While I was writing about the legacies of Jack Zduriencik and Bruce Seid as scouting directors in Milwaukee, I was reminded of the amazing Scott Linebrink trade and the prospect status of Will Inman. The trade is arguably one of the first “true” win-now moves made by President & GM Doug Melvin with the Brewers, and was therefore one of his most controversial moves made during his tenure. For, the GM traded away Inman, a top 100 BaseballAmerica prospect, a fresh 20-year old who just destroyed Advanced A Brevard County and already moved to AA Huntsville. The move is interesting for so many reasons: Joe Thatcher, also included in the deal, immediately stepped into the bullpen for the Padres and was arguably more effective than Linebrink was in Milwaukee; Linebrink netted the Brewers one of two compensatory picks they would receive in the 2008 draft (the other was for Francisco Cordero); and, Steve Garrison made his first move among many in his career, on a journey to the MLB.
With the long lens, there are many lessons to be drawn from this trade. First, there is an important lesson to be learned about comparing scouting reports, projecting tools, and minor league statistics and rankings. Next, there is an intriguing lesson to be learned about trusting the “next man up” in your organization, rather than a veteran trade. There is another lesson about the difficult factors that can interfere with great stuff or tools, and an amazing lesson about the unexpected results that occur from the roster-building process. Finally, there is the longview of history that shows that transactions appear devastating or controversial or damaging to an organization at a specific time are not always as significant as they seem (and vice versa).
|Scott Linebrink||Veteran MLB reliever acquired in “win now” trade / 5-of-6 leads converted / 2-2 in 10 one-run games (1-R deficit / tie / lead) / 12-year MLB career|
|Joe Thatcher||Undrafted Free Agent / MLB debut in 2007 working from low to high leverage situations / Currently on 1-year deal with Astros|
|Steve Garrison||2005 10th Round Pick / Eventually made MLB in 2011 with Yankees (1 G. 2 outs / 9 pitches)|
|Will Inman||2005 3rd Round Pick / Pre-2007 BA Top 100 / Nine year minor league career|
|Evan Frederickson||2008 First Round Supplemental compensation pick for Linebrink / Three year minor league career|
|Cutter Dykstra||2008 eighth pick in 2nd round (White Sox) / 54th overall. Currently playing for AAA Harrisburg with the Nationals|
|Nyjer Morgan||Acquired via trade for Cutter Dykstra & cash. Infamous member of 2011 division champion Brewers & 2012 Brewers / 2015 spent in Japan|
Scott Linebrink was working in his age 30 season during the 2007 campaign, and he was ready for free agency prior to the 2008 season. It’s easy to let time wash away the industry perception of Linebrink, as he simply blends into the “right handed reliever” prototype as nearly eight full seasons have passed since his time in Milwaukee. For this reason, it’s worth remembering that Linebrink became one of two A-level Free Agent relievers during the 2007-2008 offseason, the other being the Brewers’ own Francisco Cordero.
While Cordero and Mariano Rivera earned the richest contracts that offseason, Linebrink did not fare poorly, as his four-year, $19 million contract with the White Sox trailed only the extremely lucrative class of Cordero and Rivera. Entering the 2007 season, Linebrink had worked four consecutive notably above average ERA seasons in the Houston and San Diego bullpens, although he only converted 99-of-118 leads (83.9%). FanGraphs ranks Linebrink seventh from 2003-2006 in shutdowns (107), but he also was seventh in meltdowns (41). Even if his shutdowns and meltdowns also reflected his somewhat average lead conversion rate, Linebrink rated as a top 20 MLB reliever in terms of WPA from 2003-2006. What is interesting to note about Linebrink, in hindsight, is that his managers used him more aggressively than a traditional closer, since he was “freed” into a “set-up” role; so, during those four seasons prior to 2007, Linebrink inherited 127 runners, allowing only 42 to score (interestingly enough, Cordero also inherited 119 runners from 2003-2006, which seems surprising for a reliever that worked as a closer during the majority of those years).
