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On Eric Gagne, and why I didn't like his signing

In yesterday's Mug I mentioned the Gagne signing and the fact that I'm not thrilled about it. That mention sparked dozens of comments on the topic, including one (thanks Jacob) accusing me of "phony-outrage." Before we go any further, let me assure you that I don't engage in phony blood pressure is high enough without me having to fake it.

With that said, I wanted to take an opportunity to expand on my argument, with the hopes of explaining my position.

First off, let's eliminate some factors. I've seen stories over the last 48 hours noting all of the following:

  • Gagne apologized to management and the fans following a poor 2008 showing.
  • He bought and gave away thousands of tickets for a home game in September of 2008 to keep the Brewers sellout streak alive.
  • He's a good clubhouse guy, well-liked and respected.

All those things are nice. But that's what they are: nice. They're not really relevant to this conversation, because they don't impact his ability to contribute on the field.

Meanwhile, his contributions on the field lately aren't very good. Since leaving Texas in 2007, Gagne has a 5.82 ERA in his last 65 innings (70 appearances). Replacement level pitching is typically estimated at an ERA around 4.50. Before midseason 2007, Gagne was very effective, but for the last season and a half he's been a full run and a quarter worse than replacement level.

Now, this contract is "zero risk" in a way: Gagne is due to make $1.5 million, but only if he makes the major league roster, and he's due to become a free agent on March 25 if he isn't on the 40-man roster. So, he could pitch terribly in camp and be relieased, with the Brewers not losing much at all for their trouble. But what if he doesn't?

There's an evaluation issue here. The Brewers play 26 spring training games between now and March 25, including a game on the 25th and a game against the Australian WBC team on March 5. Assuming Gagne pitches an inning in every third game over that stretch, Gagne will accumulate approximately eight innings before the Brewers have to make a decision on him. Furthermore, he won't start those games. Since he'll likely pitch somewhere between the fourth and ninth inning of eight spring training games, he will face the starters for a handful of teams and the guys fighting for a roster spot in AAA for others.

In a few weeks we'll likely start talking about the hardest job in spring training: talent evaluation. By the end of March, Brewer management will have to sit down with a list of a dozen or so players who have accumulated slightly more than half a dozen innings pitched or 40 plate appearances and determine which players get about five roster spots. In the bullpen, it's Stetter and Swindle fighting for one spot (as LOOGY), then the loser of that battle competing with Todd Coffey, Jorge Julio, Eduardo Morlan, Tim Dillard, Mark Difelice, and now Eric Gagne for the two remaining spots. Because it's nearly impossible to determine the best pitcher in this group from 8-10 innings of work, a veteran like Gagne (or Coffey, or Julio) likely gets the advantage, based on extended track record.

If Gagne gets the nod here, he could feasibly sit at the end of the bullpen all season and rack up incentives without being very effective. Gagne's deal is for $1.5 million, but he starts earning incentives at 25 appearances and could make as much as $2 million more for appearing in 60 games. Jeff noted the following in the comments yesterday:

in theory, yes, the Brewers could decide after 20 appearances that Gagne is pitching only a hair above replacement and cut him. But if he’s on the opening day roster and he doesn’t have a first half like he did last year (let’s say he has a 4.75 ERA instead of a 6-whatever and has a few impressive outings) I don’t think it’s realistic that he’d get cut to avoid the incentives. That might be smart, but in the world run by Melvin and Macha, I don’t see it happening.

Furthermore, in that scenario Gagne would tie up a roster spot that could be held by any of half a dozen other options that are cheaper and could be more effective. I'm not saying Mark Difelice would be more effective than Eric Gagne, for certain, but I can say with relative certainty that among a group containing Difelice, Coffey, Dillard, Stetter, Swindle, Julio, Morlan, Joe Bateman and Chase Wright, the Brewers certainly have at least one pitcher capable of having a good 2009 season at a fraction of what it would cost to keep Gagne. And, assuming one of said group of pitchers can produce a good season, all of them are under team control for 2010.

Finally, some will argue that there's no harm done in letting Gagne come in as a showcase for both the Brewers and other teams, since it's a long spring training (due to the WBC) anyway. That's true to a point, but the Brewers have no less than 28 pitchers in camp. Chris Capuano and Mark Rogers likely won't pitch this spring and Alex Periard is still on limited duty, but that's still 25 pitchers that need innings, , including several being groomed to start, over 34 spring training games.

Ok, that's already almost 900 words, likely more than anyone wanted to read on a non-roster invitee, so I'll stop there. But I hope I've made my point: bringing Gagne in isn't really a "no-risk" proposition, and it's likely a move the Brewers could have done without.