Choose a catcher: Pina, Susac or Bandy?

Martin Maldonado is no longer a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, and as sad as that is for most Brewers fans, it was the right move. The backup catcher was moved to the Los Angeles Angels — along with minor league reliever Drew Gagnon — for 26-year-old catcher Jett Bandy, who by the way, has just a dope name. I wrote about Maldonado’s future a few weeks ago, and although I predicted he’d remain with the Crew for one more season, I’m not at all surprised by the trade.

So the Brewers got rid of one catcher for another catcher, meaning Milwaukee still has three backstops who could essentially start on Opening Day. They have Andrew Susac, who was a part of the Will Smith trade. They have Manny Pina, who put up an impressive .346 OBP in the majors last season. And lastly, the Brewers could pick the newcomer, Jett Bandy, who was worth 0.7 WAR in 70 games for the Angels in 2016.

Later in this post, I’m going to ask you to choose which one should get the majority of playing time during the upcoming season, but for now, let’s talk about each one individually.

Manny Pina

Pina is 29 years old but has just 98 major league plate appearances to his name, with 82 percent of them coming last season. In 33 games for the Brewers, Pina was above-average defensively and just below the average line with his bat with a 98 wRC+. Despite that, though, he impressed at the plate. He walked over 12 percent of the time, and that contributed to a .346 OBP. Now, we must take into account his small sample size. Like I said earlier, he’s barely had a cup of coffee in the major leagues, so we really don’t know if that’s his true talent level. I mean, if it was, wouldn’t you think that he would’ve been given more of a chance in previous years?

For the most part, Pina hasn’t been anything special in the minor leagues. In fact, one could argue that he was just plain bad. But something changed in 2016 when he was in Triple-A as a member of the Detroit Tigers. He posted career highs in wRC+ (147) and OBP (.379) and continued that production when he was picked up by Milwaukee. Other than that year, though, it’s clear why Pina has fewer than 100 plate appearances in the majors.

Pina doesn’t have much power to speak of — he has just 55 home runs across 11 seasons in the minors — and definitely ranks last in that category when compared to Bandy and Susac. So if the Brewers ride with him, they’ll be giving up some offensive fortitude in exchange for solid defense. And that isn’t a bad thing. Having a sound defensive catcher is more prudent than ever before, and that’s essentially what Maldonado was. He had more pop than Pina, but he was most known for his defensive abilities.

Prediction: I don’t think Pina will make the Opening Day roster. Yes, he had a surprising season a year ago, but his minor league track record says that it won’t happen again. Plus, he’ll be 30 in June, too old to be a crucial part in Milwaukee’s rebuild.

Andrew Susac

Susac will be 27 by the time the season kicks off, which means he should be entering his prime playing days, and from the little I’ve seen of the former backup to Buster Posey, I’m encouraged.

In 262 plate appearances, Susac has produced a .317 wOBA and a 104 wRC+ (four percent above league average). Now, his wOBA and OBP (.309) are not desirable. He has too many holes in his swing and needs to improve his contact rate (72.2 percent) and cut down on his whiffs (13 percent). To his credit, though, he has more power than people give him credit for. I think his ceiling his 20 home runs and his floor is around 10 during a full major league season. That may not seem like a lot, but that’s about where Jonathan Lucroy landed. And of course I’m not saying Susac is the next All-Star catcher in Milwaukee. I’m simply saying he has some untapped power potential. Steamer, a projection system used by FanGraphs, has him pegged for nine home runs in just 267 plate appearances in 2017. The power is there, guys.

He was always a good hitter in the minors. I wouldn’t call him great, but he’s definitely proved he has a chance to be the everyday guy. He didn’t do much in 148 plate appearances with the Giants back in 2015, but his eye at the plate that year (9.5 BB%) and last year with Milwaukee (10.5 BB%) tell me he’s on the right track. I just think he needs a legitimate chance.

Prediction: Susac is a better all-around baseball player than Pina, so I think that gives him the leg up. I’d be very surprised if Susac failed to make the roster out of spring training, and I think he has a very good chance to get the Opening day nod from manager Craig Counsell.

Jett Bandy

Like Susac, Bandy will be 27 by the time the season starts up, and last year was his first shot in the majors. In 231 plate appearances, Bandy accumulated an 83 wRC+ (yuck), a .281 OBP (ew) and a .289 wOBA (puke). Yeah, he was not good at all. But don’t panic. There’s a lot to like about this guy. And guess what? I’m about to tell you what those things are.