Linebrink was indeed one of the highly regarded relievers of that period, but he took a step backward in 2007. The righty converted 12 of his first 13 leads to open the season, working into June with a 1.88 ERA despite a 17 K / 7 BB / 4 HR performance in 28.7 IP. Even with that suspect “fielding independent” performance, Linebrink’s run prevention was impressive, given that he appeared in one-run games in 14 of 27 appearances (10 ties, 4 one-run leads). On June 9, Linebrink entered the game in his eighth inning slot ahead one against the Mariners, but one home run by Seattle spoiled that lead. That rough outing proved to be more than a hiccup, foreshadowing a 13 runs allowed, 4/9 leads converted, 8 K / 7 BB / 5 HR (!!!) performance in 17 games from June 9 until the trade to Milwaukee. This time around, Linebrink was not simply appearing in too many one-run games; two of his blown leads occurred while the Padres were three runs ahead.
So, if you’re remembering that you were opposed to the Linebrink trade, chances are you were an everyday baseball fan, box score junkie that knew Linebrink was struggling. Undoubtedly, if Disciples of Uecker were working back then, the critical line on Linebrink would be that his peripheral performance with strike outs, walks, and home runs was problematic, perhaps a sign that Linebrink would not perform well in Milwaukee; perhaps not a performance that would make it worthwhile trading away a Top 100 pitching prospect, as well as an MLB-ready reliever, and another LHP prospect to boot.
The righty reliever looked solid during his first eight games in Milwaukee, facing four one-run games (one tie, one 1-R lead, two 1-R deficits) with 8 K / 3 BB / 1 HR, and grabbing one hold and one win. So far so good! Unfortunately, August 17 signaled Linebrink’s third appearance working on consecutive days in Milwaukee, and the veteran turned a three-run deficit into a five-run deficit against the Reds. This was the start of Linebrink’s brief hiccup in Milwaukee, a five game sequence that featured a blown two-run lead and two losses in blown ties, during a 3 K / 3 BB / 1 HR / 11 hit / 8 run performance. Linebrink would not blow a lead from this point forward in Milwaukee, but he also did not see another tie, either. Linebrink converted all five of his remaining leads for Milwaukee (four two- or three-run leads), and earned a win after holding a one-run deficit.
|Linebrink’s 2007||G / IP||K / BB / HR||Leverage||Notes|
|April (SD)||11 / 12.0||7 / 4 / 2||5 one-run games||4/4 leads converted / 1 win|
|May (SD)||12 / 12.7||8 / 2 / 2||7 one-run games||7/8 leads converted / 1 loss|
|June (SD)||12 / 11.7||6 / 4 / 2||8 one-run games||2/5 leads converted / 1 win|
|July (SD)||9 / 8.7||4 / 4 / 3||2 one-run games||3/5 leads converted / 1 loss|
|July-August (Mil)||14 / 13.7||12 / 7 / 2||6 one-run games||1/1 lead converted / 1 W-3 L|
|September (Mil)||13 / 11.7||13 / 4 / 1||5 one-run games||5/5 leads converted / 1 W|
The damage was already done before Linebrink earned his chance to produce a solid September campaign. His losses on August 26 and 28 were part of the Brewers’ gut-wrenching collapse, a rude awakening and wake-up call to the trials of contending baseball. Milwaukee lead the division from April 21 through the trade deadline, and even though they opened August tied for the division lead, they also reclaimed that lead several times during that brutal 9-18 August. The division-winning Cubs also did not want to compete during their 12-16 August, turning the hunt for the division title into an ugly struggle. Linebrink’s loss on August 28 occurred against those Lakeview Nine, and the Cubs’ 2.0 game lead in the division seemed insurmountable.
