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.

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

On the Brighter Side

Although the Brewers dropped today’s game to the Dodgers, the Crew went 6-1 on the homestand and are 13-3 in August.  Their winning run over approximately the past month has been better than any I can remember in the years I’ve watched this team.

And so what have we learned?

Well, first, that number five starter Chris Narveson should use safety scissors.  I haven’t written a ton about Narveson this year, but I should have; Narveson is almost as good as any number five in the National League, and as my event services buddy Dennis noted today, on many teams would be a number four.*  After a little blowup against Minnesota on July 2 (4.2 IP, 7 ER, 2 HR), Narveson had settled down nicely.  In his six starts following that game, Narveson went 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA.  Opposing batters were hitting just .244 against him in that stretch.  And then, to continue the Brewers string of freak injuries this season, the guy is forced to the DL after cutting his pitching hand with a scissors trying to repair his glove.

But that leads to the second lesson:  Marco Estrada is an exceptional spot starter.  He received his first starting opportunity this year as a fill-in for Zack Greinke, who fractured a rib during spring training playing basketball.  Estrada made four starts for Greinke, two of them excellent, one decent, and one terrible.  He then went to the bullpen, where let’s just say the results weren’t impressive.  Between May 10 and August 11, Estrada’s 26 relief appearances got him a 1-6 record, 3 blown saves, four holds, and a 4.81 ERA.  There were some signs of life in all that, though; he held opposing batters to a .255 average, maintained a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2.7, and threw 62% of his pitches for strikes.  All of which set the stage nicely for his two starts in Chris Narveson’s stead.  On August 13, Estrada threw five innings of shutout ball against the Pirates, striking out five and getting the win.  Today Estrada was nearly as effective, allowing only one run over five innings.  He didn’t get the win (the Brewers’ offense was blanked until the ninth inning by Clayton Kershaw), but that wasn’t his fault.

Third, there’s some confidence to be had on this ballclub.  Up and down the lineup, every player is contributing, not just the usuals like Braun and Fielder.  Yesterday Jerry Hairston Jr. came up with the big hit to give the Brewers a 3-1 lead against the Dodgers.  On Tuesday Mark Kotsay chipped in with a pinch-hit, walk-off RBI single.  Nyjer Morgan came up with a sac fly in extra innings to win the game on Sunday against the Pirates.  The pitching has been excellent; the Brewers’ staff owns the second-best National League August ERA at 2.51.  Incidentally, the Dodgers, with whom the Brewers just finished a four-game series, have the best NL August ERA (2.38), which might explain why the Brewers were able to muster only nine runs.  But what matters most are the wins, and there have been plenty of those lately.

The Brewers now hit the road to take on a few sub-.500 opponents in the 60-63 Mets and the 58-64 Pirates before returning home to face the Cubs beginning August 26.

Magic Number Watch: 32.

*There are a handful of guys in the NL I’d take over Narveson; Bud Norris or Vance Worley, for example.  And of course Brandon Beachy from the Braves in a heartbeat.

The drumbeat goes on…and Jerry Hairston, Jr. has new digs

Of course, just as I conclude my review of the shortstop market, the Brewers acquire a new second baseman that can also play the left infield.

Jerry Hairston, Jr., 35, is the newest addition to the Brewers’ revolving door at second base.  He also plays some third and short and some outfield, a true swiss army knife type of guy.  You have to wonder if the end is near for Craig Counsell.

With the Nationals this year, Hairston was batting a respectable .268, with a .342 on base percentage and .385 slugging in 238 plate appearances. He’s shown a bit of pop with 11 doubles and 4 HR.  Hairston’s defense at third hasn’t been great, but he did accumulate a 3.4 zone rating in 381 innings at second in 2010 with the Padres, and 3.9 at short that same year.

This seems like Doug Melvin just hedging his bets in case he can’t put anything else together by Sunday’s trade deadline.  All contending teams are looking for utility pieces, and Melvin would have been foolish not to pull the trigger on a low-salary player like Hairston.