Dealing with Loss

By Nathan Petrashek

Another day, another injury.  This time it’s Jonathan Lucroy, one of the few bright spots for a 2012 team that has seen expectations of a repeat division title slowly fade.  The team announced yesterday that Lucroy will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand, the result of a dropped suitcase at the team hotel.  We’ll leave it to the television and radio folks to test the veracity of that claim. The rookie Martin Maldonado will handle primary catching duties for the time being.  It looks like those folks desperately hoping for a Kottaras trade won’t be getting their wish.

The evidence of loss is almost overwhelming.   Only half of the original starting infield remains.  At first base, the Brewers are fielding Corey Hart and Brooks Conrad (in his second go-around with the team this year) after Travis Ishikawa, who had been filling in admirably (or at least adequately) for Mat Gamel, was placed on the DL with an oblique strain.  The situation isn’t much better at shortstop.  Alex Gonzalez gave way to Cezar Izturis, who has now given way to Cody Ransom, a recent waiver claim from Arizona.  The only two members of the infield left standing are Rickie Weeks and Aramis Ramirez, who is still shaking off the effects of a bruised elbow thanks to an errant pitch.  Weeks might as well be on the bench.  He hasn’t even performed at replacement level (.156/.290/.293), and we’re now two months into the season.

The injuries extend to the pitching side, too.  The Brewers started the year with some depth at SP, but that is almost entirely eroded thanks to a season-ending injury to Chris Narveson and a more temporary situation with his replacement, Marco Estrada.  This sets the stage for Michael Fiers’ first major-league start tonight against the Dodgers.

By my count, that’s three positions at which the Brewers are down to replacements of replacements.  People are starting to lose hope.  In the latest Brew Crew Ball tracking poll, only a slim majority of Brewers fans still think the Brewers have a shot at the playoffs.  Those are mostly fans, mind you.  More objective folks are probably less inclined to be optimistic.  This feeling of despair apparently knows no limits, and is starting to reflect on GM Doug Melvin, whose approval rating dropped significantly for the first time.

I’ve often thought that the most telling sign of a person’s character is how they react when bad things happen.  This is true in baseball too.  Doug Melvin can’t conjure up players to fill a baseball roster; not good ones, at least.  His options are limited.  He could go out and trade for some front-line talent, though most teams aren’t selling and the price tag even if they were would probably cause sticker shock.  He can sign one of the few remaining free agents out there, though there’s likely a reason they haven’t caught on yet – price (Roy Oswalt), injury (Ross Gload) and lack of reciprocal interest (Derrek Lee) being prime candidates.  Or – and this is the approach he has taken – he can rely on minor league talent to get by.

It’s worked before.  Jonathan Lucroy was a promising, though not exactly highly touted, prospect once.  He punched his big-league card straight from AA on the heels of an injury to every day catcher Gregg Zaun.  Two years later, he has blossomed into one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

By not trading the farm or dumping loads of salary in pursuit of an increasingly unlikely playoff berth, Melvin is taking a responsible approach to the injury plague.  He’s conserving resources while at the same time evaluating the players of the future, and making inexpensive, low risk tweaks – like adding Cody Ransom – where necessary.  We’ll see two new pieces of the puzzle tonight in Fiers and Maldonado.  Try not to expect too much from them; watch them for the promise they might hold for the future.

And don’t judge Melvin too harshly; he’s doing the best with what he has.  Whether than is also true of Ron Roenicke will be the subject of another post.

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Offseason 2012: Recapping a Busy Winter

It’s been a little while since we last heard from the Brewers’ front office, and this period of relative calm provides an excellent opportunity to review what the Brewers have done so far.

Prospects.  The team’s 40-man roster now stands at 38 with the recent additions of OF Caleb Gindl, 1B Brock Kjeldgaard, RHP Santo Manzanillo, and 3B Zelous Wheeler.  Of the four, Gindl might have the best shot to break with the major league team in 2012 after slashing .307/.390/.472 at Nashville last year.   Wheeler was the only other addition to spend time in Nashville, hitting .275/.383/.431 in limited time there.  Other rostered prospects to keep an eye on include RHPs Michael Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Amaury Rivas, INF Eric Farris, and OF Logan Schafer.

Free Agents.  There were a few notable additions to the Brewers this year in free agency, too.  The team signed 3B Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs to a heavily backloaded 3-year, $36MM deal.  Ramirez boasts a career 33.8 WAR and was good for 3.6 WAR last year after a down 2010 season.  Fielding metrics show that Ramirez is likely to be a liability at third, but the effect of Ramirez’s weak defense should be limited by the Brewers’ other big free agent acquisition, Alex Gonzalez.  Gonzalez’s hitting numbers aren’t much to look at; for his career, he’s slashed just .247/.291/.399.  But his defense has earned him rave reviews, including from Braves (and former Brewers) announcer Jim Powell.  Gonzalez will make about $4.25MM on a one-year deal, a big raise from his 2011 salary of $2.5MM.  Both Ramirez and Gonzalez are in their mid-30’s, which raises questions about durability.

Trades and Departures.  To make room for Ramirez, something had to give with Casey McGehee, who slumped badly throughout 2011.  In early December, the Brewers made it official; McGehee was traded to the Pirates for Jose Veras, a 31-year old journeyman fireballer coming off back-to-back sub-4.00 ERA seasons.  With relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito leaving in free agency, the Brewers got a badly needed middle relief arm and unloaded McGehee’s potentially $3MM-plus salary. Speaking of salary relief, former Brewer Prince Fielder remains unsigned and is reportedly seeking a 10-year deal, or a deal with an average annual value that exceeds Albert Pujols’ $25.4MM.

Braun Controversy.  I’ve hesitated to approach this topic until facts, not speculation, rule the day, but the matter bears attention here.  Several weeks ago, ESPN reported that Ryan Braun had tested positive for performance enhancers in October.  Those reports were later contradicted by releases that indicated Braun’s October samples had highly elevated levels of synthetic testosterone.  Either way, what we “know” right now is that Braun has tested positive for a banned substance; for a first offense, that generally nets a 50-game suspension.  However, there is an appeal process and Braun is exercising that right, the result of which may not be known until January.

International Signing.  The Brewers potentially  added a bit of international flavor to their roster by winning the right to negotiate with Japanese OF Norichika Aoki.  Aoki is a three-time Central League batting champion who has never hit below .300 in a full season, oftentimes features a .400+ OBP.  His arm has been criticized by other writers, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he’s not serviceable in center, with a move to left likely if Braun gets suspended.  This is not a done deal, however; the Brewers do not have a legitimate Japanese scouting staff, and they will work Aoki out in the States before determining whether to offer him a contract.  Signing Aoki would make either Carlos Gomez or Nyjer Morgan expendable.  If he is not signed, the Japanese team that posted him must return the Brewers’ winning $2.5MM bid for exclusive negotiating rights.