So, Brewers fans undoubtedly do not look fondly on the trade for Linebrink, and there were definite markers in his San Diego performance that could have thrown the Milwaukee front office off of his trail. Still, it’s not entirely fair to call his San Diego struggles predictive, for Linebrink did arguably pitch better in Milwaukee, even if he did experience a swift set of struggles that exacerbated the Brewers’ divisional collapse. Overall, it must be safe to say that Linebrink was not the sole member of that collapsing club, and also that Milwaukee fans’ generally ugly recollections from that season probably color any judgment of the veteran reliever. The Brewers made one of their first win-now trades, one that even netted them a compensatory draft pick: they traded for one of the most notable relievers in the MLB, but that simply was not enough to keep their divisional lead.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Linebrink deal is that Joe Thatcher became the most valuable MLB player that the Padres acquired in the trade. And, even more interestingly, Thatcher immediately became an MLB option in San Diego. As a 22-year old in independent baseball in 2004, Thatcher posted a 55 K / 15 BB / 3 HR performance in 42.3 IP for River City of the Frontier League. If that wasn’t enough, the southpaw went 27 K / 4 BB / 0 HR for River City in 2005, before the Brewers signed him as an undrafted free agent. Thatcher’s absurd strike out performances continued in Rookie Helena and Advanced A Brevard County, and his minor league stats for the Brewers are so gaudy I’m just going to leave them here:
|Joe Thatcher Minors||K / BB / HR||IP / R|
|2005 Rookie||10 / 1 / 1||7.3 / 3|
|2006 A (West Virginia)||42 / 6 / 2||29.7 / 13|
|2005 & 2006 Advanced A||46 / 9 / 1||39.7 / 6 (!!!)|
|2006 & 2007 AA||26 / 4 / 0||21.7 / 3|
|2007 AAA||33 / 7 / 0||21.7 / 5|
The Padres immediately promoted Thatcher to San Diego following the trade with Milwaukee, leading one to question the Brewers’ assessment of the reliever for their own bullpen. Undoubtedly, the Brewers (must have at least) expected that their bullpen would benefit more from the presence of a noteworthy veteran option than a 25-year-old lefty that was working in Independent ball merely two years earlier. In San Diego, Thatcher had trouble in his first three outings, allowing three runs on 2 K / 2 BB, and he returned to the minors. But, that wouldn’t be the end of his 2007 campaign in the MLB: he worked another three appearances in August, and then really heated up in September. The lefty worked 6.3 scoreless innings during his first seven September appearances for San Diego, which allowed him to earn a promotion into high leverage situations. After that successful stretch, Thatcher appeared in seven one-run games in his last nine appearances: he lost two extra innings games (including one at Miller Park), preserved two one-run leads, preserved two one-run deficits, and also worked another scoreless tie game. In those nine games, Thatcher boasted an excellent 9.7 IP, two run, 10 K / 2 BB / 1 HR line, and he also stranded ten-of-eleven inherited runners.
Overall, Thatcher’s rookie season was an undeniable success, even if his gaudy minor league strike out numbers were not quite as flashy in the MLB. Had the Brewers front office stood pat, and kept their southpaw reliever for themselves, one wonders whether he would have also crumbled under the spell of the collapsing Crew, or whether he would have also seen success. Given that Thatcher has worked five average-or-better seasons in the big leagues, there is no question that he is indeed a bona fide MLB reliever. But, his 2007 performance is particularly interesting because the Padres were also in the hunt for their divisional title. Thatcher worked a full September for a club that ultimately did not make the playoffs in a crowded NL West (the Padres lost a wild extra-inning one-off game to the eventual Pennant-winning Rockies), but he was part of a trade that was very successful for Padres GM Kevin Towers (who properly gambled on the strength of his relievers). It is interesting to compare criticism of the Brewers’ win-now trade with the Padres’ end of that deal, since many viewed the Padres as a club that needed to deal their most valuable trade chips for batters (rather than pitchers). Thatcher made the gamble worthwhile, and the biggest question for Brewers fans remains whether the southpaw would have been better for the Brewers than Linebrink.
