| Has Marcos Scutaro paid his dues in Indy?
Robert Reineke's article on Ron Belliard points out that Ron Belliard has been one of the Brewers hottest players since a game-losing error on May 17 against the Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, he has done well when the rest of the team has been struggling. With the injuries, and seeing how the team did well when players were healthy and all cylinders were firing, it is quite tempting to stand pat. But like 1980, it may be time to make a deal.
Yes, I am comparing the 2001 Brewers to the 1980 Brewers. This team seems ready to put it together, but it is missing one part. In the winter meetings of 1980, the Brewers needed a dominating closer, and the acquisition of Rollie Fingers filled that need and got the Brewers to the playoffs the next two years.
For 2001, the need is for another starter. The trade deadline is upcoming, and the Brewers need another starting pitcher.
With the Brewers out of the playoff hunt, and playing for next year, most people would think we are in the role of "selling" a player as the trade deadline nears. I diasgree. The Brewers ought to be buying. It's a daring suggestion, but even with the injuries to Tyler Houston and other position players, we still have depth at the middle infield positions of shortstop and second base - with some of the platers able to play third base.
Which makes the present time the best time to make a deal for a starting pitcher, and the hot Ron Belliard is the best person to deal. Packaging Ron Belliard with Jimmy Haynes and a couple of minor leaguers (for the sake of this article, let's assume the players we deal are P Kyle Peterson and 3B Daryl Clark. Clark is #18 on the Power 50 on this website as of July 27).
Why Belliard? Well, the reasons are simple: The Brewers have three players who could allow an immediate replacement of Ron Belliard in the minor league system, Belliard is currently on a hot streak, and e is also due for salary arbitration, meaning he is in line for a pay increase.
Who do we get? Well, the Mets are in need of infield help. Ventura's near the end of the line, and Edgardo Alfonzo has had back problems. Belliard would be a shot in the arm for the Mets infield. And the Mets are looking to shop Al Leiter for the right price. The package outlined above should enable the Brewers to get Al Leiter and infielder-outfielder Joe McEwing from the Mets. McEwing's arrival allows the team to release Luis Lopez. With that done, there remains the hole at second base, and the Brewers will have to call someone up from the farm.
But who gets called up to replace Belliard's current role as the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter? Let's review the candidates. For second base we will want good defense (to avoid a significant drop-off from Belliard). For the leadoff role, we will want to look at their batting average, on-base percentage, BB/K ratio, and stolen base totals and percentage.
Marcos Scutaro, 2B/SS/3B, at Indianapolis all year
Scutaro has played second, third, and shortstop, and is currently hitting well at Indianapolis (.307 batting average, 25 doubles, 8 HR, 38 RBI, .450 slugging, .399 OBP as of July 27). He seems to be a lot like Mark Loretta, only with more power. His defense might be a liability (12 errors in 99 games - 94 of them at second), though. His best bet seems to be as a utility player, where he could probably be relied on for the same production that Luis Lopez had in a career year last year (.264 average, 14 doubles, 6 homers, and 27 RBI in part-time duty). However, his BB/K ratio is a problem (50 walks to 63 K), and he is not very good at stealing bases (10 SB in 18 attempts). While Scutaro might be a good fit in the #7 or #8 slots, he does not seem to have all the tools needed to lead off.
Dionys Cesar, SS, currently at Indianapolis, spent 60 games at Huntsville
Cesar, a six-year free agent from Oakland's system, is a switch-hitting shortstop who's shown some power this year (12 doubles and 8 homers in 227 ABs at Huntsville). He looks like a younger Jose Valentin. While this is good in terms of his potential production (Valentin hit .273 with 25 homers and 92 RBI with the White Sox last year), it is not good for the leadoff slot, especially when the other Brewers hitters have been strikeout prone. Cesar's .282 average is respectable. But his 50 whiffs in 60 games does not look good in the leadoff slot, especially when he only walked 25 times. Furthermore, he has only stolen four bases in seven attempts. At Indianapolis, he's been on a hot streak (hitting .375 with 5 doubles a triple, and 10 RBI in 11 games, but with six strikeouts in 48 ABs) while playing third base. Cesar ranks #29 on the Power 50, and has been playing third base at Indianapolis. But the lack of speed and the 25/50 BB/K ratio is not good for the leadoff slot. Dionys is much like Jose Valentin in one other area - his glove at shortstop is not going to be gold. He has 12 errors in 60 games at Huntsville, and 5 more in 11 games at Indianapolis.
Jeff Pickler, 2B, at Huntsville all year
Those of you who have been on the Brewers board (at mlb.com) have heard me talking a lot about this guy - and I will admit he's my favorite of the three. He does not have much power (seven career home runs since joining the Brewers system in 1998). But what he does do is all the little things. Currently, he is hitting .292, with 10 doubles, 2 triples, and 24 RBI. However, at present, he leads the Brewers system in hits (115), and has done so the past two years. And he's doing so despite an atrocious month of April, where he was below .200. At present, his OBP is .365. His BB/K ratio is 45/31 - a superb figure. And right now, he has 25 stolen bases in 34 attempts. Compare that total to the 32 the Brewers currently have. In 100 games at second base, he has 11 errors - not the best total, but still not one to be ashamed of. He is almost a polar opposite of most of the hitters currently on the major league roster. DickieThon.com's report reported that Pickler had "good speed and generally hits for average." USAToday.com's scouting report (and at least one feature on Pickler) have mentioned Pickler's intensity.
