Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lucroy is Latest in Long List of Brewer Injuries

It's Memorial Day, which marks the unofficial start to summer nationwide.  In baseball circles, this day also signifies the time of year you usually stop hearing the phrase "it's still early" being uttered from coaches and players of struggling teams.  It's historically the barometric point for how a team is going to fare for the rest of the season in the standings, because it is a decent enough sample size to factor in hot and cold streaks, and prolonged injuries.  Thus far, at 20-28, things are looking grim for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Manager Ron Roenicke is certainly not one to make excuses.  There have been many games which the Brewers played poorly, whether it be because of bullpen issues overuse, terrible starting pitching in April, underachieving defense, or inconsistent offense.  Despite the loss of Prince Fielder to Detroit, this team - at least on paper - to start the season was certainly good enough to contend again in the NL Central.  Brewer fans were encouraged to finally see Mat Gamel play an entire season, a healthy Zack Grienke to start the season, and one of the best bullpen 8-9 combos in the bigs on the roster for an entire year.  But a devastating wave of injuries has made May a month to forget for the Brewers and has exposed just how little depth this team has at the AAA level.

Here is a list of all the injuries the Brewers have sustained this month:
SP Chris Narveson, labrum**
1B Mat Gamel, knee**
SS Alex Gonzalez, knee**
3B Aramis Ramirez, elbow
SS Cesar Izturis, hamstring*
2B Rickie Weeks, hand
1B/RF Travis Ishikawa, oblique*
LF Ryan Braun, achilles/groin
CF Carlos Gomez, hamstring
C Jonathan Lucroy, hand*
C George Kottaras, hamstring
SP Marco Estrada, quadricep*
RP Kameron Loe, shoulder
SP Shaun Marcum, ribcage

*currently on 15-day DL
**currently on 60-day DL, out for the season

Let me stress again: all of these injuries have occurred this month, and all of these players have missed at least 2 games due to injury, except for Marcum who has been grinding through his ribcage issue.  For whatever reason, West Coast trips have been even more dismal than usual for the Brewers, as half of these injuries have occurred out west.  The reason I think Roenicke is not making excuses for the team's poor play is because most of these injuries are mangeable or have been suffered by roleplayers.  But the biggest blow finally came down on Sunday, as Jonathan Lucroy broke his hand as a result of his wife dropping a suitcase on it.  Luc was white-hot at the plate and really had a chance to break out and make his first All-Star team this summer, but that hope is pretty much gone now.  All of the luck and circumstances the Brewers seemed to have on their side last year has been going to total opposite direction this year, and all of the games the Brewers found a way to win last year, they are finding a way to lose this year.  The law of averages would say that things can only get better if they keep playing hard, but at 7 games out of first after 48 games, there is huge hole to climb out of for the Crew.  If any division is up for the taking in the majors it's the NL Central, and maybe the Brewers can go on a big run this summer, but a lot of replacement players are going to have to step up.  At this point in the season, key players that have been struggling (mainly Rickie Weeks) typically are not going to see much improvement over the final 4 months.  It can no longer classified as a "slow start" - the Brewers are who they are.  The trade deadline should be very interesting this year.

Brewers 20-28, -7.0 (4 @ Dodgers, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 27-21, +0.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Astros)
Twins 16-32, -11.0 (3 v. Athletics, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 2
Peter - 10

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The End of Interleague Play as we know it

This past weekend was the commencement of the 2012 interleague schedule.  Interleague Play is annually a big revenue boost for teams around the league, as fans flock to ballparks to see teams that do not get to come to town that often.  In particular, the "natural rivalry" home-and-home series are a big draw.  As a Brewer fan, I always look forward to the six games between the Brewers and Twins.  Much like when the Brewers play the Cubs, the team records are out the window when these two match up, and they are always fun battles to watch.  Unlike the Battle of Ohio, the Subway Series, or the Freeway Series, it doesn't really have a name, though so I am nominating the "Reciprocity Series" as my vote, since students from Minnesota and Wisconsin enjoy in-state tuition the other state's schools.

