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2005 Brewers Preview Part 5: Third Base

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As it has been since the beginning of Spring Training--indeed, since about the time Russell Branyan turned up in Milwaukee last season--nobody knows who's going to be the starting third baseman.

Sure, it's probably going to be some sort of platoon with Branyan against righties, Wes Helms against lefties, and Jeff Cirillo getting some at-bats when Ned decides to punish Branyan and Helms for their K-centric ways. And no matter how it turns out, whether Branyan ends up with a full-time starting job, or even if Cirillo "earns" a decent share of at-bats, the Brewers are almost guaranteed to get more production out of third base than they did in 2004.

Nearly half of the 3B at-bats last year went to Wes "I played good in 2003, didn't I?" Helms, who took the opportunity to hit .263/.331/.361 in about half a season. As we all no doubt recall, when he came back from his freak wet-runway-in-PR injury, he wasn't the same Wes. 2003 Wes wasn't all that much to write home about, but 2004 Wes made one want to write home about...well, anything else. Branyan hardly swooped in to save the day, batting .234 with more K's than AB's (whoops, check that) I mean more K's than walks and hits combined.

But Branyan--and to a certain extent, Keith Ginter, who also got a fair number of starts at third in the post-freak-injury/pre-Branyan era--had, and continues to have value. Take, for instance, the measure OPS+. OPS, you all know, is OBP + SLG. OPS+ is essentially "adjusted OPS," that is, adjusted for park and against league average. 100 is league average, less than 100 is less than average, more than 100 is better than average. Branyan, in his 51 games with the Crew, put up an OPS+ of 120--3rd on the team behind Lyle Overbay and (gulp!) Wes Obermueller. Ginter: 112. Fourth on the team.

Helms? -5,267.

Just kidding. Helms's OPS+ was 84. That's pretty good if you're a slick-fielding middle-infielder, and it's really good if you're a pitcher. But if you're a clumsy third baseman, you'd better be putting up triple digits.

You think that's bad? Helms doesn't know from bad compared to Jeff Cirillo, whose OPS+ the last three years has been, respectively, 74, 50, 48. Last year, a slumping Chad Moeller outproduced Jeff Cirillo.

Ok, clearly I have some issues with these guys, so I'll get to the point. I don't care how many times Russell Branyan strikes out. Every at-bat Helms or Cirillo or Bill Hall or Trent Durrington or anyone short of the 2005 re-incarnation of...well, Jeff Cirillo, back when he could hit is a wasted at-bat if Branyan is on the bench.

Branyan's going to be 29 this year: he's in his prime. Ever since he ripped up the high-A Sally League (his first time around) at age 19, hitting 19 dingers in just 277 ABs, he's proven he can hit for power. Just eyeballing his stats over at the Baseball Cube, his cumulative slugging percentage in 11 years of pro ball is about .528. That's about what he put up last year, and if he does it again this year, it'll be one of the couple best SLGs among National League third basemen. Yeah--that's Scott Rolen, Adrian Beltre, A-Rod territory he's in. He's not any of those players, that's for sure, but we're slotting the third baseman into the 6 or 7 hole in the lineup. Trot Branyan out there everyday, he will hit 40 home runs. No other team in baseball has a threat like that in the bottom half of the order.

And we're talking about platooning him with Wes Helms.

So I've made a case for starting Branyan everyday. What to do with those other guys?

How about Helms. There seem to be two main reasons floating around for keeping him.

  1. He could bounce back and have another year like he did in 2003.
  2. He's making a lot of money, and if we didn't keep him, we'd be throwing that away.

One at a time, folks. If Helms bounces back to the career highs he set in '03--which is possible, as he, like Branyan, is going into his age-29 season--he'll hit a whopping .261, strike out a nearly-but-not-quite-Branyanesque more than once per four at-bats, and have an OPS+ of exactly 100. Not everybody agrees with me on this, but Corey Hart could conceivably put together a season like that. And whatever you think about Corey's "defense" at the hot corner, sending yours truly out there wouldn't be a major step down from Helms.

It should be noted that I have an even less "projectable" body than does Wes. And I, unlike Helms, did not show up this spring in the best shape of my life.

