The Off-Season Cometh

By: Big Rygg

With the World Series having finished (finally), it’s officially the off-season for all of Major League Baseball. That brings a lot of things, but most notably for Milwaukee it brings the impending free agency of several members of the 2008 playoff team.

Let’s review those players and discuss them a bit both in how their 2008 season went and whether or not I think they will (or should) come back to the Brewers for 2009.

3B/OF Russell Branyan – .250/.342/.583, 33/132, 24 R, 8 2B, 12 HR, 20 RBI, 19 BB, 42 K, 1/1 SB
Branyan even being a part of the Brewers’ system was a matter of fortunate coincidence. He didn’t have a job coming into 2008 and because he lived in the same city as his former big league club’s AAA affiliate and said affiliate needed a third baseman…well, it worked out.

It was another matter of good fortune when The Muscle returned to Milwaukee. He had been tearing up the league at AAA Nashville and the Brewers needed a left-handed bat to platoon with Bill Hall at third base because of Hall’s propensity to suck so hard at hitting right-handed pitching this year, Branyan’s bread and butter by the by.

Branyan hit home runs at a near record pace for the Crew for a fair chunk of the year. Eventually, however, Branyan’s numbers began to tail off before he finally wound up on the disabled list for almost the balance of the season after hurting himself during an at-bat.

It was almost poetic the way that Branyan rode to the rescue for a stretch, but at the same time it was just as much happenstance. That being said, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Crew could decide to open the year with Hall in the starting infield at 3B with Branyan sitting on the flight deck as the “Ready 5” player. (Note: That’s a reference from Top Gun…I really hope you knew that without me having to tell you.) The bottom line on bringing Branyan back would be how much left-handed hitting they end up with on the roster after the Winter Meetings. Either way, I don’t expect Branyan’s lack of contract situation to be resolved any time soon. Fortunately for The Muscle, the off-season is plenty long enough.

CF Mike Cameron – .243/.331/.477, 108/444, 69 R, 25 2B, 2 3B, 25 HR, 70 RBI, 54 BB, 142 K, 17/22 SB
So here’s the truly mind-boggling thing about Mike Cameron’s 2008 season: He missed nearly an entire month of games (25) due to a suspension but still managed to finish with respectable numbers in several categories. Unfortunately, Cameron also lead the team in strikeouts, beating guys that had at least 140 more at-bats than he did.

The former Gold Glove Award winner, Cameron’s defense was mostly solid this year. There were a few plays that he screwed up, but everybody has a few in a given year. I can’t remember how many times Cameron would go 0-2 in a count and then immediately take that same count to 2-2. Sure, he struck out thereafter an awful lot, but it’s still an interesting quirk of his season.

The issue with Cameron returning to Milwaukee next year is the price of the team option on his contract which stands at $10MM for one year. Yes, we’d have Cameron for 150+ games instead of a maximum of 137, but having already struck out 142 times in just 120 games, it doesn’t bode well for 2009. Cameron, like I’ll explain about Counsell next, might just come down to other roster moves. $750K is a whole lost easier to pay than $10MM, after all. What’s more, General Manager Doug Melvin has made it known that he wants to get more left-handed bats in the lineup to create better balance. The “holes”, so to speak, that we have to fill that we could fill with lefties are at 3B and CF (and possibly 2B depending on your viewpoint). For whatever reason, the Brewers don’t seem willing to give Tony Gwynn a shot despite the fact that he hits lefty, plays solid defense and is more of a prototypical leadoff hitter than anyone else we’ve got on the roster. That could help Cameron come back as a one-year bridge to another propsect being ready (Lorenzo Cain, perhaps, now that Michael Brantley was sent to Cleveland to finalize the CC Sabathia trade).

Time will tell on this one as teams have a deadline to announce whether or not they are picking up options on players.

INF Craig Counsell – .226/.355/.302, 56/248, 31 R, 14 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 46 BB, 42 K, 3/4 SB
The Craigger (as I call him) or The Schnozz (as my wife does) is a local boy with a flair for coming up big in clutch situations. There’s always some great anticipation when he steps into the batter’s box when the bases are loaded, but quite frankly for the 38-year-old, those situations don’t happen nearly often enough.

He’s got one helluva glove and I routinely find myself assuming an out when the ball gets hit toward him…but the bottom line is that .226 overall isn’t going to get the job done anymore. I’m a big Craig Counsell fan, but realistically can the Brewers afford to carry a $3.5MM (or so) utility infielder? Depending on some of the other rosters moves the team is able to make or chooses to make…it’s probably not feasible. Besides, if things go according to my master plan, we’ll already have an expensive utility infielder in Bill Hall.

