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September 3, 2008

On the Beat

Contenders and Pretenders

by John Perrotto

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The impact that CC Sabathia has had on the mound for the Brewers was never more evident than in his last start. Sabathia threw a one-hit shutout against the Pirates on Sunday, the big left-hander coming within a checked swing of throwing his first no-hitter, the bid ruined by an infield single by third baseman Andy LaRoche that traveled just 45 feet. Sabathia is now 9-0 with a 1.43 ERA in 11 starts since the Brewers acquired him from the Indians for four minor league players (including top first base/outfield prospect Matt LaPorta) in a July 7 trade. In less than two months, Sabathia has 4.2 SNLVAR, which ranks second on the Brewers behind Ben Sheets (5.8) and 21st in the National League. Every pitcher ahead of Sabathia in the NL has made at least 22 starts.

"I don't have any preconceived notions about any of the players we ever acquire," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "Obviously, I felt CC could help us. He won the American League Cy Young Award in Cleveland last year, and they don't give out Cy Youngs for nothing. Yet, I don't think anyone could have foreseen this. He's been excellent every time out and better than that most of the time. He's been phenomenal. You could not ask for anything more than what he has given us."

Sabathia leads the NL with six complete games and has averaged eight innings per start, recording a quality start in all 11 outings. "If he pitched like he did today, I don't how anyone will ever beat him," LaRoche said following Sabathia's one-hitter. "He was throwing his fastball 96 mph and spotting his slider and changeup wherever he wanted to in the strike zone. When you have a guy doing something like that, it makes it next to impossible for the hitters. We never had much of a chance."

"He's been so much fun to catch," Brewers catcher Jason Kendall said. "I just sit back there and put down the fingers and he makes a quality pitch every time. I'd faced him in the American League and I knew how good he was. He's been even better than that for us. The guy has just been unbelievable." Even though he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and unlikely to sign with Milwaukee, the Brewers gave up four players for Sabathia because they felt that he was the one player on the market who would most increase their chances of getting to the postseason for the first time since 1982.

He has certainly filled that bill from a pitching standpoint; the Brewers rank seventh in the major leagues with 4.17 runs allowed per game. The Baseball Prospectus playoff odds report gives them a 95.7 percent chance of playing in October, because the Brewers sit behind the Cubs in the NL Central while running ahead of the Phillies in the wild-card standings by identical 4-game margins.

The Brewers made a run at the playoffs last season, leading the NL Central by as many as eight games early on before eventually finishing two games behind the Cubs. The Brewers' 83-79 record gave them their first winning season since 1992, and left them wanting more. "We came to spring training thinking this was the year for us to get to the postseason," said left fielder Ryan Braun, last year's NL Rookie of the Year. "Just being a contender and playing important games in September wasn't going to be enough this time."

Sabathia's impact has gone beyond just numbers, and has given the Brewers a different mindset and an enormous shot of confidence. The Brewers were 49-39 at the time of the trade, having just swept a three-game series from the Pirates to draw within 3 games of the Cubs in the division race, and even with the Cardinals in the wild-card chase. Since the trade, the Brewers are 31-19, and while they have lost some ground to the Cubs for the division, they have taken control of the wild card. "I was the one who was most cautious when we traded for CC because a lot of our young guys were about ready to jump through the roof the day of the trade," Yost said. "Usually, these trades only work about one out of 15 times, but you could definitely see a difference in our team from the day the trade was made. They had a different look in their eye. It's not that they didn't believe they could be a good team before but it was like they knew they had the chance to really do big things with CC here."

"Getting CC really legitimized us," Braun said. "For ownership to do that was a big boost for all of us. It sent a signal that now was the time for us to step up and get to the playoffs and make a run at winning it all. You don't always have a big of window of opportunity to win a World Series, and this may be our window right here."

On one hand, the Brewers seem set up to be competitive for a long time to come as Braun, right fielder Corey Hart, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, and shortstop J.J. Hardy are all 26 or younger. At the same time, both Sheets-the long-time ace of the Brewers' staff-and Sabathia are eligible for free agency after this season. The Brewers' chance of signing either is considered to be a long shot, but that is a problem that can wait for November. The Brewers prefer to live in the present, though they can't help but keep one eye on October. "We really have a good ballclub all the way around, "Kendall said. "If we can get into the postseason, I like our chances. If we can line it up to where we have CC and Benny pitching the first two games of a short series, we're going to be awfully tough to beat."

---

With the notable exception of Sabathia, the Brewers were quite upset that he had been denied a no-hitter on Sunday. They felt that official scorer Bob Webb made the wrong call when he credited Andy LaRoche with a single on a tapper that Sabathia dropped after trying to field it with his bare hand. "If I would have picked it up with my glove and dropped it, it would have been called an error," Sabathia said. "Whenever you have a bare-handed play, it always looks tougher. It wasn't a tough play though-I should have made it. The scorer called it the way he saw it though, and you have to respect that. It is what it is."

The non-error call prompted Brewers general manager Bob Melvin [Ed. note: Doug Melvin] to suggest that Major League Baseball needs to make changes to the official scoring system. Melvin would like to see two veteran writers covering the game that could be consulted by the official scorer on difficult calls. MLB uses a three-man scoring system for the All-Star Game and all post-season games, but relies on one person to make the calls during the regular season. "There could be possible reviews to see if there's a better way of doing it where there's not all that pressure put on one individual," Melvin said. "A questionable call gets a lot of people involved and a lot of peoples' hair on end. There may be a better way to avoid that."

