Friday, May 29, 2009

A look at the Minors

Nearly two months into the season, it's time to take a look at how the future stars of the Brewers are faring. I figure this is an appropriate time to get a good feel for how the players are adjusting to their surroundings. Don't get me wrong, there is a ton of baseball left to be played and these guys have plenty of time to turn it around, or vice versa, fall off the map. I'm going to highlight five players whose stock is rising, five players who are underachieving and then highlight some top prospects who fall somewhere in between. 

To clarify, to be considered a prospect, I drew a line in the sand at the 26 year old mark. That leaves them plenty of time in their prime to contribute to the big league club. Any older than that, and you pretty much provide minor league depth, end of career. Also, I tried to focus on players who either A) figure prominently in the Brewers future plans or B) were high draft picks in years past. Let's begin...

Prospects whose stock is rising...
1. Mike Jones, SP, 26, AA Huntsville
Call me a softy, but I reserve a special place in my heart for this pitcher (and the man in the #2 spot, more on that later). Taken 12th overall in the 2001 draft, no one has ever doubted whether or not Mike Jones' stuff was good enough, the question was if his body could keep up. Plagued by injuries throughout his professional career and on the verge of being released by the Brewers, Jones has turned some heads and is showing why the Brewers used their first round pick on him. Between Brevard County and Huntsville, Jones is undefeated with a 5-0 record and a 3.38 ERA. The most encouraging thing about these numbers is that Mike has been able to pitch into the 7th inning with relative ease, showcasing a little durability. For your sake, and ours Mike, I hope this is a sign of things to come. 

2. Mark Rogers, SP, 23, A+ Brevard County
Another first rounder that has been sidetracked by injuries, Mark is back and pitching... sort of. He seems to be on an extremely limited pitch count, never pitching more than 3 innings a start, but for a guy who couldn't stay on the field to save his life, 2 months of injury free baseball is a step in the right direction. Not to mention his 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. His peripheral stats are not too impressive (1.583 WHIP and 8:8 K/BB ratio) however, the young righty should focus on making it through this year and building up arm strength, so he can slide into the top end of the Huntsville rotation in 2010. 

3. Tim Dillard, P, 25, AAA Nashville
Dillard was impressive in spring training, and in my opinion, deserving of a shot at a bullpen spot. However, with the business of options, and big salaries, Tim drew the short straw. Then, in a move that I believed was the end of his chances with the Brewers, they converted him into a starter. With no starting pitching depth in the upper levels of our minor league system, I saw this as the Brewers finding a body to take up a spot every fifth day. Dillard thought otherwise. Seeing his first considerable action as a starter since the 2006 season, Dillard has put up some pretty nice numbers. He's 6-2 with a 3.51 ERA. Peripheral stats are respectable and as a former 34th round pick, I think he's forcing Doug Melvin to make plans for his future with the Brewers.

4. Caleb Gindl, OF, 20, A+ Brevard County
While Gindl was picked in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, he was far from a sure-thing prospect. At 5'9" (I hear that's generous) he doesn't have the "body type" for baseball. However, he proved doubters wrong by showing what his small frame could do with a bat in his hands. In his first pro season, Gindl batted .372 with a 1.000 OPS at rookie ball. He followed that in 2008 with a .307 BA and 81 RBI at single A West Virginia. He's putting up good numbers again in Brevard County. His average has dipped below .300 (.290) but he's still driving in runs and getting on base. At this rate, he figures to be in the Brewers outfield in 2012. 

5. Taylor Green, 3B, 22, AA Huntsville
A 25th round draft pick in 2005 (signed by Jack Z's replacement Bruce Seid), Green burst on to the scene in 2007 when he hit .327 with 86 RBI and a .922 OPS. This netted Green the Organizational Player of the Year award and serious considerations in the Brewers future. He followed that season up with a solid season at advanced A, but suffered a setback when he needed wrist surgery. Hitters make a living with their wrists, so this had the potential to be devastating (see Rickie Weeks). However, Green has put to rest any questions about his hitting ability by posting a .286 average and an .844 OPS between Wisconsin and Huntsville. With a career .942 fielding percentage, he figures to be the Brewers third baseman of the future, with Gamel sliding to first or the outfield. 

