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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

What Next for the Brewers?

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The Milwaukee Brewers began the 2009 season confidently. Six months earlier they had reached the playoffs for the first time in a generation, thanks to a powerful offense led by young stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun as well as a July trade that brought pitching ace CC Sabathia in to join All-Star Ben Sheets. 

In the winter Sabathia left as a free agent for the mega-money of the New York Yankees, and Sheets also cut his ties to the Brewers before finding he needed elbow surgery. But the Brewers added future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman as their closer, hoping a solid bullpen and consistent offense would offset any drop-off in the starting rotation.

It didn't work out. As the accompanying chart shows, the Brewers improved in run production, batting average and on-base percentage despite another major injury to Rickie Weeks, the decline and demotion of J.J. Hardy and the departure of the disappointing Bill Hall. But the pitching took a huge step backward, mostly because of the starters, whose 5.37 earned-run average was 29th out of 30 major-league teams. The Brewers, pitching-poor in the minor leagues and unable to pull off a Sabathia-like deal, fell from contention after the All-Star break even as home attendance rose above 3 million for a second straight year.

Now the Brewers face a winter of major decisions. Job One is improving the rotation, and the first move was to hire pitching coach Rick Peterson, known for intensive analysis of throwing mechanics. Help might be found through free agency, but small-market economics limit the Brewers' spending. If they make trades, whom can the Brewers most afford to deal—Weeks, plagued so far by inconsistency and injuries; Hardy, who lost the shortstop job to Alcides Escobar; Corey Hart, an underachieving right fielder; Mat Gamel, the "third baseman of the future" last spring but eclipsed in the summer by Casey McGehee?

The Brewers quickly re-signed Hoffman for 2010, but other big names from '09 are eligible to be free agents—center fielder Mike Cameron, second baseman Felipe Lopez, catcher Jason Kendall. Whom should the Brewers try to keep?

The decisions are up to team owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin. But the speculating is open to all, and the Fairly Detached Observers happily join the babble of free advice.

Frank: Last week another buddy said the Brewers have to almost work against themselves. Plug one hole in the dike and another appears because they weaken themselves someplace else. That's true of all teams to some extent, but the Brewers have less margin for error than a money machine like the Yankees or Red Sox.

Artie: What was the payroll this year?

Frank: A little over $80 million, about in the middle for the majors.

Artie: They'll have to spend money to fix the pitching.

Frank: But will there be anything extra to spend? How has the economy affected Mr. Attanasio's investment-managing business, and how much will they lose when the fans' disappointment drops the advance ticket sales?

Artie: They've got to show before spring training that they've really done something to stir up the interest again.

Stay or Go?

Frank: Let's consider the guys they have to decide on first—Lopez, Cameron and Kendall.

Artie: In other words, only three of the four "up the middle" defensive keys.

Frank: Deciding on Lopez means deciding on Weeks. Besides the issue of whether they can afford Lopez, who's got the notorious Scott Boras as his agent, if you re-sign him that leaves no place for Rickie, who says he's strictly a second baseman.

Artie: But if you keep Rickie, can he stay in one piece? He keeps wrecking a wrist, and his bat-waggling doesn't help that.

Frank: This month Doug Melvin said, "We view Rickie as our second baseman at this point." You never know what trade might pop up, but I say keep Rickie; he was headed for a breakthrough season when he got hurt in May.

Artie: Melvin can only hope that next May he's not putting Weeks on the disabled list again, ain’a?

Frank: Cameron made $10 million this year and he won't want any less in 2010. That looks too steep to me.

Artie: You know what you get in him offensively—around .250 with 20-plus homers and lots of strikeouts. But the key is his defense. He'll be 37 in January but can still cover the ground. And if not him in center, who?

Frank: They've thought about playing Hart there. Jody Gerut didn't show much this year. And Jason Bourgeois has just been waived.

Artie: There's the ex-Cub, Corey Patterson, whom they added late this season. He's also a free agent.

