The Winter Meetings aren’t officially underway just yet as I sit down to give my keyboard a workout this evening, but the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee is set and baseball executives from across North America have checked into their rooms and have no doubt begun to follow up on things begun prior to departing for Music City.
Doug Melvin is there (along with his entourage) and has had plenty to say about what he expects out of the 2012 Winter Meetings. With appreciation to the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel for the quotes themselves, I’ll be laying out some things Melvin said and analyzing what I think they mean for the Brewers heading through the rest of the off-season.
Before I do that, let’s recap the basics about what educated fans know already about the Brewers and their needs.
The bullpen was bad in 2012. In fact, it underperformed so incredibly that it alone could be labeled as a singular reason that the team failed to reach the postseason. Just a handful of losses flipped to wins and the Brewers would have had that opportunity to face the Braves in the first-ever National League Wild Card Game.
As a result of their collective struggles, the bullpen has been basically gutted. Gone are multi-year Brewers like Kameron Loe, Francisco Rodriguez, Tim Dillard, Mike McClendon, and Manny Parra. Along with them, first-year tryouts for Jose Veras and Livan Hernandez ended in free agency. Even short-term fixes like Vinnie Chulk came and went. The only guys left who pitched in the big league bullpen to end the regular season and are still a part of this organization are likely closer John Axford, likely setup man Jim Henderson, and the finally healthy Brandon Kintzler.
As we all know, the Brewers did announce a trade acquisition on Saturday when they dealt a minor-league outfielder for established relief pitcher Burke Badenhop. That addition still leaves three jobs to be filled. FoxSports.com’s Jon Morosi already tweeted earlier this evening about one of those open roles:
#Brewers are prioritizing a lefty reliever. Among the available free agents: Burnett, Choate, M. Gonzalez, Howell, Gorzelanny.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 2, 2012
Just some names to know.
A return of all five starting pitchers from the 2011 NLCS team was seen as a rarity, not to mention that the Brewers only used six starting pitchers all that season. Now? Randy Wolf was released, Shaun Marcum is a free agent, Zack Greinke was traded, and Chris Narveson is coming off of shoulder surgery.
That’s the stuff of how question marks are made.
Yovani Gallardo is set to return atop the rotation but after that hasn’t yet been decided. As it stands right now, the Brewers have probably six arms vying for the open four spots in the rotation. Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Chris Narveson, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers and, to a lesser extent in my opinion, Tyler Thornburg.
Doug Melvin has mentioned a couple of free agent starters by name this off-season already (Edwin Jackson and Ryan Dempster, for the record) but had some commentary on that front as well.
Will Jean Segura begin the season as the starting everyday shortstop in Milwaukee or in the aforementioned city of Nashville as he gets a bit more seasoning in Triple-A? Who will take over as the backup infielders after the Brewers burned through a number of MLB veterans during 2012? Travis Ishikawa is gone, Alex Gonzalez is a free agent after being hurt most of the season, Mat Gamel should be healthy but missed a ton of at-bats and doesn’t really have a job at this point…and that’s just the infield.
In the outfield, Nyjer Morgan was released and Logan Schafer seems incredibly obvious to become the fourth outfielder with Milwaukee. After that, though, will they carry a fifth outfielder? If so, who will it be?
About the only spot on the field where there isn’t a question is behind the plate. Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado are healthy and coming off of strong seasons.
Excuse whilst I knock on some wood.
Okay. With that, let’s get to those quotes from Melvin.
The big quote is one about payroll. After setting a franchise record in 2012 with a payroll north of $100 million, the Brewers finished in the red, meaning that they actually lost money this year. (Part of that is because the fans didn’t show up quite as well as they had budgeted for, but wins bring attendance.)
Melvin said, “(The payroll is) coming down. We’ll probably look at (an opening payroll) of $80 million or thereabouts. We want to keep flexibility in case players become available.”
In other words, despite a large chunk of money coming off the books there should be no expectation of a dollar-for-dollar reassignment. That could limit how much the Brewers can do in free agency but it will almost certainly limit the magnitude of what the Brewers can do.
That assumes that Melvin sticks to his initial words, but more on that in a bit.
Melvin was clear in that the Brewers don’t plan to get involved on high-end (in terms of years or dollars) relief pitchers.
“We’re not looking at those kinds of guys. We’d probably be reluctant to go three years with anybody. We might have to do two. David Riske was our last three-year deal for a reliever. That didn’t work out,” said Melvin.