Honorable mentions: 
Chris Cody, SP, 25, AA Huntsville
4-1, 2.50 ERA, 42:9 K/BB, and a .934 WHIP. Impressive to say the least.
Evan Anundsen, SP, 21, A+ Brevard County
Threw the only nine inning no-hitter in the minors this year. Big upside.
Hernan Iribarren, 2B, 24, AAA Nashville
Struggled with the Brewers (no playing time), but is showing a little pop in his bat at AAA.

Now, on to the disappointments. I want to put the disclaimer on this, that these are based off of MY expectations for these players. I mean, I don't see why every position player can't bat .400 with a 1.500 OPS and all pitchers should have a sub 1.00 ERA. But in all seriousness, I based these choices off of what I believe they are capable of at their given level.

Players under achieving...
1. Jeremy Jeffress, SP, 21, A+ Brevard County
One word can describe Jeffress' year at Huntsville thus far. Awful. A 1-3 record, paired up with a 7.67 ERA, 33 walks in 27.1 innings and a 2.185 WHIP is inexcusable. Were Jeffress not the first round pick in the 2006 draft, he would have been released and coaching pitching at Helena with Ned Yost IV. The upside is there. His fastball paired with even a mediocre breaking ball is major league ready, but the control is far from where it needs to be. Hopefully, his recent demotion to Brevard County will help him work out the kinks. After all, he is our "top pitching prospect".

2. Jonathan Lucroy, C, 22, AA Huntsville
After putting up big numbers last year (.301 avg with 20 HRs between A and A+) Lucroy has been average at best in 2009. Offensive catchers are hard to come by, so his big season in 2008 had Lucroy's stock skyrocketing, so much so that the Brewers declined the option to take back Rule 5 draft pick Lou Palmisiano from the Astros. With a .239 BA and a .659 OPS, Lucroy is starting to look like any other catcher in the minors. There's plenty of time to turn it around, hopefully these are just growing pains for the young backstop.

3. Cutter Dykstra, 2B, 19, R+ Helena
After struggling in the outfield at Wisconsin, the decision was made to move Cutter to the "more natural" position of second base. There's only two problems, this was combined with a demotion to Helena and it places him behind top prospect Brett Lawrie on the organizational depth chart. In a perfect world, Cutter figures out how to hit with a wood bat and is able to change positions so he and Lawrie can exist on the same team. Time will tell...

4. Evan Frederickson, P, 22, A Wisconsin
The former college closer has struggled since entering pro ball. Command seems to be Evan's issue. He has 61 walks in 66 innings and a 1.939 WHIP in his professional career. He did have a good outing his last time out going 5 innings giving up no runs and striking out four. High draft picks always have a longer leash than others and hopefully he can turn it around. Pitching is the biggest organizational need and we need some of our draft picks to pan out. 

5. Brett Lawrie, 2B, 19, A Wisconsin
I know what you're saying, he was just drafted and this is his first year in pro ball. However, given his involvement with various Canadian national teams, his use of wood bats throughout his career and his bold prediction that he expects to be up with the Brewers in a year and a half; I'll admit that my expectations may have been a little too high. The transition to second base has been a little rough with 9 errors in 44 games and the batting average on the mediocre side at .269. There are some positives however. He has a good slugging percentage at .474 and this is only his first year. After he gets a full year under his belt, he should be able to come into his own as a hitter.

Honorable mentions:
Brent Brewer, SS, 21, A+ Brevard County
Former second round pick is currently batting .203 with a .273 slugging percentage and .928 fielding percentage. Not a lot of good things going on....
Cole Gillespie, OF, 24, AAA Nashville
Limited by injury, Cole's off to a slow start at Nashville. He has 3 months to show the promise displayed in past seasons.

The next several players are meeting my expectations. If they were in my kindergarten class, I'd give them a check or satisfactory grade. 

Meeting Expectations...
1. Alcides Escobar, SS/2B, 22, AAA Nashville
With Mat Gamel up with the Brewers, Escobar is hands down our top prospect, and he's lived up to that title. It's hard to exceed expectations in the minors when many believe you are ready for the big leagues now. Alcides has put up solid numbers with a .290 batting average and 21 stolen bases. For someone who is tabbed as a defensive dynamo, he does have 9 errors in 50 games which is cause for a little concern, but by no means has he been a liability. Brewers fans may see him by the end of the year as he has been asked to transition to second base. With Rickie Weeks down, Alcides may be called up to fill in the void. 

