Searching for Suppan: Cardinals at Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers are sliding, and starting pitching is to blame.

Browsing through the box scores the other day, a fascinating and horrifying tidbit was mentioned at the bottom of the page. Since April 5th, no starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers outside Ben Sheets has been able to record a win. The last winner? Friday night's starter, Manny Parra. As the St. Louis Cardinals arrive, their feathers in a ruffle after giving away the latter half of a four-game set against the Colorado Rockies, they will be looking to extend this ignominious streak.

For Brewers fans, this oddity is just one more in a legion of bad luck and worse baseball that has plagued the franchise for decades.

Since 1983, a full generation of Milwaukeeans has been born and raised, learned to drive, had their senior prom, exited for college, and perhaps brought their parents their first grandchildren without knowing the Brewers as contenders. Bob Uecker's gravelly, self-deprecating delivery told them everything they needed to know about life with the Brewers – it was repeatedly painful, but it was also funny if you knew how to look at it.

And so it was funny, in a way, that no player could underperform his way off the team. In fact a player's surest ticket out of Milwaukee was by making the All-Star team the year before. This honor, foisted upon some players by simple virtue of the "no team shall be unrepresented" statute, all but guaranteed a hasty trade out of town. From 1994 to 2003, Ricky Bones, Kevin Seitzer, Greg Vaughn, Jeff Cirillo, Jeromy Burnitz, Bob Wickman and Richie Sexson all followed the same path to the auction block nearly as soon as the weak spotlight of fleeting fame shone on them.

For a fan in Milwaukee, it really wasn't worth it to fall in love with a player for being good. The shelf-life of any given "star" jersey on the rack might be two to three years, max, before the colors suddenly go out of fashion. Far better to love a blue-collar player like Geoff Jenkins, who merely put his head down and played to a satisfactory mediocrity.

GM Doug Melvin joined the franchise in 2002, at what was to be the tail end of this era, and soon discovered that if he was to build a winning roster, he would have to do his work away from the hot lights of the major leagues. Benefitting from consistently high draft picks, Melvin stocked the minor leagues with high-end prospects that could one day transform this franchise, if they all managed to peak around the same time.

Somewhat amazingly, this plan has come to fruition, with Melvin's first pick of his first draft, Prince Fielder, leading the way. With the arrival of Rickie Weeks (1st round of 2003), J.J. Hardy (2nd round of 2001), and the blossoming of Bill Hall (full-time call-up in 2004) and Carlos Lee (acquired by trade for Scott Podsednik prior to 2005), the Brewers were able to break through in '05 and field a non-losing team for the first time in 13 years.

Ready to take a step forward in 2006, the team instead fell back, winning only 75 games as their pitching staff fell apart. Ben Sheets suffered yet another season-altering injury, and a total of eight pitchers rotated in and out of the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation, combining for an 8-18 record and 6.21 ERA.

And so began Melvin's push to solidify the team for 2007, his quest for a "Jeff Suppan." A cost-controlled league-average pitcher who eats innings and solidifies rotations, and who simultaneously provides big-game experience and a steady head.

This pitcher has been known by other names in generations past, but since the Cardinals acquired Suppan and transformed him from scuffler to ready-made winner and post-season star, his name has become the sobriquet for this sought-after commodity. A Jeff Suppan is a general manager's best friend, you could say.

Since his departure, the Cardinals have been looking for their new Jeff Suppan, and may have found him in Kyle Lohse. The Cubs signed a couple of Jeff Suppans in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, and in Lilly wound up with something even better. The Giants were hoping to resurrect Matt Morris as their Jeff Suppan, but fell a little short before dumping him off to Pittsburgh.

And so the Brewers, in the aftermath of the 2006 season, did something quite uncharacteristic. They outbid the New York Mets, and paid the name-brand price for the original Jeff Suppan.

His contract – four years, $42 million – was a transformative event for negotiators. League-average performance and a .500 record was now worth better than $10 mil per year. You can see this echoed in the contract demands of a player like Lohse (career record 66-76, ERA+ of 96; his agent asks four years, $40 mil). In fact, it might have been the shocking contract of the Winter Meetings, except that a mere three days later the Giants announced the seven-year $127 million dollar monstrosity of a contract given to Barry Zito.

More than a year in, Melvin and the Brewers are still wondering exactly what they paid for. Suppan has made every start, amassing a 12-12 record on just slightly-worse-than-league-average pitching. He won four games in September, as the team was pushing toward a potential division lead. He beat up on the NL Central, with an 8-3 record. And just as in years past, he relied on his defense to do most of his work, striking out hitters at a paltry rate of 4.8 K/9.

However, Suppan proved to be much more hittable than he had been with St. Louis, and endured several long stretches of poor starts and poor luck. Poor defense could be blamed, particularly that of the stone-gloved Ryan Braun at third base. This past off-season, the Brewers had to make several moves to shore up their defense, moving Braun to the outfield and signing noted leatherman Mike Cameron to play center field, in hopes of getting the most from their investment in Suppan.

So far this season, the moves haven't paid off. The Brewers still rank in the bottom of the NL in many fielding metrics, and Suppan is posting the worst WHIP of his career since his rookie season in Boston, as the team has slid under .500.

If things continue at this rate, we may have to find a new name for the "Jeff Suppan" of pitchers.



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