Bandy was plagued by a .246 BABIP last season. The major league average on balls in play was .300, and of the 323 hitters with at least 230 PAs, he had the 22nd-lowest mark. Although he finished just a tick below league average in terms of hard-hit rate (27.5%), he exceeded league average on balls hit with medium speed (51.1%), so it’s fair to say Bandy was fairly unlucky during his first year in the bigs.

David Stearns traded for him because he believes in his power potential. Stearns is the first to admit that it hasn’t shown up in his stats, but Milwaukee’s GM sees the hidden value, and once again, I have to agree with The Wizard. Just like I said about Susac, I believe Bandy can be a power-hitting catcher if given the chance to play everyday. He hit a combined 24 bombs in Double-A and Triple-A during the 2014 and 2015 season and crushed eight for the Angels in ’16. His profile is very similar to Susac’s, and that could set up a dynamic catching duo for the Brewers.

Above everything else, Bandy is a lethal defensive catcher. According to FanGraphs’ defensive rating (Def), he ranked above-average in 2016. He threw out 17 base stealers, which was fourth in the American League and first among rookies. He’s got a rocket for an arm, and if he could just improve his skills as a pitch framer, he could legitimately be one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.

Prediction: It’s going to come down between Bandy and Susac, with Susac ultimately getting the majority of the playing time to begin the season. I do think, however, that Bandy will supplant Susac as the starter midway through the season and never look back.

Now it’s time for you to tell me what you think.

Who are the Brewers getting in Travis Shaw, Josh Pennington and Mauricio Dubon?

Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns — or The Wizard, as I like to call him — wasted no time making headlines in the Winter Meetings. In just the second day, the Brewers traded away their best reliever (Tyler Thornburg) for an everyday player (Travis Shaw) and two prospects (Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington) and PTBNL or cash considerations.

Now, I’m not going to dive deep into what exactly the Brewers gave up in Thornburg, but just know that he ranked 15th in adjusted ERA and 18th in adjusted FIP among qualified relievers last season. Thornburg is good. Really good, actually. But there were some warning signs that the Brewers were aware of. For example, Thornburg has quite an extensive injury history, so who knows when/if he’ll break down again, and 2016 was really his only season of note. Milwaukee traded him at the most opportune time and got a good haul in return.

Let’s talk about that haul.

Travis Shaw is the known player in this deal and will be the everyday third baseman for the Brewers in 2017. That means Jonathan Villar (3.0 WAR in ’16) will move to second base — where he’ll likely have more success than he did at third — and Scooter Gennett (0.1 WAR) will be forced to battle for playing time, unless he’s ultimately traded.

Shaw is a better defender than he is a hitter, but at 26 years old, there’s still some untapped potential in his bat. Last year, Shaw posted an 87 wRC+ (13 percent below league average), a .310 wOBA and a .306 OBP. His stats were definitely down from his rookie campaign in 2015, but he still managed to post the same WAR (1.5), thanks to improved defense at the hot corner. Shaw is an immediate upgrade over Hernan Perez, although Perez still figures to see at bats versus lefties, as Shaw accumulated a measly 51 wRC+ in limited time against southpaws a year ago. Still, Stearns said Shaw will have the opportunity to improve, and more plate appearances should only help that.

Shaw, along with newly signed Eric Thames, provides a left-handed power bat to a right-handed heavy lineup, and although he should help the Brewers for years to come — he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2021 — he isn’t the most exciting piece of the trade return.

Before we get to the player I like the most, let’s first focus on Josh Pennington. Pennington turned 21 seven months ago and has yet to pitch above Low-A ball. He was drafted in the 29th round in 2014, falling in the draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a senior in high school. The Brewers, however, believe he’s rebuilt his arm strength, and reports claim he sits in the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball.

Pennington started 13 games in Low-A last season, and racked up a 2.86 ERA and 3.75 FIP. He struck out fewer than eight batters a game and struggled with command (4.29 BB/9), but there’s still a lot to like about this hurler. First and foremost, he’s young and controllable, which is exactly what Stearns has been targeting since becoming the GM. Plus, Pennington just doesn’t have enough experience to be accurately judged yet. His numbers I posted above don’t really mean much without context. His arsenal and ability to hit the high 90s is more telling of his future performance, so at the very least Pennington has a high floor.