2B Ray Durham – .280/.369/.477, 30/107, 21 R, 12 2B, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 15 BB, 23 K, 2/4 SB (with Milwaukee)
Brought it just before the non-waiver trade deadline, Ray Durham added a needed spark to Rickie Weeks at first, but ultimately the two fell into a platoon at 2B. one that doesn’t figure to be repeated in 2009 one way or another. Either the Brewers will recommit to Weeks or they’ll trade for a different double-play partner for J.J. Hardy (or possibly Alcides Escobar depending on how that situation pans out).

Durham missed several games down the stretch which could be contributed to either fatigue, age, bad luck or possibly a bit of all three. Durham is a switch-hitter, which is a nice thing, but the fact that he hits lefties about as well as Weeks hits righties (.238 overall this year vs lefties for Durham). His defense is more solid than Weeks’ too, but the fact is Durham is no spring chicken, or autumn chicken for that matter.

Bottom line on Durham is tha the was brought it to provide some veteran leadership for the stretch run and he delivered just that. If the price is right, he could be a fine bench player whether the Brewers retain Weeks or not.

RP Eric Gagne – 4-3, 5.44 ERA, 46.1 IP, 50 G, 10/17 SV/SVO, 38 K, 1.47 WHIP
Fewer financial committments were worse in 2008 than the $10MM, one-year contract that Doug Melvin signed Eric Gagne to. Signed to be the closer after Francisco Cordero skipped town, Gagne struggled right out of the gate, blowing a 3-run lead on Opening Day in Chicago. The Brewers ended up winning that game, but it was the season for Gagne in a nutshell. Struggles, inconsistency, expectations…all in all Gagne just simply didn’t measure up despite falling into a setup role fairly comfortably late in the year after a stint on the DL.

As for next year? I wouldn’t even mind having Gagne back in Milwaukee, but at a much more believable price. I have a feeling that Gagne will listen to offers for a bit before deciding what he wants to do. If he has the chance to be a closer somewhere for closer-type money, perhaps he takes that offer. But I wouldn’t be shocked if Melvin extends Gagne an opportunity to return to Milwaukee.

OF Gabe Kapler – .301/.340/.498, 69/229, 36 R, 17 2B, 2 3B, 8 HR, 13 BB, 39 K, 3/4 SB
What a story Gabe Kapler turned out to be for the Milwaukee Brewers. The guy retires, manages for two years, get the itch again, lets people know he’s available, signs a contract with the Brewers that the majority of fans (thank you, I am NOT included in that group) did not understand or agree with. All he did was capably fill in at all three OF positions, hit over .300 and was our best bat off the bench as well. Unfortunately, for many reasons, Kapler’s season was cut short due to a shoulder injury. He could have been extremely useful to spell both Ryan Braun (rib cage) and Corey Hart (mental fatigue perhaps?) down the stretch.

Kapler will be 33 for a little over half the season in 2009, turning 34 on July 31st. That’s definitely not too old, especially for a guy who keeps himself in as good of shape as Kapler does. He is a free agent, and given the state of the league, could probably find a starting job on a few teams. Hopefully, though, the fans and clubhouse here in Milwaukee impressed him enough that he would want to come back. Hopefully, also, Doug Melvin was impressed enough with Kapler’s play that he would want him back. I think it’s a great fit here and if I were on Melvin’s staff, I’d push for a deal to get done quickly.

3B Mike Lamb – .273/.273/.273, 3/11, 2 R, 1 K
Lamb has the option to become a free agent after this year. Based on his lack of starts while he was with the club, along with how they only picked him up off waivers, and there’s very little chance of Lamb not exercising that option.

*UPDATE* Lamb filed for free agency on the first day, as expected.

RP Guillermo Mota – 5/6, 5.11 ERA, 58 G, 57.0 IP, 1/4 SV/SVO, 50 K, 1.40 WHIP
Mota came to the Brewers in what was probably the best trade of Milwaukee’s off-season. Doug Melvin contacted the GM of the New York Mets, Omar Minaya, and struck a deal. He offered Johnny Estrada against a list of players he’d be willing to take back in a one-for-one deal. Minaya picked a guy that the fans in New York booed when he was warming up in the bullpen for crying out loud.

Mota pitched well in chunks for the Brewers, a couple of times falling into old habits in New York that got him into trouble. Pitching Coach Mike Maddux corrected Mota multiple times and made him serviceable. If he’s able to continue pitching like he does when he’s right, he’ll help out whatever team he winds up with.

Now, whether or not that’s the Brewers remains to be seen. I think that Melvin would probably be willing to bring him back for a reasonable price, as he did finish the season as our most consistent bullpen arm and you just can’t overhaul as drastically as they did in 2008..can you?