Then there's the contract. Helms will make $2.7 million this year whether he plays for the Brewers or not. Surely Doug Melvin would like to get some value out of that, if only to make himself look less stupid, since it was, at least in part, his idea to give Wes that deal. But even if Wes returns to his own personal golden age, he won't be worth $2.7 million, and he won't be worth more than Branyan, who Melvin is also stuck paying every two weeks ($2 million less, mind you).

Even aside from the quirky (and endlessly exploitable) nature of baseball contract economics, a player's contract is what economists call a "sunk cost." Basically, once you've paid for something, or guaranteed that you're going to pay for it, that money you've spent or promised becomes a sunk cost. It's something you can't change. Given that nothing you do will alter the amount of the sunk cost, you should make decisions independent of that earlier outlay. If you're interested, here's more information and a great example from Wikipedia:

[W]hen you pre-order a movie ticket, the price of the ticket becomes a sunk cost. Even if you decide that you'd rather not go to the movie, there is no way to get back the money you originally paid and you have a sunk cost on your hands. This assumes, of course, that you can't simply return the movie ticket for a refund, and that the odds that you are able to resell the ticket are essentially zero.

Keeping Wes Helms around when Russell Branyan is on the team is roughly equivalent, then, to discovering you just bought a movie ticket to see the theatrical re-release of Heaven's Gate and going to the cineplex anyway, when you could stay at home and watch a baseball game on TV.

But accepting Wes as a sunk cost--right though it may be--ignores some of the possibilities. Just about every team in baseball has a contract or two they're not happy about any more, and often will be willing to swap one bad contract for another. I'm not saying Doug Melvin should call up Brian Cashman and offer Helms for the remaining eleventy-billion dollars on Jason Giambi's deal, but there are possibilites. Take, for instance, the two deals in which Arthur Rhodes was involved this offseason. First, he (overpaid at $3 mil a year) and Mark Redman (also overpaid at about $4 mil) went to Pittsburgh for Jason Kendall (overpaid at $10 mil this year). Rhodes was then traded to the Indians for Matt Lawton, way overpaid at about $7 mil for 2005.

Ignoring the exact details for now, just to understand the concept: could the Brewers use Arthur Rhodes more than they could use Wes Helms? No question. Would you rather have Matt Lawton in CF and Brady Clark on the bench than Wes Helms mooching at-bats in Milwaukee? That's a tougher one, but I'm all for it. In other words, we have options. And it's Doug Melvin's and Gord Ash's jobs to find those options and make the team better, no matter how much they'd like to see Helms earn his contract, or how much Ned Yost likes the shape Wes is in.

That leaves Cirillo. Great story, nice guy, looked fine in the field last night, but he needs to go. Maybe the Pirates'll take him--they seem to take just about everybody else. What is forgotten in this spring's love affair with the comeback kid is that Cirillo hasn't had an above-average season this millenium. Sure, his years in Colorado looked good, what with the 115 RBIs in 2000 and the .310+ batting averages, but that was Coors Field talking. His OPS+ those two years was 96 and 98. Ever since Jeff left Milwaukee in 1999, he's been earning a lot of money but playing no better than Desi Relaford.

Yeah, I know, Cirillo's been hitting great this Spring. But half those at-bats have been against AA and AAA filler guys. The at-bats against real major league pitchers make for a pathetically small sample size. Jeff needs to take that sales pitch and find himself a job in Tampa Bay.

I realize that my plan--starting Branyan every day, cutting Helms and Cirillo--isn't going to happen. No way Ned doesn't give Helms a shot, and it's looking more and more likely that Cirillo will get his chance, as well. But we don't need a platoon partner, and we've got a decent infield backup in Bill Hall.

The roster spots we save should be devoted to finding guys who really deserve a chance--the odd men out on rosters that actually have too man talented players, rather than too many marginal ones. If they're willing to be flexible, the Brewers could pick up someone like Michael Restovich of the Twins or Jonny Gomes of the Devil Rays--young, promising players who may never be all-stars but could seriously contribute for a year or two. Melvin could see Helms's contract as an opportunity--like Billy Beane did with the Rhodes and Redman albatrosses--and dig up a genuinely useful player, though he may have already missed his opportunity.

I don't expect many people to agree with my approach here--let me know what you think. I've added a poll below (just click on "entry link" and scroll down if you're reading this on the main page) to find out who you feel deserves to be on the roster this time next week.