Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Breakdown (Go Ahead And Give It To Me)

There's some handwringing and concern, especially in the analytic side of the baseball community (or, if you prefer, "nerds") about the workload the Brewers are piling onto C.C. Sabathia. The thought process goes something like this: since the Brewers know they've got a whelk's chance in a supernova of re-signing Sabathia, they're going to wring every single inning they can out of him next year. Hence, we're treated to the sight of Sabathia going back out there for the 9th inning of a game where he's got a 7 run lead, as Ned Yost adheres to a "smoke 'em if you've got 'em" philosphy as regards hefty starting pitchers who are shorttimers and throw gas.

The worry, from the stathead point of view, is twofold. One, last year Sabathia clearly wore down right around playoff time, and if the Brewers are planning on making an October push they'd probably prefer a healthy Sabathia to a gassed one. Two, all of this unnecessary workload is making it more likely that Sabathia's going to break down at some point.

To which, I suspect, the feeling from Milwaukee is "that's the Yankees' problem". Or the Dodgers, or whoever; next year is next year, and whatever shape Sabathia's shoulder and elbow are in after 2008 wraps up will be someone else's problem. The Brewers are under no formal obligation to protect Sabathia. Their mandate is to win this year, and to extract whatever it takes from their players in order to do so. If that takes a hypothetical year or five off the back end of Sabathia's career, well, flags fly forever.

Over at Baseball Prospectus they've been advocating this sort of treatment of pending free agents forever as the best way to maximize team resources. From a strict cost/benefit analysis, it makes a lot of sense. You have an asset now, you maximize that asset while you possess it, and what happens after it leaves your possession is Someone Else's Problem.

Except that in the closed system of professional baseball, it isn't entirely SEP. After all, the Brewers may face Sabathia next year, and beyond. The teams they battle for playoff spots will face him, too. What happens this year, the usage patterns and the consequences of those patterns, will resonate with the Brewers for years to come. It will be at a much lower level, of course, than if the big guy is still rocking Bernie Brewer's world, but it will be there.

So, if you're the particularly paranoid, or suspicious, or dastardly sort, you can start to wonder if there is in fact an ulterior motive to what the Brewers are doing with Sabathia. After all, if he breaks next year, he breaks on someone else's payroll, expensively - and he doesn't pitch against the Brewers.

This is not to say that Bob Melvin and Ned Yost are deliberately and maliciously sabotaging Sabathia's ulnar ligaments and career. In fact, I'd be shocked and horrified if they'd even considered it. Both seem like upright, straightforward gents who are baseball lifers, and baseball lifers just don't do that sort of thing. But if I've thought of it, then someone else has thought of it, and maybe, just maybe someone's agent has thought of it and is going to take steps to prevent his client from being ridden hard and put away wet. In its own weird way, the case of what Sabathia did in the Ninth may end up having a profound and lasting effect on how players and clubs interact over impending free agency.
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