Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Buyer's Remorse

You might want to mark it on your calendar. April 19. That was the day when Jeff Suppan reemerged as an actual big league pitcher.

And hell, who knows—perhaps it was only for a day. After all, there’s no doubt that at least some of his success can be attributed to the fact that he was pitching in a ballpark that doesn’t have a power alley, but rather, has a par five. Carlos Delgado’s first inning double would have landed somewhere in the Brewers bullpen had Suppan served up the same pitch at Miller Park. But they weren’t playing that game in Milwaukee, and so…it was a win. It was a win that Jeff Suppan really, really needed. But more importantly, it was a win that Ken Macha, Doug Melvin and Mark Antanasio really, really, REALLY needed.

Say what they will, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Brewers brain trust was facing the very real possibility that a $12.5 million pitcher was heading for the bullpen. Had Suppan been rocked like he was in San Francisco or lacked control like he did on that depressing Easter Sunday night against the Cubbies, they would have had no choice. The hole being dug is getting far too deep, and the fans in Milwaukee deserve better than to watch their team stand no chance every fifth game. At this point, the pitcher’s salary should not matter. The point is: three million fans deserve better than that.

And as I watched the game Sunday afternoon, holding my breath on every Suppan delivery, I couldn’t help but think of the ramifications if Suppan does continue his spot-on mound impersonation of Ben Hendrickson. I started wondering just where he would stand in regards to the worst free agent signings in Wisconsin history. So, of course, the only thing to do was to make up a list of the worst free agent signings in Wisconsin history…

As you take a gander at my rankings of ineptitude, please note that this list does not include players that were re-signed to new contracts. Therefore, you will not see the likes of Danny Gadzuric or KGB or Derrick Turnbow. No. These are the guys that our beloved teams plucked from their competitors. And these are the players that we fans wished they would have quikly given back…

10. Marquand Manuel

See Marquand
See Marquand play.
See Marquand take a horrible *#*!ing angle.
Run, Marquand, run.
See the opposing team celebrate.
Boo, Marquand. Boo.

The fact is Manuel’s contract was not that lofty, so he did not cause the same fiscal challenges as the other guys on this list. But when you couple Ted Thompson’s unwillingness to dabble in free agency with the departure of a fan-favorite safety like Darren Sharper, and Manuel’s fate with Packers fan was sealed after the first forty-two or forty-three times he looked completely lost on the field. It also did not help that he somehow managed to start all sixteen games with only one interception.

9. Eric Gagne

I know some Brewer fans will want to see Gagne much higher up on the list. Certainly, the steroids revelation coming out the day after he was signed left a foul taste in fans’ mouths. Not nearly as foul, however, as when he actually started trying to save games. But the fact is, Gagne was only a one year mistake, and therefore his signing was not crippling to the team’s long-term payroll. After all, they were still able to go out and sign CC. Torres emergence as the team’s closer also cushioned the blow of Gagne’s failures. The story almost took a positive turn when Gagne agreed to a minor league deal this spring, but an injury derailed any chance of a make-good season.

8. Bobby Simmons

Admittedly, I was pretty excited when I got the news of this signing. I was at the Tessmer’s housewarming barbecue when my friend Brent asked what I thought of the Simmons signing. I distinctly remember nearly choking on one of Chad’s delicious wieners, out of excitement that the Bucks had gone out and nabbed the league’s most-improved player. And why wouldn’t I have been excited? The last four most improved players included Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady. Hmmm. If only I had known what was to become of O’Neal, Arenas, Randolph and McGrady. I guarantee I would have chewed my wiener much, much more slowly.

7. Tom Brunansky

Even though they were our rivals, I always kind of liked that old Twins team with Puckett, Hrbek, Gaeti and Brunansky. So when the Crew went out and signed one of those offensive juggernauts, I couldn’t help but get a little bit excited. Unfortunately, Mr. Brunansky forgot to pack his bat. In 1993 he hit a whopping .183 with 6HRs and 29 RBIs. In ’94 he played in 16 games and after hitting no home runs and NO RBIs, he was traded for back-up catcher Dave Valle. Let me just type that again…
He was traded for a back-up catcher. Enough said.

