To save money, the Brewers should kick Jeff Suppan to the curb

With the regular season only a few Rickie Weeks away (yay!), the Brewers' roster is slowly starting to take form: we know, for example, that Hurricane Iribarren won't be on the 2010 club, and things aren't looking good for Chuck Lofgren's future as a Brewer either. (Adam Heether too, according to Tom H., but what does he know.) The rotation is also rounding into shape: we know that Gallardo, Wolf, and Davis are in, and Manny Parra is pitching well enough that he has pretty much secured a spot too. That leaves Dave Bush, Chris Narveson, and Jeff Suppan vying for one rotation spot. The loser of the Rotation Spot Sweepstakes still has hope: there is also a spot open for a reliever, given that David Riske will open the season on the DL, and John Axford (9.00 ERA so far this spring) and Scott Schoeneweis (12.00 ERA) have done little to lay claim to it.

In his nifty 2010 Brewers Preview for SBNation, our own Kyle Lobner wrote what we all fear is true, in our heart of hearts:

Suppan’s veteran status and huge contract probably give him the inside track for the final spot: the Brewers still have to pay him, even if they release him.

That certainly has been the conventional wisdom all spring: that Suppan's salary essentially gives him a playing spot. But that got me thinking: why should this be so?

First, to be clear: of Dave Bush, Chris Narveson, and Jeff Suppan, Suppan is the least likely to have a good 2010. Consider:

  • Suppan's ERA has gone up in each of the past 5 seasons. In 2009, of all MLB starters to top 160 IP, his ERA was the third worst.
  • Suppan's WHIP has gone up every season since he joined Pittsburgh in 2003. In 2009, of those same starters throwing 160 IP, his WHIP was the highest in the majors, by a large margin.
  • Suppan has been below replacement value for the last two years.

Bill James, Marcel, and CHONE all project Suppan to have an ERA over 5, with CHONE going as high as 5.43. Despite professing excitement at working with our new pitching coach, the first few innings of spring training have not yielded any surprises --- a 5.40 ERA, compared to Bush's 2.70 ERA, or the one hit that Narveson has allowed in the same number of innings as Suppan. Although I admit to being a bit jaded, I really can't envision a 2010 ERA for The Soup below 5, a much higher ERA than what is being projected for Narveson and Bush. Unless something really surprising happens in the remaining weeks of spring training, the logical move to me would be to put Parra as the #4 starter, Bush as the #5, and Narveson as the #6/bullpen guy. (In 47 IP last season, Narveson had a 3.83 ERA and 1.30 WHIP with 46 Ks; even if he can't maintain those numbers over a full season, the bar he'd need to jump over to surpass Suppan's numbers is about an inch off the ground.)

So it's pretty easy to make the case that Suppan shouldn't start. It's just as easy to make the case that he shouldn't be a reliever. For one, with the exception of one game in 2003, Suppan has not entered a game as a reliever since the Clinton administration, whereas Narveson and (to a much lesser degree) Dave Bush have both started and relieved as Brewers. Second, Suppan's pitching shortcomings are not those that are abated by relieving. It's not that he gets gassed after a few innings --- quite the contrary: last year, Suppan's ERA over the first 30 pitches is about 7.50. It's not that he only has one or two pitches in his repertoire --- he has NO pitches, as witnessed by his 2009 MLB-worst .899 OPS allowed, more than 50 points worse than any other pitcher in baseball with 160 IP.

Frankly, there is no performance-related measure to justify Suppan making the team. Does he stink? Yes. Do you have better options? Yes. Then that's it --- his making the team would then have to be not because of ability, but because of things that aren't quantifiable, things like veteran savvy, grit, or leadership.

Or the front office's reluctance to admit that Suppan was the worst Brewers signing this side of Jeffrey Hammonds. Jeff Suppan is due $12.5 million this season, and has a $2 million buyout for 2011, should the Brewers choose to exercise it. Of course, it's a virtual impossibility that Suppan will pitch well enough to "earn" his 2010 salary; for example, if one were to establish a 2009 salary for Soupy based on his performance, instead of giving him a salary to pitch for us, we would be sending him an invoice for $3 million. If we were to simply release Suppan, we'd still owe him $14.5 million, as Kyle pointed out, and paying 1/7th of your total team salary to a player to NOT pitch for you is not the sort of PR pill a (small market) team wants to swallow. The easy decision would be to keep him on the team, try to hide him on the pitching staff where his innings can do the least harm, and ride out the rest of the contract. Next season, you pay him his $2 million severance and be done, all the while thanking your lucky stars that Barry Zito is out there, providing cover for this awful, awful contract.

However, you can make the case that keeping Suppan for all of 2010 not only hurts your ballclub, but it also hurts your bottom line. (This is above and beyond any revenue lost by would-be customers not coming out to see a game started by a guy sporting a .309 BAA in 2009).

The $12.5 million/$2 million buyout are sunk costs: no matter what you do with Suppan, you're stuck paying him that money. It is wholly independent of performance, too: whether he is an ace or a doorstop, he's getting that $14.5 million. Once you get used to that idea, it gets harder and harder to justify actually playing him when his performance isn't helping your team. $14.5 million for league-worst-ness is a recurring, year-long insult to Brewer fans. For the league minimum, you can replace Suppan with Narveson, someone who is valuable not only because of his presumed non-suckitude (the extent of which is unknown, though his numbers are promising), but because he is cheap, and will remain cheap for some time after 2010. (Remember, if Suppan and Bush make the team, then Narveson is no longer a Brewer; even if Narveson is mediocre, mediocre talent for the league minimum is quite valuable in MLB-Land.)

Strictly based on performance, if you're OK with replacing Suppan with Narveson, then there might be money to be had. Enter Rotoworld:

Suppan could be the odd man out in the Milwaukee rotation, even though he’s due $12 million this year. The Brewers would have to pick up the vast majority of that amount to have any hope of moving him. Maybe someone would give him a try for $1 million or so.

If Suppan can be traded for $1 million in salary relief, that would be a pretty good deal. (It would be a fabulous deal if it means the other team gets to pick up the $2 million option in 2011.) Is that possible? I don't know, though it is pretty low-risk for a team looking for depth. Even if you cut him and another team picks him up for the minimum salary (a la Bill Hall), then that's $400,000 you don't have to pay --- essentially, you'd've just paid for a year of Chris Narveson.

Could a move like this backfire? Possibly --- but the risk is pretty low. For one, despite the idea that Suppan's new hand movement is giving him more action (snicker), I'm not convinced the Resurgence of the Suppan is at hand, not for a guy whose last 330-some innings were below replacement value. For two, the Brewers have some depth at AAA, for a change: I believe that Capuano, Loe, Halama, Dillard, and Chris Smith are all options at Nashville if Narveson flames out. (Are any of them worldbeaters at this point? Perhaps not --- but again, we're only talking about replacing Suppan: if they're not significantly worse than him, it's at least a push.)

Most importantly, this is a team that could reasonably contend for the playoffs. I sincerely can't imagine a circumstance where Jeff Suppan helps us attain that goal, short of trading him within the NL Central. Keeping him on the team, even in a relief role, means you don't take as much of a PR hit, but it also means you have to try to overcome some pretty bad pitching, and you lose Narveson to boot. Replacing Suppan with Narveson is a low-risk, low-cost move that can pay off on and off the field.