Five questions: Milwaukee Brewersby Jeffrey Gross
March 18, 2013
The first-base conundrum
One of the Brewers' most glaring organizational weaknesses heading into the 2013 season is their depth at first base. The organization's top two choices to man the position, Mat Gamel and Corey Hart, both are injured. The situation is so bad that the team is planning to begin the year with defensive-minded former shortstop Alex Gonzalez manning first base.
The Brewers did not bring in any outside first base depth this offseason, and they outrighted Travis Ishikawa to the minors. (He elected free agency and has since signed with the Orioles on a minor league deal.) Further complicating this situation is the fact that none of the Brewers' arguable top 10 prospects are first basemen, let alone major league-ready infielders.
First base was once a position of strength for the Brewers, with a young, homegrown Prince Fielder manning the position at the major league level while then-promising prospects Matt LaPorta and Gamel mashed pitching in the lower levels of the minors. Fielder has since left, LaPorta was traded for a CC Sabathia rental (LaPorta then fizzled out in Cleveland), and Gamel has had an uninspiring and injured beginning to his major league career.
Last season saw the Brewers commit to filling their open first base position in-house, leaning on former top prospect Gamel to fill the large void left by Fielder. Gamel struggled to walk (5.3 percent walk rate), hit for power (.101 isolated power) or make solid contact over his first 21 games before tearing his ACL chasing down a foul popup.
Hart stepped up for the Brewers in a big way, shifting from right field to first base and hitting .270/.334/.507 with 30 home runs, contributing nearly three wins above replacement for the Brew Crew in 2012.
However, Hart was not, and is not, the intended long-term solution for the Brewers. He is a 31-year-old right fielder by trade and is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season. Furthermore, Hart is slated to miss the first month or two of the regular season recovering from knee surgery (though his recovery is reportedly ahead of schedule).
The Brewers had every intent of beginning 2013 the same way they began 2012, committing to Gamel as their everyday first baseman. Gamel, however, will now miss the entire 2013 season after tearing the surgically repaired ACL in his right knee during the Brewers' first full-squad workout.
Milwaukee considered giving 23-year-old prospect Hunter Morris, who has never played a game above Double-A ball, an extended early-season tryout, but he now appears ticketed for Triple-A to begin the year. Morris originally was drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2007 draft by the Red Sox, though he chose college over the Red Sox and later was drafted by the Brewers in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.
He spent most of 2011 in Single-A ball, where he showed good pop (.190 isolated power) but poor patience (3.4 percent walk rate). Last year, he hit .303/.357/.563 with 28 home runs in Double-A, was named the Southern League's Most Valuable Player and the Brewers' minor league player of the year. Morris showed more mature patience (7.0 percent walk rate) and developing power (.261 isolated power), but an analysis of the whole paints the picture of a rough-around-the-edges player who is still developing.
Morris' 20-plus percent strikeout rate is not bad given his level of power, and his seven percent walk rate is certainly improved, but his nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk rate and average contact skills indicate a weakness in his approach that major league pitching likely will be able to exploit. Further, his most recent showing in the Arizona Fall League was disappointing. Morris mustered a mere seven extra-base hits (one home run) over 21 games.
The leap from Double-A to Triple-A is a pretty big step itself, so skipping a level and going straight to the majors is not a challenge easily met by even the most talented players. Mike Trout did it in 2011 with notably poor results. Most position players who skip Triple-A are top-rated prospects, guys like Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and Starlin Castro.
At best, Morris is a marginal top-10 organizational prospect in a weak minor league system. Long term, Morris has solid potential to be what the Brewers are hoping Gamel can be. However, he has not demonstrated that he is polished enough to be an everyday major leaguer. Much like the chili I made the other week, Morris could use a little more seasoning.
Currently, the only remaining first basemen on the free agency market are Aubrey Huff and Carlos Lee. A cheap, one-year, incentive-laden reunion with Lee might hve made sense, but it's unknown whether Lee is in playing shape, or even interested, at this time. At best, it would have given Milwaukee a full-year major league stopgap at first base, allowing the Brewers to shift Hart back to right field (how such a move will play out with Hart's repaired knee is an entirely different story) while providing a little positional flexibility, as well.