Whether you are a fan of interleague play or not, as of next year it is definitely here to stay.  Due to the Houston Astros moving to the AL West next year, out of necessity there will have to be interleague play all year round instead of just in blocks in May and June.  I personally don't like this idea, but I understand that the balancing of the 6 divisions is the greater good.  I have two main problems with year-round interleague.  First off, there will inevitably be situations in September when a team in a tight divisional race will be forced to play a meaningless interleague series.  The other 3 major sports all play "interleague" year-round, but there are an even number of teams in each of those sport's leagues, so this is not a problem.  The only way to remedy this for MLB would be to follow suit and contract 2 teams, or add 2.  I can't really see contraction happening due to the revenue sharing program - maybe a team moving, but not contraction.  And unless MLB wants to expand more outside the US or change territorial rules, expansion does not seem likely either.  So we could be stuck with this for awhile.  Secondly, MLB is threatening to do away with the "rivalry" series starting next year.  I can understand that people would have mixed feelings about this - if you live in large markets like Chicago, NY, or LA, this would be a tragedy, but for example a citizen of Atlanta or San Diego does not really have a natural rival, so there is no big loss there.  I personally think that it would be a huge mistake to do away with these series and I hope MLB finds a way to keep them happening.  Imagine how much less interesting baseball would be if the Cubs & Cardinals, or Red Sox & Yankees, or Dodgers & Giants never played during the year...I think these rivalry series hold the same weight.  Either way, I'm looking forward to the Brewers having one less team to compete with in the division next year.

A quick update on the Tour front.  The week before our South Florida trip, our US Cellular Field 5th Anniversary visit has ballooned, as so many of our trips do, into a 3-ballpark weekend.  The night before we are going to see an independent league team in the Chicago metro area that has always eluded us, the Windy City Thunderbolts.  Also, on Friday night, we will be watching our first game in the inaugural season of the Lakeshore Chinooks in Mequon, Wisconsin.  From what I have read, the fundraising efforts for the park did not go very well, so a lot of what was originally designed did not get built.  Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what is actually there besides metal bleachers.  We know for sure there will be a tasty fish fry and a good ballgame so that's all that matters.

Brewers 17-25, -6.0 (3 v. Giants, 3 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 22-19, -0.5 (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Rockies)
Twins 14-27, -9.0 (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 2
Peter - 9

Monday, May 14, 2012

Andy Pettitte Returns to the Yankees

Lost amongst big stories like Josh Hamilton's freakish week at the plate, the Orioles leading the AL East, and Bryce Harper's major league debut, was Andy Pettitte coming out of retirement and rejoining the Yankees yesterday.  It was in March that Andy announced he felt the competitive juices flowing again and wanted to attempt a comeback, and the Yankees indulged him with a minor league deal.  Who would have known at the time that the Yankees would need him as much as Pettitte needed the Yankees?  In his first start since September 2010, he allowed 4 runs over 6.1 at Yankee Stadium in, as Derek Jeter put it, a "1999 throwback start" against Kevin Millwood and the Mariners.  Pettitte seemed to pick up right where he left off, down to about 88 on the fastball but still very effective, keeping hitters off-balance as he does.  With the big offseason trade of Michael Pineda out indefinitely and Phil Hughes struggling again, Andy has a chance at age 39, after not having picked up a baseball since throwing a ceremonial first pitch last season, to once again be an anchor of the Yankee rotation.  Andy Pettitte is the quintessential team player and embodies everything that's good about baseball, and the game is lucky to have him back on the mound.  I can't wait to see him pitch again in one of the many games New York will inevitably be playing on national television this season.

Brewers 15-19, -5.0 (2 @ Mets, 2 @ Astros, 3 v. Twins)
Reds 17-16, -2.5 (2 @ Braves, 2 @ Mets, 3 @ Yankees)
Twins 10-24, -8.0 (2 v. Indians, 2 @ Tigers, 3 @ Brewers)

Erik - 2
Peter - 8

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Logic of the Contract Extension