6. Jeff Suppan

Yep. This is where I currently have Soup simmering (I had to). He still has two years left on his contract, however, so there’s still plenty of time to make a push for #1!
The Suppan supporters will tell you that his .500 winning percentage is exactly what we should have expected from him on the mound. Most Brewer fans, however, will not forget that this man was signed because he had postseason experience. Experience that meant absolutely nothing after Jimmy Rollins launched his first pitch of game 4 towards the Dew Deck. Had he not had a stellar August, I might have put him up in the top five.

5. Sean Berry.

For all those people who like to take cheap shots at Prince, I offer you exhibit A of the Brewers post-Cooper years. Please stay tuned for exhibit B.

4. Jeffrey Hammonds

Two monumental things happened in the winter of 2000. I finally got my first personal computer, and the Brewers signed Jeffrey Hammonds. This new gadget was a real treat, as I began searching in this fantastic world-wide web. Suddenly, I had hot stove information available each and every day. Brewers season could now last a full twelve months. The new-found joy came to a screeching halt, however, when every single site I stumbled upon talked about how the Brewers signing of Hammonds was the biggest mistake of the winter. I mean every website. Yahoo, ESPN, CBSsports—they all said the same thing: Hammonds had one all-star season in Colorado, and it was purely due to the Rocky Mountain air. Apparently, Dean Taylor had never heard of this theory. And obviously, neither did manager Davey Lopes who said he didn't think Coors was a factor in Hammonds' success. "Jeffrey and I go back a long way," said Lopes, "I see his production last season as a guy getting to play every day for the first time in his career. I think Jeffrey is just now tapping into what he is capable of doing in the major leagues."

Needless to say, my relationship with computers has been tumultuous ever since.

3. Joe Johnson

When you think about it, the Packers probably deserved a horrible defensive line signing, given that White, Dotson and Jones might have been the best three free-agents to ever have been signed to one d-line. The simple fact is—you can’t rush the quarterback if you can’t get on the field. Be honest. If Joe Johnson walked into your office right now, would you know who he was? Neither would anyone in the Packers offices.

2. Franklin Stubbs.

Introducing exhibit B of the post-Cooper years. The truth is Berry actually had worse numbers than Stubbs.

Year 1:
Stubbs .213 11HR 38 RBI
Berry .228 2 HR 23 RB!

Year 2:
Stubbs .229 9 HR 42 RBI
Berry .140 1HR 2 RBI

Both men made over $1 mil in year one and $2 mil in year two, and Berry was released in June. But the reason Stubbs is so much higher in the ranking, however, is because his contract was signed 8 years earlier. And believe me; a $2 million contract was significant in 1990. Especially for the Milwaukee Brewers. And when you consider that for the past two decades I’ve referred to any worthless scrub of a ballplayer as a “Stubbs,” then you should understand why Franklin comes in at #2.

1.Anthony Mason

It isn’t just that Anthony Mason completely disrupted the chemistry of a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. It isn’t just that his crappy attitude helped widen the divide between Ray and Big Dog and between Ray and Coach Karl. It isn’t just that the Bucks completely ignored the fact that Scott Williams was a key part of their previous success. It isn’t just that they traded Williams to Denver simply to clear salary space to sign Mason. It isn’t just that, in order to take Williams, the Bucks also had to give Denver a 1st round pick for Radjovec and Kevin Willis (who they then traded for a second round pick). It isn’t just that the 1st round pick they gave up later became (via trades from Denver to Detroit and then Detroit to Atlanta) the unbelievably athletic Josh Smith. It isn’t just that Mason believed in pounding the ball into submission with his butt rubbing on an opponent, thereby completely bringing an otherwise high-powered offense to a screeching halt.

But when you add all of those things together, you should see why Anthony Mason and his $5 million per year salary ranks number one. He sat out all training camp waiting for the contract he thought he deserved. Because of that, the Bucks are still waiting for him to get in shape.

Brewer fans just hope Soup never gets that chunky (again, I had to). Because the number one spot might only be a couple shellackings away. Thank heavens, therefore, for April 19…

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Brewers Need to Go Around the Van Horn

It’s all right. I get it.

I understand that one exhilarating postseason run doesn’t erase twenty-six years of futility. I understand that CC Sabathia picked the Crew up on his over-sized shoulders and carried them into that series in Philadelphia. And, most importantly, I understand why no one gives my Brewers a chance to return to postseason play.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t.