Frank: Talk about strikeouts! He had only 14 at-bats here but K'd seven times. And his career on-base percentage is .290. Steer clear of that.

Artie: But if they let Cameron go, Patterson could be a stopgap until Lorenzo Cain can progress from the minors. Cain basically missed the '09 season in Double-A with a knee injury.

Frank: So you'd stay with Cameron?

Artie: You betcha, with a one-year deal. Otherwise, it's just as your buddy says: Save money to plug the pitching hole but open up a big hole in center.

Frank: I just think the Cameron money can be better spent. I'd try Hart in center.

Artie: The same problem arises with the catching. If you don't re-sign Kendall, who takes over? Kendall did next-to-nothing on offense this year, but even at 35 he played 134 games.

Frank: Mike Rivera, meanwhile, played more than in '08 but dropped from .306 to .228. And he's no kid at 33.

Artie: This year they had Angel Salome in Triple-A and Jonathan Lucroy in Double-A, but neither is ready to be No. 1 here.

Frank: I agree on keeping Kendall, for stability. Locking up Hoffman for 2010 was a no-brainer. And right now it looks like they'll pick up their option for Braden Looper, this year's main addition to the rotation.

Artie: A 14-game winner only because he got the run support that Yovani Gallardo didn't. Looper's ERA was 5.22, for cripes' sake.

Frank: Looper, Dave Bush and your favorite, Jeff Suppan, lived up to my name for them, "The Three A-Mediocres." Any way you parse the stats—four years of Bush, three of Bush/Suppan or this year as a trio—you see a .500 record at best and an ERA around 5.

Artie: This year, with Bush injured a long time and Suppan a little, the three guys were 26-28 and 5.53.

Frank: Manager Ken Macha said, "We can't have starting pitchers with 5.00 ERAs." With Manny Parra's 6.36, they had four.

Artie: Which is four more than the Yanks and Phillies take into the World Series. It's time to bury Suppan in the bullpen. They can't trade him, with his $12.5 million salary for next year. I love the mantra that Soup, Bush and Looper are "inning eaters." If innings were pizzas, theirs would have all the toppings—singles, homers, a couple of wild pitches and plenty of walks.

Frank: Looper said he had a bad knee all season "but I don't want to make excuses." Fine: He's not excused.

Artie: But it seems like they’ll pick up his option for $6.5 million—about a 37% raise. Hey, I've got two bum knees; where can I get a job like that?

Frank: Melvin says he wants two new guys in the rotation. I say it's time to cut Bush loose. If Suppan goes to the bullpen, that leaves Gallardo, Looper and Parra, by virtue of his potential and lefty-ness.

Deal or No Deal?

Artie: So who might they trade to get pitching?

Frank: They've gotta deal Hardy for his own good. True, he had a really bad year at the plate, but Melvin took a drastic step in shipping him to Nashville for ju-u-u-st long enough that his free agency got pushed back a year to November 2011. They've committed to Escobar and Hardy can't possibly want to stay.

Artie: His '09 flop doesn't help his trade value.

Frank: But he's still young and has shown he can be productive. Same thing with Hart, who got sidetracked by an appendectomy and has never become the consistent "five-tool" player they've hoped for. And then there's Rickie, who has the negatives of shaky defense and repeated injuries.

Artie: Then there's Gamel, who's a pure hitter but didn't get enough playing time because of his iffy defense and McGehee's success at third. He's got good value.

Frank: So it's "Farewell Mat, go get us some pitching."

Artie: Of course, everybody wants pitching in return for pitching. So Parra could get into a trade package.

Frank: There's also Seth McClung or Carlos Villanueva or Todd Coffey, but Parra has the most value because he's a lefty and young. Of course, that would mean they need three new starters.

Artie: With Parra, Hardy, Hart and Gamel, you'd have two packages you can deal for pitching. And the Giants, for instance, need hitting and have lots of young pitching.

Frank: Like Matt Cain?

Artie: I doubt they can get him, but there's Jonathan Sanchez, not yet 27 and a promising lefty—threw a no-hitter last July. Or a 20-year-old lefty named Madison Bumgarner, one of the top prospects in baseball.

