Grading The Brewers: The Infield
With a couple of months from the end of the MLB baseball season behind our backs, and with all the emotions snatched by the freezing winter breeze and snowstorms in Wisconsin, I chose to return to my "Grading The Brewers" sequence.
Today, I will take a dive into the 2009 Brewers infield, and will provide statistics, share my opinions, and of course, give grades to the players that filled those positions last season.
I chose to start my reviews with the infield, to also include the catcher position, because that is where, I believe, one can find the two standout performers of the Brewers for the year.
While just about anybody following sports can guess that one of them is Prince Fielder, I suspect that only those following the team closely would guess that the other player I have in mind is Milwaukee native Craig Counsell.
So who were the most prominent figures that affected the fortunes of the team in general?
Jason Kendall, Mike Rivera, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, JJ Hardy, Bill Hall, Craig Counsell, Felope Lopez, Casey McGehee, Alcides Escobar, Hernan Iribarren and Mat Gamel; those are the players that recorded more than 10 games in the Brewers infield last season.
Before I continue with individual player reviews, I would like to look at the group as a whole.
Overall, Brewers fans should be happy with the way the infield players protected the abysmal pitching staff. The Brewers turned a total of 149 double plays, which ranks seventeenth among all thirty MLB franchises.
Although Rickie Weeks racked up six errors at second base in the early part of the season, and Felipe Lopez continued that trend to finish tied for first for errors across all second basemen, the fielding was good enough to keep the Brewers afloat during the first half of the season.
In terms of offense, the stars of the infield group of players undoubtedly were Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Felipe Lopez, and the consistent Casey McGehee and Craig Counsell.
Among the disappointments were JJ Hardy and Bill Hall, who batted themselves out of the club.
Many were also discouraged by the inconsistent play of Mat Gamel, who saw limited time at third base, which seemed to affect his overall performance, both at the major league and at the AAA level.
At the catcher position, many people were wondering why Rivera was not seeing more playing time at the expense of Jason Kendall, but the Brewers coaching staff insisted that Kendall was the only thing holding the pitching staff from completely falling apart.
Apparently, Macha and his staff believed that the starting rotation could perform even worse than they actually did.
Without further ado, I offer you my evaluation of the 2009 Brewers infield players.
The now former starting catcher for the Brewers had built a reputation as one of the better defensive catchers in the game.
But even his defensive skills behind the plate were unable to comfort the erratic Brewers starters. At the same time, Kendall's numbers at the plate continued to shrink.
He batted for a .241 average, recording 58 strikeouts, 2 HRs, 43 RBIs, 19 doubles and 2 triples. Even with such unimpressive numbers, Kendall ranked ninth among all catchers in terms of starts recording 134.
Fans were reasonably discontent, asking for Mike Rivera to assume the position of a first catcher, but Macha was not impressed.
Season Grade: D
Rivera was coupled with Dave Bush and guaranteed one start per rotation outing.
He started the season strong posting a batting average of .308 in May, but then slowly deteriorated at the plate and ended up with a batting average of just .228 for the 2009 season.
He played in 41 games, recording 2 HRs, 14 RBIs and 32 strikeouts.
Many believed that his game at the plate would benefit from more regular playing time, but reality is that, unlike in 2008, this season Rivera did little to threaten the starting job of the slumping Kendall.
Season Grade: D
In 2009, you had to feel sorry for Prince Fielder.
Why, you might ask.
Well, imagine the MVP competition should Albert Pujols have not successfully attempted to walk on water in 2009. Also, imagine Prince's chances of being the absolute star of the National League, should the Brewers have been more competitive.
From a personal perspective, everything went great for the young but already established Brewers slugger.
ln fact, Doug Melvin's primary concern during this offseason should be how to turn the Prince of Milwaukee into the King of Milwaukee, giving him an attractive enough offer that would entice him to sign a long-term contract with the Brewers.
I doubt there is any amount that could make Prince and his agent Scott Boras flinch, but that opportunity should be explored, because while signing a few overpaid free agent pitchers may improve the team for the 2010 season, signing Fielder long-term will keep the Brewers competitive for years to come.
But let's look at the numbers and see why I hold such high regard for Fielder.
He ranked second in the majors in home runs with 46, one less of the living god from the Cardinals. He led the league in RBIs with 141. He was 11th in on base percentage among all MLB players with .412 and his slugging percentage of .602 ranked fourth in the league.
Outside of his home runs, Prince had 38 extra base hits, and was the absolute leader in terms of games played in the league with 162.
Add to that his title from the All-Star Home Run Derby, and there is only one player who can match his success in 2009.
I don't think much more needs to be said here. Prince is without any doubt the best player the Brewers currently have.
I am very curious to know what business effect his departure will have on the Brewers organization. Unfortunately, I sense that we may learn the answer of that question sooner than anyone hopes.
Season Grade: A
He was supposed to have a big year. He was on the verge of having a great year. And then there came another one of those wrist injuries that makes any player and the organization he represents cringe.