Would left-handed reliever Sean Burnett be a pipe-dream then? Burnett had to debunk a rumor that he was seeking a four-year deal but that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking for three.
The starting rotation was mentioned earlier and was brought up to Melvin as well. He stated that with how the contracts worked out with Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf that the Brewers “wouldn’t go three years with a starter. You look at those contracts and they don’t usually work out. Look at all the free-agent players who have been traded the last few years. Free agency gets people excited, but it’s not as effective as people would like to think.”
Does that mean that following a report which I linked to on Twitter the other day that the Brewers are taking themselves out of the market for the aforementioned Jackson and Dempster, both of whom are believed to be seeking deals of a minimum three years? Perhaps.
Melvin stated that the Brewers will probably go with some of their younger players in the rotation but that he understands the dangers of trusting a small sample size.
As for the offense, Melvin admitted (as reported in this space) that contact was made between him and Josh Hamilton’s agent Michael Moye, but Melvin also said that, “I don’t see (a big-ticket signing) happening. If it does, we’d have to be creative with something.”
Melvin added, “You never know how those things work out. I never thought we’d be able to get Aramis Ramirez last year (for what they signed him for). Things change. If major things happen, you have to be prepared to act quickly.”
In other words, Melvin is reminding everyone that you simply can’t use definitives when discussing transactions in Major Leage Baseball. Or, to go the cliched route…Never say never.
Finally, for the bench, Melvin said that they’re in the market “mostly for depth.” He stated that they “may have to go with some of our younger guys” but that “it’s always nice to have an experienced bat on the bench.”
And since a lot of you have reached out via social media as to why I haven’t pass along many rumors in the last few days, Melvin confirmed that he has made no offers to any free agents yet and, as of the time he said so out loud, he didn’t have any serious trade talks going either.
Then again, he’s in Nashville now at the Winter Meetings. It’s made for just those kinds of things.
Stay tuned all week for reaction and analysis to anything and everything that I hear or read related to the Brewers. I’ll pass it along just as soon as I can.
My suggestion? If you aren’t on Twitter or you are and don’t follow me @BrewerNation…now’s one of the best times of the year to take the plunge. I can’t always blog right away but tweeting is much easier to do on the fly.
Here are today’s official transactions as announced by the team:
- RHP Arcenio Leon claimed off waivers from the Houston Astros
- 1B Travis Ishikawa outrighted to Triple-A Nashville
- RHP Kameron Loe refused an outright assignment to Nashville and has elected free agency
- OF Nyjer Morgan refused an outright assignment to Nashville and has elected free agency
Final Brewers statistics for the three departed:
Nyjer Morgan – 2 seasons, 241 G, 667 AB, .276/.333/.372, 105 R, 184 H, 25 doubles, 9 triples, 7 HR, 53 RBI, 25 SB, 39 BB, 133 K, 91 OPS+
Travis Ishikawa – 1 season, 94 G, 152 AB, .257/.329/.428, 19 R, 39 H, 12 doubles, 1 triple, 4 HR, 30 RBI, 13 BB, 42 K, 101 OPS+
Kameron Loe – 3 seasons, 13-17 record, 195 G, 48 GF, 3 Saves, 198.2 IP, 197 H, 94 R, 81 ER, 19 HR, 51 BB, 162 K, 7 HBP, 1.248 WHIP, 110 ERA+
UPDATE: Assistant GM Gord Ash said today that the team hasn’t closed the door on bringing Kameron Loe back but that doing so “would have to be at the right price.”
Wondering who wore a certain uniform number all-time for the Milwaukee Brewers?
The Brewer Nation has got you covered. If you found this list on its own, head back here for the full repository after checking out this one.
Pete Vuckovich (’81-’86)
Matt Maysey (’93)
Steve Sparks (’95-’96)
Greg Martinez (’98)
Robinson Cancel (’99-’00)
Bob Scanlan (’00)
Jesse Levis (’01)
Everett Stull (’02)
Matt Kinney (’03-’04)
Travis Phelps (’04)
Jared Fernandez (’06)
Chris Spurling (’06-’07)
Julian Tavarez (’08)
Angel Salome (’08)
Jorge Julio (’09)
Claudio Vargas (’09)
Kameron Loe (’10-’12)
Blake Lalli (’13)
Mike Fiers (’14-’15)
Yhonathan Barrios (’15)
Michael Kirkman (’16)
Jacob Barnes (’16-Current)
The Brewers hit the road following their brief three-game season-opening homestand. They headed south on Interstate 94 to Chicago to take on the Cubs in a four game series which, because it’s Chicago, meant two evening games and two day afternoon games.