It’s been several months since I last blogged about the Brewers hopes (or rather, mine) for signing CC. I want to make it very clear that I harbor no resentment for Carsten Charles’ departure to the Big Apple. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a wee bit pleased to see him get lit up a bit today in Baltimore.) This article is not meant to take anything away from the masterful second half of a season that CC composed or undermine what his performance means for this franchise. I just happen to believe that life will go on.

But before I go too far, let’s acknowledge that much has happened since my last blog. My long-time friend Brian asked why I haven’t been blogging of late, and my only answer is that I have been extremely busy with work, my playwriting hobby and my charismatic daughter.

But let’s take a moment to review what we have learned over the past few months:
1. We’ve learned that Aaron Rodgers probably would have got the Jets into the play-offs.
2. We’ve learned that Cleveland getting Mo Williams in exchange for Damon Jones has the rest of the Central division (and perhaps the entire league) cheering for the Bucks to be contracted.
3. We’ve learned that Arizona has a professional football team.
4. We’ve learned that a Bo Ryan team should never be counted as “off the bubble”, just because they’ve lost six consecutive league games.
5. We’ve learned that you don’t ask a blind guy to step away from the piano to shake things up a bit.
6. We’ve learned that success in the NCAA tourney is still dictated by point guards (Reynolds, Lucas, Lawson).
7. We’ve learned that, despite his inability to make a free throw, Marquette’s point guard was a pretty important piece of the success.
8. We’ve learned that Matt Sorenson can actually play a little wide receiver. (By the way, I feel sorry for anyone who decided to watch Friday Night Lights this season. Go back and watch season 1. And then desperately try to burn everything you’ve seen this season from your mind.)
9. We’ve learned that women in Wisconsin still play the best hockey (though I’m not sure that’s a positive for our tourism department).
10. Finally, we’ve learned that if you manage to get off a remote island, which has the unique quality of being able to travel through time, you never EVER intentionally go back.

And that brings us to today. April 6th. The night of the National Championship game and the home opener for most teams.

(By the way, it is completely idiotic that the Brewers start the opening series in San Francisco on Tuesday. Not only does that leave them with a horrible travel schedule for the home opener, it also gives them no wiggle room in the event of a rain out. I really hate the Giants. We take Ray Durham’s salary off their hands. We give them Ernest Riles for Jeffrey Leonard, and this is how they repay us? Jerks.)

A day of optimism. Of: what might be. Of: this could be our year.

But yet optimism for the Crew seems to be limited, at best. It started for me last week when several friends sent emails about a potential rough season. Then on Sunday, it continued when only one writer from the Journal staff predicted a postseason appearance for the Brewers. No one on ESPN.com had the Brewers in the post season. The same was true for the folks who write for Yahoo.

And like I said—I get it. So why, then, do I remain optimistic for the ’09 season? Well, for one thing—I pee Brewer blue. (Okay, really I don’t. But if there was a beer that allowed you to pee your favorite team’s colors, tell me you wouldn’t buy it by the case and buy stock in the company…) And also…I have a theory.

I call it the Van Horn. And it’s a phenomenon that occurs when a team overachieves, even after losing their star and essential heart of the team. To fully understand this theory, you have to rid yourselves of any memories of Keith Van Horn the Milwaukee Buck. Forget the pasty white forward who was the embodiment of the Bucks inability to play defense.

No, instead I need you to remember the pasty white college star from Utah, who was one of the most dynamic scorers college basketball had to offer in the late ‘90s. The guy who led his Running Utes to the Elite Eight in his final college season. And the guy who caused the pundits to write off Utah the following season because he was off to the NBA.

Do you remember what happened to that Utah team the following season? They not only got as far as the original team, they went two rounds further. They managed to knock off the top seeded and reigning champ Arizona Wildcats to get to the Final Four and then beat a second #1 seed (North Carolina) on their way to the championship game. They pulled off the ultimate Van Horn. And on this championship night, it is that team that should give Brewers fans hope for 2009.