In a season preview of the Brewers, I ranked Rickie Weeks at the top for players who need to finally turn their fortunes for the Brewers to be competitive in 2009.
While Weeks was still able to play he did just that and far exceeded my expectations.
Now, my only hope for him is for a complete and successful recovery.
Over the course of 37 games, Weeks recorded 9 HRs, 7 more extra base hits, 24 RBIs, and lifted his batting average by .038 percentage points compared to 2008 to .272. He took 12 walks and had a great success atop the batting order.
The only thing more to ask of Weeks would have been to remain healthy for the entire season. Hopefully, that will end up being an important personal growth experience for a future star second baseman.
Season Grade: B+
Felipe Lopez was acquired mid-season from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Class AAA Nashville outfielder Cole Gillespie, and Class A Brevard County reliever Roque Mercedes.
Later in the season, this move would allow Melvin the flexibility to trade away Bill Hall and plug Counsell and McGehee to other infield positions as necessary.
Lopez experienced some back problems in the later parts of the season, which visibly bothered him both on defense and offense. Nevertheless, Lopez had a positive contribution to the Brewers, and I personally was surprised not to see Melvin offer him arbitration earlier this week.
His numbers with the Brewers over 66 games were 3 HRs, 83 total hits, 32 RBIs, 37 walks, and a batting average of .320.
There were concerns about the influence he brought to the Brewers clubhouse, and the number of clubs Lopez has played for in his career thus far suggests that he may indeed be a bad apple.
However, my grade is based solely on his performance, as there is no way to know what he did or did not do for his teammates.
Season Grade: B+
After Weeks fell with an injury, the Brewers immediately reacted by bringing up Iribarren to the majors from Class AAA Nashville. Many were wondering if the team was intending to trust Hernan with the starting position at second base.
Iribarren's stint in the majors was short, however, and he never really received consideration by Macha for a starting job.
Here are some statistical highlights for Iribarren in the majors in 2009.
He participated in 12 games and recorded no HRs, one RBI, and a batting average of .231. Iribarren needs to work hard this spring to convince Macha that he deserves a spot on the 40 man roster.
Season Grade: Incomplete (D if I had to assign one)
I was wondering how to start this evaluation, and I think the best way would be by presenting some statistical data.
Here is a comparison across some key statistical elements between JJ Hardy's 2008 and 2009 seasons:
2008 Season: Games - 146, AB - 569, HR - 24, 2B - 31, 3B - 4, AVG - .283, OBP - .343, SLG - .478, BB - 52, Errors - 6, SB - 2
2009 Season: Games - 115, AB - 414, HR - 11, 2B - 16, 3B - 2, AVG - .229, OBP - .302, SLG - .357, BB - 43, Errors - 6, SB - 0
A few things have to be taken into consideration when evaluating the events that lead to Hardy's trade to Minnesota soon after the end of the season.
First, Hardy had a very bad season even by his own standards.
At the same time, I can argue that the Brewers would have shown more patience with their former All-Star shortstop if they did not have Alcides Escobar in the organization.
On the evening of August 11, Doug Melvin felt that the production of the Brewers was not up to par with the money fans spent to support the team, and decided to bring down the axe.
JJ Hardy was among the players flushed out of the 40-man roster, and sent to AAA Nashville. Whether the demotion of Hardy was predetermined based on the fact that he would be eligible for an extra year as a Brewer (or as a player of any team he subsequently gets traded to) should he spend enough time in the minors, is not something Melvin and his team is keen on commenting about.
One thing I know is that Hardy continues being a very close friend with a number of young players from the Brewers organization; namely Fielder, Weeks, and Hart. And if how the Brewers handled the situation with JJ is a sign for any of his now former teammates, they would be looking to leave Milwaukee at the end of their contracts.
I hope that Melvin considered this, and the events surrounding JJ Hardy in 2009 are not going to backfire at the Brewers when they start seeking contract extensions with their current players.
Season Grade: D
After reviewing the past at the SS position for the Brewers, it is time to look at the future.
Alcides Escobar is one of the hottest young commodities in baseball, and he will have to prove in subsequent years that Melvin made the right choice in keeping him and trading away JJ Hardy.
When asked about Escobar, most experts say, "You thought Hardy had a good defensive hand"?, "Look at Escobar and reconsider"!
If Alcides' limited play time was any indication for his future performance as a Brewer, people should be content with Melvin's decision.
Over the course of 47 games, Escobar maintained a batting average of .304, hit one HR, and batter 11 runs in. He was often slotted as the lead off hitter and also recorded 4 walks and 4 stolen bases, scoring a total of 22 runs.
With a fielding percentage of .962, he promises to be an all-around contributor to the Brewers team in 2010 and beyond. He committed 6 fielding errors, which is unlikely high for him, but that can be contributed to his inexperience.
However, there are absolutely no questions about the strength or the accuracy of his arm.