Here’s what Stearns had to say about his new pitcher, via Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“He pitched healthy all of last year,” Stearns said. “We’re excited to be able to bring that type of high-upside arm into the system. “It takes a little while sometimes for guys to regain arm strength after Tommy John, and we believe he has.”

Pennington will be a wait-and-see prospect. The Brewers like him, but until he moves up to Single-A, Double-A, etc and starts facing stiffer competition, he’s little more than a lottery ticket that could pay huge dividends.

The third player the Brewers received from Boston is 22-year-old shortstop Mauricio Dubon. Dubon, in my opinion, makes this a home run trade for Milwaukee, as I think he can be an above-average hitter and fielder in the major leagues. He’s already proven he can hit in the minors, and he might be just a season or two away from his debut.

Dubon once profiled as a slap hitter, posting high ground-ball rates throughout his time in the minors, yet that changed when he went up to Double-A halfway through the 2016 season. In 269 plate appearances, Dubon registered a 151 wRC+ and got on base 37 percent of the time, and he showed some pop as well, with six home runs and a plethora of extra-base hits. Now, he won’t be a power hitter in the majors, but his contact ability is extremely encouraging, and that alone could make him an everyday player.

Because the Brewers already have stud defensive shortstop Orlando Arcia, they plan to use Dubon’s versatility at multiple infield positions in the minors, but according to Stearns, for at least this upcoming season, he’ll stick at shortstop.

The Red Sox got a top reliever in Thornburg, and the Brewers added more exciting prospects to an already stacked bunch. Boston gave up a lot, but with the news trickling in that they signed Chris Sale, it’s clear they’re going for it all in 2017. As for Milwaukee, Shaw will be an instant contributor, Pennington is somewhat of an unknown and Dubon could be the far-and-away best player in this trade.

The Wizard strikes again.

Martin Maldonado’s future

Martin Maldonado has been the backup catcher for Jonathan Lucroy and the Milwaukee Brewers since 2012, but now that his former catching mate has a new home in Texas, Maldonado’s role is a bit undefined. Will he start for the rebuilding Brewers in 2017? Or will Craig Counsell go with the newly acquired Andrew Susac or will the 29-year-old Manny Pina — who put up an impressive .346 OBP in limited action last season — get the job?

Before we go into who Maldonado is as a player, we first need to look at his contract. In 2015, the Brewers signed him to a two-year, $1.9 million deal. After that finishes up this year, he still won’t be eligible for free agency until 2019, which means the Brewers have some flexibility with what they decide to do with him.

If I were a betting man, I’d be willing to bet that Maldonado will assume backup duties once again this season. Because the fact is, he’s just not that good. The 30 year old has produced a 71 wRC+ and .299 on-base percentage, and his 2.7 career WAR is mainly a product of his defense, as his skills behind home plate are continually above average (he ranked 12th in pitch framing last season, according to Stat Corner). We know what we’re going to get from Maldonado offensively. Some pop, but low on-base skills. We’ve seen that every year from him. His ceiling has already been reached, and his floor keeps lowering with each turn of the calendar. With that said, though, he did manage to tie a career-high with eight home runs during the 2016 campaign, yet expecting that kind of offensive output again — especially if he remains the backup — is a little asinine.

Maldonado’s future in Milwaukee looks like it may be coming to an end. The Brewers are high on the aforementioned Susac and really, really believe — despite his down year in the minors — in Jacob Nottingham. After Maldondao’s contract runs out, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Brewers moved on from their backup catcher. In all likelihood, he’ll still be a cheap player, which is something that is important to David Stearns, but there’s no value left in him. He is what he is. 2017 could be the last time Brewers’ fans root for Maldonado.

Assuming Maldonado is on the bench to start the season, Susac should get the Opening Day nod from Counsell. He’s not the youngest player (he’ll be 27 on March 22), but he’s proven he can hit in both the minors and the majors. By no means will he be the catcher when the Brewers are ready to compete, but he would at the very least be a better filler than Maldonado.

Milwaukee has already seen a plethora of veterans leave the club, and it’s only a matter of time before it says goodbye to one more in Maldonado.

 

Offseason questions surrounding the Milwaukee Brewers

During the 2015-16 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors won 73 games, a number later matched by the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers, which is admittedly more than most people projected. Granted, Counsell’s Crew lost 89 games, but there’s very little credibility to the people who say that this was a lost season. It’s just not true.

