2014 Reds Preview with Brian of Chris Sabo's Goggles

Written by Nick Michalski on .

Over at Cincinnati Reds blog Chris Sabo's Goggles I had the pleasure of advising Brian of that fine site on the state of the Milwaukee Brewers going into the 2014 season.  Brian answered some questions about the Reds for The Brewers Bar in between corking his bats and doing LensCrafters commercials.  Check out my thoughts on the Brewers at his site here, and if you like, follow them on Twitter at @Goggles17.   

TBB: What do you think of the new Reds manager Bryan Price?  How will the change from Dusty Baker and a new coaching staff affect the team in 2014?

CSG: Way too early to tell, but I get the impression that the players trust him. The more distance we put between us and the 2013 season, the more players are starting to say how "different" things are with Price running the show. You don't have to read between the lines too closely to see what they mean (different = better). The big thing is that Price is asking for players to be accountable. If Brandon Phillips doesn't run to first base and gets thrown out, Price will sit Phillips. Dusty would let things like that slide too often and I think some players probably took advantage of that freedom. 

TBB: Who is the most impactful new player for the Reds in 2014… Billy Hamilton?

CSG: It has to be Hamilton. Everyone knows how fast is, but very few people know how (if) he can hit at this level. He's certainly a game-changer if he's able to get on base.  

TBB: The Reds ran into a willful Pirates team in the 2013 Wild Card game.  So it goes.  How can the Reds improve in 2014?

CSG: I'm not so sure that they have improved. The pitching staff got injured quite a bit last season, and it's doubtful the starting five rotation will be intact for the start of this season. Hamilton probably won't put up numbers like Choo, so other players like Zach Cozart, Chris Heisey and Todd Frazier will need to step up. 

TBB: Are you surprised Brandon Phillips is still with the club after reports surfaced that he could be traded?

CSG: His contract made it tough to unload him, but it made complete sense to try. He's a lot of fun to watch, but it would've been nice to trade him for an almost-ready starting pitcher or a power-hitting left fielder. If the Reds are slow to get out of the gate this season, I think he'll be gone by the All-Star break. Teams are more willing to gamble on players/contracts during the season when they see that player as the "missing piece" they need.  

TBB: Does Joey Votto walk too much to be as productive at the plate as perhaps he should be?

CSG: I'd rather he walk than strikeout, but the answer is "probably." I guess. I don't know. The tiring argument among Reds fans is that he's paid too much to walk. I don't understand what that means. Do I wish he hit more HRs and drove in more runs? Yes. But if Votto is getting on base and nobody is driving him in, then that's not really Votto's fault. It's just an easy excuse to blame Votto because he gets paid the most. 

TBB: What’s your prediction for the team’s performance in the upcoming season and how do you see the NL Central shaking out?

CSG: The Reds did very little to improve the club in the offseason. Cueto is coming off a season of injuries, Latos is recovering from shoulder surgery and a bum knee, and Arroyo is gone. That's a lot of pressure on Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. I think the Reds will hang in there with a 87-75 record. Whether or not that gets them into the playoffs remains to be seen. 

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Thornburg Makes Brewers out of Spring Training

Written by Ben Tannenbaum on .

It would have been difficult to root against Tyler Thornburg this spring training. Viewed as Milwaukee’s best prospect in 2012, Thornburg tantalized in his call-up last season. With the big-league club, the 24-year-old split time between the rotation and the bullpen while compiling a sterling 2.03 ERA and a very solid 1.19 WHIP. It is always exciting for fans to see a top prospect make the big leagues, and it appears that Brewers fans will have that opportunity again in 2014. According to Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Thornburg and Zach Duke are set to open the season with Milwaukee. The other chief contender for a role, Rob Wooten, was sent to AAA Nashville. Thornburg deserves the roster spot and will help the major league team more immediately than Wooten would have. However, unless Thornburg’s future is in the bullpen, it may have been better for his long-term development to let him break camp in the minor leagues.

Thornburg earned the spot on the major league team. Even before the club’s official announcement, it appeared that Duke, Thornburg, and Wooten would have to compete for the final two spots. Since Duke is left-handed, it is irrelevant to compare his statistics with Wooten or Thornburg. Duke made the team because GM Doug Melvin wanted a third southpaw option behind the untested Will Smith and Wei-Chung Wang. However, since Duke struggled pretty horribly against lefty batters last season (.340 batting average against) it perhaps would have made sense to give spots to both Thornburg and Wooten. Yet even with Duke on the team, Thornburg still deserves to get the final job over Wooten. Wooten was not overly spectacular as a rookie for Milwaukee in 2013, putting up a decent 3.90 ERA.  However, his 4.25 xFIP and his incredibly fortuitous 3.7% home run / fly ball ratio indicate that his ERA should have been even higher than it was. Admittedly, the same peripheral statistics indicate that Thornburg’s success last season was also somewhat unsustainable. Thornburg posted an alarming 4.43 xFIP and an infinitesimal 1.4% home run / fly ball ratio, indicating that it will be difficult for him to maintain last season’s level of success.