2. Angel Salome, C, 22, AAA Nashville
No one doubts that Angel can hit, and he proved that last year when he batted .360 en route to an all-star season at Huntsville. While the offense has not been there so far this year, Angel has been asked to focus on his defense and game calling ability and early reports are that he's improving in both aspects. With Jason Kendall aging and losing his already fading bat, the catching position in 2010 seems to be Angel's to lose. 

3. Zach Braddock, P, 21, A+ Brevard County
It seems that attempts to make Zach into a starter have been put on hold due to injuries. This year, he has been limited to work out of the bullpen. He has performed admirably however, posting a 1.50 ERA, 22:2 K/BB ratio and a .667 WHIP. If he is able to stay on the field, Zach figures into the Brewers future within the next three years. 

4. Cody Scarpetta, SP, 20, A Wisconsin
Cody has had a couple of rough outings out of the bullpen but as a starter, Cody has been solid. With a 4.68 ERA and 42 Ks in 32.2 innings, Cody is putting up numbers that may merit a promotion by mid-season. If Cody can improve on his command and stays durable, he has the stuff to be a front of the rotation pitcher.

That concludes my first look into the minors, I will continue to monitor their progress and will have one more update before the end of the year. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Brewers State of the Union: Infield edition.

After an embarrassing trip to Minnesota, the Brewers infield seems to be the biggest question mark going into our series with the Cardinals. Some may say starting pitching, but with the way these guys have been pitching, they were bound to lay an egg. Anyway, on my last post, I brought up the idea of trading JJ Hardy and it met with some criticism. The reason I bring up JJ as a trading chip is that his value is so high, not because I don't like him as a Brewer. He's an all-star shortstop, which is a premium position, he's still under team control for a very fair price, and his future with the Brewers is virtually non-existent with Escobar nipping at his heels and his refusal to switch positions. Calm down people, I'm just throwing a possibility out there. But I digress....

Bill Hall can't hit a right-hander if it was thrown under hand, JJ is plagued by back spasms (but wasn't lighting the world on fire before that) and Ken Macha hasn't decided whether or not McGehee is your everyday second baseman or if he's going to platoon Counsell. Believe it or not, I may have the answer. Bill Hall thrived in his super-utility role and I think his leash as an everyday player is to taught, it's time to move him back to the bench. He's able to play all three outfield position and second, third and short. His ability to hit lefties and his glove still give him value for the team. Mat Gamel has shown that he is ready to hit major league pitching and he flashed a little leather in his start. It's going to be a little rough around the edges, but Brewers fans should be remember a certain "butcher" at third, I think they've been pretty happy with the results. With a defensive liability at third, the rest of the Brewers infield will have to be solid in the field. McGehee has looked solid at second and has wielded a pretty good bat since he started getting some regular playing time. Give him a chance to be your everyday guy, see what you've got in him. When JJ is healthy, I don't think his position as everyday shortstop is in question in the least, however, if his back is bothering him, Counsell is a solid option and makes our lineup a little more left-handed, which is a good thing. Between Hall and the recently called-up Frank Catalanotto, the Brewers should be covered with backups at all infield positions as well as the outfield. That should hold the Brewers over for now, we shall see how McGehee and Gamel fair. If they struggle....

I am of the opinion that Alcides Escobar needs a full season at AAA to prove he can hit major league (almost major league) pitching, and after a mediocre start, Escobar has raised his batting average to .289. Also, he's been manning second base showing that he may be able to fill in at second should the Brewers need him. In an ideal world, McGehee becomes a serviceable second baseman (.260 avg. while playing solid defense) and Gamel becomes everything the Brewers believe he can be. But Escobar is a pretty solid insurance policy should the Brewers need something down the stretch run. 

I just got word that Gamel (3B), Counsell (SS) and McGehee (2B) are starting today against Chris Carpenter and the Cards. Hopefully, the Crew can get it done with this lineup, it is certainly something I will be keeping an eye on.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Something doesn't smell right....

First, let me apologize for the long hiatus, things have been hectic lately and the blog has suffered for it. I'm ressurecting the blog like a phoenix rising from the ashes... or something equally poetic. Now on to the real reason I'm writing today...

