Free Agency Report: National League, Part IX
C.C. Sabathia was the ultimate hired gun for the Brewers, and although they really did try to bring him back, the Yanks gave him 161 million reasons to bolt.
Spring Training is underway and we’ll have actual boxscores to peruse come Wednesday! How sweet is that? With that in mind, we push forward with our Free Agency report. Miss the other sections of this near-legendary tome? No problem-o, dude. We got you covered:
After showing nice progress in 2007, the Milwaukee Brewers were one of the feel good stories of 2008, taking another significant leap forward en route to 90 wins, the NL Wild Card and the team’s first playoff appearance in 26 years.
Fueled by the NL’s second best pitching staff, which was bolstered by the mid-season acquisition of C.C. Sabathia (who was absolutely dominant in Sausage City) the Brewers spent most of the summer blazing towards the playoffs. Sure, a late season slump almost cost them that shot and it took a win on the final day of the season to wrap it up, but after an entire generation of Brewer fans had suffered through a postseason drought, no one was complaining. Yes, the Brewers were dispatched fairly easily in four games in the NLDS by the eventual World Series champion Phillies, but the message was sent that this team was no longer a doormat for the rest of the NL.
Unfortunately, the offseason took a big chunk of those good feelings away. Gone are twin aces Sabathia and Ben Sheets, replaced by Braden Looper. Uh, yeah.
Team owner Mark Attanasio believes that the team is tapped out salary wise after taking on the Sabathia contract and also adding Ray Durham in a mid-season deal and then enduring an expensive offseason that included new contracts for Prince Fielder (who has slimmed down, but has a fatter wallet thanks to a two-year, $18 million deal) and Corey Hart ($3.25 M), not to mention Looper, who could earn as much as $12.25 million over the next two years.
On the plus side financially, after wasting $10 million on Eric Gagne last season for a seriously ugly campaign, the Brew Crew was able to bring him back on a cheap, incentive-laden minor league contract for 2009. Of course, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work before Gagne manages to earn himself another late-inning role as he’s fallen pretty low down the pecking order in the Milwaukee pen, assuming he even makes the team.
One wonders whether the Brewers (12th in hitting, but fifth in home runs last season) will have enough offense to withstand the weakening of their pitching staff this season. Third baseman Bill Hall, who has been sliding downhill for a couple of seasons now anyways, is dealing with a calf injury, and will get a late start on his spring. This does not bode well for a rebound. And while that may be addition by subtraction in some people’s minds, and perhaps serve only to expedite the dawn of the Mat Gamel era, the uber prospect is also hurting this spring with a shoulder issue. That leaves Mike Lamb as the main option at the hot corner for now. Yeah, I know…it’s hard not to wet yourself when you hear that.
The Brewers only had 10 free agents to deal with, but with four key hurlers included on this list, the team took a serious hit to its staff and will be very hard pressed to remain among the top pitching teams in the NL. Fortunately, the losses on offense were only to role players.
Russell Branyan, 3B: After starting the season in the minors and then getting hurt in August, Branyan didn’t see much big league action last season, but when he did play he actually put up a decent BA for once and showed enough to earn himself a contract from the Mariners. He’ll participate in what looks like a wide-open competition for the starting first base job in Seattle.
Craig Counsell, 3B: Counsell saw less action in 2008, but he knows how to get on base and has excellent strike zone judgment, two ingredients that led Milwaukee to re-sign him. It’s Counsell’s flexibility that makes him valuable, at least for a real baseball team. He actually proved useful when Rickie Weeks went down in June, and could get into the 3B mix this spring with all the injuries Milwaukee is dealing with. He’s no spring chicken, but Counsell proved he still has a bit of life left in him when used judiciously as a role player.
Ray Durham, 2B: Durham was enjoying a strong season with the Giants, doing a way better job of getting on base than he had in years. Traded to Milwaukee in July, he hit well for Milwaukee and continued to exhibit good patience. Although not a productive, full-time player any longer, Durham still has very good gap power and his recovery in OBP last season was really startling. He’s still a free agent, and KC is a possible suitor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Durham had to settle for a minor league deal as no one is really desperate for keystone corner help right now.
Eric Gagne, RHP: Gagne was signed to take over at closer, but he was unable to stay healthy, was tremendously ineffective and ultimately proved that he wasn’t the answer, losing his job. As mentioned, Milwaukee has brought him back for much less money and he’ll have to fight for a job with plenty of bullpen candidates in town.
Gabe Kapler, OF: Kapler was a big surprise early in the season, but ultimately faded back into his traditional extra outfielder role. Still, he did enough as a part-timer to earn a contract from defending AL Champs Tampa Bay, where he will compete for the starting right field job.
Mike Lamb, 3B: It didn’t surprise us at all when Lamb flopped in Minnesota, losing playing time and then getting the boot outright. Milwaukee signed him late in the season, and he was even worse while playing in Beer City. For some reason, The Brewers re-signed him and now, thanks to the rash of injuries to their third basemen, he could factor in as an important piece in the early going. And that’s just plain scary.
Guillermo Mota, RHP: Mota bounced back nicely after his awful 2007 season in which he had to deal with a drug-related suspension. He upped his K rate, was harder to hit and offered some value in NL-only leagues thanks to his wins and holds. The Dodgers opted to sign the inconsistent reliever, hoping that returning to the site of his best seasons will help revitalize him further.
C.C. Sabathia, LHP: Sabathia got off to an awful start with the Tribe last season, but turned things around and proved to be an incredible addition for Milwaukee at the deadline, sharpening his control and giving the team an innings-eating stud it so desperately needed to help make it over the hump and into the playoffs. Unfortunately, he priced himself way out of the Brew Crew’s price range with this career season, landing in New York when the Yankees opened the vaults for the big lefty.
Ben Sheets, RHP: Sheets turned in a fabulous season, but the wear and tear on his arm (he matched his career high in complete games) once again took its toll, and a two-year offer from Texas fell through when it was discovered he had a torn flexor tendon in his elbow. He’s since undergone surgery which will likely keep him out until the All-Star break and will necessitate him signing a cheaper deal that will include incentive bonuses.
Brian Shouse, LHP: Shouse gave up more homers than usual, but thanks to his vultured wins, holds and nice ERA, he enjoyed a strong season, dominating southpaws to the tune of a .180 BAA. The Rays, looking to bolster their bullpen, signed him a week and a half ago.
Next: We’ll head east to check in on the New York Mets, who had a boatload of free agents to deal with this offseason.