Still, Thornburg’s raw “stuff,” his pitch arsenal, is simply better than Wooten’s. Wooten’s fastball topped out at 90 MPH last season. As a result, batters swung and missed at his fastball just 4.4% of the time. In contrast, Thornburg’s fastball can reach 96 MPH. Somehow batters whiffed at his heat just 3.8% of the time - less often than against Wooten. However, this oddity is counteracted by the success of Thornburg’s breaking pitches. Opponents batted just .137 against the curveball, compiling an astonishingly weak .307 OPS. Further, batters posted a microscopically small -16 wRC+ against the breaking ball. Thornburg has great command of his curve, and did not allow a single walk with it. Wooten has not had the same level of success with his go-to off-speed pitch, the slider. Batters had very solid results against Wooten’s slider, hitting .284. More worrisome, opponents posted an above-average 116 wRC+ against the pitch. For a pitcher like Wooten that doesn’t have much life on his fastball, the absence of a shut-down off-speed pitch could prove fatal.

However, perhaps it would be better for Thornburg’s long-term future if he begins 2014 with AAA Nashville. Some argue that he is likely to be a reliever for most of his career. If that is the case, then by all means it is right to send him up north with the major league team. Yet consigning this highly touted prospect to a life of toil in the bullpen seems to be a rash decision. His ERA in 2013 as a starter (1.47) was better than it was when he came out of the pen (3.04). While starting this season in the bullpen does not necessarily preclude him from eventually rejoining the rotation, it renders that possibility more remote and more difficult. In the short term, he deserves the job now and can help the team right out of the gate in April. Yet ultimately, it may be better to for him to wait, so that he can prepare for a long-term role in the Brewers’ rotation.

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Apparently Spring Training Numbers Don’t Matter (Except When They Do)

Written by Enrique Bakemeyer on .

(Image: Associated Press)

The Brewers officially announced the end of the Juan Francisco experiment earlier today.  My colleague Nick Michalski said this is the right move for Francisco, and I see no reason to disagree.  Francisco seems to have worked hard in winter ball, made adjustments to his approach at the plate, and was having a great spring at the time of his release.  Although he may be remembered by Brewers fans for striking out too much, let’s hope Francisco takes what he’s learned and finds success elsewhere.

An interesting aspect of Francisco’s release is that it highlights the arbitrary value fans, players, and coaches assign to spring training performance.  There’s no denying Francisco’s numbers in spring training were impressive: .346 / .500 / .731.  Mark Reynolds’ slash line is pretty good as of this writing (.250 / .353 / .477), while Lyle Overbay’s is in the let’s-not-talk-about-it-besides-he’s-a-veteran-and-his-defense-is-boffo category (.179 / .319 / .231).  As a left-handed batter, Overbay was viewed as Francisco’s main rival for a roster spot.  With the competition posting numbers like that, one has to wonder what Francisco could have done to make the team.

When it was announced yesterday that Overbay and Reynolds were in, manager Ron Roenicke went pretty far to downplay the importance of spring training statistics:

"Spring training is to get in shape. Spring training is not to see who you think should be on the team. If you did that, there would be some weird stuff happening every year," [Roenicke] said. "Any of these guys, the veterans, could walk in and hit .200. Does that mean you don't keep them on the team?

"Spring training is not on numbers. It isn't. That's the misleading thing that people don't understand. The people that I look up to in this game always say, 'Do not be misled by spring training,' and it's the truth.”

I understand a manager has to justify his decision-making, and what Overbay brings to the team can’t necessarily be defined by a pretty lousy spring training performance.  But by going out of his way to stick up for Overbay, Roenicke lets himself get just a bit disingenuous.  Surely, spring training isn’t all about statistical performance, but the numbers count for something.

Last year, Khris Davis made the Brewers’ roster even though he could only play left field, and at the time no one knew that Ryan Braun would be suspended half the season.  Something tells me Davis’ crazy delicious 2013 spring training numbers probably had something to do with that.

In July, Davis ended up being optioned to AAA after he struggled without regular playing time.  At that point, maybe Roenicke was thinking he made a mistake by reading too much into Davis’ spring training numbers.  Then Braun was suspended, Davis replaced him, and he had the brilliant half-season we all hope wasn’t a fluke.  Now he’s going to be the Brewers’ starting left fielder on Opening Day.

Maybe Davis’ 2013 spring training performance was a harbinger of big league success, maybe it was just the kind of hot streak professional ballplayers have from time to time – but it’s a pretty clear example that Roenicke puts some stock in spring training numbers.