My dad always told me, "if it smells like dog s!#@, and looks like dog s!#@, then it probably is dog s!#@". At last night's game (a Brewers 8-6 victory over the Marlins) JJ Hardy leaves the game early and at the time I didn't think much of it. However, upon leaving the game, I learn that top prospect Mat Gamel is on his way to Milwaukee. Instantly, my mind starts racing with the possibilities. You don't call up your top prospect to ride the pine and replace a struggling Brad Nelson (a move made to make room for Gamel). Especially with your "third baseman of the future" who just so happens to butcher that position at every opportunity. The guy needs everyday reps to improve his defense and his prospects of manning that position in the big leagues for years to come. Doug is stonewalling like always, giving the excuse that he's just up to DH. How stupid do you think I am Doug? We have one three game series against the Twins this week, then we don't play an interleague away game until mid-June. So why the call-up now? So I start thinking about what could be happening. With Hall playing good defense and improving his production at the plate, I don't see him as a prime candidate to move. Also, he's a tough sell to bring back any value given his contract and lack of production (save his decent start this year). Which brings me back to Hardy. The guy just seems like a whiner. When he was moved out of the two hole last year, he went crying to Ned to get his spot back. When the possibility of a position change came up when Escobar was the talk of the town, Hardy complained again, saying that he didn't want to switch positions, even if it made the team better. He's easier to move because he's under team control for two more years, and he's relatively cheap, given the high dollars given to elite shortstops (I wouldn't call him elite yet, but an all-star appearance doesn't hurt). Melvin could maximize his return on a trade for Hardy given his overwhelming value at a position where big talent is rare.

Now on to prospective trading partners. Detroit has a TON of starting pitching and the weak hitting Adam Everett starting at shortstop. With Dontrelle Willis poised to return, I can see us snagging a quality starter who would only benefit from moving to the National League. (Armando Galarraga anyone?). Also, Boston is rife with starting pitching. John Smoltz is working his way back, and Dice-K is coming back any day now, all for a team that trots out 5 legitimate starters WITHOUT these two. Now Boston's starters haven't been blowing batters away, but imagine going from facing the Yankees and Blue Jays every other week, to facing the Pirates, Reds and Astros... you take your pick. Look at what a move to the National League did for Jeff Karstens, granted the guys not a Cy Young winner by any stretch of the imagination, but he went from a sixth starter (maybe) to a top of the rotation type in Pittsburgh. (I've got my eye on Masterson from Boston, but that's just me). Finally, there's the Chicago White Sox. Again, a ton of starters and a position open at short. I know what you're saying, "they've got Alexei Ramirez! Why would they want Hardy?" I'll tell you why. Hardy has more experience and shown he can play at a high level for multiple seasons, Ramirez has ONE season under his belt. Also, Chicago doesn't have a legit second baseman, a position that Ramirez has shown he is more than capable of playing. As far as pitchers, the pipe dream is John Danks. I've been in love (not exaggerating) with this guy since I saw him pitch last year. However, he's about as close to untouchable as you can be in this league. However, a Gavin Floyd might be available if the right piece came through (i.e. Hardy).

You'll notice I listed nothing but AL teams, this is mainly because I don't want to see that pretty boy prancing around the bases in an opposing uniform for more than three interleague games a year. He's a quality shortstop and it's been a pleasure watching him grow as a player, I just don't want him to become a Brewer killer (see Francisco Cordero).

As far as who this new starter would replace, that's a tough one. Given the depth chart, Dave Bush is your fifth starter and in most circles, that's the first guy to go. However, Bush has shown he belongs in this league and is pitching like a man possessed (1.05 WHIP ranks among league leaders). In my mind, he's out. Then you take a look at your starters who are NOT named Yovani Gallardo. Looper was signed in the offseason, doubtful they give up on him this quickly even though he's struggled in his last several outings. Parra is not only your only left hander but he's an arm the Brewers are investing in for the long term, if he doesn't get the experience now to develop into an elite pitcher, when is he going to get it? He always seems to be on the verge of disaster true, however, he's been able to work out of it in his last 4 starts, which is what good pitchers do. And finally there's Jeff Suppan, the Brewers' fans lightning rod. There's 12.5 million reasons this guy should be getting the ball every fifth day, but as a contender (and current division leader) we've passed the point where salary dictates playing time. You perform, or you don't play (ask Brad Nelson and Jorge Julio). It's true that Suppan has looked good in his last four outings, but let's be honest, he hasn't faced a lineup that's worth it's salt in this league and he's one bad start from taking his ERA back over the 5.50 range. Given the best interest of this team both now AND the future, Suppan is the logical choice to make the move to the bullpen.

So you heard it here first! Mat Gamel will be the Brewers starting third baseman by the end of the week, and hopefully it's Billy Hall playing short right next to him.