The return of Thirty Pitches

By Nathan Petrashek

Here, Jaymes Langrehr ‏(@JaymesL) from Disciples of Uecker foreshadows K-Rod's return

Here, Jaymes Langrehr ‏(@JaymesL) from Disciples of Uecker foreshadows K-Rod’s return

The Brewers bullpen falls squarely in “meh” territory right now.  They’re league average just about everywhere, which is still an improvement over last year.  But let’s just say trotting Mike Gonzalez (2-something WHIP) and John Axford (4.8 HR/9) doesn’t do much to light my fire.

Not to sound too summer blockbusterish, but an old terror is returning to haunt the Brewers organization.  You might remember him by his pseudonym, Thirty Pitches of Terror, or simply K-Rod.  Either way, Francisco Rodriguez has a visa and has been assigned to Class A Brevard.  If he can make it back to the Brewers, he’ll get around $2 million on a minor league contract signed this spring.

“Thirty Pitches of Terror” isn’t exactly fair to the formerly elite reliever, the guy who, but for a colossal screw-up by his agents, might still have a closing gig today.  In 2012, K-Rod tossed over 30 pitches just twice, though he came close to that in a handful of other appearances.  Generally, it took K-Rod a reasonable 15-17 pitches to get through an inning.  But “Fifteen Pitches of Terror” doesn’t quite have that doomsday ring to it.

Brewers fans are perhaps understandably apprehensive about the looming reunion with this menace.  2012 was undoubtedly the worst year of K-Rod’s career.  He amassed a 4.38 ERA over 72 innings, walked batters at a higher rate than anytime since 2009, and his strikeouts per nine dropped to a career low.  On the heels of a stellar 2011 campaign, K-Rod managed to completely destroy any trade value by midseason 2012, and didn’t even get a major league offer this offseason.

Thing is, K-Rod’s 2012 wasn’t all bad, and where it was, it was historically so.  The last two months of the season Rodriguez appeared in 27 games and amassed a 2.81 ERA, with a 26/5 strikeout to walk ratio.  He actually gained a few ticks on his fastball in 2012, and that and his change were both well above-average pitches last season.  Rodriguez’s FIP was over a half-run better than his season ERA, which ballooned in part because of his career-worst strand rate.  And K-Rod’s homerun-flyball ratio of 12.3% was nearly double that of 2011.  So there’s some room for hope.

I obviously believe Rodriguez’s time as an elite closer is over.  But it looks to me like a decent chance that at 31, Rodriguez still has something left.  K-Rod has a few weeks to show his wares in the minors before the Brewers have to make a decision on him, so we’ll have to see where he’s at.  Basically, he’s on a minor league deal with a trial period and reasonable big league salary, should he make it that far.  I’d roll the dice on that, and it could very well be another win for GM Doug Melvin.

Kyle Lohse Makes Sense, In An Alternate Reality

By Nathan Petrashek

If we lived in a reality in which the Brewers were expected to win 89 games and a wild card, I could perhaps understand the Kyle Lohse signing.  He makes the Brewers better in the short-term, but only marginally.  Pencil him in for an extra couple wins over, say, Chris Narveson.

That’s not the reality we live in, though.  The Reds are the clear frontrunners in the division, with the Cardinals close behind.  Under the guise of giving their young pitchers an opportunity to showcase their stuff, the Brewers had cut costs dramatically from a 2012 payroll approaching $100 million.  It was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year.

That approach was completely thrown out the window on Monday, when the Brewers signed 34-year-old RHP Lohse to a 3-year, $33 million deal.

The dollar value is shocking enough.  Lohse is coming off career-bests in just about every category: wins, ERA, WHIP, hits per nine, walks per nine, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio.  He was pretty good in 2011, too.  Before that?  Over a 10-year career, Lohse sports a 4.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and averaged just 157 innings per season.  Even with the extreme improvement of the last two years, Lohse sports a career 4.34 FIP.  If you like the Lohse signing, you believe Lohse suddenly figured things out as a 32-year-old.  And you must also believe his stuff (which includes a high-80s fastball, with a decent slider and change) will play well in hitter-friendly Miller Park.