Year one of the Milwaukee’s rebuilding plan has come to an end, and there’s probably at least three more seasons of inadequacy still to come. That means there are questions the Brewers need to address, particularly during this offseason.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Will Scooter Gennett be on the Opening Day roster in 2017?

Gennett followed his replacement-level season in 2015 with another forgettable campaign in 2016. His 0.1 WAR was the fifth-worst in Major League Baseball, and although he hit a career-high 14 home runs, he struck out 21% of the time and the worst defensive season of his major league life.

With Orlando Arcia now a mainstay at shortstop, the Brewers may move Jonathan Villar — who struggled at third base — to second, effectively ending Gennet’s time as a Brewer. On the other hand, the Brewers may choose to live with Villar’s incompetence in the hot corner for the time being, seeing as how they really have no other viable option.

 

Will Ryan Braun be traded this winter?

Rumor has it that the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers were extremely close to pulling off a trade that sent Braun to L.A. and Yasiel Puig to Milwaukee. Apparently time ran out and the trade deadline hit, so no agreement was ever reached. The popular thought is, though, that the two teams will engage in discussions again in the winter.

Braun’s contract is a problem for most teams, but for a club like the Dodgers, money is no issue. Braun is coming off a tremendous offensive season (133 wRC+) and proved he’s still one of the game’s top hitters. The Brewers may have no need for him anymore. They’re rebuilding and by the time they’re ready to compete, Braun will be way passed his prime.

Milwaukee absolutely needs to trade him, and they need to do it this winter. But will they?

The Santana/Nieuwenhuis situation

This will be one of my shorter posts, but there’s something I just need to get off my chest.

I’ve never really had a problem with Craig Counsell as a manager before. Sure, he sometimes uses his bullpen in explicable ways, and yeah, he puts Scooter Gennett in his lineup, but for the most part he’s fine. But now that Domingo Santana is back from a long DL stint, I have an issue with the young manager.

For some reason,  Counsell has been penciling in Nieuwenhuis’ name into the lineup just as often as Santana’s. Since Santana was reinstated from the disabled list on Aug. 19, he’s had just 25 plate appearances. Nieuwenhuis has 27. And that just doesn’t make sense to me.

The Brewers are rebuilding, right? They don’t care about winning in 2016, right? They’re focused on prospect development, right? Then why in the hell isn’t Santana starting every single game?

Nieuwenhuis isn’t by any means in Milwaukee’s future plans. He’s 29 years old and has been worth just 3.5 WAR in his career. There’s a very high chance that 2016 will be the former Mets’ outfielder only season in Milwaukee. The same cannot be said for Santana. He was just acquired last year in a blockbuster trade for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers and figures to be a fixture in the Brewers’ outfield for many years to come.

Santana’s development was already stalled because of his prolonged DL trip, and Counsell placing him on the bench is furthering that. He needs at bats. He needs to see major league pitching, He needs work in the outfield. Having him ride the pine in favor of Nieuwenheis is prohibiting all of that, which makes me wonder if Counsell has any idea how to manage a rebuilding team. And why hasn’t David Stearns stepped in and demanded that Counsell act like a rebuilding skipper?

All of this seems fishy to me.

Who are the Brewers getting in Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz?

It happened. It finally happened.

After Jonathan Lucroy vetoed deal that would’ve sent him to Cleveland, the Milwaukee Brewers were able to strike a deal with the Texas Rangers that shipped him, along with closer Jeremy Jeffress, to the Lone Star State in exchange for OF Lewis Brinson, RHP Luis Ortiz and a player to be named later. It had been long speculated that both Lucroy and Jeffress were going to be traded, but David Stearns cut it close, with reports of the move not surfacing until within minutes of the trade deadline. Multiple sources claimed highly touted prospect Joey Gallo was the centerpiece of the deal, but that obviously never came to fruition.

Lucroy upped his value this season and re-entered the conversation of best MLB catcher after a forgettable 2015. The 30-year-old catcher has been worth 2.8 WAR already (third among qualified catchers) and has created 20% more runs than league average. His hitting ability and defensive wizardry is a big get for the Rangers, who have lacked a capable backstop all season.

Texas also acquired Jeffress, who has turned into a shut-down closer after resurrecting his career in Milwaukee. He saved 27 games in 28 chances, if you’re a fan of that sort of thing, and posted a 2.22 ERA and 3.16 FIP along the way.