To be sure, I’d be a picky sports fan if I criticized Roenicke too harshly for some loose comments in defense of Overbay.  He has to answer questions from the press every day about how he does his job, so a few glitches here and there come with the territory.  It’s just worth noting how much of player evaluation is intangible and subjective, even for guys who have been in this business their whole lives.  We’ll have to keep that mind when the Rickie Weeks vs. Scooter Gennett decision comes down in the next few days. 

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Brewers’ Decision on Francisco Right for Player, Impact for Team Murky

Written by Nick Michalski on .

(Photo: Getty Images)

The Juan Francisco saga cleared up a little bit Monday, with reports specifying that Francisco had been placed on release waivers, clearing him to sign with another team.

A release from the Brewers was not the result I envisioned with Francisco.  After the conclusion of the 2013 season, I was adamant that the Brewers look proactively and determinedly for a first-base solution that either did not involve or would marginalize Francisco.  Francisco has a lot of power potential, but his poor play on defense at first and third base, combined with his strikeouts and poor batting average leave much to be desired.  I was worried at that point that Francisco would be the default option to start at first base in 2014.  That said, I did still see him as a useful bench bat and part-time player. 

The first-base question lingered long into the offseason, and for months it appeared the Brewers would indeed stick with Francisco at first.  When the Brewers signed Mark Reynolds in January, the right-handed Reynolds looked like a logical fit to share time with Francisco.  Of course, when Lyle Overbay was signed shortly thereafter, the first-base situation became increasingly muddled. 

Francisco, 26, a native of the Dominican Republic, played winter ball this offseason and put up good numbers in spring camp.  He was batting over .300 and had taken more walks this spring, indicating he was seeing the ball well.  There was talk of adjustments made.  Conversely, Francisco’s replacement, Lyle Overbay, stunk it up in Maryvale until recently.  The Brewers have indicated that Overbay made the club based on his defense.

Unfortunately for the Brewers, they were unable to parlay Francisco into any future assets for the ball club.  That result is the most disappointing thing regarding Francisco’s tenure in Milwaukee.  Minor-league lefty Thomas Keeling, who was traded to the Atlanta Braves in the Francisco deal with Milwaukee, was released by the Braves recently after piling up ugly stats at Double-A Mississippi, including 28 walks in 29 post-trade appearances in 2013.  So far the Brewers didn’t lose much in the deal to acquire Francisco, but they won’t get anything in return for his departure now. 

It has been said for a while now that if the Brewers were still in the American League, Francisco would fit in nicely as the designated hitter.  That’s probably true, and Francisco’s go-for-broke approach at the plate is reminiscent of many prototypical Brewers sluggers through the years, from Rob Deer to Russell Branyan.  Per Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt, GM Doug Melvin said of the situation: “American League teams can make room for a bat like that.  We can’t.”

Boiled down to the basics, the Brewers liked Overbay’s glove more than Francisco’s, and they also liked the intangible veteran presence Overbay brings.  While Overbay is most certainly past his prime, the Brewers don’t have an excess of older “clubhouse leader”-type guys.  In the first season since Ryan Braun’s suspension, it couldn’t hurt to have experienced players like Reynolds and Overbay on the squad.

Francisco is still very young, and he may yet find his groove in the major leagues.  However, he probably should find a taker in the American League sooner rather than later.  Trying to fit him in on a NL team is like the old round-peg, square-hole problem.  The Brewers are trying to make a run in 2014 and their defense is already shaky.  Keeping Juan Francisco on the field defensively would be the Joker in that house of cards. 

The Brewers historically have been known as an organization with the players’ best interests in mind, and they want it to stay that way.  It’s possible they could have stashed Francisco in Triple-A Nashville after finding no trade partners.  Instead, they will allow Francisco to find a more comfortable and lucrative opportunity elsewhere.  “This gives Juan a chance to hook up with somebody else,” said Melvin. 

The Brewers will owe Francisco only a quarter of his 2014 salary, or about $337,500, in releasing him.  The Brewers are doing right by the player in granting his release after he failed to do enough, or be the right guy, for the team to start 2014.  Whether going with Overbay over Francisco is the right move, time will tell.  It’s entirely possible that Francisco just isn’t a fit for any NL club.  Or maybe he’ll join the Pittsburgh Pirates, who knows.  Francisco, with enough at-bats, could hit 25-30 homers, though his batting average and strikeouts short-circuit some of his value.            

We wish Francisco the best…hopefully for an American League team.  Francisco has the talent to be a good major league player, but his current form was not enough to keep him around in an organization that truly loves its big boppers.

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Hopefully We Have Heard the Last of Corey Hart’s Whining

Written by Nick Michalski on .

