Hello Goodbye, Craig Counsell

By Nathan Petrashek

It’s goodbye to our favorite utility infielder, Craig Counsell, and hello to Craig Counsell, Special Assistant to the General Manager.  I’m not sure which one is pictured in this photo from 2007, but either one certainly seems happy to be there.

For those of you that don’t know, Counsell is (was) my favorite player in the game.  I always admired his study habits and plate discipline, even through his awful hitless stretch last season.  He was a hometown guy, a community guy, a player the Brewers could claim as their own (Counsell resides with his family in Whitefish Bay, a Milwaukee suburb).  Oh, yeah, and it turns out he was the best legit hitter of the steroid era.  But my favorite memory:  Counsell’s bases-loaded walk on the final day of the regular season in 2008 to tie the game at 1.  Braun would hit a home run the next inning and catapult the Brewers to their first playoff berth since 1982.

I loved Counsell for his play as a Brewer, but his most significant accomplishments came as a member of the 1997 World Series Champion Florida Marlins and the 2001 World Series Champion Arizona Diamondbacks.  Counsell scored the game-winning run in the ’97 Series and was named the 2001 NLCS MVP. At his presser today, Counsell reminisced about both teams.  “You play in game sevens of World Series, tell me what’s above that.  Those are without a doubt the two things that stand out.”  Wish you could have seen a third, Craig, but at least you came close.

Many consider Counsell a GM in the making, and it sounds like he’ll have plenty of exposure to baseball operations in his new role to make that a reality someday. Counsell will get his feet wet with player evaluations and the draft, and will also help on field during spring training.

One thing is for sure; Counsell will retain his sense of humor in his new role.  “I’m excited that I don’t have to get any hits anymore. That was a challenge at the end,” said Counsell.  “It’s easy [to retire] when you’ve got more softball teams calling you than baseball teams, and those softball teams want to DH for you.”

Thanks for the memories, Craig, and best of luck in your new role.  Look forward to seeing you around the Keg.

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: 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!

Kotsay comes through

The Brewers’ bench once looked like a place where veterans and youngsters alike go to end their careers.  Rotating through such light hitters as Juan Nieves (.140), Carlos Gomez (.224), Brandon Boggs (.158), Craig Counsell (.172), and Josh Wilson (.241), perhaps the biggest bench disappointment was 35-year-old OF Mark Kotsay.

Through June, Kotsay looked like he would never live up to even his modest $800k salary. April and May brought difficulties as Kotsay adjusted to a limited bench role, but his worst month would come in June when he hit just .194 with a .226 slugging percentage.  As injured bullpen arm Takashi Saito reached the terminal stages of his DL stint, Kotsay, set to earn a $100k incentive bonus, must have been considered internally as a prime candidate for release.

Kotsay must have received the message.  This month, he’s gone 10-25 with 2 HR and 6 RBI.  His biggest contribution:  a walk-off 2 RBI single to take the Brewers past the Reds tonight, 8-7.  Kotsay also chipped in with a solo home run in the sixth, which temporarily gave Milwaukee the lead.  Kotsay’s prowess at the plate could not come at a better time, either, as Ryan Braun has sat out the past six games with a calf strain.

Ron Roenicke claims he saw the turnaround coming.  “Early in the season, I know his batting average wasn’t real good, but he was really hitting the ball hard.  We went into Chicago, and he got a little out of (sorts) there and stayed that way for a couple of weeks.  He bounced out of it. He put together some unbelievable at-bats today. To hit that last one, a fastball in, that was impressive.”

It sure impressed Reds starter Mike Leake, who called the loss “by far the toughest one of the year.”

The bench continues to present problems for the Brewers.  Counsell has value because of his versatility in the field, but his .172 average coming off his unproductive pinch-hit at bat tonight would be the worst mark of his career. Carlos Gomez, who has settled into a full platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center, has still failed to use all of his talent at the dish.  George Kottaras and Josh Wilson have been somewhat productive, but the Brewers still lack a clutch player to bring in at critical junctures.  Hopefully, everyone else on the pine was taking notes from Kotsay today.

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.

Craig Counsell’s Versatility

counsell slides.jpeg

Counsell gets the call today at third base after Casey McGehee sprained his left thumb in last night’s 9-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

Nice to have a guy like Counsell around who can play three infield positions (and left field to boot).  And he isn’t just a capable defender at third, short, and second; he plays those positions well.  As my cousin recently pointed out,* every team needs a veteran like Craig Counsell, and the Brewers thankfully have the original. 

In 2011, Counsell has appeared twice at second, three times at third, twice at shortstop, and once in left field.  He hasn’t wowed with the bat (.182 BA in 22 AB), but he’ll get up between .250 and .280 by the end of the season.  Plus, he always give you a good at-bat (.308 OBP).  No questioning his defense, either, given Counsell’s perfect fielding percentage this year. 

Over the course of a season, infielders are going to get banged up and need a few days of rest.  Brewers fans can take comfort that Counsell’s one of the best insurance policies around.

*He occasionally comes up with a good point** despite his misguided love affair with the Cubs.

**For example, his observation that “Ryan Braun [will] remain a thorn in the side of the Cubs for another nine years ….”