The Crew took the first three games in the series and looked good heading into an opportunity for their first ever four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. They fell painfully short of that goal, but more on that later.
The fact is that in a venue where the 96-win 2011 Brewers only won two games all year, leaving town with three notches on the bedpost is certainly an acceptable outcome.
For more on each game’s individual happenings, read on!
Game 1 – Monday – Brewers (1-2): 7, Cubs (1-2): 5
Winning Pitcher: Shaun Marcum (1-0, 4.50) Losing Pitcher: Shawn Camp (0-1, 7.36)
Save: John Axford (1)
In the opening tilt of the series, the Brewers not only scored early (RBI sac fly by Aramis Ramirez, plating Nyjer Morgan), but often (scoring runs in six of their nine frames).
In a nice blend of small ball and…big ball, I guess…the Brewers got a solo home run from Rickie Weeks in the third and RBI extra-base hits from Mat Gamel (triple) in the sixth inning and Ramirez (double) in the Brewers’ next frame. Milwaukee also picked up RBIs by way of both a safety and suicide squeeze, and a pair of sacrifice flies.
The only real point of concern came in the bottom of the ninth when, sporting a 7-3 lead and with closer John Axford having just thrown 27 pitches the night before, manager Ron Roenicke called on Manny Parra to finish out the game.
Parra allowed a leadoff double and was lifted for Tim Dillard once the left-handed hitters were done. Dillard walked Geovany Soto which forced Roenicke’s hand.
Axford entered the game and allowed his first batter faced to single home a run on Parra’s linescore. With men at second and third and only one out, Axford struck out David DeJesus but then walked Darwin Barney to load the bases.
In a beautifully-called and executed sequence, Axford then struck out Starlin Castro on three pitches to end the game.
Game 2 – Tuesday – Brewers (2-2): 7, Cubs (1-3): 4
Winning Pitcher: Chris Narveson (1-0, 3.60) Losing Pitcher: Paul Maholm (0-1, 13.50)
Save: Francisco Rodriguez (1)
A cold night in the Windy City saw a team of (mostly) hooded men residing in the first base dugout.
The hoods designed to keep a player’s head and neck warm could also be pulled up to cover the face while running the bases, and the sight of so many of the Brewers wearing them caused many fans to invoke a “ninja” theme to the evening’s events.
It was a mostly fitting description for the early part of the game as the Brewers struck blows to the Cubs starting pitcher repeatedly. The loudest blow of the night for Milwaukee came from the first hitter in the batting order to plays sans shroud, Alex Gonzalez. He made plenty of noise by blasting a three-run home run into the left-center field bleachers, capping the scoring at five for the frame.
The ninja thing might have been a perfect description if not for the fact that Corey Hart and Mat Gamel were both hit by pitches in the first inning. After all, ninjas are supposed to be incredibly stealthy and therefore shouldn’t be able to be plunked.
The Cubs were never really in this game, though they did cut the lead to three runs in the third inning.
There was more ninth inning drama as well. The Brewers once again put a four-run lead up against the Cubs final three outs and put a non-closer on the bump to begin the ninth.
After Kameron Loe had pitched two mostly brilliant innings of scoreless relief, Jose Veras was given the first chance to slam the door but hung a curveball to Geovany Soto which was blasted into the stands for a home run. After striking out the scuffling Marlon Byrd, Veras walked the pinch-hitting Bryan LaHair.
The situation now being a three-run lead with the tying run in the on-deck circle made it a Save opportunity. With John Axford having thrown over 50 pitches over the previous two days, manager Ron Roenicke had decided prior to the game that the Ax Man was off limits tonight. Roenicke walked to the mound and signaled for a right-hander to enter the game.
Francisco Rodriguez jogged to the mound looking to record his first Save as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.
K-Rod needed just seven pitches to get through the final two hitters. He secured Chris Narveson’s first Win of the year by striking out David DeJesus and inducing Darwin Barney to ground out to Alex Gonzalez.
The Brewers had just guaranteed themselves no worse than a series split, but had eyes for more.
