The Price of Being a Contender

The 2011 Baseball America Prospects Handbook arrived this past week. An annual ritual is to immediately place on hold all other planned activities until I have given it a cursory inspection. This book accompanies me everywhere; it’s a good lunch time companion at a restaurant, solid reading material when on a long drive and even proffers a more comfortable experience in the room where most everyone has reading material while performing a bodily function.

One of the features is the ranking of all the teams’ minor league systems and it is there that I found a most discomforting item. In their pursuit of fielding a contending team, the Brewers farm system is now rated dead last. It was bound to happen. Since 2008, the club has traded 8 top prospects in order to field an even respectable starting rotation.  With the exception of renting CC Sabathia for 3 months in 2008, that strategy has proven to be futile.

In the offseason General Manager Doug Melvin traded even more prospects to acquire starters Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke.  While this exponentially improved the rotation it also drained the farm system.

Not one Brewers prospect is among Baseball America’s three different Top 50 Prospect lists. That, loyal Brewers fans, is grim. To get the aforementioned pitchers, the Brewers had to part with Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi and Brett Lawrie and it’s after effects caused the club to drop 16 places in the rankings.

Last year, Escobar ranked #1, Lawrie was second, Cain eighth, Odorizzi ninth and Jeffress coming off some personal issues was 21st. This year’s Handbook was printed before the Greinke trade and listed Odorizzi as the Brewers top prospect while Jeffress was ranked #3.

In 2004 the team had the top ranked system and was at least 5th for four years running. But it was largely skewed toward hitters – JJ Hardy, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickey Weeks, Prince Fielder, Matt LaPorta and so on.

Unlike a team like Tampa Bay, the Brewers’ scouts for the most part have been unable to restock the system with top-notch talent. Since 2007 the Rays have ranked first, first, fourth, first and third which is the main reason they can let players like Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford move on and still stay competitive in a tough division.

So while the Brewers enter the 2011 season as solid contenders in their division, the supply line to the big leagues will remain sparse for a few years. And for a team that has come to loathe signing free agents the short-term outlook better produce contenders, otherwise the club will have harvested and sold their crop for nothing,

This Week’ s Hall of Fame Opinion

The player we look at today is Jeff Bagwell. His career statistics all point to a slam dunk induction. After all, he is one of the four greatest first basemen in history based on WAR, trailing only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols.  He ranks 21st all time in OBP better than Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron among other Hall of Famers. He tallied more than 1,500 runs and RBI and had six straight years of at least 30 HR and 100 RBI.

On this, his second year of eligibility, he got 41.7 % of the vote (75% needed to get in) and trailed Barry Larkin, Jack Morris and Lee Smith among those who failed to be elected.

So why has he not garnered more votes when it is obvious that his career was simply one of the best? STEROIDS! There is not a shred of evidence that Bagwell took steroids but anyone who has played in that era and has a sudden surge of success between years will be guilty by association. In 1993, Bagwell hit .320 with 20 HR and 88 RBI with a .903 OPS, a solid year by any measure. But in 1994, despite the strike-shortened season he still was able to hit 39 HR and have 116 RBI in 110 games. This is the definitive year where he raised his game to a monumental level.

His 1995 season was curtailed due to injury and skeptics will claim that it was because he started juicing. Then, from 1996 through 2003 he had at least 30 HR and 100 RBI each season.

The steroid claim is evidentiary but hard not to dismiss. Yet there has not been any proof that Bagwell was a user. I withhold my opinion but until there is proof one cannot be guilty unless proven innocent. Unfortunately that will be the standard, fair or not, for star players from that era.

For now, however, Bagwell would get my vote for Hall of Fame induction.

Jeff Bagwell - Guilty by Association

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