Failing First | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Failing First

By on June 7, 2013

One third of the 2013 season is finished for the Milwaukee Brewers. Prior to Thursday’s game, the Brewers had managed to go 22-36 for a .379 winning percentage. Only the Houston Astros (22-38, .367 WP) and the Miami Marlins (16-44, .267 WP) have fared worse in the standings. Many of the Brewers problems stem from a pitching staff that has allowed, on average, five runs a game while the Brewers’ bats have only plated four runs a game. This run a game disparity has led to a –58 run differential, which is also third worst in the league behind the usual suspects –

  • Milwaukee Brewers (232 RS – 290 RA) – 58
  • Miami Marlins (177 RS – 265 RA) -88
  • Houston Astros (242 RS – 331 RA) -89

Yet, shockingly, according to FanGraphs WAR calculations, as of Thursday, the Brewers’ pitchers were not the worst performing part of the team. That dubious distinction didn’t even fall on second base and the much-maligned play of Rickie Weeks. Nope, the biggest black hole on the field for the Brewers has been at first base — where a revolving door of ex-short stops, catchers, and, most recently, a third baseman have combined for a –2.7 WAR.

For those unaccustomed to the metric, WAR, an acronym for “Wins Above Replacement”, takes all aspects of the game into consideration and scales a player’s performance for easy comparison. On the scale, 0 represents the play of a promoted minor leaguer, or waiver wire pick-up, and is considered the “replacement” from the metric’s namesake. Meaning, after Corey Hart’s knee surgery and Mat Gamel’s freak re-injury, the Brewers should have been able to put a player at first base that could manage a 0 WAR. Instead, the Brewers’ ragtag group of first basemen greatly underperformed to the tune of a –2.7 WAR. In theory, the Brewers could replace their current first basemen with another replacement level player, who has 0 WAR and, over the next 60 games, pick up an extra two or three wins with the new 0 WAR player contributing an additional 27 or so runs to the team.

Whether the Brewers’ front office was looking at these advanced metric, or not, they also understood that their first basemen were greatly under-performing. That explains why, earlier this week, the Brewers traded for Juan Francisco and DFAed Alex Gonzalez. But the Brewers’ badness at first base isn’t just apparent in WAR. This season, the Brewers’ first basemen have been bad by many, many metrics. Here’s a list of the categories where the Brewers first basemen are last in the league as compared to the MLB’s second worst team –

WAR wRC+ wOBA AVG BB%
Brewers at 1B -2.7 36 .225 .187 4.1
Second Worst Team at 1B -2.0 53 .247 .198 6.0
(White Sox) (Marlins) (Mets) (White Sox) (Cardinals)

Since Prince Fielder left Milwaukee for the greener pastures paychecks of Detroit, ten different players have slipped on the first baseman’s mitt for the Brewers.

Games at 1B
Corey Hart 97
Yuniesky Betancourt 30
Travis Ishikawa 27
Mat Gamel 20
Alex Gonzalez 16
Taylor Green 14
Martin Maldonado 7
Brooks Conrad 4
Blake Lalli 3
Juan Francisco 2

With Corey Hart’s impending free agency, first base could turn into another black hole next season. The Brewers have Hunter Morris, the organization’s 2012 minor league player of the year, waiting in the wings. Of course, as Mat Gamel’s unlucky ascension to the majors proved, nothing is certain. Earlier this year, Disciples of Uecker picked Morris as the team’s seventh best prospect and characterized him as being an Aubrey Huff type of player. Here’s how Morris’ career minor league numbers stack up compared to the Brewers’ last two top prospects at first base.

Seasons PA HR RBI BB SO AVG OPS
Prince Fielder 4 1635 91 327 237 320 .297 .921
Mat Gamel 7 3210 105 503 316 612 .304 .873
Hunter Morris 4 1631 67 252 99 302 .276 .823

Morris has some pop in his bat but his plate discipline might be a little concerning –

  • 0.33 BB/K
  • 6.1% BB%
  • 18.5% K%

If Morris can transfer that type of plate discipline to the show and still manage an OPS around .820, and that’s a big if, those numbers become strikingly similar to what Alex Gordon has posted so far this season — of course, with a lower AVG but higher SLG. Yet, if the club feels Morris isn’t ready, or unforeseen circumstances strike, the first base black hole looms large again.

Mat Gamel is under team control until 2017 but his injury history calls into question his reliability. Corey Hart has expressed an interest in re-signing with the Brewers, but he will be 31 next year, and has also been plagued by injuries. In addition, Hart, making $10M this year, would probably seek a multi-year deal and might resist a pay cut — two factors that might not sync with the Brewers’ long-term plans.

If the Brewers went to the free agent market at first base, here’s who will be available this off-season, according to Baseball Prospectus -

(* – indicates a player whose contract contains an option for 2014)

Current Age 2013 Salary
Lance Berkman* 37 $10M
Jason Giambi 42 $750K
Travis Hafner 36 $2M
Todd Helton 39 $5M
Eric Hinske 36 $1.35M
Paul Konerko 37 $13.5M
Mike Napoli 31 $5M
Casey Kotchman 30 $700K
Adam Lind* 29 $5M
James Loney 29 $2M
Kendrys Morales 30 $5.25M
Justin Morneau 32 $14M
Mike Morse 31 $6.75M
Lyle Overbay 36 $1.25M
Carlos Pena 35 $2.9M
Mark Reynolds 29 $6M
Kevin Youkilis 34 $12M

If Morris needs more time to develop, and Gamel’s health is still a question mark, some have suggested that Aramis Ramirez could be moved to first base next year. This would reduce the wear and tear on the veteran’s knee while still keeping his bat in the line up. Yet, with no clear third base prospect knocking on the major league door, the Brewers would have to fill the vacant third base job internally or dip into the less than impressive list of free agent third basemen. Again, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

(* – indicates a player whose contract contains an option for 2014)

Current Age 2013 Salary
Wilson Betemit* 31 $1.75M
Eric Chavez 35 $3M
Mark DeRosa* 38 $750K
Mike Fontenot 31 $1.05M
Jerry Hairston Jr. 37 $3.75M
Brandon Inge 36 $1.25M
Placido Polanco 37 $2.75M
Mark Reynolds 29 $6M
Juan Uribe 33 $8M
Kevin Youkilis 34 $12M
Michael Young 36 $16M

Obviously, there are many balls still in the air for the 2013 season. The Brewers will see an uptick in production at first base once Corey Hart returns from the disabled list. But his absence has highlighted something important. If Hart isn’t resigned for next season, and the Brewers’ roster of starting position players stands pat, the biggest question mark going into the 2014 season will be who plays first base. While improvements to the pitching staff hold the key to a more competitive team, this season’s trials and tribulations, and fair share of bad luck, have shown first base to be a position where the Brewers also need to find a significant upgrade.

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