clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It Takes Time, Part III: Milwaukee Brewers

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

This is the third in a series of posts about what new GMs of small-payroll teams have done to lead their teams back to respectability. Here's Part 1, on Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals, and here's Part 2 on Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays. Both Moore and Friedman have run their teams rather well, and fans of both franchises now have reasons for guarded optimism, but they'll need to be patient. The story of Doug Melvin and the Milwaukee Brewers shows us why - why Royals and Rays fans can be optimistic, but also why they'll need to be patient. The Brewers' path to relative success also offers lessons for Pirates fans.

When Melvin took over the Milwaukee GM job in September 2002, the Brewers' major league team was in terrible shape - here were the main players on their 2002 team, along with their OPS+ or ERA+.

C  Paul Bako 66
1B Richie Sexson 128
2B Eric Young 88
SS Jose Hernandez 120
3B Tyler Houston 112
OF Geoff Jenkins 101
CF Alex Sanchez 87
OF Jeffrey Hammonds 93

SP Ben Sheets 98
SP Glendon Rusch 87
SP Ruben Quevedo 71
SP Jamey Wright 76
SP Nelson Figueroa 81
SP Jose Cabrera 60
SP Nick Neugebauer 86

RP Mike DeJean 131
RP Ray King 134
RP Luis Vizcaino 136
RP Valerio de los Santos 131

Nifty bullpen aside, this was a very bad, uninteresting team. The only starting offensive players under 30 were Sexson, Jenkins, and Sanchez. Sexson was fun to watch (not only because of his solid hitting, but because he's such a huge dude that it was funny to watch when someone like Marcus Giles got to first against the Brewers), but he only two years away from free agency. Jenkins only played 67 games in 2002 and had yet to play more than 135 in a season. And Sanchez - something like the Brewers' equivalent of Chris Duffy - was so bad in the minors that he'd been waived by Tampa Bay in 2001. Catcher was a complete black hole. Hernandez was a flawed, aging player in the midst of an unexpected career year. Hammonds was an injury-prone veteran who wasn't ever going to earn the pile of money Milwaukee had dropped on him after a superficially big year in Colorado in 2000. Young and Houston were just placeholders.

The rotation was also a mess - while the Brewers obviously hoped for a lot from Sheets, the rest of Milwaukee's starters were serious question marks. Neugebauer had tremendous stuff but had problems with control (and injury issues that eventually shut him down for good), while Quevedo had lost velocity on his fastball during 2002 Spring Training. Rusch never improved on his good 2000 rookie season with the Mets and ended up as a swingman. And Wright, Figueroa, and Cabrera were all just marking time.

On the farm were several good hitting prospects, including Prince Fielder,  Brad Nelson, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart, as well as pitching prospect Ben Hendrickson. (Bill Hall was in Class AAA, but he didn't look like much of a prospect then.) At the time, it probably would've looked like a decent but unspectacular system, especially since Fielder was only 18 and hadn't yet played above Class A.

Here are the most important transactions Melvin made in the first several months after he became GM:

October 11, 2002: Released Figueroa.

October 11, 2002: Selected Scott Podsednik off waivers from the Mariners.

October 28, 2002: Granted free agency to Hernandez.

November 26, 2002: Traded Bako to the Cubs for Ryan Gripp.

December 11, 2002: Signed Royce Clayton to a one-year deal.

December 16, 2002: Traded King to the Braves for Wes Helms and John Foster.

January 21, 2003: Claimed Brady Clark on waivers from the Mets.

January 31, 2003: Signed John Vander Wal.

April 2, 2003: Signed Danny Kolb.

Melvin also made a number of moves that were even less consequential than these. At the time, it probably seemed that this long list of transactions was all noise and no signal, but actually there was a pattern here, and this turned out to be a pretty good offseason. Melvin didn't make any big moves, but he grabbed a number of useful players without spending much money. Hernandez and King had been productive for the 2002 Brewers, but neither was of much help to a franchise in Milwaukee's position, so Melvin just dumped Hernandez and traded King for a younger player in Helms. He also traded Bako for Ryan Gripp, who you haven't heard of for a reason. Melvin also acquired a number of useful players (Brady Clark, especially) for next to nothing.

Prince Fielder hit 50 homers in 2007
Photo: Gbfan.
If Bob Smizik and most Pirates fans had lived in Milwaukee in early 2003, they probably would have been freaking out about the losses of Hernandez, King and Bako. Hernandez and King were much more effective for the 2002 Brewers than B.P. Chacon and Salomon Torres were for the 2007 Pirates. And yet the Brewers dumped them, and it simply did not matter. Hernandez was terrible in 2003 (as Pirates fans can attest), and King's production was easily replaced by Kolb's.

Despite their apparently quiet offseason, the Brewers were substantially better in 2003, winning 68 games. Jenkins - a 28-year-old, injury-prone corner outfielder who was two years from free agency and coming off a mediocre season, and if you think that description is long for no reason, read it again - bounced back in a big way in 2003, putting up a 137 OPS+. Eddie Perez was a big improvement over Bako at catcher, and Podsednik, Vander Wal and Clark all turned out to be useful.

