If you’re the general manager of a contending club in need of a closer, or even a reliable setup man for your bullpen, don’t you have to call Doug Melvin?
“Yeah, I would think so,” said the Brewers’ general manager. “And I am getting calls on our bullpen.”
Of the unfortunate clubs that already have fallen from their divisional races, the Brewers have the best bullpen going. Entering Saturday, their 2.93 relief earned run average ranked fifth among the 30 big-league teams.
“I guess the bullpen is one thing we did right this year,” said Melvin, whose team quickly fell out of the race with shaky starting pitching and now is trying to get by with a lineup decimated by injuries.
The Brewers have four relievers with closing experience in the majors — John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Michael Gonzalez and Jim Henderson. There would be little incentive to trade Henderson, the current closer, because he makes a rookie salary.
Teams are showing interest in the others, and in particular Axford and Rodriguez, who have been on top of their games. After quickly pitching his way out of the closer’s role with the Brewers at the start of the season, Axford regrouped and had not allowed a run in his last 20 appearances entering Saturday. Since signing late with the Brewers, Rodriguez has been very effective, allowing one run in 17 outings and converting all six of his save opportunities.
Axford is the Brewers’ highest-paid reliever with a $5 million salary but only half of that remains at this point. The question is: what would a team give in return to trade for him?
“Teams have to determine what is important to them and how they value relief pitchers,” Melvin said. “Sometimes they don’t want to give up a lot to acquire them. They think teams will give up guys just to get rid of their contracts. We’re not really looking to do that.
“In 2011, one of the main reasons we won (the NL Central) was because Axford and ‘K-Rod’ didn’t give up runs. It’s an area you sometimes have to add to as the season goes on because some relievers wear down.”
Axford understands the irony of pitching so poorly at the outset that he lost his closer’s job with the Brewers. But now that he’s pitching so well, some other club might want him to be their closer. But he isn’t necessarily looking forward to a change of scenery.
“I’m really happy being in Milwaukee and playing for the Brewers,” Axford said. “That’s not something I really want to think about. I’m sure there will be talk about it as we get closer to the trade deadline. Teams probably will test the waters and see what the Brewers’ response is.
“I feel fantastic right now, and I plan to just focus on continuing to throw the ball well. We have a really deep bullpen with a lot of guys doing a good job. A lot of us has been closers and had success. So I’m sure there will be interest in our bullpen. But we have jobs to do and that’s where our focus will be.”
As for the distractions that can come with hearing one’s name associated with trade rumors for the first time, Axford said, “I’ll be fine with it. You have to block that out and focus on your job here.”
Starting pitching market
Some contenders also will be looking for an experienced arm to plug into their rotations, and there has been much conjecture as to whether Melvin would move Yovani Gallardo or Kyle Lohse, his two best starters.
Lohse is on the first year of a three-year, $33 million contract and is 34, which might cause pause among some interested parties. Gallardo is 27 and signed through next season with a club option for 2015 and would be more attractive to teams looking for a starting pitcher.
Melvin made it clear that he’s not looking to move either pitcher but is always willing to listen to any club that might make an offer he can’t refuse.
“I know we’re listed as one of the ‘sellers,’“ said Melvin. “Teams are called ‘buyers’ or ‘sellers.’ I just view it as always looking to make a trade that helps the club for the future. You want to make your club better if you can.
“(Trading Lohse or Gallardo) is not something we have to do. We’re not necessarily looking to sell. But if somebody steps up (with a big offer), I’d have to listen.”
The missing links
Though starting pitching woes were a major factor in sinking the Brewers early, a bigger concern of late has been the gaping hole in the middle of the lineup caused by injuries.
That news became worse when first baseman Corey Hart, usually the No. 5 hitter, was lost for the entire season when he injured his left knee while rehabbing from right knee surgery. No. 3 hitter Ryan Braun remains sidelined by a nerve issue affecting his right hand and thumb, and it’s anyone’s guess when he might return. Cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez is playing with an injured left knee that has robbed him of his power.
“Those three combined for 98 home runs last year,” noted Melvin. “Right now, they have 14 home runs (nine by Braun, five by Ramirez). As much as you’d like to have strong Nos. 1 and 2 starters, you’d like to have the middle of your lineup healthy.
“To have success, you’ve got to stay healthy at key positions. You can get by for short periods of time, but it’s hard to plan for long-term absences. We have a lot of money on the (DL), but we can’t just use that as an excuse. We haven’t played good baseball.”