Game 3 – Wednesday – Brewers (3-2): 2, Cubs (1-4): 1
Winning Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo (1-1, 5.91) Losing Pitcher: Ryan Dempster (0-1, 1.88)
Save: John Axford (2)
Yovani Gallardo’s start on Opening Day was brutal. (You can click here for that recap.) A lot of people were questioning the staff ace and his abilities, which is ridiculous but they were, and were looking for a bounce-back start against the Cubs.
Going seven strong innings, only allowing one run (earned) while scattering five hits and two walks, he struck out six Cubs hitters on the day. He shaved nearly nine runs off of his ERA (early season small sample sizes are fun!), nearly a point and a half off of his WHIP, and thousands of doubters off his back about his admittedly rough start five days earlier.
Nearly exceeding his performance, however, was Cub starter Ryan Dempster. He too pitched on Opening Day for Chicago, but with much better personal results than Gallardo achieved. Dempster made it to the seventh scoreless, but allowed a one-out, two-run home run to George Kottaras which proved to be the difference in the game.
Gallardo was set to be pinch-hit for had Kottaras not come through, but instead he came back out in the bottom of the seventh and worked himself into and out of the only substantial Cub threat of the afternoon.
The eighth and ninth were by design after that, with both Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford striking out the side around two walks and one double, respectively.
Having hoisted the L flag atop Wrigley for the third consecutive game, the Brewers looked to do what they had never done before…
Sweep a four-game set from the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Game 4 – Thursday – Brewers (4-2): 0, Cubs (1-5): 8
Winning Pitcher: Matt Garza (1-0, 1.23) Losing Pitcher: Zack Greinke (1-1, 6.75)
When you head into the final game of a series with a chance to sweep that series, and you have one of the best pitchers on your staff starting, you feel pretty good about your chances that day. So, too, did the Brewers with Zack Greinke toeing the rubber on Thursday afternoon.
In a confluence of recent and unfortunate trends, however, Greinke pitched during the day and on the road. While coincidental at best, neither of those situations was particularly friendly to Greinke last season. (For the record: Greinke’s Win-Loss record was good during the day last year, but we all know how much that actually reflects his performance.)
Regardless of the circumstances, Greinke seemed out of sorts the entire day. He barely touched speeds with his fastball that he usually sits comfortably at. He normally sits 94-95, touches 97, but on Thursday he was sitting 91-92 and his high watermark only rounded up to 95. PitchFX information had Greinke topping out at 94.9 MPH, while averaging 92.64. (Those figures were quoted to me by mutual Twitter follow Jaymes Langrehr of the Disciples of Uecker blog. You can follow him on Twitter: @JaymesL.)
The second half of the Brewers pair of aces could only muster 3.2 innings pitched on Thursday afternoon, and he was charged with eight earned runs before it was all said and done. That was a far cry from his seven shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals five days prior.
The highlights of the game for the Brewers would be that two relief pitchers, who had been previously roughed up a couple of times, posted multiple, scoreless innings in relief of Greinke. Manny Parra took over in the fourth inning and pitched through the sixth, striking out four along the way while walking none. Tim Dillard then covered the seventh and eighth, also walking no one. Each relief pitcher allowed two hits while working.
Otherwise, Matt Garza simply had his way with every Brewer hitter not named Nyjer Morgan (two hits in four trips to the plate) or Jonathan Lucroy (one hit, one walk in three PAs). Garza only allowed three hits through 8.2 innings pitched, while striking out nine and walking only two.
His only hiccup, if you can even call it one, was when Garza induced a ground ball back to himself off of the bat of pinch-hitter Norichika Aoki but then threw the ball way over and past first baseman Bryan LaHair, allowing Aoki to reach.
With Garza then at 119 pitches, Cubs manager Dale Sveum marched to the mound and lifted his starter in favor of Monday’s starter Shawn Camp. Camp got George Kottaras to ground out on four pitches to finalize things.
Like I said at the top, taking three out of four games at Wrigley Field is never a bad thing, regardless of whether you lost the final game with arguably your best pitcher on the bump.
Games against the very much so rebuilding Cubs are just as important, if not more so, as games against other opponents in the division. You must beat the teams which you are supposed to beat if you hope to approach last season’s franchise-best win total.
I really liked seeing solid starts from Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson in their first turns, and was greatly encouraged by the fact that heavy use early didn’t affect John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez as they were both very good as usual.