But Lohse isn’t just a liability on the payroll sheet.  The Cardinals made Lohse a qualifying offer last year, meaning he costs the Brewers a draft pick to sign (#17 overall).  Even more damning, the Brewers also lose the slot money associated with that pick, around $2 million.  Conversely, the Cardinals will gain a pick in the late first round, adding about $1.5M to their draft pool.  The Brewers don’t just lose a high pick; they potentially lose the ability to snag a player later who falls due to signability concerns, and help out a division rival whose farm system is already stocked.

Even Lohse’s salary structure is puzzling.  The Brewers apparently remain intent on cutting costs in 2013, as they’ll pay Lohse just $4M of his $33M deal this year.  The remainder of the deal will be paid between 2014 and 2018:  $11M in 2014 and 2015, and $7M over 2016-18, when Lohse won’t even be pitching for the team.

I’ve heard a few arguments in favor of the deal, but they all fall short.  Some say Lohse will help the team immediately; that’s true, but they really weren’t expected to compete anyway, and Lohse doesn’t push them over the top.  Some say Lohse is a veteran innings-eater.  Maybe.  Lohse has surpassed 190 innings pitched in 5 of his 12 seasons.  That doesn’t exactly classify as “reliable.” You could flip a coin as to whether he’ll surpass 180 innings in any given year.

Some point to the fact that the young rotation has struggled in spring.  If anything, that’s a reason for caution; why go out and spend $33 million amid such uncertainty?  And it isn’t as if Lohse is an ace, riding in on a white horse to save the day.  Indeed, even in the formal press conference, Doug Melvin used buzz words like “experience” and “competitiveness” to describe Lohse’s primary attributes.  That’s pretty lukewarm praise.

It’s hard to fault Melvin for the signing.  For all outward appearances, he’s seemed disinterested in forfeiting a high pick to sign Lohse.  Instead, Lohse’s agent, Scott Boras has reportedly been courting Mark Attanasio personally.  This looks for all the world like meddling by the Brewers’s principal owner.  If that’s true, Attanasio should be prepared to pay the price for ignoring his baseball minds, a price that the team will feel all the way into 2018.

Don’t Blame the Messenger

By Nathan Petrashek

Esteemed ESPN analyst Keith Law created quite a stir among Brewers fans when he released his updated organization rankings today.  The Brewers clocked in at number 29, trailed only by the Angels.  If not for the midseason Zack Greinke trade that sent pitchers Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg to Milwaukee, its entirely possible the Brewers would have wound up at the bottom of the pile.

Not that last place is a foreign position for the Brewers. In 2011, Law ranked the Brewers dead last.  That was the year they pried Grienke from the Royals for a package that included top prospects Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Jeffress, and Lorenzo Cain, as well as MLB shortstop Alcides Escobar.  The Brewers also lost Brett Lawrie to Toronto, but gained an NL Central Division crown in the process.

Law ranked the Brewers number 23 in 2012, but seemed to give the team a healthy bounce based on anticipated restocking as free agents departed at the end of the year.  In other words, Law’s rank from last February already had the team’s expected gains in the 2013 draft baked in.  The problem with that approach is pretty obvious.  With no draft pick compensation from Greinke, Marcum, or Francisco Rodriguez forthcoming, those gains won’t be as plentiful as Law perhaps expected.

Still, Brewers fans no doubt expected the team’s farm position to improve a bit after the 2012 draft.  Picking at the back end of the first round, it seemed the Brewers did well enough; they snagged C Clint Coulter and OF Victor Roache with back-to-back picks, and then added OF Mitch Haniger in the first compensation round.  But it seems the second-round pick was the only one that really impressed Law, who projects Tyrone Taylor to be an above-average regular.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Law’s ranking.  Farm system comparisons are highly subjective exercises; not only is there room for error when determining how the farm systems stack up against one another, but there is potential for errors in judgment when evaluating the individual talent that comprises the whole.

That being said, the Brewers probably don’t have the 29th-worst system, but also probably don’t deserve to be ranked much higher. The 2012 pickups help; indeed, Law’s biggest criticism seems to be that the Milwaukee didn’t manipulate its money pool better.  However, the Brewers simply don’t have enough elite prospects compared to its rivals.