Steve Garrison’s high school coach said, upon the lefty’s MLB debut with the Yankees, ”It just shows what sort of person he is. He’s the perfect gentleman on top of being one of the classiest pitchers ever.” The Princeton native had a number of minor league seasons derailed by injury after the Brewers traded him to San Diego, and the lefty never would make the Padres. After appearing in 51 games as a starting pitcher between Advanced A and AA in 2007 and 2008 (during age 20 and 21 seasons), Garrison only saw 30 games between 2009 and 2010. Garrison began his 2009 season with the Arizona Rookie League Padres, working his way back to the AA San Antonio Missions prior to appearing in the Arizona Fall League. The Padres selected Garrison’s contract prior to the 2010 season, optioning him back to AA San Antonio before the lefty unfortunately faced another injury-plagued season that shuffled him between various minor league levels. The Yankees selected Garrison’s contract off waivers after he completed his season in Advanced A ball, and Garrison would have to battle for his roster spot and chance to make the MLB.
According to BrooksBaseball, Garrison threw more off-speed pitches than fastballs to record two outs for the Bronx Bombers. Four fastballs averaged between 88 and 89 MPH, and Garrison’s pitch f/x data suggests that he threw a “true” rising fastball. Against that fastball, Garrison selected four 79-80 MPH sliders, and a single change up. This profile is similar to his 2009 AFL stint, where Garrison nearly threw his slider and change combo as much as his fastball. Now 28, Garrison works in Independent Ball in the Atlantic League, boasting a 36 K / 7 BB / 5 HR profile in 50.7 IP. His career path inverts that of Thatcher, leading one to hope that the southpaw gets another chance from a GM that digs deep into Independent Ball.
Evan Frederickson, Cutter Dykstra, and Nyjer Morgan
Scott Linebrink netted the Brewers the 35th and 54th picks in the 2008 draft, which was one of the most contentious elements of the previous draft compensation system for free agents. Under the previous CBA, a team could tender arbitration to a pending free agent, and if the player refused arbitration and ranked as an “A” or “B” prospect, that team would receive a supplemental draft pick and the signing-team’s best pick (unless that team drafted within the first 15 slots, like the White Sox in 2008). With their 35th pick, the Brewers drafted lefty Evan Frederickson, who ranked as the 23rd best prospect in California and 116th nationally. If Frederickson appears to be a reach, the Brewers arguably reached because the lefty surged late in his season, building to the draft (according to BaseballAmerica), and he had a great workout for Milwaukee. Frederickson received praise for his fastball and slider potential, but he also had noted command issues prior to the draft.
Unfortunately, Frederickson was unable to improve his command in the minors, and the Brewers released the youngster prior to his 2011 campaign. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the command issue is that Frederickson’s stuff also netted solid strike out performances. During the 2010 season, Frederickson made one of his strongest strike out improvements while returning to Rookie Helena during his age 23 season, but the walks still increased. Jack Z. faced another tough early draft for Brewers pitching in 2008, as Jake Odorizzi would not expand his ceiling until the Zack Greinke and James Shields trades materialized. If Odorizzi and Frederickson cemented fan sentiments that the Brewers could not develop starting pitching, those pitchers found much less complicated places in fan psyche than Will Inman.
On the other hand, the 2008 draft featured one pick that would become one of the most surprisingly important in franchise history: MLB legacy pick Cutter Dykstra made improvements in his plate discipline and batting average during his 2010 campaign at A Wisconsin (repeating after spending part of 2009 in Wisconsin). Dykstra wouldn’t get a chance to move forward in the Brewers’ system, however, as the club traded the youngster to acquire depth outfielder Nyjer Morgan. If the Linebrink trade showed that a solid veteran could not help a club overcome their collapse, Morgan proved that an amazing team can use help from every conceivable player on the roster. After playing part time early in the season, and missing most of May due to a broken finger, Morgan would receive the vast majority of starts in centerfield after Carlos Gomez struggled to a .224 / .280 / .359 batting line through May. Morgan played at the highest level of his career, batting .296 / .351 / .404 from June through the end of the season, stealing 11 bases and scoring 52 runs. The second-half Brewers surged under the watch of Runnin’ Ron Roenicke, ultimately serving as one of the most complete, “all-around-diamond” clubs in Brewers history; those of us born after Harvey’s Wallbangers may even consider it the best.