The bats need to wake up a bit still. Look no further than notoriously slow starter Aramis Ramirez (2-for-22 to begin the campaign) as evidence of that, but there is plenty of time to turn things around.
After beginning 2011 with a 0-4 record and not winning for the third time on the road until their ninth try, being 4-2 after six with three victories away from Miller Park isn’t a bad place to be.
The Brewers are in Atlanta tonight for the first of a three-game series. Tonight is the Braves’ home opener. That game will be contested by Randy Wolf and Jair Jurrjens with the first pitch being scheduled for 6:35 Central Daylight Time.
Day three of this (possible) eight day run is here as we are an even 50 days away from Opening Day.
Picking out the man who wears number 50 on his back for the Milwaukee Brewers might seem a little like finding the right car at the dealership. Many choices to be sure, but there’s just something about this particular model that makes it stand out.
In this case, those conspicuous features include a bald head, lean body, and most notably a 6’8″ frame.
Of course I can be referring to none other than right-handed relief pitcher:
I’ve been including a picture of each player as I’ve gone through this series, but briefly considered simply putting a picture of the lightning rod in this space and then just including Loe’s picture later in the piece.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Nobody attracted more heat throughout the year on a Brewers’ mound than did Loe.
Loe pitched in parts of five seasons with the Texas Rangers before spending 2009 pitching professionally in Japan. The Brewers lured him back in 2010 so the upcoming season will be his third with Milwaukee.
Sure, Zack Greinke caught heat for his basketball escapades, and Shaun Marcum had his struggles late in the year, but deservedly or not Kameron David Loe caught heat early, often and consistently throughout 2011.
Loe’s 2011 season consisted of 72 appearances in which Loe totaled 72.0 innings pitched, a 3.50 ERA, 65 hits allowed, 30 runs allowed (28 earned), 4 home runs, 18 walks (two of which were intentional), and 61 strikeouts. He also hit two batters. Loe tallied one save and posted a record of 4-7.
He did appear in five games in the 2011 postseason, pitching twice against Arizona and thrice opposing St. Louis. The Cardinals put the only dents into Loe’s ERA by tagging him for four earned runs in Game 2 of the NLCS on October 10, a game which St. Louis won 12-3.
In three of Loe’s appearances he gave up at least three earned runs. Those three appearances combined for 12 earned runs in only 1.1 innings pitched. They were ugly outings and you can’t discount them when analyzing Loe’s season, but to fly off on the other end of the spectrum and try to claim that Loe was terrible more often than not or that he couldn’t ever get anybody out would be just as foolish.
Loe made 54 scoreless appearances and seemed to give up runs in appearances which were bunched together, though not always consecutively. What that means is probably a whole lot of nothing, but the facts remain.
Following the injury to Takashi Saito and kid-gloves approach the Brewers used with LaTroy Hawkins through much of the year, Loe was forced into working a lot of situations he normally wouldn’t have been called upon for. He was pitching to left-handed hitters in high-leverage situations. He was pitching in close and late situations. It cost him and the team.
If you’ve been a faithful reader of the series, you may recall that I mentioned in the Francisco Rodriguez article how when the Brewers acquired K-Rod their bullpen had already lost 20 games. Well, seven of those were Loe’s. To point out another thing, Loe wasn’t the pitcher of record in a loss once Rodriguez was acquired. As the back-end of the bullpen got filled out throughout the year, Loe was able to pitch in situations more suited for his skill level and abilities.
In an ideal world, Loe wouldn’t have to pitch to a left-handed hitter ever. He also would be used situationally in either early bullpen work for full innings for possibly 7th inning work when the match up at the plate works in his favor or the situation dictates a certain kind of pitcher being needed.
The reality of the baseball life is that Loe will be called upon in situations that are, for lack of a better phrase, above his pay grade. So long as those behind him in the bullpen repeat their solid seasons and allow Loe to pitch to his strengths, I expect that Loe will have an even better ratio of quality appearances to awful ones.
Loe’s ratio of ground ball outs to outs recorded in the air was an impressive 2.77 in 2011. That’s aided by the number one pitch in Loe’s repertoire: a sinker which he throws between 88-90 MPH. According to Pitch F/X information, he threw his sinker 78.6 percent of the time in 2011. He secondary pitch was a slider thrown with an average velocity of 79.4 MPH. He threw a handful of change ups but nothing worth noting. Interesting to note is that Pitch F/X said that Loe didn’t throw a straight fastball all season.