Frank: What might land Cain is the biggest asset the Brewers have, literally.

Artie: The Prince.

Frank: But does Mr. Attanasio trade his top star knowing the fan reaction he'd get, not to mention the offensive chasm it'd leave?

Artie: Can't be done, just from a marketing sense.

Frank: They're likely to face the Prince issue a year from now as he heads into his final season before free agency. But the guys who "rented" Sabathia know you've got to try to win right now.

Artie: Besides, Prince plays every day. Whoever the top-line pitcher is—Cain, Zack Greinke from the Royals, Roy Halladay in Toronto—he sits four games out of five.

Play the Market?

Frank: Let's look at the starting pitchers available as free agents. No. 1 is John Lackey, I guess.

Artie: His career numbers are good—102-71 and a 3.81 ERA—but they sure don't scream "Ace!" And he's 31.

Frank: A lot of these guys are "of a type"—in their 30s, good but not great stats. Randy Wolf, Jarrod Washburn, Jason Marquis, Brad Penny—career ERAs around 4, a few games over .500.

Artie: Suppan-esque numbers, at least the Suppan who got four years and $42 million from the Brewers.

Frank: When he signed in December 2006, he was 44-26 and 3.95 in three years as a Cardinal. But lifetime, he was 106-101 and 4.61.

Artie: Nothing against Soup personally; he had a good stretch and it paid off—for him.

Frank: The free-agent pitchers with the best numbers have the most injury questions. Tim Hudson, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard in Seattle—all of them have ERAs in the 3s, but can they hold up? Justin Duchscherer in Oakland missed the season with depression issues on top of elbow surgery.

Artie: But they'll all cash in because everyone is desperate for pitching.

Frank: Rick Peterson, the new pitching coach, is known as a scientific guy—lots of words that begin with "bio-" in stressing mechanics. I think his hiring means the Brewers don't plan to shoot for the moon in free agency or trade a lot of their assets, but rather rely on Peterson to resurrect a guy like Duchscherer or Bedard...

Artie: Or Mark Mulder, who didn't pitch at all in 2009. Or Chris Capuano, who's coming off his second Tommy John surgery.

Frank: Plus have Peterson work intensively with Parra and lefty Chris Narveson, who had some good outings in September.

Artie: Basically, bring lots of arms to Arizona and have 'em compete.

Frank: Peterson is from New Jersey, worked for the Mets and is a popular guest on New York radio shows. I heard him a few times when I was back East, and he sounded... well, pretty darn confident he has the answers. Like anything else, the proof is on the field. If the Brewers' pitching turns around, he's a genius. If not, he's a flake.

Artie: He had success in developing the "Big Three" in Oakland a few years back—Hudson, Mulder and Barry Zito.

Frank: But two of the three, Hudson and Mulder, later had breakdowns. Is it because they missed Peterson or because a lot of pitchers break down no matter what their mechanics are?

Artie: Let's take a chance with a Duchscherer or somebody else who's more affordable than Lackey or Wolf. Then trade for a guy like Sanchez or Kevin Correia of the Padres—he's 29 and went 12-11 with a 3.91 ERA for a crummy team.

Frank: So the 2010 Brewers will have at least two new starting pitchers, but maybe also a new center fielder and/or catcher. Or if the pitchers come in trades, the 2010 team will lose some of its "future."

Artie: Gotta give something to get something—or is it, you get nothing for nothing.

Frank: This year with a lousy rotation they were just two games under .500. If Peterson's system works, if Weeks and Hart stick around and live up to their potential, if Hoffman doesn't lose his touch, if McGehee doesn't have a sophomore slump, if Escobar fulfills their expectations...

Artie: And the most important thing, if the team stays healthy...

Frank: Let's say there are six major things that need to go right. If five do, the sky's the limit. If four do, the team should contend.

Artie: And if only two work out... The Yankees can try to buy their way out, but not the Brew Crew. The one thing I know is I don't envy Doug Melvin!