The Brewers High-StaKes Gamble

With their recent acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez, the Milwaukee Brewers further solidify their bullpen and continue to push all their chips onto the table for a 2011 playoff berth. The Brewers bullpen to date has offered them a steady 1.4 WAR according to Fangraphs, which is in the middle of the pack in MLB. K-Rod, who has amassed 0.7 WAR this year, should be an upgrade as a setup man to incumbent closer John Axford and give the Brewers one of the best bullpens in the National League. However, the Brewers will be in a heap of trouble if Axford goes down with an injury or pitches ineffectively enough to lose the closer title to K-Rod due to a 2012 vesting option in K-Rod’s contract.

Should K-Rod finish 55 games – he has finished 34 so far this year – the Brewers will be on the hook for a whopping $17.5 million in 2012. Rodriguez has been among the elite relievers of the past decade and is still only 29 years old, but his shine has come off in recent seasons due to decline, injury and his notorious arrest after assaulting his father-in-law in 2010. K-Rod has merely been much closer to an average reliever rather than an elite since signing his heafty 3-year, $37 million contract with the Mets in 2008. $17.5 million would be financially crippling to a mid-market team such as the Brewers as they try to reload for 2012.

With the Brewers tied for first place at the halfway mark, this calculated dice-rolling continues a pattern we have seen from Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin since last offseason. After 2010, many experts speculated the Brewers would trade their star first baseman Prince Fielder – a free agent after 2011 – for club-controlled talent to create a window for contention a few years down the road. However, the Brewers front office identified current market trends that undervalued players one or two years away from free agency while the price of prospects had risen in recent years. Thus, the Brewers decided not to trade Fielder, mortgage the farm for star pitchers Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum, and declared 2011 as the year the Brewers go all-in for the NL Central crown.

Axford has been an integral part of the Brewers success in 2011 and they will probably count on him in 2012 as well, but with the financial complications K-Rod brings with him to the team, Axford’s health and performance may be the most important asset to the Brewers success in the present and near future.

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