At worst, such a move would be a waste of a couple million dollars to plug first base for the first four to eight weeks that gives the team depth at first once Hart returns to the field. Heck, the Brewers could have given Lee his old number back and sold
As things currently stand, Gonzalez gives Hart more time to heal, and he allows the Brewers the opportunity to let Morris continue to develop in the minors and call him up when he is ready rather than out of necessity. It is not like the Brewers are in a contending position in 2013 anyway.
The Axman comebacketh?
One of the Brewers' unexpected narratives of 2012 was the implosion of their once-reliable closer. For two years, Axford had consistently shut the door for the Brewers. Over 131.2 innings across 2010 and 2011, Axford accumulated 70 saves in 75 chances (93-plus percent closing rate) while posting a 2.19 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and a strikeout rate comfortably north of the major league average (11.1 strikeouts per nine compared to a major league average around 7.1).
Axford had never been a control pitcher in the minors, posting 4.8 walks per nine innings over his Triple-A career, but he seemed to be developing solid control in the majors. After posting 4.2 walks per nine in 2010, Axford posted a decidedly average 3.1 walks per nine rate in 2011 while throwing more first-pitch strikes.
His peripherals were trending in the right direction heading into the 2013 season, but then Axford lost all sense of command. His first-pitch strike rate plummeted to a career-low 54.2 percent (compared to a major league average rate of 59.8 percent), and his walk rate ballooned in excess of five batters per nine innings. His strikeout rate remained high, and his swing-and-miss rate actually ticked up a bit, but this simply may have been the byproduct of increased wildness.
Axford never truly lost his closing job last season because there was never a clear option to succeed him. Francisco Rodriguez struggled with a career-high ERA (4.38) and a career-low strikeout rate. Kameron Loe, who had been a solid bullpen piece for the Brewers in 2010 and 2011, as well, was no better, posting an ugly 4.61 ERA despite solid control and good groundball induction.
Jim Henderson debuted for the Brewers as a solid 30-year-old rookie with a respectable ERA and excellent strikeout numbers, but his control was no better than K-Rod's, and he had no track record of success to speak of.
Currently, Axford is set to open the season as the Brewers' everyday closer. Is there reason for renewed hope? I would not bet on it, but there are some positive signs.
On the plus side, Axford's fastball velocity last year ticked up half a mile per hour, and his fastball historically has been his best weapon. Additionally, a lot of Axford's damage potentially could be attributed to a seemingly high line-drive rate (24 percent). The major league average tends to be just under 20 percent, so there is some bad luck that could see some correction in 2013.
On the negative side, however, Axford's walk rate did not improve as the season progressed. There was no real "turning point" to his struggle to find the strike zone. His first- and second-half walk rates were nearly identical, and that is likely going to be his biggest challenge in returning to form in 2013.
Brewers fans should keep an eye on Henderson in spring training. If he continues to do in 2013 what he did in 2012, he may succeed Axford as the bullpen stopper.
Is Yovani Gallardo an ace in waiting or a No. 2 starter?
For awhile, it seemed as though Gallardo was the former, merely suffering from bad luck, but after last season you have to wonder.
After a promising debut in 2007 (3.67 ERA, 2.84 xFIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9), Gallardo was off to a strong late start to the 2008 season before it was cut short by a freak season-ending ACL injury. The next season—Gallardo's first full one in the majors—his first- and second-half numbers were nearly day and night.
Over his first 114.2 innings, he registered a 3.22 ERA, 9.7 strikeouts per nine and a better-than-average 1.23 WHIP. Gallardo struggled a bit with his command, however, and he walked nearly a batter every other inning (55 in total) during the first half of the season. In the second half of the year, Gallardo upped his strikeouts a bit but seemed to lose gas as the season wore on.
