Too ripe with age? Brewers seeing dangers of older players

May 24 2010 - 6:40pm

The Brewers are learning some harsh lessons already this season about the dangers of committing to older players.

Atop that list is the oldest player on the team, 42-year-old closer Trevor Hoffman. At 41, Hoffman had one of the best seasons of his career for the Brewers in 2009, so it's difficult to fault general manager Doug Melvin for quickly re-signing the all-time saves leader for $7.5 million with a mutual option for 2011 for $7 million.

But every older player eventually comes to the end of the line, and this might be it for Hoffman, who has been unable to command his pitches as in the past. After blowing five of 10 save opportunities, surrendering seven homers in 13 innings and compiling a 13.15 ERA, the future Hall of Famer was turned over to pitching coach Rick Peterson to work on his delivery.

Melvin also committed two years and $7.5 million to 37-year-old reliever LaTroy Hawkins. Much like Hoffman, Hawkins seemed to defy age last season with Houston, posting a 2.13 ERA in 65 appearances and saving 11 games while regularly throwing in the 94- to 95-mph range.

But Hawkins had shoulder issues in spring training, and after a strong start to the season, blew three eighth-inning leads in ugly fashion. Hawkins eventually went on the disabled list with shoulder weakness and is not being rushed back.

Melvin also brought outfielder Jim Edmonds back from a one-year absence despite the fact he will turn 40 in late June. Edmonds won a job by swinging a productive bat in spring camp and obviously has some gas left in his tank but missed time earlier with a strained back and is on the DL with a strained oblique.

Eyebrows were raised over the winter when the Brewers committed to 38-year-old Gregg Zaun as their No. 1 catcher. As with all of the veterans mentioned above, Zaun works hard to stay in good shape but plays a demanding position, especially for an older player.

Zaun had a quadriceps issue near the end of camp and banged up his right shoulder in a collision at home plate in Washington in April. He aggravated the condition during an at-bat Thursday night in Pittsburgh and went on the DL, leaving the Brewers without a catcher with more than a year of major-league experience.

Left-hander Doug Davis, 34, also pitched below expectations after signing a $5.25 million free-agent deal, going 1-4 with a 7.56 ERA in seven starts. He is sidelined with inflammation of the heart lining, which has nothing to do with age, but he was nowhere near as sharp with his pitches as in the past.

Even right-hander Jeff Suppan presents a cautionary tale about the slide in production of older players. After three strong seasons (44-26 record) with St. Louis, Suppan didn't appear to be a major risk when given a four-year, $42 million free-agent deal, though the prices in the winter of 2006-07 were exorbitant.

But the Cardinals had Suppan from age 29 to 31. The Brewers have had him from 32 to 35. The fall-off in production has been dramatic, with Suppan going 29-35 with a 4.97 ERA with Milwaukee and being drummed out of the rotation this season.

What happened with Suppan should make the Brewers suitably nervous about the nearly $30 million they committed to left-hander Randy Wolf over the winter. Pitching most of the 2009 season at age 32, Wolf went 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 34 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But the Brewers will have Wolf from age 33 to 35, and he already has shown signs of slippage this season with a 5.10 ERA through nine starts.

So, unless the Brewers discover a fountain of youth somewhere around Miller Park, they might want to shop in the future for green bananas and tomatoes instead of well-ripened produce.

Feeling a draft

Considering the state of the Brewers' pitching staff, it's probably safe to assume that they'll be on the hunt for another arm in the first round of the June draft.

The strength of the draft is high school pitchers, but there should be some decent college arms available as well when the Brewers make the 14th pick. Texas' Brandon Workman, Ohio State's Alex Wimmers, Arkansas' Brett Eibner, Virginia Tech's Jesse Hahn, North Carolina's Matt Harvey and The Citadel's Asher Wojciechowski, all right-handers, could be on the board when the Brewers' turn comes around.

Louisiana State lefty Anthony Ranaudo, considered one of the best college pitchers before experiencing arm problems, could slide down. Left-hander James Paxton, who didn't sign with Toronto as a supplemental first-rounder out of Kentucky last year, is pitching in independent ball this year and eligible again.

Paxton is a native of Canada, and we all know how much the Brewers focus on players from that country.

Highly rated high school pitchers who might be available include right-handers Dylan Covey (Pasadena, Calif.), Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla.), A.J. Cole (Oviedo, Fla.) and Zach Lee (McKinney, Texas), a top quarterback recruit for LSU.

Following the lead of the National Football League draft, the first round of the baseball draft will be conducted at night on June 7 and televised by MLB Network. The 18 supplemental first-round picks also will be made that evening, with the remaining rounds on June 8 and 9.

Because the Brewers have no extra picks this year in the supplemental round, after No. 14 they won't select again until the second round, when they have the 64th overall pick.

Casey at the bat

If the most-deserving players indeed get to go to the All-Star Game, the Brewers' Casey McGehee should be one of the third basemen on the National League roster. McGehee has such a low profile that it might take the players' vote to get him in, but he is having a better overall season than any other NL player at his position.

Entering Friday, McGehee ranked first among NL third basemen in batting average (.325), hits (49), runs batted in (37) and on-base percentage (.395) and second in home runs (nine), slugging percentage (.570) and OPS (.965).

Fans like to vote for the New York Mets' David Wright, but he was batting .262 with eight homers and 30 RBI and was near the top of the league with 55 strikeouts. Wright was going so bad last week, he was benched briefly.

Washington's Ryan Zimmerman is having an all-star-caliber season with a .311 average, eight homers and 25 RBI but still trailed McGehee in all those categories. St. Louis rookie David Freese was batting .302 but had only three homers and 26 RBI.

Arizona's Mark Reynolds had nice run-production numbers (11 HRs, 33 RBI) but was batting only .221 and again leading the league in strikeouts (57).

There is a lot of time left before all-star rosters are announced, but McGehee has as good a foot in the door, or better, as any third baseman in the league in terms of warranting consideration.

"He has really been swinging the bat well," Brewers manager Ken Macha said. "And he's been coming up with a lot of key two-out hits. I can't say enough about what he has done."

A memorable exit

There were a few interesting items regarding Tampa Bay's decision to release unproductive outfielder Pat Burrell. First, the club showed real class by waiting until he hit the 10-year mark in big-league service time, assuring Burrell, 33, a full pension.

The Rays also ate $6.5 million remaining on Burrell's $9 million contract. Any team can sign him for about $300,000, the prorated portion of the minimum salary.

Last but not least, a beat writer called Burrell on his cell phone to seek comment about his release. Burrell hung up on him, then texted back to the reporter that he should "lose" the phone number.

Counting pitches

Milwaukee's Chris Narveson had the highest pitch count in a game this season with 130 until Philadelphia's Roy Halladay took the mound Tuesday night against Pittsburgh. Halladay went the distance in a 2-1 defeat, throwing 132 pitches.

Through nine starts, Halladay led the NL in both innings (701/3) and pitches thrown (1,006). A workhorse in every sense, Halladay is known for his durability and dedication to working out.

Asked whether he thought his No. 1 pitcher could handle the early workload, manager Charlie Manuel said, "I know he can."

Perhaps, but Halladay threw 133 pitches for Toronto against the Los Angeles Angels on June 2 of last season, then tossed a complete-game shutout five days later against the Angels. In his next start against Florida, Halladay made it through just three innings before leaving with a strained groin and going on the DL.

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