Hart is a free agent after the season and might have played his last game with the Brewers. Had he returned in early June from his original surgery as hoped, Hart would have been a major chip for the club on the trade market.
If the club doesn’t think prospect Hunter Morris will be ready for the majors in 2014, however, it might behoove both sides to do a one-year deal with Hart at a smaller salary but loaded with incentives. A lot will depend on the future health of his knees.
Unless, of course, the Brewers are holding out hope that Mat Gamel will return from two lost seasons after tearing his right ACL twice.
Ramirez is to be commended for playing with a balky left knee that he first sprained in spring training and then again in April. Manager Ron Roenicke has to give him a game off every three or four days, but Ramirez is determined to play as long as he feels he can make contributions.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “I’m not healthy and I might not be the rest of the year. But I’m going to keep battling and go out there and do my best. When I play two or three games in a row, especially a day game after a night game, it’s a little tougher.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent this year, but I have to deal with it. I have no choice. It’s hard to explain but it’s not healthy, put it that way. But it’s good enough for me to try to go out there and help the team until I can’t do it anymore. If it gets to the point where I can’t help the team, then we’ll do something.”
Going, going, way gone
An interested observer sent a video (you can find it on YouTube) of an impressive feat by David Denson, a prep first baseman out of California selected by the Brewers in the 15th round of the June amateur draft.
In a showcase event last winter at Marlins Park in Miami, Denson wowed observers by smacking a 515-foot home run during batting practice. It was the longest homer ever in that annual Power Showcase, surpassing a 502-foot blast by Bryce Harper at Tropicana Field before he became the first pick in the 2010 draft.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Denson hit nine homers that day, with three going at least 500 feet. He lasted until the 15th round of the draft because of a limited amateur background, some holes in his swing and other shortcomings. He was rated the 285th best player in the draft by Baseball America but was taken at No. 452 by the Brewers.
Another interesting thing about Denson, especially given his limited amateur background, is that he has a keen eye at the plate. Playing for the Brewers’ rookie club in Arizona, beyond two homers and four RBI in his first six games, the left-handed slugger drew seven walks to give him a .440 on-base percentage despite a .188 batting average (3 for 16).
Distinguished honor for Selig
On Thursday night in New York City, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig accepted one of the most prestigious awards of his career when he was given the B’nai B’rith International 2013 Distinguished Humanitarian Award. Selig was awarded for his phlanthropic leadership, commitment to community and support for a wide range of charitable causes.
With the backing of MLB, Selig has been a leader in supporting such programs as Stand Up 2 Cancer, Welcome Back Veterans, the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and the National Day of Remembrance, which was launched after the Sept. 11 attacks. MLB also supports the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps those in need formerly associated with the game, and has used Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to raise money to back research for breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Selig and MLB also are avid supporters of the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, P.L.A.Y (promoting active lifestyles for children) and many more programs. Selig was the driving force in putting into effect the annual Jackie Robinson Day in which MLB honors the breaking of the game’s color barrier. Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, made introductory comments at the event, as did MLB vice president Joe Torre.
“We use our platforms to promote diversity and tolerance and to raise awareness on issues that demand our attention,” Selig said in accepting the award. “We respond to crises and disasters, knowing we have the influence to set an example for others. Baseball instills life values. Sportsmanship. The importance of day in and day out effort. We are living up to our stature as a social institution with many important responsibilities away from our green fields and blue skies.”
A long wait
When the Brewers announced their intention after the 2012 season to go with younger pitchers in their rotation, some fans wondered why they didn’t try to keep free agent Shaun Marcum from leaving. And when Marcum signed with the New York Mets for only $4 million, those questions grew.
That clamoring stopped when the 31-year-old right-hander lost his first nine decisions this season, albeit having some tough luck at times. That drought finally ended Wednesday when Marcum pitched eight shutout innings in a 3-0 interleague victory against the Chicago White Sox.
The Brewers backed off Marcum because of injury concerns after he was limited to 21 starts (7-4, 3.70) last season by elbow issues. He started the 2013 season on the Mets’ DL after experiencing shoulder problems in spring camp.
“I think it’s huge,” Mets manager Terry Collins said of Marcum finally getting a victory. “You don’t get to the big leagues without having a little bit of an ego and a sense of pride, and nobody likes to look up and see a zero in the win column under their name.”