It’s not like Wisconsin sports teams don’t have a history of Van Horning. The Wisconsin Badgers team that lost Alondo Tucker (who represented something like 97% of the team’s offense) Van Horned the following season quite nicely. The Packers wide receiving core Van Horned after Sterling Sharpe was injured and the whole world decided that Brett would now have no one to throw to…

So I say this 2009 Brewers squad can Van Horn too. Their sum can be greater than their parts. And here’s just a few reasons why:
1. Jeff Suppan. Come on. Do you really think he could be as bad as he was last year again? I figure Suppan is worth at the very least two more wins this season.
2. Ryan Braun. Just like that Utah team had Andre Miller when they Van Horned, the Brewers have their own spark plug for their offense. Like Miller, he sets the pace and leads by example.
3. Prince Fielder. The Brewers have a Doleac too. A big guy who is an enforcer (just ask Manny Parra) and can also knock one (from) deep.
4. Ken Macha. You hated how Ned Yost kept playing guys mired in month long slumps? Won’t happen this year. Not while Macha’s in charge. Not while McGehee, Duffy and Nelson sit on the bench waiting for their turn to swing it. Put up or shut up will reign supreme in Milwaukee this year.
5. Rickie Weeks. I know, I know. I can hear the guffaws and scoffs of Jonny and Darren from miles away. But by my math, had Rickie not been rushed to the majors, this would have been his second full season. It’s time for the unleashing. And if not, well then…see #4 above.
6. Alcides Escobar. I know I’ve already mentioned the three stellar plays he made in the four innings I saw of spring training ball last season. It was the sexiest debut I’ve seen since Jamie Presley first disrobed in Poison Ivy 3. The Brewers have (wisely) decided to let Escobar mature another year in Triple A. But don’t think for a second that he won’t be summoned if he manages to hit like he did in Double A, come July. He should also be a reminder that the future is still very, very bright in Milwaukee.
7. Dave Bush. Take away his horrible April last year, and you have a legitimate #2 starter to team with Yovani. So let’s do that. Let’s not have a horrible April, okay Dave? I’m predicting 15 wins from Bush this season, which will make for a huge escalator next year if the Brewers want to keep him…
8. Corey Hart and JJ Hardy. Many fans can’t seem to get past Corey’s September swoon. But this kid was an all-star for three-fourths of the season, and there’s no reason why he can’t become a little more consistent this year. I had been begging for JJ to hit in the 5 hole last year, and I’m glad Macha is putting it in motion. JJ is probably the best fastball hitter on the team, and if Prince is getting walked, he’s going to see a lot of fastballs for strikes. Although I’d still hit Corey 1 and Rickie 2, I really like having these two guys at the top of the order. Needless to say, I have big hopes for the top 5 in the order this season.
9. Yovanni. I’m really trying to temper my enthusiasm for this kid, but I just can’t wait to see what he’ll accomplish in a full season. He carries himself on the mound the way Braun carries himself at the plate. And that’s saying something.
10. CC Sabathia. I know, I know. We don’t have him anymore. But the fact that the Brewers went out and got him last year should never be lost on the fans. The ’08 Brewers still had to play well enough to convince Doug Melvin to go out and get CC. And I predict that this year’s Crew will have a better record come July than last year’s squad. Is there another CC out there? Who knows. The Cubs haven’t landed Peavy just yet. Halladay has already been mentioned in rumors. Options exist. Granted, there’s probably less payroll flexibility than year’s past, so a trade might have to include a major leaguer. But that’s where having major league ready talent like Escobar and Gamel can pay off. And if you think the Brewers cupboards are bare, think again. I’d guess that Escobar and Cain are the only two untouchable position players. Hope is only a Doug Melvin phone call away.

So go ahead. Tell me what a horrible bullpen we have this year. Throw out names like Riske and Julio. I understand your concern. Or if you prefer, give me your concerns about starters like Looper and Suppan. I’m not dumb. I get that they are average at best. Or tell me how we’re too strike-out prone and throw out names like Hall and Cameron.

(By the way, Doug Melvin should win an award for his PR work this season. Remember in Bull Durham, when Crash taught Nuke how to interview with appropriate baseball speak? How he made sure Nuke had phrases at the ready like “We’re just going to take it one game at a time”? Well Doug must have held a similar coaching lesson this off season. Go back and look at interviews of different players, coaches, Gord Ash, and even Doug himself and count how many times the following three phrases were used this off season:
1. “We’re not going to change who we are. We are a home run hitting team.”
2. “You don’t replace a player like CC Sabathia.”
3. “The strike-out isn’t the worst out in baseball. The double play is.”
I guarantee you’ll find those quotes from at least five different members of the organization. Kevin Costner, eat your heart out.)

And, I suppose if you really want to make your point as to why the Brewers are doomed, you’ll just mention two names: Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia.

But just know that I have a name for you as well.

Keith Van Horn.

And for the record, two rounds further would mean a trip to the World Series.
Go Brewers.