One of the things that is so attractive about baseball for me is its very calculated "game within a game" aspect.  Managers have their situational thinking, pitchers have their routines, hitters have their tendencies, and defenses are positioned.  All of these scouting reports are available to everybody and there is a constant battle of wits to out-think the other team and stay one step ahead.  But when we mix all of these known factors together into certain combinations, there are an infinite number of results on every pitch, and no matter how we think things might play out in our head, a new scenario is always possible.  Every pitch is then tracked and extrapolated into spreadsheets and plugged into formulas, and an entire player's career can be predicted based on a series of events that could have gone a million different ways if it were played out a million different times.  And then just when you think you have everything figured out, there is always the variable of injuries that can ruin all data.  This is what makes the worth player contracts so fascinating to me.  When the causal fan sees a monster contract, it is actually very thought out in most cases based on projections and comparisons and not just a huge arbitrary sum of money.

That is why more than ever, you are seeing younger players being locked up by their teams instead waiting for them to reach their prime and hit free agency, perhaps no more prevalent than this year.  More and more teams are employing sabremetric statistics and weighing risk vs. reward to determine the best possible value and practical number of years to get out of their players before they hit the market.  Multi-year contracts for players in arbitration and even pre-arbitration gives the team far more control and payroll stability.  However, in free agency, very often a team gets caught up in a bidding war and can overpay for a player because things like demand and personal feelings get involved and create unknowns, which is never good when planning a budget.  Every free agent understandably wants more years and more money than the guy before him and by this time a player is most likely just entering or already at his prime, so a team will be paying a large amount of money based solely on past performance and not projected worth. 

The boldest case of a general manager bucking this trend that I have seen was Theo Epstein this past offseason.  We all know that the Cubs had the money to sign Prince Fielder, the 27-year old stud first baseman with over 200 career homeruns.  Experts had all said this was a done deal.  But Epstein came in and changed the culture of the Cubs immediately.  He basically said "we're not paying for past performance, we're paying for future growth."  Yes, maybe Fielder will be a 30-100 guy for all 9 years of his contract with the Tigers and will play 162 games each year as he has been known to.  But this is highly unlikely.  It is a pretty common line of thinking that age 30 is about a professional baseball player's peak, and any production beyond that is deflated - I won't even get into the Pujols contract with the Angels. 

Epstein's method of rebuilding through the minor leagues and signing undervalued free agents is going to greatly help the Cubs organization in the long term, but it is certainly not the only smart way to run a team.  Staying in the division, the Reds and Brewers have taken more of a middle-market approach by locking up their own existing players with extensions.  This allows these teams to slowly increase payroll in a controlled fashion by building around a core group of players over a multi-year stretch, in an effort to grow the fan base and attract lucrative free agents.  Some of these extensions may be of the Joey Votto-Ryan Braun variety, where you are in exclusive negotiating rights with a player and want him to be part of that team for life, and some extensions may be of the Jay Bruce-Yovani Gallardo variety, who signed relatively conservative deals in pre-arbitration years to control future arbitration costs and cover a few free agency seasons.

Signing contract extensions early in a player's career are to the benefit of almost everyone.  It provides the team and the player with financial stability.  It shows the fanbase that the team is committed to the future, and fans can know what to expect when they come to the ballpark instead of turning over 3 new positions every year.  The biggest hurdle to this theory are the agents.  They always will want to see a player maximize his value and sign the big guaranteed contracts in arbitration and subsequently free agency.  But if a team can sensibly scout and predict a player's ability early in his career, it's a good move to sign a player early.  Ryan Braun's initial contract of 8 years/$45 million was one of the most ludicrous things I'd ever seen at the time.  I could not believe both that a player would handicap himself for future salary and that a team would commit to a player that early.  But you know what, it's low-risk high-reward if the player turns out to be a star.  How much money have the Brewers already saved on Braun with this contract?  And from his perspective, there are no guarantees in this game.  Braun may suffer some horrific injury and never even see free agency, but now he has 8 years (and since then another 5) that he knows he will be set financially.  And as he has said, "is there anything I really want that I can't buy with this amount of money?"

Brewers 12-17, -6.0 (3 v. Reds, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 15-13, -2.5 (3 @ Brewers, 3 v. Nationals)
Twins 7-21, -10.0 (3 v. Angels, 4 v. Blue Jays)

Erik - 2
Peter - 6