But this is a Brewers website, so we know all that. Let’s talk about who Milwaukee is getting in Brinson and Ortiz.

Lewis Brinson is a talented and powerful outfielder who has the potential to be a star. MLB.com ranked him as baseball’s 21st-best prospect when they released their midseason prospect list, and despite his poor showing in Double-A this season (.277 OBP/98 wRC+), the 22 year old has real promise. Some in the industry think his bat is capable of hitting 30 home runs with his plus bat speed if he can stay healthy, which has been a big issue for Brinson during in his minor league career. The outfielder also rates as a top-notch defender with a strong arm and excellent speed. It’s no mystery why so many are high on this kid. The disappearance of his walk rate this season is something to keep an eye on going forward, though.

Like Brinson, Luis Ortiz was a highly regarded prospect not only in Texas’ system, but in baseball as a whole. Ortiz is MLB’s 63rd-ranked prospect and enters Milwaukee’s ranks at No. 5. He owns a plus fastball with an above-average slider that could evolve into a devastating pitch in time. The 20-year-old righty has put together a solid first season in Double-A — in nine games (eight starts) he’s accumulated a 4.08 ERA with a 3.32 FIP. What’s most impressive about this youngster is his control as his BB/9 has remained under two in each level of minor league ball with the exception of Triple-A, and that’s only because he has yet to pitch in Triple-A.

Ortiz projects as a mid-rotation arm who isn’t too far away from making his debut. Give him maybe two or three more years to polish his stuff in the minors, and he just might be ready to be an impact player for the Brewers.

Since taking over the team, David Stearns has made great deal after great deal, and this is no exception.

Who are the Brewers getting in Phil Bickford and Andrew Susac?

About two hours before the 3 p.m. MLB Trade Deadline, Milwaukee Brewers left-handed reliever Will Smith was dealt to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for their No. 1 prospect RHP Phil Bickford and C Andrew Susac. This was the first of two trades the Brewers would make Monday, the other one being the trade of Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to Texas.

Even though I predicted the Brewers would keep Smith for another year, I knew there was a strong possibility he was a goner, and from the looks of it, Milwaukee made out like bandits. Smith, compared to past seasons, is having a somewhat down year. His ERA is up a full run from 2015, and his FIP is up nearly two — not to mention his velocity has been noticeably lower as well. To get a potential top-of-the-rotation arm and an offensive-minded catcher, both of whom have been ranked among the top 100 in prospect lists at one time or another, is a big win for the organization. FanGraphs called giving them up a “steep price to pay” for the Giants, while Baseball America echoed the notion.

But who exactly are the Brewers getting in Bickford and Susac?

We’ll start with the exciting one. In MLB Pipeline’s midseason top 100 prospect list, Phil Bickford, a first-round pick in 2015, landed at #67. Among Brewers’ prospects, he enters as the sixth-best in the system.

The big righty stands 6’4″, 200 lbs with an excellent slider and deceptive fastball that at one point could hit triple digits. His velocity has decreased significantly this season, with reports claiming he sits between 90-94 with his heater. Even so, that hasn’t stopped Bickford, who’s only 21, from having success in the minors. After he posted a 2.70 ERA with an even more impressive 2.45 FIP in Class-A this season, Bickford was promoted to High-A where he’s put up a 2.73 ERA and 3.96 FIP. He’s struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings but has had some trouble with his control since his promotion (3.27 BB/9). By no means is that worrisome by itself, but it’s a significant bump from the 2.25 BB/9 mark he put up in Class-A.

Bickford’s ceiling is probably a No. 2 starter — especially if he can get his velocity back — with his floor being somewhere around a high-leverage reliever like the player he was traded for. Watching his progression in the minors will be fun, and he should be ready for the majors when the Brewers are finally set to compete.

Andrew Susac has appeared in 87 major league games over his career (mainly as Buster Posey‘s backup), and in that small sample size, he’s been worth 1.0 WAR and owns a .309 wOBA and 106 wRC+. He’s not a prospect anymore, and at 26, he doesn’t seem to fit into Milwaukee’s future plans after the rebuild is complete. The former second-round pick will report to Triple-A Colorado Springs and is more of a depth grab for Milwaukee than anything else. Susac is, however, an offensive-first catcher who could start for the next few seasons if Martin Maldonado continues to not hit. But as far as catchers go, the Brewers are biding their time until Jacob Nottingham is ready.