SP CC Sabathia – 11-2, 1.65 ERA, 17 GS, 130.2 IP, 7 CG, 3 SHO, 128 K, 1.00 WHIP
Um…what would I be able to say here that could possibly come close to stating how incredible CC Sabathia was for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008? The man was flat out amazing nearly every time he took the hill. He won his first 9 decisions in a Brewer uniform and, quite frankly, carried the entire team into the playoffs on his large back.

To say that the Brewers want him back is the understatement of the off-season. But, with CC comes a lot of $$. In fact, there is talk that the Yankees are prepared to offer him 7 years for a total of $175MM (that’s an average of $25MM per year, math majors). The Brewers supposedly are preparing to offer (if they haven’t already) a contract of comparable annual amount though not the years. Some talk has said 4/$100MM another I read said 6/$120MM. Either way, if the Brewers are fortunate enough to sign the unquestioned #1 arm on the free agent market…well…it’ll be a glorious day in the history of the Brewer franchise.

SP Ben Sheets – 13-9, 3.09 ERA, 31 GS, 198.1 IP, 5 CG, 3 SHO, 158 K, 1.15 WHIP
After finally confessing and repenting (if you don’t understand that point, you need to look at our September archive), Ben Sheets won a 13th game for the first time in his career and nearly pitched 200 innings for the first time in a few years. However, Sheets also fell prey to the injury bug yet again.

I personally feel that if this wasn’t a contract year for Sheets, he would’ve allowed himself to get shelved if not more often, certainly earlier in the year than late September. It’s unfortunate, but the guy is hamstrung like very few other players in the game. While Sheets hasn’t missed as much time, a decent comparison could be a Carl Pavano. Loads of talent, seemingly always unavailable when their teams need them most.

Doug Melvin has gone on record as saying that he has spoken to Casey Close (Sheets’ agent) and is going to making an offer to possibly bring Sheets back to the Brewers. Having endured the ups and downs of Sheets’ last few years, it’d sure be nice to have a healthy pitcher with his kind of talent. But the bottom line is that Sheets is NOT that pitcher anymore. Yes, a lot of his injuries are weird and random, but when they keep happening, I’m sorry; that’s a trend. And the bottom line that Melvin has to ask himself is whether or not the Brewers can afford the starts. They can afford the money that Sheets can/will get on the open market, but can they afford to carry six starters so that there is a guy ready to pitch when Sheets inevitably (yes, inevitably) misses a start?

The only way I’m comfortable bringing Sheets back to our mid-range payroll team is for Melvin to sign him to a slightly-below-market-value deal that protects our payroll figure from becoming over-bloated to the point where owner Mark Attanasio doesn’t give Melvin any flexibility to pull off deadline deals like he did this year.

RP Brian Shouse – 5-1, 2.81 ERA, 69 G, 51.1 IP, 2/5 SV/SVO, 33 K, 1.17 WHIP
Our left-handed specialist for the past couple of seasons, Brian Shouse is 41 years old but continues to get the job done coming out of the bullpen. Ned Yost used Shouse in some odd ways at times, but he is simply best utilized by bringing him in to face a lefty in a key situation.

Shouse is looking for a two-year deal which would be impossible to come by given his age if it weren’t for his continued success on the bump. Shouse has said that he would like to return to Milwaukee, but feels that he owes it to himself and his family to see what kinds of offers he’s able to field on the open market just to gauge his “value”.

The Brewers are grooming a replacement for Shouse in fellow lefty Mitch Stetter, but I’d still like to see Shouse return to the Crew for at least one more year. Left-handed relievers never seem to flame out so as long as he’s not given up homer after homer, Shouse will be worth the phone call to the bullpen.

CL Salomon Torres – 7-5, 3.49 ERA, 71 G, 80.0 IP, 28/35 SV/SVO, 51 K, 1.35 WHIP
Torres was traded for in the off-season to be a setup man but also provide more veteran leadership to a group that was sorely lacking in that department in 2007. When Eric Gagne was patently ineffective to begin the year and spent some time on the DL, Torres was handed the reins at the back end up the bullpen and did a stellar job until, quite frankly, he wore out by the end of the year. They say sinkerballers prefer to not be overly rested, but 80 innings over 71 games…that’s a LOT of work, fellow Brewer fans.

The team holds on option to bring Torres back, and I believe that they’ll exercise that option. It’s a reasonable cost at just $3.75MM and he pitched very well. He may not come into the year as the closer, but all that will be hashed out in spring training of course.

***NOTE: Joe Dillon was designated for assignment when the Brewers claimed 3B Casey McGehee off of waivers from the Chicago Cubs. Dillon was claimed by the Oakland Athletics so he is no longer a part of the Brewers’ organization.

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