Ryan Braun and the Batting Title

Ryan Braun is going to have to come with his game face tonight if he wants a batting title.

Mets manager Terry Collins (whose 2013 option was just picked up) decided to pull Jose Reyes following a bunt single in the first inning, to a chorus of boos from Mets fans.  It will likely be Reyes’ last game in a Mets uniform, as he’s a free agent after the season.  So I guess if you’re the Mets, why not one final act of disappointment to compound all those endured by fans during the season?*

In any event, Collins’ decision means that Reyes will finish the season 181-537, a .33706 average.  Braun currently has 187 hits in 559 at-bats (.334525939), so he’ll need at least three hits tonight in order to finish ahead of Reyes.  Let’s hope Pirates manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t decide tonight’s a good night to walk Braun.

Collins’ cowardice isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, though.  Braun has at least 3 hits in 15 games this season, including three in September.  He has never faced Pirates probable starter John Locke.

Whatever happens with the batting title, you have to give both Braun and Reyes a lot of credit.  Both have raised their averages by 5-6 points since mid-September, no easy feat this late in the season.

*That may have been a cheap shot.  I’m just very irritated that the Mets wouldn’t let this play out.  And in any event, a batting title for Reyes is sort of counterproductive for the Mets, who presumably would like to resign him this offseason.


Riding the Rollercoaster

The Brewers have to be the luckiest team in baseball right now.  Their pitching finally fell apart on Saturday, but as it turns out, their record is no worse for it.

Randy Wolf allowed five runs, four of them during the seventh inning, which Wolf started by allowing three straight hits.  Wolf exited after allowing two runs, with two runners still his responsibility.  Takashi Saito, who has pitched well since coming off the DL in July, picked up where Wolf left off, walking the first batter to load the bases.  Saito allowed both of Wolf’s runs to score and one of his own before finally ending the inning.  What had been a 7-1 lead coming into the seventh became a 7-6 lead.

The Mets weren’t done, though.  Former Met Francisco Rodriguez came out to work the eighth to plenty of boos from the New York crowd, and Rodriguez gave them something to cheer about.  With two outs, Rodriguez walked Ruben Tejada, who scored on a Josh Thole double.  With the score tied at 7-7, Rodriguez threw a fat changeup to Angel Pagan, who got ahold of it and ripped it into the second deck.  All of a sudden the Brewers found themselves down 9-7.

With the Brewers having only one inning left to score, the Mets handed former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen the ball in the ninth.  What followed was an absolute nightmare for the Mets and their fans.  Isringhausen missed with nearly every pitch to the first two batters, walking Jonathan Lucroy and Nyjer Morgan.  Corey Hart singled to load the bases.  Isringhausen walked in a run before being removed, but substitution Manny Acosta didn’t fare much better; Casey McGehee and Prince Fielder combined for 3 RBI on two singles to give the Brewers an 11-9 lead that would hold thanks to John Axford’s work in the bottom of the inning.

The Brewers are no strangers to these kind of late-inning heroics.  In late and close games, the Brewers are hitting .265, good for fifth-best in the MLB.  The team has 35 comeback wins and 7 walk-off wins.  Fortunately, they haven’t often been on the wrong side of the score lately.  But it’s encouraging to know that when they are, the team will play all nine.  Down two runs going into the ninth yesterday, the players still looked confident.  You just have to hope that their luck with these kind of things holds out the rest of the year.

Magic Number Watch: 28

Photo credit: Jeff Sainlar, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Carlos Beltran as a Brewer?

MLBTradeRumors.com reports, via Buster Olney, that the Brewers are in play for Mets rightfielder Carlos Beltran, and will acquire him if they can scrape together a decent enough package of prospects.  The fit doesn’t look to be there, though, as Olney says that Mets GM Sandy Alderson is set on attaining a high-end prospect for the impact bat.  And lord knows, no one in baseball thinks the Brewers have many of those anymore.

It’s obvious why a team like the Brewers would want Beltran, a free-agent-to-be and, like K-Rod, another Scott Boras client (are you seeing a pattern here?).  Beltran, an All-Star, is having a fantastic year, batting .293 with a .389 OBP and .917 OPS.  He’s hit 15 home runs, including a dinger last night, with 61 RBI and 58 K to 52 BB.  Beltran also leads the major leagues with 30 doubles.

If true (and you have to take these reports with a grain of salt), this is an interesting trade deadline strategy by Brewers GM Doug Melvin.  The club’s greatest need is clearly an upgrade at shortstop, yet Melvin’s trade for K-Rod and this rumor suggest he’s intent on shoring up other weak areas of the ballclub (the bullpen and the bench).  Perhaps he has concluded that the market simply doesn’t present enough of an upgrade at short to justify the cost, or that a solid supporting cast will compensate for Yuniesky Betancourt’s weak bat and glove.



Getting to know K-Rod

We now understand why Doug Melvin was so vague when asked who would close for the Brewers in the aftermath of Tuesday’s blockbuster trade for Francisco Rodriguez.  According to Ron Roenicke, who intends to sit down with both K-Rod and current closer John Axford today, “I think there are going to be times that both of them are used in that setup role.  We’ll just see how that goes. I know [K-Rod] really wants to play for a winner — that’s big on his mind.”

I can’t say I’m a big fan of a closer-by-committee arrangement here.  Since blowing the save on opening day, John Axford has been stellar.  If he has one Achilles’ heel, it’s that he allows too many guys to reach base (1.36 WHIP), many via the walk (3.7 BB/9).  But Rodriguez isn’t any better in that regard (1.41 WHIP), and Axford is also striking out slightly more batters.  Axford also has better velocity; his fastball regularly sits in the 95-96 range, while the velocity on Rodriguez’s fastball has annually decreased and now clocks in at just 90-91.