In other words, don’t get hung up on the number 29.  Law’s broader point-largely beyond reproach-is that most teams have a better farm system than the Brewers.  Don’t blame Law for that; blame a scouting department that hasn’t really hit the jackpot since Jack Zduriencik left Milwaukee.

Some Thoughts on Ryan Dempster

By Nathan Petrashek

Atlanta Braves v Chicago CubsI get the sense that Doug Melvin is one of those newfangled GMs that love advanced baseball statistics but also reserves a place for old-school baseball judgment.  Given that, and his past history with veterans like Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf, it doesn’t exactly surprise me that he’s interested in Ryan Dempster.  Dempster has always dominated the Brewers at Miller Park, throwing over 100 innings of 2.66 ERA ball while holding opposing batters to a .221 average and striking out 8.6 per nine.  MLB Trade Rumors reported today that the sides had mutual interest, although the Suppan and Wolf experiments no doubt convinced Melvin that three or more years on aging pitchers is too great a risk.

Dempster, age 35, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2012.  Everything about that should scream “red flag.”  His other really good seasons came in 2000 and 2008, but sandwiched between them, he pitched just 790 innings over 7 years (an average of about 113 innings per season).  His fastball has been slowly but steadily losing velocity.  Dempster compensated by throwing fewer of them (which seems to have increased the effectiveness of those he does throw); he’s also developed a pretty good split-finger and, just this past year, a cutter (which was pretty awful).  There’s no sense in diminishing how well he pitched for the Cubs in 2012 (2.25 ERA over 104 IP and a career-low 2.3 BB/9), but Dempster fans also have to acknowledge how poorly he pitched after being traded to the Texas Rangers (69 IP, 5.09 ERA, 1.44 WHIP).  This looks for all the world like a guy at the end of his career who is going to cash in on one more big contract.

And make no mistake, someone is going to give him three years.  Once you get past Zack Grienke, the free agent market is stocked with risky plays like Anibal Sanchez, Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse, and Carl Pavano.  Dempster, particularly after his strong year, looks like a pretty good candidate when stacked up against the field.  Someone will overpay.  Someone always does.

This is not to say that Dempster is a bad pitcher; he’s really not.  But he’s not nearly as good as his 2012 season would suggest, and anyone signing him should expect more modest returns.  The Brewers are wise to limit their risk with him at two years.  I haven’t seen specifics regarding Dempster’s desired contract, but you can be sure that given the way the pitching market has developed the past few years, he’ll be looking at an average annual value exceeding what he earned with the Cubs in 2012 ($14M).  Given the Brewers stated desire to return to an $80M payroll in 2013, that would likely place him outside the Brewers’ price range.

If so, the team might well dodge a bullet.

Rotation Roulette

By Nathan Petrashek

Wily Peralta, Michael Fiers, Marco Estrada, and Mark Rogers have all thrown quality innings as starters for the Brewers this season, but there projects to be a need for a veteran starter in Milwaukee next year.  In August, Ron Roenicke had this to say about adding an experienced arm:

“I don’t want to say we need to,” he said. “I think you’d always like to. But who’s out there and for what number? It gets to the point where some of these salaries are getting a little ridiculous. We’ve got to be really smart in what we do, and who’s out there as far a quality veteran you really want.

“If you can have young starters, then maybe spend your money in the bullpen to make sure the bullpen is really good and you can close out games when you have leads. If a guy has a 4.50 ERA, which is up there, if he can go six innings, that’s three runs. If you have a good bullpen, you can win a lot of games. I think you can do it, if you have a really good bullpen.

“If you don’t have the money to go out and get $20-million-a-year pitchers, why not do it with a 4.50 ERA. What does that cost you? I think you can do that.”

The economics of pitching certainly have changed, especially this year.  The Brewers made overtures to resign Zack Greinke, only to be priced out of the market by Matt Cain’s monster deal.  The best arms now project to make at least $20M per year, with many expecting Greinke to push his free agent salary up to $22 or $23M annually.

