Last year, a lot of us “analytically realistic homers” were looking at the Crew’s pitching staff with a mix of hope and worry. Well, probably at least a bit more worry than hope. Basically, we had Yo in the rotation, plus about five young prospects to fill the other four slots. During Spring Training the Crew signed Kyle Lohse, which improved the odds markedly. Good thing, too. Can you even imagine the Crew’s staff without him in 2013? With the notable exception of Marco Estrada and Willy Peralta, all of the other “prospect – candidates” for the rotation flamed out for one reason or another. However, by the second half of the season, the starting rotation had jelled, and actually become top quartile material by the final 60 +/- games.
As we head into 2014, I for one feel lots more “hope” than “worry” as we survey a somewhat similar situation conceptually. It still has a lot of question marks but with potentially many more and better answers for the questions. First of all, the decision to snag another front of the rotation starter in Matt Garza was a great move. Because of this, and with Lohse and Yo still solidly in the picture for this season, instead of having to find occupants for 60% of the rotation, the Brewers will only need to fill 40% (two) of the slots. Also, the prospects list is better, more experienced, and seemingly healthy.
The possible 4 and 5 starters will come from (1) Peralta – who has another year of experience and age maturity and who looked to become the dominant starter he has the tools to be, (2) Estrada, who pitched solidly when healthy last year, and actually made the list (#20) of the top thirty starters in 2013 with the best strikeouts to walk statistic in MLB, (3) Thornburg, who pitched well in the latter part of last season (4) Hiram Burgos, who was the top pitcher in the Puerto Rican league this winter, (5) Hellweg, who definitely has the tools and will use them very effectively if the mechanics and head can be straightened out, (6) Mike Fiers, who was rather impressive in 2012 but dealt with a family tragedy and injuries in 2013, (7) Jimmy Nelson, who looks like the real deal and potentially could be ready this year if needed, and (8) Will Smith, recently arrived from KC in the Nori Aoki trade, and who is apparently having a “lights out” camp. Being a prob & stats focused kind of fan, I like the odds of getting 2 out of 8 a lot better than getting 3 out of 5 like last year!
The way the starting rotation plays out will also impact the bullpen. It looks like Henderson is the closer to start the year, with K-Rod ready to step in if needed and the set up meanwhile. Kinzler and Gorzelanny are solid if not spectacular set up men and almost certainly will lock down spots. That leaves three bullpen slots open, and potentially one or more of the eight listed above may find himself in the “pen” instead of the rotation. Will Smith seems the most likely to end up here, principally because of the success he had in KC prior to the move. There is also a young pitcher picked up in the Rule-5 draft. If he works out, and this is of course a long shot, he would take another bullpen roster spot. It will be interesting to watch how RR and the brain trust solve this Rubik’s cube. What happens in the starting rotation will undoubtedly affect the makeup of the bullpen staff. It will be fun to watch the decisions unfold and to watch the team in action this season. It sure seems like this is a nice problem to have.
As I write, I do so with a big smile on my face, since we were notified by the Brewers that our names were selected to buy four opening day tickets. In only 38 days, Kit and I will be at Miller Park watching what should be the first of 88 – 92 wins in the 2014 regular season enroute to a playoff appearance in October. With the kind of solid pitching staff the Brewers should be able to assemble from the ample supply of good pieces, and considering the kind of run support they’ll undoubtedly get from the Brewers offense, I feel very confident of this projection. Like many Brewers fans, we are looking forward to being part of it.
As we get closer to spring training, a big question becomes who will be the players on the 25 man roster. For the Brewers, this is complicated by the fact that they seem to be leaning toward a trio of players (Overbay, Reynolds, and Francisco) to man 1st base and provide depth at third.
After accounting for 12 pitchers, 2 catchers, and 7 other position starters, we have 21 slots spoken for. If we assume the Brewers keep all three of the above, that uses up 2 of the remaining 4 slots, leaving us only 2 more slots. The team must use one of those slots on a reserve outfielder, leaving only one for a utility middle infielder. The question is whether the Crew would use that one slot on Rickie Weeks. Although Rickie is one of my favorite Brewers, I don’t think they will. The reasons are a combination of his sizable contract, his tendency in recent years to get injured and spend time on the DL, and the fact that he does not have experience at SS. Given all of these factors, a look at opportunity cost tells me we give up way more than we need or can afford to keep him in a platoon with Scooter at 2B.
With that in mind, I expect we will see the Brewers actively looking to move Rickie during spring training, and other teams dialing Doug Melvin’s number to sniff around about his availability, net cost, and trade interests. With the big $s left in his contract this year, I would be shocked if the Crew doesn’t have to agree to pay a sizable portion of his salary in 2014. The question of how much will depend on three factors:
1) How well Rickie does in spring training, and
2) How eager is another team to acquire his services, and
3) What we get in exchange in the trade, particularly how much salary they carry.
In other words, if Rickie does well in spring, and a team that is reasonably in contention loses their 2B to an ACL on March 15, we might get away with paying little (1/3rd or less) of his salary. That would be particularly true if we get someone in trade who is attractive to us (say a solid RP) and who brings significant salary obligations in tow.
However, if Rickie is less than stellar in spring, and the acquisitor simply wants to add depth at 2B and pick up another plus bat to pinch hit, we may have to pay a lot (2/3rds or more) of the salary. This would be particularly true if the players we get are middling MiLB prospects who remove little financial burden from the sending team.