So, who gets the job? Let's set up a brief comparision of the three candidates in the appropriate categories (batting average-OBP-BB/K-SB/CS) as of July 27:
Cesar (60 AA): .282-.350-25/50-4/3 (11 AAA) .375-.423-2/6-1/0
Let's also look at last years numbers in these categories: Scutaro: ..283-.378-62/55-10/6
Cesar (5 A+): .227-.250-1/4-0/0 (111 AA) .277-.333-38/65-13/10
Pickler (71 AA): .303-.376-30/28-15/12 (56 AAA) .307-.388-24/27-14
Dionys Cesar is eliminated outright as a candidate based on these numbers. He'll make a fine #7 or #8 hitter, but he is ill-suited for the leadoff role. Scutaro might be 17th on the Brewerfan.com Power 50 to Pickler's ranking of 36th, but Pickler has jumped six slots from his last ranking. And Pickler's numbers are distorted by his month-long slump.
Furthermore, Pickler has a slight edge defensively, and a decisive edge in speed. He has shown he can hit for a high average (he's been over .290 every stop of his career save for his 1999 showing at Huntsville - where he hit .279), and his BB/K ratio indicates that he has superb plate discipline. And, as his numbers from 56 games at Indianapolis show, he can pull down an OBP and batting average close to Scutaro's levels this year.
There is also another item in favor of Jeff Pickler. That is what the scouting reports and features have reported. Intensity. The never-give-up, never-give-in drive that Fernando Vina showed on May 31, 1996, when Albert Belle delivered that famous forearm. The scrappy attitude that Jim Gantner showed at second base every day from 1981 through 1992. Pickler is a mixture of both of these fan favorites. Like Vina, he will get on base, steal bases. Like Gantner, there is an intensity. And like both of them, he appears to offer solid defense at second. Of the prospects mentioned here, he has the best chance to fill the hole at the leadoff slot. And as Pickler has shown, he's been consistent through most of the minor league stops, and while he might need to adjust to the majors, there's a good chance he will soon be owning second base.
That done, let us look to what the trade and callup means for the rest of 2001 and for the 2002 season. Leiter's contract goes through the 2002 season. For 2001, Al Leiter, Jamey Wright, and Ben Sheets will solidify the rotation, and with Jeff D'Amico apparently recovering well from surgery for his arm problem (not shoulder-related), it appears that the 2002 Brewers starting rotation will be quite good. It has the added benefit of allowing Nick Neugebauer, Jose Garcia, and Jose Mieses to spend the whole 2002 season at Indianapolis. The rotation for the 2002 Brewers will very likely be Wright, Leiter, Sheets, D'Amico, and Allen Levrault. With Haynes gone, David Weathers can be re-signed, keeping a solid bullpen intact. If Mark Leiter or Valerio de los Santos can come back from injury, the bullpen will be even better than it is this year.
Joe McEwing (currently hitting .307 with 5 homers and 18 RBI with the Mets) has played all four infield positions and in the outfield. He's more versatile than Luis Lopez, and he's not as likely to regress as much as Lopez did. Assuming Pickler pans out at second base, Mark Loretta will also join McEwing on the bench, returning to the infield super-sub role he handled so well from 1996 through 1999. Marcos Scutaro will probably force his way onto the 25-man roster ahead of Coolbaugh. The backup outfielders will likely remain as Angel Echevarria and Devon White. Henry Blanco will likely be the #2 catcher (Raul Casanova's bat has become very potent this year, and unless a team has serious threats in the stolen base department, I'm going to go with the potent bat).
As for the starting lineup, Pickler will force Jeffrey Hammonds to the #2 slot - not the best slot in the world, but putting him in front of the "Big Three" (Jenkins, Sexson, and Burnitz) will mean he will see a lot of fastballs. Anyone who doubts that improving protection behind a hitter can improve his numbers ought to look at the difference between Jose Valentin's numbers from 1999 (his last season with the Brewers, where he often batted sixth) and 2000 and 2001 with the White Sox (when he was batting in front of Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Lee. Hammonds might not hit like he did in Coors Field, but he'll make the three-year, $21 million contract look much better. Raul Casanova, Tyler Houston, and Jose Hernandez will complete the lineup of every-day players. From the 2-8 slots, any of the hitters in this lineup has the chance to send a pitcher's mistake into the stands of Miller Park. And most National League teams would not be too upset to have a hitter like Jose Hernandez hitting eighth in their lineup.
The trade and call-up are both risks, but the motto of the Special Air Service applies equally well to baseball. Who dares, wins. If Dean Taylor is daring enough, the Brewer can fill the hole in the starting rotation, bring up a leadoff hitter, and set the Brewers up to play baseball in October for the next few years instead of watching it at home.