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The Brewers have stayed focused this off-season, keeping their prize on the eyeball, and generally ignoring the maxim that there is little talent on the market this winter. In retaining the services of free agents Jeff Cirillo and Rick Helling for ’06, the ‘Crew has added quality depth. While no longer the powerhouses that some thought they might be, Cirillo and Helling were actually quite effective in their 2005 part-time roles.

Rather than get into negotiations that could lead to overpaying a Bill Mueller, Joe Randa, or Jose Valentin, the Brewers smartly and quietly inked the resurgent Cirillo, who was comparable to his fellow free agents, if not better (albeit in a limited platoon role):

2005 Third Base Statistics
Player      Tm       PA   PMLVr     EqA
Cirillo    MIL      219    .127    .278
Mueller    BOS      590    .123    .275
Randa      CIN/SD   609*   .096*   .274*
Valentin   LAN      184   -.217    .233
Helms      MIL      188    .181    .278
* Combined stats

Helms also had a good season in Milwaukee, but as a younger player than Cirillo he may not only be more expensive, but also may be looking for something more than a complementary role. As the Brewers are ultimately hoping that Corey Hart can lay claim to the third-base job, joining other phenoms J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, and Prince Fielder in a dynamic and dy-no-mite infield, Helms just wasn’t in the cards. Bringing Cirillo back into the fold allows the Brewers to have a capable reserve player who should be effective in the short term but not block prospects in the long term.

As respectable as Cirillo was, Helling was even better. The tale that was Rick Helling seemed to evaporate after a disastrous 2003 campaign that saw him post a 5.71 ERA in Baltimore. When Helling’s 2004 literally started with a rough break, he further faded from everyone’s radar, never pitching in the majors in ’04. Despite nothing overwhelmingly positive about that ’04 campaign, the Brewers decided to take a flier on Helling. Eventually, one of the few injuries the Brewers had brought Helling up from Nashville.

Once called up, all Helling did was string together his best stretch of pitching in six years:

Helling MLB stats, 2000-2005
Year     IP*    ERA*   STF      RP
2000   261.0    3.55     9    11.4
2001   253.7    4.26     7   -11.1
2002   200.0    3.87     7    -0.1
2003   177.7    4.36     8     7.4
2004       -       -     -       -
2005    56.0    2.56    18    11.9
* Translated

Will Helling duplicate these numbers in 2006? His most recent performance notwithstanding, the track record isn’t all that promising. In addition, Helling will be 35 next season. On the other hand, perhaps his arm has recuperated from the record number of pitches he threw from 2000-2002. In any event, it was most certainly worth the $800,000 that Melvin, Ash, and Co. shelled out to let him compete for a rotation spot in ’06.

Though retaining these players may seem like no-brainers, it is sometimes the easiest, most obvious moves that never get made, and as such Milwaukee deserves credit here. It speaks highly of the organization that they are pursuing all avenues in order to build a winning ballclub. It is well known that the Brewers have some highly rated prospects either already in The Show, or poised to make the jump soon. Some teams would be content to take the winter off, spinning lines like “with Sheets and our rookies we think we can go places!” Not the Brewers. The fact that they are consistently looking to build depth and quality at all 40 spots on the roster should be a beacon of light in what could be a long winter for Cheeseheads.

Paul Swydan

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If you Google the names “J.P. Ricciardi” and Moneyball, you get 9,440 results. When Ricciardi was hired as general manager of the Blue Jays in November 2001, it was acclaimed that this was a move by Toronto’s ownership to get better, stronger…and cheaper, the Oakland way.

So, five years, $47 million for B.J. Ryan? Where’s the Moneyball in that?

To be fair, the Jays needed some bullpen help. Using conventional statistics, the team’s relief ERA was eighth in the American League (3.81) they had the third-most blown saves in the AL (21, tied with the Yankees) and the third lowest “save percentage” (.625, ahead of only Tampa Bay and Kansas City). All of this screams out that the team needs a proven closer, and quick, right?

Not so fast. Using BP’s reliever evaluation tools, the Jays’ bullpen looks a bit better than advertised. For example, as a team the Jays ranked fourth in the AL in Adjusted Runs Prevented (69.6) and sixth in the AL in WXRL (8.29). Two Blue Jays relievers who flunked out of the closer’s job in previous seasons–Jason Frasor (24.2) and Justin Speier (21.4)–were in the top twenty in the majors for ARP, ahead of Ryan (19.6, good for 24th in the majors). That isn’t too shabby.

Other elements of the Blue Jays team are in equal or greater need of improvement in comparison to the bullpen. The Blue Jays’ starters were sixth in the AL in ERA (4.20) and sixth in support neutral wins over replacement (SNLVAR) with 20.79. The starting staff can hope for some improvement due to Roy Halladay‘s return from injury. Although the offense was fifth in the AL in runs scored, with 775, they were closer to last place in that category than they were to third place (to make things worse, the first- and second-place teams are both in the division). Toronto’s .250 team EqA is only good for 11th place in the AL. Even on defense, the Jays are middle of the pack, posting the seventh-best defensive efficiency rating in the AL.

So the questions about this deal center as much around the allocation of resources as anything else. While Toronto’s team is mediocre in several areas, Ricciardi has chosen to allocate $47 million to somewhere between 350-450 innings of pitching over the next five years.

There isn’t much argument over the talent of the fellow who will be pitching those innings, however. Over the past three years, B.J. Ryan has shown himself to be an elite reliever:

                 IP     ERA   SO   WXRL   ARP   2005 Salary
B.J. Ryan        208.7  2.60  285   9.7   75.9    $2.6MM
Eric Gagne       178    1.77  273  18.3   67.7    $8MM
Mariano Rivera   228.7  1.66  209  18.2   91.1    $10.5MM
Billy Wagner     212    1.83  251  13.5   65.4    $9MM
Keith Foulke     215.3  2.93  201  10.2   65.0    $9.5MM
Trevor Hoffman   121.3  2.60  118   8.2   32.8    $5MM
Tom Gordon       244.3  2.62  256  12.3   80.9    $3.75MM
Brad Lidge       250.3  2.59  357  16.5   73.8    $500K
Fran. Rodriguez  237.3  2.50  309  12.5   73.9    $440K

Caveats: Trevor Hoffman and Eric Gagne each missed about a season’s worth of playing time in this period, while Brad Lidge and Francisco Rodriguez have yet to get a taste of the free market, which explains their low salaries. Still, Ryan ranks third overall in the majors in ARP over the past three years, and a respectable 14th in the majors in WXRL. Ryan has a power arm (12.3 SO/9 over the past three years) and is relatively young at 29. That means that while five years is long for any contract with a pitcher, and while the $9.4 million per season average places Ryan right near the top of the reliever pay scale, this contract might not be completely insane.

After years of being saddled with the Moneyball tag, J.P. Ricciardi is playing a different game now. To those of you who read the Toronto team essay in Baseball Prospectus 2005, this is old news. While saying that Ricciardi has turned his back the principles that brought Oakland to prominence earlier this decade (and those that made him initially attractive to his current employers) may sound judgmental, it’s neither here nor there. It’s hard enough being a major league GM, without the burden of also being the spokesperson of a revolutionary–and sometimes unpopular–ideology.

It seems that this winter, Ricciardi’s been given some actual money with which to build his team, to go with the new non-sabermetric, non-penny-pinching attitude–the Ryan deal was followed by report of a five-year, $55 million offer to Brian Giles, and the rumor mill connects Toronto as a top suitor for A.J. Burnett. We’ll see what he makes of this opportunity.

Derek Jacques

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