The first scenario is highly attractive to the Brewers on multiple counts. One might ask why we would even want to consider the second one. It is actually as easy to understand as it is painful to accept. It comes down, once again, to opportunity cost. Even if you only save 1/3rd of Rickie’s 2014 salary, that is a lot of $$ which can be used to address other pressing issues like the bullpen. Also, the risk of using the remaining IF utility spot on an injury-prone star who cannot reasonably provide coverage at SS exceeds the return of his experience and bat.
What could change my expectations on this? Any combination of the following:
1) Rickie is stellar in spring training and Scooter struggles, and/or
2) The Crew decides that they only need to keep two of the three 1B/3B triumvirate, and/or
3) No one makes an even moderately attractive offer.
The most likely scenario is one where Rickie Weeks leaves the Brewers sometime in spring in exchange for either a player who brings more bang for the buck in 2014 than he does OR for some future prospects, and that the Brewers agree to pay (and get to save) somewhere between 40% to 60% of his 2014 contract.
After keeping us all guessing for several days, the Brewers made it official today. Matt Garza is a Brewer for the next four years. In terms of value obtained for money expended, this is a major win for the Brewers. Realistically unable to pay the top dollar required to get the very top tier free agents, particularly free agent pitchers, the Brewers managed to get a guy just one tier lower for a very reasonable price. This is important NOT just in terms of what we get in the starting rotation. For those of us who actually dig economics, opportunity cost is a very important concept, and it has major significance in this deal. Specifically, it is significant for the opportunity cost that the Brewers did not have to incur to shore up the starting rotation. With a few extra million bucks left in the checkbook, expect Doug Melvin to cast around for some additional talent to shore up the bullpen. It would not even surprise me to see another fairly high-profile signing al-la K-Rod last year just to hedge our bets. Not saying it will happen, just that now it becomes significantly more likely.
Anyone who happens to read this blog (I am optimistic but realistic) will find that I take a fairly analytical approach but with “hopeful” bent in my comments. I look at what could happen based on results and logic and, while I will always recognize the various scenarios that could play out, I like to focus on the somewhat positive ones, particularly for my favorite teams. I say this so you understand the context of what I am about to say about the Brewers starting rotation.
I think the Brewers now have a reasonable chance of having a top-quartile starting rotation. (Insert catcalls and howls and hisses here now.) Here’s why. First, they had a top-five NL rotation in the second half of last year. That is a small sample size but it is definitely a positive indicator. Second, I believe Willy Peralta has all the makings of an ace, and he’s reaching both the age and experience point where this often happens, if it is going to happen. Lohse and Garza are solid number twos, potentially higher end ones. While Garza may not stay healthy all season, the Brewers have a number of up and coming young pitchers who could step in for several weeks and do a credible job of filling in. They would not be as good as having Garza, but at least it would not mean an automatic “L” every five games. Yo is at best a low-end two or a solid three, but I have him going in the four hole, and he should be fine there. At the five, we have Estrada, a credible four, plus several youngsters ready to step in if he falters or gets injured.
To go along with this rotation, we should have a vastly improved offense. Braun will be in there all season, and I do not believe his production will drop off significantly. Khris Davis looks like he’ll be a solid young hitter, and we’ll have a significant improvement (though we will still be bottom half) over the black hole that was first base last year. Couple a plus rotation with a plus offense and you get a team that could conceivably win 87-90 games and a Wild Card slot. Throw in a solid bullpen, one that can be bolstered using the money not spent shoring up the starting rotation, (remember opportunity cost and the fact that we got a lot in Garza for a reasonable price) and it is not unreasonable to hope for October baseball for the Crew.
On Thursday the word on the street was that the Brewers and Matt Garza had agreed on a $52 million four-year deal. As of the early hours of Saturday morning, nothing has been announced. Supposedly the two sides are working to hammer out the fine details of the agreement. Just speculating, but it could involve “out clauses” for the team in case of injuries and significant stints on the DL, or scheduling of the payments over the four years, or some combination thereof, or “something completely different.” The Brewers absolutely need to get this done on Saturday. There are two factors which demand it. First, the Brewers On Deck event on Sunday. If this deal is not done, or if it falls apart, it will cast a pall over the entire event, and that is the second to last thing the Brewer nation wants or needs. Second, as long as there is no deal, well…. there is no deal, and that means some other team could swoop in with a number a few million dollars higher and pull Garza right out from under the Brewers’ noses. Given that the Brewer front office has not shown itself to be a model of excellence in the opinion of many fans, that would be the LAST thing the Brewer nation needs or wants.
I personally was OK with the Brewers going into 2014 with Lohse and Yo and several promising young pitchers to fill out the last three spots in the rotation. It was a risky proposition but a reasonable one. However, the prospect of getting Garza, another solid #2 level proven arm, into the rotation, thereby increasing the odds of getting enough (2 instead of 3) of the youngsters ready to fill out the rotation, was a hugely attractive positive. Having that yanked away now, for whatever reason, would be an enormous disappointment.
Let’s hope this all gets worked out and that Matt Garza is introduced as a Milwaukee Brewer at the On Deck event on Sunday. Here’s hoping!