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Blaming the Brewers' slide on one position

It's probably not fair to do so, but, well, I have a column to write.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers are going to miss the playoffs because they didn't sign Jose Abreu.

This is hindsight masquerading as analysis, of course. But the math is almost there! Abreu has been worth 5.3 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference; Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay have combined for 0.6 wins. Take those five wins, graft them onto the Brewers' win total, and they're just a game behind the Cardinals for the Central and 1½ games ahead of the Pirates for the second wild card slot. That's how statistics work, right? Everything transfers over like that, nice and linear.

For the last two weeks, the Brewers have been working Matt Clark into the lineup at first because a) they have little choice, and b) he's been hitting the occasional dinger. But Clark is the "R" in WAR. The idea is that a team can get a zero-WAR player on the waiver wire, and that's exactly what happened. The Mets released Clark in June, and the Brewers picked him up as depth. His name is even the replacement name for first basemen. Matt Clark is 0.0 NAR. He's also been something of a pleasant surprise for a Brewers team that hasn't had a lot of pleasant anythings lately.

And yet, somehow, Reynolds still managed to get on the field late in a game. He's usually clanky afield, but he helped cost the Brewers a game by being cognitively clanky.

The moral of the story, in two parts:

1. It's a bad idea to punt a position before the season

There are so many things that can go wrong in a baseball season -- injuries, players having unlucky seasons, players declining ... -- that it can be crippling to start the season with a positional arrangement that has about a three-percent chance of working out. Reynolds hasn't helped a team since 2009; Overbay hasn't helped a team much since 2010. Even at their very best, when they were young and promising, they were incomplete players with limited ceilings.

Reynolds hasn't helped a team since 2009; Overbay hasn't helped a team much since 2010.

(If you're a card player, think of the Brewers and first base like a game of Omaha that they rigged to get a 4♤ in their hand before the deal. Maybe they were going to flop something that made them glad they had it. The odds overwhelmingly suggested they were going to be better off with another card, though.)

(If you're a basketball fan, think of it like a basketball team starting the season with a basketball player who had proven over the last four or five years that he wasn't very good at basketball compared to the other players in the league.)

(If you're a music fan, think of it like a road trip to Vegas with an Eagles CD in the car and a traveling companion who might actually play it.)

The Brewers had to, had to, had to know what they were getting into with a Reynolds/Overbay platoon. The upside was maybe an extra win over their replacement options. The downside was an arrangement that made less sense than Matt Clark.

However, that brings us to the second point ...

2. It's hard to find a first baseman these days

This isn't 2000, when Billy Beane could rummage through every team's system and find the lumbering slugger they were neglecting. This isn't 2000 in a lot of ways. For some reason, those lumbering sluggers just aren't as prevalent. If only there were some way to speculate irresponsibly about why that might have changed ...

Look at the Rays and James Loney. The Rays didn't want to give him a three-year deal for $21 million, a deal that was the biggest for any free agent under the current ownership group. But they looked around and saw Overbays and Reynoldses. If not the actual Overbay and Reynolds, then guys who could match their production. The team figured they were going to be in a position where a win or two could make or ruin a season for the next three years, so they paid a premium to prevent punting a position. Promptly paying position-punting premiums prevents possibly painful production problems.


If the Brewers knew Abreu was going to be this good, maybe they would have gotten a little spendier, but that's unfair. If everyone knew what Abreu could do, he would have nabbed a nine-figure deal the Brewers couldn't afford. After that, what were the Brewers' options? Maybe Justin Morneau. Maybe Loney. Nothing that would have made the difference in the Central. But the Brewers probably could have tried harder to do something better.

It's not as if the Brewers' failed first-base platoon is the only reason for their historic slide -- they had as many wins as any team in the National League on August 19, exactly one month ago --but the Reynolds flub on Thursday night makes it easy to pick on that part of the preseason planning. The Brewers did some bold, daring things, like signing Matt Garza to bolster their rotation, but they ignored another position entirely. As we get to dissect the Brewers' 2014 season with the benefit of hindsight, that seems like one of the odder decisions of the offseason.