With that, it’s time for a blind taste test.  Here are the 2012 stats of three players projected to be free agents in 2013:

Innings ERA WHIP HR/9 K/9 BB/9 ERA+
Player A 212 3.48 1.196 .08 8.5 2.3 115
Player B 170 4.32 1.295 1.4 7.1 2 87
Player C 118 3.74 1.246 1.1 8.2 2.8 110

If you were a general manager, and basing your decision solely 2012 stats, it’s obvious which you would choose.  Player A is Zack Greinke, the premier pitching free agent.  Despite faltering after his trade to the Los Angeles Angels, Greinke is still likely to command a mountain of money.  Expectations for the former Cy Young winner are high; just look at what the Angels were willing to pay the Brewers in terms of players for just a few months of his service.  Greinke puts up some remarkable numbers and will be compensated accordingly.  The financial risk will be a long-term one, too; any team making a serious run at Greinke will likely have to put a 6- or 7-year deal on the table.  That would lock the pitcher up through at least his age 34 season, a point at which many pitchers have begun to decline.

Player B is likely to be the second-most desired pitcher should the Angels decline their $15.5M 2013 option.  Dan Haren has had a rough go of it in 2012.  At age 32, it is entirely possible that Haren is losing his edge; this season, for example, Haren has dealt with lingering back issues and dip in velocity on virtually all of his pitches.  Still, he has history on his side; just last year, Haren was a Cy Young candidate after pitching 238 innings of 3.17 era ball.  For that reason, Haren is likely to command at least a three-year deal, and I can’t imagine him getting less than $13M per year.  I mean, Randy Wolf got just under $10M a year for 3 years from the Brewers, and he was an All-Star just once … in 2003.

Player C is the much-maligned Shaun Marcum.  It seems all Brewers fans will remember of him is his postseason blowup in 2011.  And it was a blowup, to be sure; a 14.90 ERA in 3 clutch games isn’t exactly what you want out of a key player in your rotation.  But those three games mask Marcum’s solid 2011 and 2012 campaigns.  Other than a slight uptick in WHIP and K rate, Marcum’s 2012 looks a lot like his 2011 – at least when he was on the field.  The major knock on Marcum has always been his health. A tommy john surgery sidelined him in 2009, and his throwing mechanics have been the subject of much criticism.  Marcum managed 195 innings in 2010 and 200 in 2011, but has struggled in September and October in both years.  Thus, an entire healthy year for Marcum probably consists of 170 innings.

Of course, a GM doesn’t have just statistics to worry about.  There’s money, too.  And if I’m the Brewers shopping around for one of these guys, Marcum’s my man.

I’d love Greinke, but not his price tag.  Few teams can shoulder a $23M annual contract, and the Brewers aren’t one of them.  Dan Haren’s age and struggles worries me more when accompanied by a minimum $40M price tag.  At age 31 next year, Shaun Marcum isn’t exactly young, but he also isn’t going to cost much.  Marcum is making just under $8M this year, which is probably where the free market – once it factors in the injury risk – will price him, too.  I can easily see Marcum signing for 3/$20M.  In terms of value for dollars, that’s a no brainer.

Now, Marcum is not going to be a fit for every team.  If he’s only going to pitch 170-180 innings there are going to be some valuable innings that someone else is going to have to pick up.  But the Brewers are ideally situated to deal with that issue.

The Brewers currently have about $52M committed for next season, not counting arbitration salaries.  With a young back end to the rotation and most position players already accounted for, there projects to be some substantial money available for the bullpen.

To cover the additional innings a Marcum signing would require, the Brewers could add a very good long relief arm.  Or they could use Marcum out of the bullpen to provide 130+ innings of quality relief during the year, as suggested by @simplekindoffan  on Twitter.  Alternatively, the Brewers could keep Marcum as a starter and give him every eighth or ninth start off.  One of the nice things about this team is its starting pitching depth; with Rogers, Fiers, Peralta, Estrada, and Narveson not all going to make the rotation, there will be some arms available for a spot start.  The point is that the Brewers have ways to deal with Marcum’s innning cap in ways that many other teams may not.

Marcum isn’t the only free agent starter the Brewers should think about pursuing.  But he – and players like him – certainly offer value in a way that guys like Zack Greinke and Dan Haren will not.