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April 22, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Brewers Pitching Follies

by Christina Kahrl

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I had a number of requests over the weekend to do the Frank Thomas incident for my next bit, but Joe expressed a quick interest in writing on the topic. Joe's take on the Jays is usually both pointed and entertaining, and it was something that-putting on my editor's hat-I frankly looked forward to reading, so I decided that the much more entertaining topic for me to turn my attentions to would be the Brewers going where perhaps no team has gone before, and delivering a 14-man pitching staff, however briefly. Please do keep the suggestions coming, however; you'll find that I'm pretty receptive.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned 2B/OF-L Hernan Iribarren to Nashville (Triple-A); recalled LHP Mitch Stetter from Nashville. [4/17]
Optioned UT-R Joe Dillon to Nashville; activated RHP Yovani Gallardo from the 15-day DL. [4/20]

And just like that, a team goes from a perhaps understandable 13-12 split between its position players and pitchers to an unheard-of 11-14. When you get to witness roster mismanagement at this scale, what is it that comes to mind?

Mrs. Maddox: Put it on a plate, son. You'll enjoy it more.
Otto Maddox: Couldn't enjoy it any more, Mom. Mmm-mm-mm. (snarf, chew, masticate)

Put it on a plate, play make believe and call this a sit-down meal, whatever you want, but you can't gussy this sort of thing up with condiments and call it palatable. It's merely stupid where it isn't perhaps more fundamentally indecisive. Fourteen pitchers? As in, one-four fourteen? Where the second digit's more than three and less than five? Really? Even allowing for Ben Sheets' latest breakdown, and any sensible front-office reluctance to rush to judgment on what to do about that, this seems crazy.

For the moment, we'll skip what this punts in terms of in-game strategy and tactics; that's easy, and we'll get to it in a bit. There are also the twin considerations of Kid Gwynn's recuperation and the countdown until Mike Cameron can come back; get them back in action, and it's not unreasonable to think that on an NL roster with eight everyday players, a five-man bench and a twelve-man pitching staff make sense. But that's then, off in the future, not now, and in the meantime, how do you wind up with 14 pitchers and have it make sense? Let alone plausibly find ways to employ all of them that are worth the potential tactical cost that effectively forgoing most in-game management on offense involves?

Well, we've touched on the Sheets thing, which gets us to 13 if you consider Gallardo's activation as something of a temporary one-for-one swap in the rotation. That's where much of the attention-and any plausible defense for this bit of nonsense-rests, because everyone's curious about how Ned Yost and Doug Melvin will eventually resolve the problem. Consider the Brewers rotation options, with their Support Neutral/Win Expectation performances (or SN/WX, for those of you with a copy of BP2K8) from last season and projected for this season:


Locks         '07   '08    Swing              '07   '08
Ben Sheets    4.08  3.80   Y. Gallardo        3.80  4.60
Jeff Suppan   3.04  2.20   David Bush         2.67  3.60
                           Carlos Villanueva  3.70  0.90
                           Manny Parra       -0.09  1.80

The problem isn't picking a rotation from this crew, any more than there should be any drama as to who starts once Sheets is out of action. It should be a pretty straightforward matter of picking between Villanueva and Parra for the fifth slot, with the only complicating factor being Bush's performance and whether or not that costs him his job to either of the young non-Gallardo guns. Even so, Bush's projection is a reflection of his having had a down year in 2007, something that should offer the Brewers some reassurance before they start bugging out over his first three starts this season.

No, the problem isn't with having six starters, one of whom just came off of the DL, and one who struggle yet again to avoid it. Instead, the real problem is a decision to carry eight relievers. Even allowing for the fact that you can't count on using Bush as a long reliever in light of Sheets' health woes, which make it so you can't count the extra starter as a relief option for more than a night or two, there's the more basically corrosive issue of multiple redundancies. Sign David Riske to a multi-year deal? A worthwhile chance to take in isolation, sure. Sign Eric Gagné to a big one-year contract? Again, a defensible choice. You do already have Derrick Turnbow, who's run hot and cold, but has his uses. Stack that with a situational lefty or two, and you're almost full up. Except that isn't where the Brewers stopped. Guillermo Mota? Skip the last few years; maybe you can iron him out as well, and you never know if Gagné breaks down again. Of course, Mota isn't quite so reliable either, and neither is Riske; they've both struggled and/or gotten hurt, and maybe you just have to have somebody else as well. So sure, trade for Salomon Torres too, because you can never be too careful; them rascally pitchers will go south on you in no time, so why not acquire four, and keep a pair of situational lefties on the 40-man, and keep Turnbow, and... well, heck, Seth McClung's thrown fastballs for strikes now and again, and how can you not want him too?

