluding Betancourt, of course).**  If we further exclude those players who would not bring any offensive benefit, or are injured, that list stands at three: Jimmy Rollins [PHI], Jose Reyes [NYM] and a former Brewer, J.J. Hardy [BAL].

Rollins, who looked headed for a DL stint until a few days ago, is currently earning $8.5 million as a member of the first-place Phillies.  But Rollins is filling an important role on a team starved for offense with Chase Utley out of the lineup.  Although Rollins is not having any type of career year at the dish, the Phillies, who have their eyes on the postseason,  are probably not thinking about moving him.

Brewers fans who watched the last Mets series will be familiar with Reyes, who has put himself in a position to be one of the top free agents in the 2012 class (slash line of .340/.387/.519).  He projects to be easily a type A free agent, which means the Brewers will have to compensate for both Reyes’ value as a player and the expected draft haul the Mets would get as compensation for his departure.  As one site correctly notes, the Brewers “do not have the prospects to get Reyes.”

Oddly enough, the most likely trade target is a Brewers alumnus, Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy.  He’s been injured this year, but Hardy has managed to put together a respectable line when healthy (.288/.370.492), leading Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun to urge the Orioles’ GM to begin discussing an extension.  As Zrebiec notes, the Orioles don’t have anyone in their system ready to play that position next year, so the overall value of a trade package will have to include some measure of compensation (either in player value or money) for their future shortstop needs.

If the Brewers are unable to work a trade, get ready to see more of Craig Counsell and the unexpectedly hot-hitting Josh Wilson, who has clubbed two of his nine career home runs with the Brewers in only nine at-bats.

* I have trouble reconciling the statistics with what I’ve seen in the field with Betancourt defensively.  Betancourt can make exceptional plays in big situations, but seems to occasionally flub up routine ones that lead to errors but don’t often hurt the Brewers.  Yet his ultimate zone rating, a measure of how many runs a player saved defensively, stands at -4.4 (-15.3 if you extend over 150 games), and Betancourt has committed only slightly more errors than a league-average shortstop (-1 ErrR).  He generally looks like he has good range and can get to most balls, but Fangraphs says otherwise (-4.2 RngR).  The stats say this guy is simply a liability on defense; I kind of fall closer to the Roenicke camp, but saying that Betancourt is not quite the liability you expected defensively is not saying much.

**There may well be some other shortstops on multi-year contracts out there that are available, but I’m far less in-in-the-know about which are being shopped.

Testing Ron Roenicke

With the Brewers about to start a three-game series against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, first-year manager Ron Roenicke gets his first real test tonight at Miller Park.

I can imagine that it’s not easy to get a ball club ready to play a 162-game season, and despite the Brewers’ rocky start, you have to give Roenicke credit on that account.  The Brewers have had some stumbling blocks-the bottom of the batting order being the most prominent in my mind-but have nonetheless managed a 35-28 record, one of the best in the National League.

But I still don’t feel like we have a sense of Ron Roenicke’s management in high-pressure situations like the one the Brewers enter tonight.  With first place on the line, and a hot Cardinals team no doubt ready to put some distance between their second-place challengers, will the Brewers elevate their game to the next level?  If last night is any indication, it could be a rough ride; three errors and no offense against an inexperienced pitcher like Jon Niese does not a contender make.

Roenicke is definitely going to need to tweak the lineup in this series; with Casey McGehee in the worst slump of his career, he simply cannot be placed in the lineup with the likes of Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt.

But in-game management matters too; you can’t leave guys like Kameron Loe out there to get shelled for five runs when it becomes apparent that he does not have his stuff.  Normally I wouldn’t second-guess things like that, assuming that the manager is maybe playing a matchup or has some other sort of strategy, but the only thing Roenicke could come up with after the game was essentially, “We like Loe in that situation.”  Not quite a good enough explanation.

In any event, this series presents a great opportunity to observe not only how the players handle a high-stakes matchup; it will give us our first glimpse of Roenicke’s management in such situations, too.  And with the Central looking like it might come down to the wire, this series might not only be a crucial step in the playoff hunt, but also a preview of what is to come later in the season.

Bad Manners and Lucky Breaks

Sometimes when you go to a ball game, you wind up sitting near that one guy whose devotion to his team knows so few limits that he feels he must constantly remind others of his superiority to all other fans of his team.  He’ll be loud and decked out in team apparel, and will make sure that you know whenever something happens on the field.  And you’ll know what he thinks about it, too.  You may even see him heckling opposing players; I once listened to a guy in outfield seats repeatedly shout “SALLY DAAAAY!” at Matt Holliday each time he came to bat.

Today, it was a Mets fan clad in an ill-fitting jersey who raised his hands in triumph at every ball thrown by a Brewer pitcher or strike taken by a batter.  He clapped-I’m not lying-clapped on a safe call following a pickoff attempt at first base, simply because Brewer fans were booing.

Needless to say, it was especially irritating to watch his antics after the Mets knocked around Kameron Loe to the tune of five runs in the eighth.  Loe wasted a beautiful outing by Randy Wolf, who threw 6.2 innings of 1-run ball.  By the end of Loe’s performance, the Mets led 6-2, and it looked like the Brewers would drop the series.  And the Mets fan danced and danced.

I gave him a little taste of his own medicine in the bottom of the inning when Braun doubled, knocking in Morgan and Weeks to cut the deficit to 2.  And then I kindly reminded him that Prince was coming up and was going to knock one out just for him.  “Fine, we’ll still be up a run,” was the reply.  Apparently Mets fans aren’t very good at counting.

And I’ll be damned if Prince didn’t hit career home run number 209, tying the game and putting Fielder ahead of Gorman Thomas (208)  for third on the franchise home run list.  Prince won’t top Yount’s 251 before he leaves in free agency this year, but man, what a season Fielder is having.  The shot was Prince’s second of the night, in fact, and his ninth in the last seven games.  I am going to miss that man.

It was Tony Plush who sent me out into the rain with a walk off double in the bottom of the ninth.  He might not have recognized the significance of his hit (he said later he thought it was the bottom of the eighth), but everyone else in the stadium did.  Morgan’s ho-hum line this year (he’s only on base at a .387 clip and slugging .557) has me really excited that as a first-time arbitration player next year, he could be around for a while.