Al is rambling about the Brewers’ use of utility players as starters. I checked to see who these utility players have been, what they’ve contributed, and what that means for the Brewers going forward. Then I compared the Brewers’ situation to the Pirates’.
Here are the VORPs of Milwaukee’s best players, according to Baseball Prospectus. (VORP is a decent quick-and-dirty cumulative measure of a player’s value based on comparison to a typical fungible backup or AAA player.)
Grieve (now with Cubs) 10.4
Burba (now with Giants) 9.1
Overbay, Sheets, Davis and Kolb have been excellent; the rest have been around league average for the amount of playing time they’ve received or maybe a bit better. So why have the Brewers lost so many games?
G. Bennett –3.6
J. Bennett 3.2
Kinney (now with Royals) –1.1
Those figures account for every Brewer who has pitched 50 innings or received 150 plate appearances. There have been a couple players (Ben Hendrickson, Adrian Hernandez) who’ve managed to do serious damage despite not receiving much playing time, and the Moeller/Bennett catching situation has been a disaster, but most of these Brewers aren’t going to embarrass you. The problem, as Al’s post indicates, is that it’s not enough merely to settle for not being embarrassed. One Craig Counsell on a team is fine; nine is a huge problem, and the Brewers don’t have enough star power to make up for it elsewhere.
Let’s do the same investigation for the Pirates.
J. Wilson 39.8
C. Wilson 39.6
Benson (now with the Mets) 16.3
The Pirates’ offensive core has been far better than the Brewers’, and its best pitchers have collectively been as good as Milwaukee’s best (and the list above doesn’t even include the amazing Mike Gonzalez, who’s posted a VORP of 16.5 in 33.7 innings). So why have the Pirates as a whole been nearly as bad as the Brewers this season?
The first reason is that the Brewers have overperformed, and the Pirates underperformed, their expected wins and losses based on runs scored and allowed. If we look only at runs scored and allowed rather than wins and losses (which are, I know, ultimately what counts), the Pirates appear to be better and the Brewers appear to be worse.
But then there’s this:
Simon (now with the Devil Rays) –10.2
Stynes (no longer with the Pirates) –8.2
Ty Wigginton has also done significant damage in limited time. The Pirates have nearly sunk to Brewer level this season in part because the utility types that Brewers’ fans complain about have been better than several players who have chewed up innings and plate appearances for the Pirates.
Strangely, this may actually be good news for the Pirates. Both the Brewers and the Pirates have areas they should be thinking of upgrading this offseason (shortstop, third base, catcher and pitcher for the Brewers; center field, third base, pitcher and whatever corner position Craig Wilson doesn’t play for the Pirates). Unfortunately for teams like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, there’s no guarantee that their problems will be solved by the free agents they can afford, so if the Brewers try to sign a shortstop for 2005, there’s a good chance he’ll turn out to be the next Craig Counsell.
If, on the other hand, the Pirates replace Chris Stynes’ production with Craig Counsell’s, they’ve made a huge upgrade. I’m obviously not suggesting the Pirates should sign Craig Counsell, just that the Pirates could dramatically improve their 2005 outlook over 2004 by beginning next season with halfway decent players in place of Stynes and Randall Simon.
In my opinion, the Pirates should save whatever money is available for one good player rather than spreading it around to several mediocre ones. Those types can usually be replaced cheaply with guys like Rob Mackowiak or minor league free agent Daryle Ward. Next year, Brad Eldred, J.J. Davis, J.R. House, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, John Van Benschoten and others will be likely to outperform the glut of cheapo free agents the Pirates usually sign. And as 2004 shows, cheap free agents can inflict significant damage - especially if, as in the Pirates' case, they're handed starting jobs they don't necessarily deserve, then allowed to keep those jobs simply because they're "proven" and they're making bank.