While Melvin's idea has merit, it is doubtful that writers would be allowed to be involved in the process. Beatwriters routinely served as official scorers until the 1980s, when many newspaper editors began banning their employees from handling those duties because of potential conflicts of interest. Clubs do have the opportunity to appeal official scoring decisions, and the Brewers put together various replay views and sent a DVD to the MLB offices in New York this week. If the five-member review committee unanimously believes that the official scorer made the call wrong, they will ask the official scorer to change his decision. If the scorer refuses, the committee still has the power to overturn the call.

Webb has been scoring games in Pittsburgh for 20 years and has a fine reputation. He didn't hesitate in making the call Sunday, and was not dissuaded after being lobbied by Brewers officials. "The play came off the bat and it was a spinning ball to the right of a left-handed pitcher," Webb said. "In my opinion, it's not an ordinary play to make. It was difficult both because of the spin and because he had to make the play and turn completely around. The runner was well down the line. It would have been a really difficult play to make to get him. The standard for a hit or an error is an ordinary effort. In my view, it was a hit as a result of that standard. I called it immediately, believed it was a hit. I think that's a hit in every circumstance."

Yost didn't see it that way, and was incensed that Sabathia was denied a no-hitter. "That's a joke," Yost said. "That wasn't even close. The scorekeeper absolutely denied Major League Baseball a nice no-hitter right there. That's sad. It's just sad. He accomplished a no-hitter and wasn't given what he deserved. I feel horrible for CC."

---

The Braves' string of non-playoff seasons will reach three this year, and that record streak of 11 division championships now seems to have happened very long ago. The Braves are 60-79, 18 games behind the Mets in the NL East, and on pace for their worst finish since 1990, the year they finished 65-97 before their run of division titles began. Despite the Braves' plummet in the standings, first-year GM Frank Wren is optimistic that the franchise is neither in free-fall nor in need of a total makeover. "We have the resources and the foundation," Wren said when asked how far the Braves are away from contending again. "We still need pieces but we don't need a major overhaul."

The Braves do have a core of young players in the lineup in catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Casey Kotchman, shortstop Yunel Escobar, and right fielder Jeff Francouer. As for the pitching staff, 22-year-old right-hander Jair Jurrjens is the only pitcher under 30 who is assured of being in the rotation when next season begins. It seems that the only way the Braves could regain contender status as early as next year would be to go on a major off-season spending spree, but the Braves are no longer the free spenders they were when Ted Turner owned the club, although they did have a $102 million payroll at the start of this season. "I don't know what we're going to pay [for free agents], but it has to be a function of putting together a whole team," Wren said. "Our overriding view is that you put a team together, not just one player."

---

The Mariners were a trendy pick in spring training to unseat the Angels as American League West champions this season. However, as has been well documented, the Mariners' season has turned into an unmitigated disaster; they have the worst record in the AL at 54-84, 30 games behind the Angels and in fourth place in the four-team division. Since interim GM Lee Pelakoudas and manager Jim Riggleman aren't expected to be retained, the only thing that the Mariners have to play for in the season's final month is avoiding 100 losses for the first time since 1983. That would be especially humiliating because it would put the Mariners in a class by themselves-the first 100/100 team in major league history, suffering 100 losses with a payroll in excess of $100 million.

The Mariners began the season with a $118 million payroll, and will have to go at least 9-14 in their final 24 games to avoid the century mark. The worst team ever to have a nine-figure payroll was the 2003 Mets, who went 67-95 while spending $117 million on their players. Riggleman does not seem overly concerned with keeping the losses under 100. "I certainly don't want to lose 100 games, but I don't want to lose 99 either," he said. "For some reason, that round number gets everyone's attention."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte is said to be conflicted between exercising his $16 million player option for 2009 or retiring. The Yankees are still undecided on whether to use rookie right-hander Joba Chamberlain as a starter or reliever next season. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez isn't likely to return to the Yankees as a free agent, and says he will only sign with a team that is willing to commit to him as a starter. Emerging as the favorites for top management positions with the Mariners are Dodgers assistant general manager Kim Ng for GM-which would make her the first woman to hold that position-and White Sox bench coach Joey Cora as manager. Although the deadline for adding players who can be put on the post-season roster has passed, the Phillies are still looking to upgrade their bullpen. Left-hander Mark Hendrickson won't be back with the Marlins next season, but he has significantly increased his free-agent stock by showing he can pitch effectively out of the bullpen since being dropped from the rotation.

---

Scouts' views on various major-leaguers:

  • Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield: "He's my early pick for Comeback Player of the Year in 2009. His bat speed is starting to come back, and it looks like he's finally healing from that shoulder operation he had last year. I just don't think he's done yet, and he has one big year left in him."
  • Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano: "He has looked like he has been in a fog all year. He's been lethargic at the plate and in the field. Maybe getting a long-term contract [four years, $30 million] before the season changed him, I don't know, but it looks like his heart isn't in it."
  • Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre: "I know he doesn't draw walks and he's a low on-base percentage guy, but he is an energy guy. I just think the Dodgers miss him not being on the field. They lack that spark he provides."
  • Braves outfielder Josh Anderson: "He's a scrapper but he's just not the answer for the Braves in center field next year. He'd be a good bench guy, but he'll get exposed if they try to play him every day."

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

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