From The Brewsletter — Brett Lawrie: The Foreign Exchange | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Every two weeks, I am proud to share a piece of the Disciples of Uecker Brewsletter, a publication devoted to diving into relevant Brewers topics, past and present.  For $1.99, you get the following article and a longer feature article, Ned Yost: The Obstinate Warrior in a beautiful .PDF format. To buy a copy and support the writing you see below, click the Buy Now button. Need to see more? Read on and enjoy

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On September 10, 2011, Brett Lawrie hit the ninth and final home run of his rookie campaign. It was a 425-foot blast to left-center field off Orioles right-hander Rick VandenHurk, a towering shot that just missed the second deck at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. It was a microcosm of his rookie season: explosive, productive, and promising.

At just 21 years old, Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580. His performance was reminiscent of Ryan Braun’s incredible rookie year in 2007, when the future MVP hit .324/.370/.634 with 34 home runs. Braun played far more – 113 games against 43 for Lawrie – but on a per-game basis, their performance was indistinguishable. Braun’s wRC+ – a statistic scaled by league strength where 100 is average and higher is better – was 155. Lawrie’s was 158.

On September 9, 2011, Shaun Marcum took the mound against Philadelphia. He carried a 3.11 ERA into the start, but he served up five runs over 6⅔ innings. Ryan Howard touched him up for a three-run home run in the first inning on a flat 87 MPH fastball. Marcum kept the Phillies from striking again until the seventh, but lifeless pitching became a theme for Marcum.

Marcum allowed at least five runs in three of his final four starts of the 2011 regular season, including the September 9th performance. The playoffs were an unmitigated disaster. Marcum started three games and never made it out of the fifth inning. He served up three home runs, allowed 16 runs on 17 hits and five walks over 9⅔ innings, and was yanked after allowing four runs in the first inning of Game Six of the NLCS, the final game of the Brewers’ season.

Everybody knew general manager Doug Melvin’s decision to deal Lawrie, the club’s only legitimate hitting prospect both at the time and since, for an injury-prone pitcher like Marcum was a risk. The combination of events in September and October – Lawrie’s explosion, the Brewers’ six-game final cushion in the National League Central, and Marcum’s collapse – created the perception that Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous took Melvin and Milwaukee for a ride.

The perception was an incomplete one. For the first two months, Toronto saw nothing but the bright side of Brett Lawrie. If there was nothing but the bright side, Doug Melvin never would have made the trade. All of Lawrie’s blemishes have been in full view thus far in 2013, and it’s nothing Melvin hadn’t seen in the brash and boisterous Lawrie in the past.

Lawrie’s major league career hit a low point on May 26th. Trailing Baltimore 5-3 in the ninth inning with runners on the corners and nobody out, Lawrie hit a shallow fly ball to right field. The Blue Jays third base coach held up Adam Lind – one of MLB’s slowest baserunners – at third base. Lawrie was furious, and his ire was clearly aimed towards third base.

The run was effectively meaningless. The Blue Jays still would have trailed and still needed the runner at first to cross to tie the game. But Lawrie wanted his RBI, and he wanted his batting average protected by a sacrifice fly. Lawrie remained furious in the dugout. Jose Bautista eventually had to step in and separate Lawrie from manager John Gibbons.

Lawrie caught a brief reprieve, as the Blue Jays rallied to win anyway, capped off by a two-run double from Munenori Kawasaki. Kawasaki’s memorable heroics (and postgame interview) were not enough to fully stave off the press. Lawrie’s meltdown was too public and too selfish. The headline on Richard Griffin’s column in the next day’s Toronto Star was incisive: “Blue Jays’ Brett Lawrie’s petulant display of ignorance was an absolute disgrace.” Or, if you’re into the whole brevity thing, there’s Griffin’s new French title for the third baseman: “enfant terrible.” Imagine if the Blue Jays had lost.

His attitude is nothing new. Lawrie strongly believed he belong in the majors on a September callup at age 19 in 2010. Lawrie hit .285/.346/.451 with eight home runs in 609 plate appearances for Double-A Huntsville. His .797 OPS ranked 35th in the Southern League. Dave Sappelt hit .361/.416/.548 and didn’t get a September callup from the Cubs. Devin Mesoraco hit .294/.363/.594 and didn’t get a September callup from the Reds. Jerry Sands hit .270/.360/.529 and didn’t get a September callup from the Dodgers. All were under 23 years old – real prospects, not versions of a real-life Crash Davis. The list goes on. Brett Lawrie was not special – at least, not as special as he thought he was.

The Brewers refused to treat him as such. Instead, they asked him to go to the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is consistently the greatest collections of prospects you can find. Every year since its inception in 1992, the league has featured most of the league’s premiere prospects, and every year it has been a stop for multiple perennial All-Stars-to-be. Lawrie still saw it as a slight.

He was a 20-year-old kid. Every 20-year-old finds a way to make an ass out of themselves because they think they’re special. Still, most 20-year-old minor leaguers accept assignments from their front offices. ESPN’s Jayson Stark called it a “major blow-up” between player and team. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from Lawrie, either, known for his hyper-aggressive nature. Kvetching about attitude problems is boring, stifling, and better left to the laziest breed of sports journalists, but if Lawrie wasn’t an extreme case, he was certainly acting like one. Assuming an extreme attitude can’t or won’t get in the way of a player’s success is as silly as ignoring an outlandish strikeout rate or nonexistent plate discipline.