Season Grade: B+
I don't even know if I have a vocabulary good enough to praise the play and leadership of this 39-year-old Milwaukee-born veteran.
But I can try.
Playing multiple positions during the season and filling all kinds of voids left by injuries and by inconsistent play of teammates, Counsell recorded a .285 batting average over 130 games, hit 4 HRs, 39 RBIs and walked 42 times.
But as impressive and consistent his numbers and performance on the field were, he was instrumental in keeping the group together off the field.
He spoke only when necessary, and delivered hits at key moments of games to wake up his power-hitting teammates surrounding in on the batting order.
It comes as no surprise that the Brewers offered Counsell a contract extension before heading into the winter meetings in Indianapolis. For the sake of the team and the fans, I hope he signs the offer and remains a Brewer for another season.
Every club needs a player like Counsell, a hard working complete player who can deliver at any level.
And while Prince Fielder could have arguably competed for NL MVP, Craig Counsell is my choice for a team MVP.
Season Grade: A
Here is another player who stepped up and delivered this season. He was even in the conversation for Rookie of the Year in 2009.
116 games played, 16 HRs, 66 RBIs, 34 walks, and a .301 batting average; those are the stats that Casey McGehee delivered last season.
McGehee recorded starts mostly at 3B and 2B, but also filled in for Prince Fielder at 1B three times, and for Corey Hart in RF on one occasion. Just like Counsell, he was another player able to deliver regardless of the internal rotations he underwent.
He was involved in 24 double plays produced by the infield and was used off the bench to provide good defense at 3B in games when Mat Gamel was named the starter and there was a small lead to protect.
His versatility made him the most significant off-season acquisition for the 2009 season, and if he continues to deliver in a similar fashion in 2010, he will certainly become an instrumental piece of the system Macha and Melvin are working to build.
Season Grade: A-
New batting stance, lasik eye surgery, high expectations, mighty failure.
This was the season Bill Hall had in as little words as possible. This was a make or break year for Hall, and he completely disappointed all those left who believed in him.
Bill Hall weighs 210 lbs. His batting average with the Brewers was .201. Are the comments here even necessary?
He also struck out 72 times in 76 games, had 6 HRs and 24 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .265!
He was so bad that the Brewers were forced to work out a trade whereby they ate the remainder of Hall's $7 million contract for 2010, in addition to what he was still owed in 2009.
This signing from a few years ago definitely ranks as one of the most brutal mistakes this organization has made in terms of contracts. Well, one can throw the Suppan signing in the mix, but that's a topic for a different part of this sequence.
Season Grade: F
When it became clear that Bill Hall would not be able to cut it as a starter, or even as a player coming off the bench, Mat Gamel was promoted to the majors.
In AAA Nashville he was running the show until his call-up. He was regarded as a prospect of the same quality as Escobar.
Unfortunately, whether because of the inconsistent playing time he saw in the majors, or because of inexperience, Gamel did not live to the expectations everyone tagged next to his name.
Over the course of the season, and since the start of the break, Gamel's name has been associated with a number of trade speculations, but the Brewers have not yet found the right deal that can help them progress.
In 61 games, Gamel hit 5 HRs, 20 RBIs, and recorded a batting average of .242. There is no doubt that the youngster possesses incredible power that can be used to launch spacecrafts to outer space if he were a cartoon character of some sort, but his discipline at the plate has to improve significantly if the Brewers have hopes that he will be their long-term solution at 3B.
His inaccurate hand is also a problem, and some internal rotation scenarios have him moving to RF or even to 1B should Hart or Fielder be lost via trades.
Only time will tell what Doug Melvin has in mind. I personally was not convinced either way. As of right now I will give Gamel the benefit of the doubt, and hope that if he remains a Brewer, he finds his stroke and starts delivering vicious offense like he used to do in Nashville in 2008 and in early 2009.
Season Grade: C
What's next for the Brewers infield?
Many questions, and not enough answers at this point.
JJ Hardy is gone and Escobar will be the long-term shortstop. That's just about the only sure thing in the infield as we stand.
Fielder will be a lock at 1B unless Melvin gets the idea of trading him, which can and should happen at some point if he is convinced that the young slugger will not even consider a contract extension with the Brewers.
Everything else is up in the air. Will Gamel start at 3B, or will it be Casey McGehee? What will Counsell's role be in 2010 if he signs? Is Rickie Weeks ready to come back and deliver like he did in the early 2009 season? Is the signing of Gregg Zaun only a short-term gap-filling, and are the Brewers waiting on Lucroy to come through from within the organization?
Is Salome in the trading market after a disappointing 2009 season in Nashville? If Lopez was let go, are the Brewers looking to sign another player with versatile skills for the infield?
I am not ready to answer any of these questions at this point, and we will need to wait and see what Melvin has prepared for us in the winter months.
For now, we can just hope for a better overall performance of the infield in 2010.
Infield Season Grade: B
The rest of the players should thank Fielder, Counsell and McGehee for this generous grade.