In some form of poetic justice, both Gomez and Morgan were involved in the play that won the NL Divisional Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the bottom of the 10th, on October 7, 2011, Gomez reached base on a single, and successfully stole second. The rest, as they say, is history, as Morgan drove in Gomez with a groundball single that ended the series. The Morgan trade was everything the Linebrink trade wasn’t: it was for a club-controlled depth player, rather than a notable pending free agent; it was surprising; it helped to spur the club in a way that no one would have predicted at the beginning of the season. Following the Linebrink trade through to the development of the 2008 draft and the Nyjer Morgan trade showcases the type of unexpected beauty associated with MLB roster building over several years. Even if one is inclined to criticize Jack Z.’s allocation of draft picks received from Linebrink, one can use the Morgan trade as an absolutely positive development that shifts the entire story: sometimes the cult players like T-Plush produce greater value than the notable veterans.
At times, searching for information on prospects — current and past — can be incredibly frustrating. Google searches are likely to return fluff pieces (which, if lucky, at least provide interesting background quotes), and many news articles rely more on statistics than scouting information. The exact opposite is true about Will Inman: not only is the former Brewers farm hand quite a sensation in terms of old projections and analysis, but he also continues to be cited as a type of prospect that provides a prototype for analyzing minor league performances.
Inman was a 5’11”, 220 (or 6’0″ / 200) pound right-handed pitcher, and one of the issues that impacted the disjoint between his minor league performance and MLB potential ceiling is that his body was not very projectable. Basically, Inman “was where he would be” in terms of physical development in 2007, when he was reportedly throwing between 88-92 MPH with his fastball. Like many minor leaguers, Inman’s strengths came from his ability to work with a couple of solid offerings, and if scouting reports did not glow about his change up and curve, both pitches were good enough to help the righty earn a “bulldog” reputation. Even a reputation as a flyball pitcher, or a so-called “funky” delivery, could not stop him early on.
After the Brewers drafted Inman out of high school in 2005, the youngster immediately tackled an aggressive assignment to Rookie Helena, where Inman destroyed the competition: he struck out 33.3% of batters faced, and was basically unhittable, resulting in a 0.89 WHIP during his debut professional season. The aggressive assignments continued, and Inman answered the challenge every step of the way: he was nearly three years younger than A-level SALLY in 2006, where he improved his peripherals to a near-5.6 K/BB rate, and he made it all the way to AA Huntsville as a 20-year old, before the Brewers traded him as a part of the Linebrink deal.
It’s easy to see why some Milwaukee fans were upset when the club traded Inman: BaseballAmerica had just rated the righty in their Top 100 prior to the 2007 campaign, and moreover, the organization had the reputation of being unable to develop homegrown pitchers. In 2006, the only starters drafted and developed by the Brewers were Ben Sheets, Dana Eveland, and Ben Hendrickson; that was a relatively strong year, given that the only other “homegrown” Brewers to appear in a 21st century return were Steve Woodard, Jeff D’Amico (1996 #25), Luis Martinez, Dave Pember, Nick Neuegebauer (2002 #17), Kyle Peterson, Horacio Estrada, Valerio De Los Santos (Top 100 1998-1999), and Allen Levrault. Furthermore, highly-regarded fireballer Mike Jones had just missed nearly all of the 2004 and 2005 seasons due to injury, after cracking the Top 100 himself for three consecutive seasons (and earning aggressive promotions to AA Huntsville by his age 20 season, too.