The sinker had pretty good movement, breaking down and in to right-handers, and the slider moves enough to where it can be a fair compliment to the sinker. As that 2.77 GO/AO ratio points out, though, the sinker is Loe’s main weapon.
Loe was eligible for salary arbitration this offseason and settled with Milwaukee at a figure of $2.175 million.
With the departure of Hawkins and Saito in free agency, Loe’s veteran leadership will be a welcomed presence. With the addition of Jose Veras via trade, Loe should primarily pitch in those controlled situations which I outlined earlier.
Put it all together and the result will hopefully be a positive contribution to Milwaukee’s efforts to repeat as NL Central Division Champions and take the next step or two in 2012.
Opening Day is 59 days away.
59 days from the regalia and tradition of team introductions, bunting hanging from stadium facades around the league, and thunderous applause when the home team pitcher delivers the first pitch of the season.
For #59 on the Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers countdown, despite it not being an exact match by calendar day Opening Day is the anniversary of his worst outing of the season.
Of course I’m talking about Milwaukee’s bullpen ace and resident purveyor of all things facial hair:
John Berton Axford hails from the great north and has a well-documented path to the big leagues. It’s not one that I’ll rehash here, but if you haven’t heard about his time as a cellphone salesman and bartender, nor read about how Jay Lapp braved treacherous weather to see Axford throw one cold, Canadian day, do yourself a favor and head to Google when you’re finished here.
Standing 6’5″ makes Axford an imposing presence on the mound. He may not be Kameron Loe out there, but Axford utilizes his height very well in his delivery.
The right-hander features a high-octane fastball that has tickled 98 MPH on the radar gun, a slider with good movement and a curve that keeps hitters plenty off-balance.
No doubt you’ve seen many a hitter throughout the 2011 season swing under and behind a fastball that crosses the plate at or higher than his neck. Well, that happens because Axford’s curve ball moves so well that it makes his fastball up and out of the strikezone extremely tantalizing to swing at.
Axford mixes pitches well, doesn’t rely on any specific sequence, and throws his off-speed stuff for strikes. It makes for a tough assignment in the ninth for any group of opposing hitters. It’s an assignment that resulted in Axford converting 46-of-48 Save opportunities throughout 2011.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Brewers since April 18, 2011 (by the way, the Brewers won the NL Central Championship and beat the Diamondbacks in the NLDS), Axford rattled off 43 consecutive Saves from April 23rd through the end of the regular season. It was that security in the 9th inning that championed the Brewers to a team-record 96 victories.
After all, there’s nothing worse as a hitter than working hard to take a lead into the late innings only to have the lead evaporate within a few pitches.
Which brings us back to why I mentioned Opening Day 2011 at all. It was in Cincinnati on March 31st where the Brewers hitters (with some help from solid pitching) sent the defending NL Central Champion Reds into the bottom half of the ninth inning down by three runs. Axford entered from the visitors’ bullpen and, for whatever reason, couldn’t get the job done that day.
He surrendered a run to make the Brewers’ lead 6-4. Then, with two men on base, he served up a pitch to Ramon Hernandez that the Reds catcher deposited over the outfield wall giving his team a 7-6 victory.
This was Axford’s first day without his on-the-job mentor from 2010, future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman. It was the first game of the year, one that saw a Brewer (Rickie Weeks) lead off a season with a home run for the first time. It was a win that was basically in the bag.
But then it wasn’t.
There is plenty of talk in the sabermetric community that “closer’s mentality” is a myth. It’s something that is made up by agents as a way to justify higher salaries for the gentlemen that record the final three outs of a tight ballgame. I tell you this: whether you believe in the idea that closers are a different breed by designation, John Axford certainly is.
Normal men might have allowed that crushing loss to affect them for a long time. Normal men might have pitched tentatively the next time (or 10), trying to avoid a game-losing home run and allowing the opposition to nickel and dime him to a loss anyway.
Not Axford. He ticked off three saves, blew one on the aforementioned April 18th when he gave up a single run to the Phillies in a game that the Brewers ended up winning in extra innings anyway, and then didn’t blink the rest of the year. Sure, he gave up a run here and there, but was perfect much more often than not.