Fatigue only exacerbated his control issues. Over his last 71 innings, Gallardo walked 39 batters and registered a 4.56 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. By mid-September, Gallardo was shut down. Only Doug Davis (203.1 innings pitched, 103 walks) and A.J. Burnett (207 innings pitched, 97 walks) walked more batters than Gallardo (94) in 2009. His end-of-year numbers were nonetheless promising. Gallardo compiled a 3.73 ERA, a 3.71 xFIP and 3.83 SIERA that signaled a promising future for the then-23-year-old hurler
Gallardo's subsequent season ERAs did not change much relative to the league—he posted a 3.84 ERA in 2010 and a 3.52 ERA in 2011, but his ERA- index numbers from 2009 to 2011 were 90, 95 and 92—but his control markedly improved while maintaining strong strikeout numbers.
Gallardo's walk rate fell from 4.6 in 2009 to 3.7 in 2010 and 2.6 in 2011, while his first-pitch strike rate jumped from 52.6 percent in 2009 to 61.8 percent and 62.7 percent in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Gallardo showed merely average control in the minors, so this development was a major step if he was to take the leap from good to potentially excellent starting pitcher.
Heading into the 2012 season, Gallardo had three consecutive years of 200 strikeouts, he had built up sufficient stamina to effectively pitch 200-plus innings, and his peripherals in 2011 (3.22 SIERA, 3.19 xFIP) indicated that he was ready to truly break out and reach that "next level" based on more than luck.
Alas, like Axford, Gallardo saw his progress take several steps back. His groundball rate remained strong, but he was not very effective at inducing weak flyball contact. His popup rate, at four percent, was a significant career low that ranked among the absolute bottom of all qualified major league starting pitchers last year.
More significantly, his first-pitch strike rate fell below the major league average (to 56.6 percent), his fastball velocity lost a full tick of gas, and his walks-per-nine rate ballooned to 3.6. Although Gallardo's nominal walks-per-nine rate was slightly higher in 2010 than it was in 2012, the major league average walk rate in 2010 was nearly eight percent greater than it was in 2012. This means the step back in control was more significant than it appears on its face.
These are ominous signs, but on the surface, little changed for Gallardo. His 3.66 ERA fell somewhere between his 2010 and 2011 results. He struck out just as many batters per inning in 2012 as he did in 2011. His WHIP was league average, and his xFIP was better than it was in 2009.
But these are just nominal observations. Gallardo was certainly still an above-average major league pitcher last year, but his xFIP, relative to the rest of the league, was worse in 2012 compared to 2009. Whereas his xFIP- index clocked in at 82 in 2010 and 83 in 2011, it registered at 91 in 2012. That is a significant jump.
An 82-83 xFIP- would have placed Gallardo's peripherals within the top 15 last year among all major league pitchers that logged 100 or more innings. The difference between a low 80s xFIP- player and a low 90s xFIP- player last season is Cole Hamels versus Lance Lynn or Jon Lester.
That is not to say Gallardo was not still effective overall, just that he was not in the upper echelon of pitchers last season. In some games, Gallardo was masterful; in others, he was a mess. Her certainly was inconsistent last season if you look at his game-by-game graphic data. Inconsistency, however, is the natural byproduct of wildness. And added uncertainty is not a beneficial attribute for a team in rebuilding mode.
If I were the Brewers (or an attentive fantasy owner), however, I would bet on a return to form for Gallardo in 2013. Of his 81 walks, 31 came in the first two months of the season. After posting ghastly walks-per-nine rates (3.7 and 4.8) in April and May, respectively, that rate fell to 3.1 in June, 2.7 in July and 3.0 in August. Gallardo seemed to lose a bit of steam toward the end of the season, and his walk rate ballooned back up to 4.1 in September.
However, what is critical here is that, once Gallardo found his groove, he was pitching pretty effectively. Gallardo's xFIP in June was 3.33, in July it was 3.28, and in August it was 2.86. His ERA over this span was 3.11, while his walks per-nine-rate was 2.9.
Gallardo also maintained strong strikeout stuff, whiffing 111 of the 429 batters he faced in June, July and August combined (25.9 percent). If he can work the edges of the plate better in 2013, even with a league-average walk rate, he should not have to look hard to find success.