(Hart in his seaman/sailor/navigator uni with John Buck; AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Back in October, I was all for the Brewers re-signing first baseman / outfielder / probable part-time DH Corey Hart to a new contract, for at least one year.  I went so far as to call Hart “True Blue Brew Crew.”  At the time I felt Corey Hart, though often injured, deserved a new contract with the Brewers and would help the team re-discover its offensive prowess in 2014.  As we all know, Hart signed with the Seattle Mariners for more money than the Brewers were willing to give him.

This week reports have surfaced that Hart has revealed that not only was money a driving factor in his decision to head to the American League team in the Pacific Northwest, but he also felt somewhat snubbed by his former teammates in that they failed to make entreaties to him to stick around in Milwaukee.  “I think it would have made the process a little harder, if those guys would have reached out and tried to persuade me.  But these guys were persuading me enough, so that’s why I came here,” Hart told reporters, including Todd Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel.   

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Hart for taking more money in Seattle.  I don’t blame him for venting, as I have no way of knowing if his sentiments were genuine or what the protocol is for ex-teammates calling free agents and attempting to persuade their return.  I drafted Hart in the late rounds of my fantasy league, too, with the hope that he can be a useful bat.  I still like Corey Hart and I don’t want to over-react to these comments. 

However, as a Brewers fan, I don’t want to hear any more of this kind of talk from Hart from here on out.  They paid him $10MM in 2013 to rehab his injuries, and they’ve paid him over $35MM to date in his career.  He played well for the Brewers, for the most part, when he was able to take the field.  But it comes off as sour grapes that Hart is dragging his former teammates into his current contractual status with another team.  Just be glad you’re with the Mariners and move on, Hart. 

If there’s a precedent for teammates being enlisted to persuade free agents to return, it’s one that’s not firm or well known.  Sure, sometimes you hear about a player calling a free agent and doing a little recruiting job, but it’s not usually something that’s heavily publicized or widespread.  To me, it’s not the jobs of the players or even the coaches, who reportedly did urge Hart to stay, to interfere with whatever the free agent player or the team may have going on in contract matters.  The only way Hart’s ex-teammates would be “at fault” in any of this would be if GM Doug Melvin had asked a player to call and recruit Hart and that player had refused. 

Of course this whole “controversy” is influenced by past events.  Hart went to an arbitration hearing and beat the Brewers in that venue back in 2010, the first salary arbitration hearing in 12 years for Milwaukee.  That didn’t go over well with the ticket-buying public.  He’s had his issues with the fan base over the years, some of the criticism legitimate, some not. 

Perhaps most weighty is the fact that late in the 2013 season in which he was unable to play at all, Hart said he’d be “very generous” to re-sign in Milwaukee after several injury-plagued seasons.  Maybe he really believed that at the time.  Fair or not, that led many in the fan base to think it was a cinch that Hart would be back to help a stumbling Brewers team in 2014 and on a very team-friendly deal. 

His recent comments suggest that Hart both gets it and doesn’t.  On Wednesday he reportedly said “They’ve got a high payroll, anyway,” but also said “It was one of those things where I would have liked to stay if it was close, but in the long run it wasn’t that close.”  So was it about the money or not?

It’s a complicated issue, it’s emotional, but it’s also prickly, and probably not advisable to squawk to the media too much.   

The Mariners guaranteed Hart $6MM for 2014, with up to $7MM possible in incentives, while the Brewers offered $4MM guaranteed with $2.5MM in incentives.  So the money factor was significant, as Hart says, and he can’t be blamed for taking the money, especially when it’s unclear how many years he has left in the big leagues. 

I understand getting some things “off your chest.”  The Mariners’ matchup with Milwaukee Wednesday provided Hart with an opportunity to speak on the issue, and I’m sure he was prodded a bit by reporters.  But as Adam McCalvy says on Brewers Beat, “Hart suggested that the Brewers could have made a much stronger emotional push to keep him.” 

My question is: would that emotional plea have resulted in a deal with Hart and the Brewers?  My guess is no.  I’m sure that would have made Hart feel warm and fuzzy inside, but in the end it was a wise business decision for him to reunite with Jack Zduriencik out in Seattle.  He’ll be able to DH some, and that will lead to less wear and tear on his body. 

Back in December when he signed with Seattle, both Melvin and Hart said there were “no hard feelings” about his deal with the Mariners.  That’s often lip service, and I don’t begrudge Hart his own point of view on how his dissolution from the Brewers took place.  Still, it’s funny how much I really haven’t thought of Hart’s absence much this spring.  There haven’t been many, if any, stories about what a huge vacancy has been left by Hart’s departure to Seattle.  Maybe that’s why his feelings are a little bit hurt, because the Brewers moved on effectively without him. 

Now that we’ve all hashed this out a little bit more, though, Hart would be wise to start his American League career by letting sleeping dogs lie and playing ball in Seattle without too many salty regrets. 

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