In fact, in Save situations after April 18th, Axford gave up a single run only six times. That’s 37 spotless Saves. Of the six blemishes, one was an unearned run in Colorado (you can probably remember that defensive 9th inning if you try), and three more were from solo home runs. In other words, only twice over 43 consecutive Saves was Axford hit enough where the other team was able to manufacture a run.
I think everyone can agree that Axford had a pretty good season.
The other thing to remember is that several leads were blown before Axford even had a chance to take the mound. If-come-maybes notwithstanding, Axford could have had a chance at a 50-Save season. Even without those games, Axford still set the team record for Saves in a single season.
Going forward into 2012, Axford returns as one of the top closers in the game today. With what figures to be an offense that is down in run production from 2011, a quality bullpen will be more important than ever. After losing setup men LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito to free agency, the trade for Jose Veras and return of Francisco Rodriguez after the team expected K-Rod to depart will prove to be very important moves. Their play in front of Axford will greatly influence the team’s success.
The bottom line is that the ninth inning is still where the money is made though in that respect with John Axford, the Milwaukee Brewers are awash in riches.
A late start to today’s installment of “Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers”, but that’s certainly not due to a lack of consideration for today’s player. Rather it was caused by an extreme case of exhaustion on the part of yours truly after a long night Wednesday into Thursday. If you’d like some proof, go look at when the Michael Fiers article was posted and then added an hour or so onto that for my bed time.
Enough about me. That’s not why you’re here.
You’re here because being 63 days away from Opening Day on April 6, 2012 means you get to read about a pitching prospect that logged big league time in 2011 while wearing jersey number 63.
That man is none other than Eulogio (pronounced ay-oo-low-HEE-yo) De La Cruz.
You may be saying to yourself “Eulogio? I remember a Frankie De La Cruz, but not this other guy.” Both men are listed at 5’10” and 215 pounds. Both will be 28 years old by Opening Day. Both hail from the Dominican Republic. Lots of similarities, wouldn’t you agree? Well, as Mac McGrath once said about Babe Bennett and Pam Dawson, “They are, in fact, one in the same.”
Frankie De La Cruz has logged big league innings with four different teams in the four years he’s been on a big league roster. Originally with Detroit, he was traded to the Marlins organization as a part of the Miguel Cabrera deal. After exhausting his final minor league option, he was traded from Florida to San Diego in March of 2009. De La Cruz was then designated for assignment by the Padres just over a month later after the Padres had to call up a starting pitcher (Chad Gaudin) to cover some injuries.
After spending the 2010 season pitching in Japan, De La Cruz signed a minor-league contract with the Brewers prior to the 2011 season. He wound up pitching in 11 games for Milwaukee, allowing four earned runs over 13.0 innings pitched. His major issue in previous big league stints, walking batters, didn’t flare up as much with Milwaukee. He “only” walked five while allowing 10 hits. It worked out to a 1.15 WHIP and clearly aided him in compiling a 2.77 ERA.
What the future holds for De La Cruz as a member of the Brewers organization is something of a mystery, however. He is out of minor league options and the Brewers have a number of bullpen arms returning to the team after being out with injuries in 2011.
Manny Parra, Zach Braddock, and Brandon Kintzler all stand to have a shot to head north as a part of the Brewers bullpen. Parra is out of options also, but Braddock and Kintzler both could be optioned down if Doug Melvin decides that depth is a focus.
It may seem like the numbers game isn’t set up to work in the favor of De La Cruz, but he has an opportunity to pitch his way to Miller Park this spring. If I had to formulate a guess as to the bullpen right now, it’d be John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Parra, Marco Estrada and José Veras all making the team for sure.
The departures of LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito to parts out west opens up a couple of jobs, but De La Cruz is hardly guaranteed of a spot. He was left off of the post season roster last year, after all, and only has a total of 32.0 innings pitched over his career.
Working in his favor are a fastball and curveball that once lead to a #6 ranking in the Detroit Tigers prospects list by Baseball America. These pitches haven’t developed as dominatingly as some no doubt hoped when he was labeled as a future big-league closer, but the raw stuff is still there somewhere.
Bottom line for De La Cruz is that despite relatively effective appearances for the Brewers in 2011 after being called up to replace an injured Chris Narveson on the roster, nothing is close to guaranteed for FDLC going into 2012.
He’ll have to pitch well from the jump in order to force his way back onto the 25-man roster. Is it doable? Certainly. Is it likely? That remains to be seen once the mitts start popping in Maryvale on February 20th.