I thought it might be helpful to see just what else our new part-time closer is working with.  K-Rod is throwing his fastball about 60% of the time, the highest amount for years where pitch f/x data is available, despite the fact that it it slightly below average (-1.3 runs above average per 100 fastballs).  Rodriguez also has a plus curve that falls in at about 77 mph, but his real filth pitch is his changeup, which he throws about 15% of the time and is regularly clocked at 82-83.  K-Rod will throw an occasional two-seamer with good movement in the same range as his fastball (90-91).

Although K-Rod has been good this year, his best stuff might still be ahead of him.  He’s been somewhat unlucky with a .342 batting average on balls in play, the highest of his career in any season where he’s pitched more than 50 innings (actually, K-Rod’s BABIP has never hit .300 before).  His expected ERA (2.98), which adjusts ERA for defense, is slightly better than his traditional ERA (3.16), though his traditional ERA could rise with the Brewers’ porous defense behind him.  K-Rod’s fastball may be losing velocity, but he’s adjusted by inducing more ground balls than ever before (51.7%), while his percentages of line drives (14.2%) and fly balls (34.2%) are at career lows.  That should play well at Miller Park.

Of course, we’re still not sure in what situation Rodriguez will be utilizing his stuff.  Roenicke is on record as supporting defined roles for his bullpen,* which makes his decision to use both Rodriguez and Axford in save situations all the more surprising.  The fact that Roenicke is unwilling to assign a role to the Brewers’ new acquisition is somewhat troubling, but it may have to do with his prior relationship with K-Rod as a coach for the Angels.  Roenicke provided this scouting report, which may help explain his thinking:

“He’s a gamer.  The tighter the game is, the more he wants the ball, which is really nice. You’re not always going to have clean innings with him, but he always makes the big pitch when he needs to.”

*Kam Loe in the eighth, anyone?

EDIT: Lest anyone misconstrue this post, there is still no way that the Brewers will allow K-Rod to finish 21 games and vest that whopping $17.5 M option for 2012.  So we know he isn’t going to close all that much, but why use him in that role at all when Axford has been so good?  Not unless Axford is injured or unavailable, I say.

The Midsummer Classic and an odd acquisition

How good is Prince Fielder?  On a night reserved exclusively for the best in baseball (or at least their replacements), Fielder managed to steal the spotlight again with a three-run dinger that pretty much decided the contest for the National League.  It was the first All-Star home run by a Brewer in franchise history, and Fielder’s subsequent MVP trophy was also a franchise first.

It was as bittersweet a victory as they come.  I couldn’t help but to think that next year Fielder could easily find himself in the other lineup swinging out of the DH spot.  Or at the very least wearing another team’s uniform.  The awards he piles up for the Brewers’ franchise are great, but also tough to take seriously when Fielder has not displayed the kind of commitment to the organization that our other annual All-Star slugger, Ryan Braun, has.

But, Fielder’s ringing jack is not the only reason for Brewers nation to rejoice tonight; indeed, it may not even be the primary reason.  In a stunning move, Doug Melvin and the Brewers announced that they had acquired New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez and enough cash to cover his salary (about $5 M) for two minor league players to be named later.  At 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA and a 2.88 K/BB ratio, Rodriguez is poised to contribute significantly to the bullpen going forward.

It’s an interesting move, if for no other reason that Doug Melvin seems to have addressed one of the club’s strengths by creating a bit of a closer controversy.  Closer John Axford, also 2-2, has performed even better than K-Rod, and sits at 2.83 with 3.12 K/BB.  While Doug Melvin insists there’s no confusion about the closer role, well, there is, because he has thus far refused to say who the primary closer would be.  “John has done a good job for us, and I still have confidence in him,” said Melvin. “I’m not going to get into (a possible controversy). This is just a chance to get a quality arm that’s not easy to get.”  But as Tom Haudricourt points out:

One thing is certain: The Brewers will not let Rodriguez finish 21 more games over the remainder of the season. He already has finished 34 games, and if he gets to 55 games finished for the season, the $17.5 million option for 2012 automatically vests.

Please stay healthy, John.

The move certainly shores up a bullpen that has struggled as of late, with recently demoted set-up man Kameron Loe sitting at 3-7 with a 4.50 ERA.  Long reliever Marco Estrada has also fallen off, compiling a 1-5 record and 4.65 ERA since his last start on May 4.  And with Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins potential injury risks, its hard to pan Melvin for the move too much, especially if Rodriguez is used primarily as a set up man.*

Yet you hope Doug Melvin isn’t done working his magic, because the much more pressing need is at shortstop.  Melvin has been very active at the trade deadline in past years, and I’ll be handicapping the shortstop situation in the next few days.  There’s reason to like the K-Rod move, though, and not only because it keeps a really good closer out of the Cardinals hands.  But there also has to be cautious optimism that there is more to come before the July 31 trade deadline.

*Scott Boras apparently doesn’t consider his client K-Rod a setup man (“”Closers don’t make good setup men. Does anyone want an unhappy setup man in their clubhouse?”).  You have to wonder if the Brewers’ intention to use K-Rod in that role to prevent the vesting of his 2012 option will harm whatever (slim) chance the team has to keep Fielder.  But Scott Boras has said a lot of things, and its simply not clear how all this will shake out right now, including whether K-Rod will be a detriment in the clubhouse.  There’s certainly potential for that.

EDIT:  As Tim Dierkes over at MLBTradeRumors notes, the best case scenario for Scott Boras commission-wise is to have K-Rod become a free agent at the end of the season.  So, he can’t be too upset with a set-up arrangement for the righty.  Still, Jon Heyman, who views the trade favorably, reports that Melvin and Boras discussed K-Rod’s role with the crew, and for now Boras seems to be sticking to his “historic closer” shtick.

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.

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.