The Brewers currently have Gallardo locked up through 2014 with a club option for 2015 that would keep him in Milwaukee through his age-29 season. Despite his struggles and steps back in 2012, the Brewers still have an ace on their hands. That is, assuming we see more of the June, July, August Gallardo in 2013 as opposed to the April, May, September Gallardo.
What are the Brewers going to do about their outfield?
As the calendar turned to 2013, the Brewers already were heading into the 2013 season with a relatively shallow outfield. They were planning to deploy Ryan Braun and Hart (once he returned from knee surgery) in the corners, with a Carlos Gomez/Norichika Aoki platoon in center.
With Gamel out for the season, the Brewers likely are going to need to shift one of Aoki or Gomez (likely Aoki) to right field long-term, hoping that Gomez can repeat/retain his breakout numbers from last season (whether his power is legit is a separate question), and that Aoki is legitimate and does not see any regression in his lefty/righty splits.
Who does this leave to play a utility outfielder role, however? Clearly it is Logan Schafer at the moment, but what if Braun is out? As mentioned above, the Brewers do not have impact hitting talent in the minors. Recently signed minor leaguer Cole Garner is rapidly approaching 30 and has barley been able to muster a .700 OPS in the upper minors. Rene Tosoni is younger, but his wOBA at Double-A and Triple-A last season was comfortably below .300.
If Braun gets suspended, a plausible concern in light of new information about a deeper connection to the Biogenesis clinic than originally suspected, then the Brewers are going to go from barely treading water to drowning. Johnny Damon, Scott Podsednik and Bobby Abreu figure to be on the Brewers' radar over the next few weeks.
The Brew Crew went all in for 2011-12 ... and lost. So what's next?
The Brewers are in an ugly state. Their payroll was just shy of $100 million last season, and they are a small-market team with little to show for their aggressive approach to the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Their farm system ranks among the worst in baseball due to a lack of hitting and impact talent. The Brewers have only a few large contracts, and nothing unbearable that extends past the 2014 season, but their major league roster is pretty shallow on talent.
The Brewers likely are going to need two to three rebuilding years, focusing on the draft, if they want to get back to competition while Braun is still a relatively young man and without blowing up their payroll or putting the team in a worse long-term position than it already is.
Depending on whose list you look at, five to seven of the Brewers' present top prospects are pitchers. Most of them are likely middle-of-the-rotation types, which certainly have value at cost-controlled rates. The Brewers should focus on economizing their present strength, developing their young pitching, and then parlaying that into solid depth elsewhere on the team.
Make no mistake, the Brewers have nothing on the team that they could reasonably flip into a high-upside upper minor league player outside of Braun, and he is going nowhere. Because they are unlikely to be able to obtain a young, major league-ready talent that they can build around in tandem with Braun in the short term, they should instead work to build a roster of major league role players that they can add to with smart free agency moves and a long-term focus on acquiring high-upside talent in the draft.
The short-term focal point for the Brewers will need to be on corner infielders (third base, primarily) followed by the addition of a few more outfielders (even assuming that one of Mitch Haniger, Victor Roache, Tyrone Taylor or Khris Davis pans out as a major league-capable player). Third base is the organization's biggest long-term need. If Aramis Ramirez were to get injured, there would be virtually nothing in the system to replace him at this point.
The Brewers also may need a shortstop or catcher long-term, too. They now have rookie Jean Segura set to play shortstop and a top offensive prospect named Clint Coulter catching in the system, but both players are offensive-minded and have questionable defensive utility.
Segura is a recently converted second baseman who has the tools to hit for a respectable average and post a good on-base percentage, but he has about as much power upside as Marco Scutaro. Coulter has shown excellent patience for a 19-year-old (17.3 percent walk rate in rookie ball last season) and possesses good power potential, but catcher is a relatively new position for him, and his arm is graded by scouts at average at best (50 on the 20-80 scale).
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also reviews tasty adult beverages as part of a side project titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.