Thursday, June 29, 2006

Out of Left Field

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The Twins (and their fans) don’t need any extra incentive to win a border battle, but it’s there anyway. Beating down Milwaukee wouldn’t just improve the Twins record, it would also improve the chances of the Brewers becoming “sellers” at the trade deadline, which could make Carlos Lee available to the highest bidder.

Lee’s no stranger to Twins fans from his days as a White Sock(er), but it’s important to note that he hasn’t stopped mashing in Milwaukee. This year he already has 25 home runs (.582 SLG). The Twins might be especially interested because all that power is generated from the right side of the plate. His defense in the outfield can probably best be described as “indifferent”, but he’s a far better option for designated hitter than the Twins have had since David Ortiz left.

This is the last year of a long-term deal he signed with the White Sox, so he’ll be a free agent next summer. He’ll be an attractive one, too, seeing as he’s just thirty years old. The Brewers have a history of not being afraid to move mammoth right-handed sluggers to build on the future, ala the 2003 trade of Sexson for six players, all of whom had at least some time in the major leagues.

What’s Not Working. Yet.

They’ve developed a perennial Cy Young candidate and another starter with a 3.10 ERA. Their rookie first baseman has sixteen home runs. They’ve got two fantastic shortstop prospects, one of whom already has fifteen home runs. They’ve filled gaps with productive veterans, like acquiring one of the premier right-handed hitters in baseball, and a gold glove caliber Canuck who we all miss.

Yet their record is eminently average, and their playoff hopes are based more on a mediocre division than they are on sustained excellence. What’s wrong with the Brewers?

Nothing that most rebuilding small market teams don’t face. It’s great to say “play the kids” or to tout the advantages of building from within, but the reality is that teams who go that route have to be very lucky, or supplement their young talented core team with difference makers. For instance, it’s nice to portray the Tigers as a rebuilt team with some fun young players, but their team is also stacked with premier free agents, like Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers.

The Brewers have developed and nabbed about as much talent as any team can hope. They’ve drafted future stars, like Prince Fielder, who they selected in the 2002 draft and who already has sixteen home runs in his first full season in the majors. They’ve traded for minor league talent, like starting pitcher Chris Capuano, who was acquired a couple years back in the Richie Sexson deal, and who has a 3.10 ERA this year. They’ve traded for established difference makers, like Carlos Lee, who has 25 home runs and reasonable contract this year. They’ve found creative ways to plug gaps in their lineup, like trading a minor leaguer for Corey Koskie and $7 million.

But wait, there’s more. They’ve developed a perennial Cy Young candidate in Ben Sheets (whom they both drafted and developed). Their farm system has spit out productive middle infield prospects like Pez, such as shortstops JJ Hardy and Bill Hall or second baseman Richie Weeks. Their pitching coach has been praised for developing a bullpen out of former castoffs like Derrick Turnbow and Dan Kolb.

Unfortunately, it turns out that a team needs about fifteen dependable players to compete, and even the most productive farm system can have trouble finding all those pieces. The gaps for the Brewers have been on their pitching staff, which currently ranks last in the National League in runs against. Part of the problem is injuries. Sheets, who had a 2.70 ERA with 264(!) strikeouts in 2004, has had trouble remaining healthy for an extended stretch since. Toma Ohka wasn’t supposed to carry the Brewers staff, but his shoulder injury has meant more starts for guys like Dana Eveland (8.51 ERA), Ben Hendrickson (12.00 ERA) and our old friend Rick Helling (8.64 ERA).

The bullpen is almost as bad, and because of the bad starters, is also overused. Their closer, Turnbow, has blown four of 25 saves this year – and he’s the bright spot. The rest of them are pretty interchangeable – non-dominant guys with below-average ERAs because they tend to give up home runs.

That’s a shame, because this team has come a long way, and has a lot of offensive firepower. Their management has done a fantastic job, but their team still had some gaps which were widened by injuries where they could least afford them. The Brewers aren’t a great team yet. With some luck, they may just be a year from being a true contender.

On The Hill

Brewers: Carlos Villanueva (0-0, 2.65 ERA)

  • 2006 (AA): 4-5, 3.90 ERA, 62.1 IP, 61 H, 59 K, 14 BB, 6 HR

  • 2006: 17 IP, 12 H, 13 K, 4 BB, 26 HR

  • Desperate times call for desperate measures, which likely explains how a 22-year-old with all of 14 starts above A-ball finds himself in the Brewers rotation.

  • Doesn’t have a lot of velocity. Relies on great command.

  • Was sent to the bullpen about ten days ago, but he’s back in the rotation, replacing Rick Helling.

Twins: Brad Radke (6-7, 5.40 ERA)

  • 2005: 9-12, 201.2 IP, 117 K, 4.04 ERA

  • 2006: 93.1 IP, 129 H, 49 K, 25 BB, 17 HR

  • Relies primarily on an average fastball and a good changeup; also throws a curve.

  • He’s back. Since a shellacking against Cleveland at the end of May, Radke’s been very good. In June, he has a 2.27 ERA, and has given up just three home runs.

  • In the past, Radke’s shaken slumps by tightening his control, but that isn’t the case this year – he’s walking players at about the league average rate, which is a stratospherically high rate for Radke.

  • The knock on Radke has been his early game struggles. In his last start, the Cubs had several early opportunities, but didn’t capitalize. More promising is that Radke didn’t give up a home run (knock, knock).

1 comment:

Lonestar said...

Craig Wilson would be cheaper in terms of talent given up and salary paid. He would be just as likely to re-sign and would be cheaper then. He plays better defense in LF and RF and would be useful at 1B and emergency catcher.