During the winter of 2009, Pat Burrell was let go by the Philadelphia Phillies without an arbitration offer. Burrell was a type A free agent, meaning that another team signing Burrell would result in the Phillies forfeiting their first round draft pick to that team. Burrell was almost certainly going to decline the offer, and he proceeded to sign with the Rays for a 2 year, 16 million dollar contract, which many analysts pegged as a win for the Rays. The Phillies replaced Burrell with noted defensive butcher Raul Ibanez, a much older player in a similar mold, and signed him to a contract worth $30 million over 3 years. Clearly, the Rays would come out on top in this little exchange.
Instead, the Pat Burrell era ended in Tampa as he was designated for assignment on Saturday after putting up a .218/.311/.367 line as the designated “hitter” of the Rays. Meanwhile, Raul Ibanez thrived in Philadelphia in 2009, and despite a slow start to the season has put up a batting line of .267/.346/.529.
What does all this have to do with the Milwaukee Brewers? Pat Burrell entered the season as the 3rd highest player on the Rays, making 9 million dollars in 2010, only less than Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. Despite sitting at 25-11, the best mark in the major leagues, the Rays are playing in the best division in baseball and are by no means locks for the playoffs. Pat Burrell wasn’t producing, and the Rays felt that they were not in a position to carry even a single roster spot that wasn’t producing at its maximum potential. With Hank Blalock producing at AAA, Burrell clearly wasn’t the best option.
Releasing Burrell is very important in two ways. First of all, the Rays are still on the hook for the rest of his contract and cannot possibly get any return from that money. A sunk cost like that can be incredibly detrimental to a small market franchise – Bill Hall’s roughly $7 million due from the Brewers may have prevented them from signing a higher tier pitcher like Rich Harden or Joel Piniero over Doug Davis. Secondly, by releasing Burrell the Rays are admitting that this high profile decision – among the highest free agent salaries ever handed out by the franchise – turned out poorly.
The Brewers have a similar situation. Starting pitcher Jeff Suppan was signed to a 4 year, $42 million contract before the 2007 season. Unlike the Burrell contract, this one has no defense in retrospect. Suppan has been parasitic to the Brewers over the 3+ seasons he’s been with the team, compiling a whopping 1.6 wins above replacement over that time period. Now, Suppan appears to be below replacement level, or maybe in the most optimistic of scenarios, a replacement level reliever.
There are certainly better options within the organization. I’ve covered Zach Braddock’s season at AAA previously, and I believe he would immediately become one of the top three or four relievers on the team if called up. Chris Capuano is looking great in his minor league starts, and even though he isn’t ready to contribute yet, a roster spot will likely be needed for him at some point this season. Chris Smith, the closer for Nashville, has looked excellent, and Tim Dillard has thrived in a new role as a reliever as well. The callup of John Axford has already crippled the Brewers bench, meaning that another hitter will likely be needed at some point in the near future as well.
The Brewers are in an even worse situation than the Rays to be wasting a roster spot, as their 15-21 record is now 5.5 games out of the Wild Card and the 4th worst record in the league. The Rays have shown a willingness to acknowledge sunk costs and risk potential embarrassment with their replacement of Pat Burrell with a warm body in Hank Blalock. It’s time for the Brewers to do the same with Jeff Suppan. The bullpen clearly cannot afford to have his dead arm only available for low leverage situations. With the Brewers at a precarious point in the season, it’s time to shake things up and give this roster a chance at a turnaround. A good organization will not be concerned with the looks nor will it be caught clinging to the hope that a sunk cost will magically begin to produce.
The Brewers must be a well-run organization to contend. The Rays have shown over the past three years that they are almost certainly the best run organization in the league. It’s time to take a page out of their book.