It would be as silly as ignoring a lack of in-game power. Despite earning power grades as high as 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, Lawrie needed 1,085 plate appearances to hit 21 home runs between High-A Wisconsin and Double-A Huntsville in his first two professional seasons. His power went from drawing comparisons to Dan Uggla – a five-time 30 home-run hitter – to being described as follows by Baseball America after the 2010 season: “He’s not a prolific home run hitter but piles up extra-base hits by shooting the ball into the gaps.”

And it would be as silly as ignoring the lack of a positional home. Lawrie had moved from catcher to second base looked terrible at both positions. The Brewers had brought two other bat-heavy prospects without a positional home through the system in recent years: Matt LaPorta and Mat Gamel. These hitters without positional homes would have a home at first base if their bats were truly can’t-miss. LaPorta and Gamel apparently could miss. The pair has combined for minus-1.6 WAR over 1,337 plate appearances.

Lawrie was valuable because the answer to the question “Could Brett Lawrie be a superstar?” was plausibly “Yes.” The Blue Jays were not going to win in 2011 nor 2012, their remaining years of team control over Shaun Marcum, and they were correctly concerned about his injury issues. The deal was a clear fit for Alex Anthopolous as he prepared for his own run at a playoff spot. If Lawrie developed into a superstar, tremendous. If he developed into just an average third baseman, his skills down the road would help more than Marcum’s in 2011 and 2012.

Lawrie’s 2011 season couldn’t possibly have gone better. It wasn’t just his power at the major league level. First it was his power explosion at Triple-A Las Vegas – 18 home runs and a .661 slugging percentage in just 69 games – and a shockingly successful transition to third base. Lawrie finally got the callup he pined for in Milwaukee in August. No attitude problems. No defensive problems. Grade 70 power in the flesh. All the questions were asked and answered.

But as time has pressed on, the iffy parts of Lawrie’s game have jumped to the surface. His plate discipline reverted to the mediocrity of his minor league career. He hit just three home runs in his first 43 games of 2012, and he didn’t make up for it by shooting the ball into the gaps. He finished the year at .273/.324/.405. He served a four-game suspension for firing his helmet an an umpire after disagreeing with a strikeout call. The positional change – the least predictable part of his incandescent 2011 – was the only part of his improved game that stuck. Since the end of the 2012 season, Lawrie has hit .259/.311/.398. The resulting 93 wRC+ ranks 132nd of 171 players with at least 600 plate appearances, and 15th of 17 third basemen

Focusing completely on the negatives of the past couple year and change will lead to a poor analysis, much like the unyielding focus on Lawrie’s postives in 2011 led to an unreasonably optimistic forecast of his future. Lawrie is still just 23-years-old. Both scouts and defensive metrics agree his move to third base has been a wild success. He has used his athleticism to become anywhere from above-average to excellent on the position, depending on your source. Even if he turns out to be just an average hitter for the next four years, Lawrie will be an asset for the Blue Jays.

But the Brewers should be perfectly happy having dealt an asset – not a superstar, but merely a solid starter – for what Shaun Marcum meant to the 2011 Brewers. His brilliance in the first five months of the season – a 3.24 ERA over 169 1/3 innings – was instrumental in pushing the Brewers ahead of the pack in the National League Central, particularly in the first half as Zack Greinke was first hurt and then struggled to get his Brewers career off the ground. And his presence was likely necessary to get Greinke to waive his partial no-trade clause. Greinke had already rejected a trade to Washington and a $100 million contract from the Nationals because he didn’t feel like they could win. The Brewers won 77 games in 2012 – better than Washington’s 69, but hardly the definition of a clearly competitive team. But Greinke recognized pitching was Milwaukee’s weakness in 2011, and with Marcum around, he saw the makings of a competitive team. He was obviously right.

The 2011 playoff run does not happen without Zack Greinke, who was brilliant in the second half, and Zack Greinke does not become a Brewer without Shaun Marcum. Flags fly forever, and pulling in the club’s first division championship and playoff series victory since 1982 was a huge moment in the franchise’s history. Ideally, the Brewers will get to a point where such a season is unremarkable or even a disappointment. But they are nowhere near this point yet, and as such the 2011 shines as one of the most important and successful the Brewers have experienced.

That said, casting the Marcum trade as one that turns its nose up to the future is myopic. The sequential acquisitions of Marcum and Greinke were elegant in the options they presented for 2012. Either the team would remain competitive and shoot for its first consecutive playoff appearances since 1981 and 1982, or the team would be able to use these mound assets to restock for the future. Marcum’s injury issues precluded pulling in any trade value or free agent compensation, but trading away Greinke in the lost 2012 season pulled in Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena. Segura was a top-60 prospect at the time of the trade – much like Brett Lawrie in 2010. And, of course, Segura’s 2013 season has been leagues above Lawrie’s.

In the end, trade evaluation always comes down to philosophy. Baseball evaluation is not a science. There are no control groups and no repeatable experiments. How do you value the 2011 playoff run? How do you value Brett Lawrie’s once and future promise?

Regardless of where you fall, though, the events of the last two years should show you why the Brewers were so willing to make the giant gamble that sent Brett Lawrie north of the border. The risks inherent in his game and his personality weren’t immediately apparent, but they were always part of the exchange.

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