The problem gets to be one of options, and whether you can keep everyone simultaneously. Maybe the Brewers made an elaborate bet with themselves, that perhaps not everyone in this bullpen would be healthy, and perhaps not all of them would have to be on the active roster at once. That's not an unreasonable gamble-pitch'em all, and let fate sort the bodies out. Claudio Vargas was out of options, and in the face of plenty of reassuring spring performances, the Brewers understood that discarding a basically adequate fifth-starter type wasn't that expensive a decision to make, in isolation. The problem is that Vargas was just one of those kinds of decisions, and the Brewers had to repeat that same call with Turnbow and with McClung, on top of not being able to move any of the signed-up vets, at which point you've got a lot of non-moving parts instead of a layering of interchangeable options that allow you to manage talent and overcome in-season injuries or bad patches. So now they're afraid to pitch Turnbow-except that he's unmovable, so you have a roster spot committed to a guy who's barely giving the team more than an inning per week, and given his control issues, someone you can't even give work to if you're going to demonstrate that he's in operating condition, because you're afraid of a four-walk disaster while he gets familiar with seeing live game action. (Sure enough, the Brewers brought in Turnbow last night after nearly a week off, and he lost a tie game by putting four men on base, including a walk and a hit batsman.) You've got McClung pitching mop-up duty once a week, and he's another guy you're afraid to use in a tight game, yet another guy you like too well to risk waivers with. You've got two situational lefties-and to be fair, both Shouse and Stetter have their uses in the role-because you've got to keep up with the Joneses. You've got Mota and Torres putting lots of guys on base, but you're congratulating yourself because they haven't taken a really bad drubbing. Yet.

It really boils down to the danger of getting everything you wanted in the wide world of pitching, and then having to reconcile that with the somewhat more sticky reality of how to fit it all in your toybox. At some point, the Brewers are likely to run up against Mota's inconsistency and Mota's age and increasingly sporadic usefulness, problems that might only compound the perils of counting on McClung and/or Turnbow. Heck, face it, Gagné isn't exactly a reliable commodity for that matter. And at the end of the day, the fact that nobody on the staff is a sure thing is a great way to wind up repeating the past errors of previous toasty Yost pens, lurching back and forth between one formerly famous and some sporadically talented reliever, searching for the hot hand, and in the end never actually resolving the matter of who to keep, and why.

For that crowded uncertainty, there are of course the other fringe benefits, like a non-existent bench. Yost has been pretty conventional in how he's used-or more appropriately, not used-his backup catcher, Mike Rivera, which leaves you with a two-man bench, or Craig Counsell plus a Gabe to be determined (Kapler or Gross), fighting over who gets to hold the bag of pistachios. You can aggressively double-switch to flip the pitcher's spot to a point as late in the game as possible, but that's a trick you can't pull all that often, and it's one you have to make sooner because you're batting the pitcher eighth. The alternative to not doing that is plain enough-on Sunday in a 1-1 tie game in the top of the eighth, the lead batter (Gabe Gross) gets on, the pitcher's up, and... Gallardo hits for himself, doesn't advance the runner, and Gross winds up stranded. You have eight guys in the pen, and only one-Gagné-has worked the two nights previous, and he's actually been on the mound three straight nights. Guess who's damned and doomed to work a fourth straight game and lose later that same night? Last night, with Gross again leading off late, bottom of the seventh in a tie game, pitcher due up, and Yost puts in... Jeff Suppan, to bunt Gross over. Baserunning funnies keep them from scoring, and you've got to figure Gagné isn't on the menu, but they're playing for one run.

Now, obviously some of this will get better. Tony Gwynn Jr. should be back shortly, and Mike Cameron not too long after that, although the one might end up replacing the other. Even so, a pitcher's almost certainly going to have to get out of the way. (Exacerbating the Brewers' roster management issues, Gross is also out of options, so he's another use-him-or-lose-him guy.) That still leaves the quandary of carrying only one reserve infielder, one of a number of reasons why having a multi-position guy like Dillon around was sensible, but on a roster where you have so many regulars, that's a minor thing; as Earl Weaver would note, if you suffer an injury in-game, you can find your backup [infielder] in [Nashville]. The real issue is when you're punting offensive opportunities because you don't have pinch-hitters. What then is the point of carrying all of those pitchers? To make a series of showy mid-inning changes, letting them face a batter or two? Except Yost isn't doing that-it's a more basic case of not trusting a couple of the pitchers he has as well as working around an injury.

You can't use fourteen pitchers. Barring making your whole pitching staff an exercise in non-stop pen starts, nobody can. Instead, Melvin's abdicated responsibility for designing a usable roster, and Yost runs the risk of abdicating in-game tactical oversight in the absence of alternatives. As smart as the Brewers have been managing so many of the big-picture things-the transition from the veteran temps Melvin and Yost initially employed to the homegrown blue chippers chief among them-it's a pity to see them flub something that could hurt them in what figures to be yet another tight NL Central race.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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