One could argue that if the Brewers’ turn of the century rotations were veritable land-mines of failed Top 100 pitching prospects, Brewers fans should have been wary of another young, highly-touted arm, but fans wanted to see the Brewers return to glory with starting pitchers to match their highly-touted bats. Inman’s minor league statistics seemingly bolstered his Top 100 claim, but interestingly enough, there were some critics as early as 2007. Some analysts noted that Inman’s strike out level was declining as he advanced through the minors, which suggested a limit to his MLB ceiling that matched his limited physical projections. If Inman was not going to bulk into a harder fastball profile, he also was not going to baffle advanced bats as much with his average secondary mix. Interestingly enough, not everyone agreed, as even PECOTA slapped Inman with an upside VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) of 95.4, which landed comparisons anywhere from Yusmeiro Petit to Jake Peavy and Zack Greinke. Even skeptical takes called Inman “pretty good,” suggesting (between the lines) that the righty could be projected into some MLB role.
|Inman 2006-2009||G / IP||K% / BB% / HR%||GB:FB|
|2006 A (MIL / Sally)||23 / 110.7||31.0 / 5.6 / 0.7||n/a|
|2007 A+ (MIL / Florida State)||13 / 78.7||31.3 / 7.3 / 1.3||n/a|
|2007 AA (MIL / Southern)||8 / 39.7||24.2 / 9.2 / 4.0||n/a|
|2007 AA (SD / Texas)||7 / 41.0||23.4 / 11.1 / 3.5||n/a|
|2008 AA (SD / Texas)||28 / 135.3||23.6 / 12.0 / 1.7||0.53|
|2009 AA (SD / Texas)||15 / 87.3||16.3 / 5.5 / 1.4||~0.60|
|2009 AAA (SD / Pacific Coast)||12 / 63.0||14.2 / 8.7 / 5.2||0.67|
Inman unfortunately stalled. The Padres kept Inman at AA San Antonio in 2008. They started him at AA San Antonio in 2009. Once a 20-year-old nearly four years younger than the AA Southern League in 2007, Inman opened his age 22 season in the AA Texas League finding that age advantage and repeat seasons failing to earn him a promotion to that point. A midseason trip to the hitter’s paradise of the Pacific Coast League was the young righty’s roughest campaign yet, and the Padres returned Inman to San Antonio to finish that 2009 season. It’s difficult to determine this from the transactions listed on the Padres’ official website, but it appears that they did not even place the righty on their 40-man roster prior to the 2010 campaign (I could be mistaken about this). Once a bulldog Top 100 prospect surging through the minors, Inman now passed through the Rule 5 draft as an advanced minors prospect without a path to the big leagues.
Ironically, looking back at the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers rotation, it seems a shame that the club did not select Inman in the Rule 5 draft (it appears no other team selected and returned him to San Diego, either, as Inman began his 2010 campaign in AAA Portland). Even if Inman was a flyball-heavy righty that required mixing his pitches to succeed (rather than amazing stuff), the Brewers could have arguably used that gamble to fill out a struggling back-end rotation. Even worse, the Padres needed 14 starters in 2008 (four between 5-10 GS, four between 14-21 GS), and 15 starters to get through the 2009 season (only one pitcher even started more than 20 games for those Padres): it is unbelievable that the Padres did not use this opportunity to take a chance on Inman in the big leagues. But, they didn’t, and Inman succumbed to injury in 2010, before working in AAA for the Padres, Red Sox, and Rays from 2011-2013.
Inman is undoubtedly one of the best, most intriguing, most puzzling players to fail to make the big leagues in contemporary professional baseball, and his tale is cautionary to Brewers fans and analysts while assessing the current intriguing crop of players burning up the minors. Look deep into those scouting reports, instead of those statistics, to learn about what a player is, or is not, doing in the minors. Be sure to gauge a player’s age against their performance level, while also looking at how they jump from the A-ball levels to the AA levels. Moreover, not every top prospect landed in a trade will materialize at the big league level: this is undoubtedly frustrating for those individual players, and it can shape how we analyze and judge trades, too (we look more for “rankings” sometimes than “tool” profiles). These are just some of the amazing lessons to be learned in retrospect from the Scott Linebrink trade.