The pitching staff remained a problem, but overall, Melvin improved the Brewers during the 2002-2003 offseason with a series of small, seemingly inconsequential moves. It seems unlikely that Neal Huntington's additions of T.J. Beam, Evan Meek, Ty Taubenheim, Chris Gomez and others will do the same, but it's also worth pointing out once again that if Melvin had become GM of the Pirates at the end of the 2007 season and done what he did in his first offseason in Milwaukee, he would not have been particularly popular in Pittsburgh.

Teams in the position Milwaukee was in in 2002 tend to make big strides mostly through the draft, and like the Pirates next year, the 2003 Brewers had the second overall pick, which they used to select Rickie Weeks. Melvin also made a number of transactions during the 2003 season:

May 27, 2003: Traded Sanchez to the Tigers for a bag of balls.

June 4, 2003: Released Hammonds.

July 14, 2003: Signed Doug Davis as a free agent.

August 19, 2003: Traded Young to the Giants for a bag of balls.

August 27, 2003: Traded DeJean to the Cardinals for a bag of balls.

September 2, 2003: Traded De los Santos to the Phillies for cash.

I don't mean to be glib with these "bag of balls" comments, and if the families of any of the players described as "a bag of balls" happen to find this article while Googling the Eric Young trade in hopes of finding out what people are saying about that big moment when their son, or whomever, was traded for a major leaguer, then I apologize. The point here, though, is that, yet again, the Brewers didn't rebuild by trading their Eric Youngs and their Ray Kings and Mike DeJeans, even though those guys were useful players. They rebuilt through the draft, big trades, and the waiver wire, in that order. And so it isn't wise for Pirates fans to expect that we're going to get a lot back for Xavier Nady or Damaso Marte. We probably aren't.

The flip side of that, though, is that when Melvin saw an opportunity to get rid of an Alex Sanchez or an Eric Young, he did so without much regard for what he was getting back. That sounds foolhardy, but it's not. Alex Sanchez was clearly a mediocrity - why not just dump him for a couple minor leaguers and find out what Brady Clark can do? Why not dump an aging Eric Young on the Giants and find out what Keith Ginter can do? As it turned out, both those players were worth taking chances on - the Brewers got three good seasons from Clark and two from Ginter, and paid them almost nothing. Again -  and I know I've approached this argument from a number of different angles in different articles already - Xavier Nady is a mediocrity. Why not find out what Steve Pearce can do?

Here are the big moves Melvin made in the 2003-2004 offseason:

October 15, 2003: Granted free agency to Quevedo.

October 27, 2003: Granted free agency to Clayton.

October 28, 2003: Granted free agency to Perez, Rusch and Vander Wal.

December 1, 2003: Traded Sexson, Shane Nance and Noochie Varner to the Diamondbacks for Lyle Overbay, Chris Capuano, Jorge de la Rosa, Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell and Chad Moeller.

December 23, 2003: Signed Ben Grieve as a free agent.

January 22, 2004: Signed Matt Wise as a free agent.

March 30, 2004: Traded Wayne Franklin and Leo Estrella to the Giants for Carlos Villanueva and Glenn Woolard.

Obviously, the big move is the Sexson trade. I thought at the time that it was a bad trade for the Brewers, in that they were sacrificing quality for quantity, but it turned out well for them - Overbay turned out to be a bit better than expected, Capuano was a very productive for a couple years in the Brewers' rotation, and Spivey turned out to be valuable as a trade chit. The Brewers also traded a couple of retreads in Franklin and Estrella for Villanueva's live arm, and they're just beginning to be rewarded for that trade - Villanueva had a nifty year in 2007 as a 23-year-old swingman.

In 2004 the Brewers won 67 games. Moeller and Gary Bennett turned out to be inadequate replacements for Eddie Perez. Podsednik took a big step backward, and Hall was terrible in his rookie year. The pitching, though, was downright interesting - Sheets was healthy and dominant, Capuano wasn't too bad in his first extended tryout in the big leagues, and Doug Davis was a revelation, pitching 207 innings with an ERA of 3.39. The bullpen, led by Kolb, Vizcaino, and Mike Adams, was also pretty good. Suddenly the Brewers looked like they were a couple hitters away from having a legitimately competitive team. Better still, the farm system was actually pretty close to providing those hitters for them. The Brewers were relatively quiet on the trading front during the 2004 season, but they did manage to snag Yovani Gallardo in the second round of the draft that year.

Here are the biggest moves Melvin made after the 2004 season:

October 14, 2004: Selected Derrick Turnbow off waivers from the Angels.

November 30, 2004: Signed Damian Miller as a free agent.

December 11, 2004: Traded Kolb to the Braves for Jose Capellan and Alec Zumwalt.

December 13, 2004: Traded Podsednik, Vizcaino and Travis Hinton to the White Sox for Carlos Lee.

December 16, 2004: Traded Ginter to the A's for Justin Lehr and Nelson Cruz.

This was a terrific offseason for Melvin. He addressed his biggest problem area - his lack of a good catcher - by signing Miller, a good defender and an underrated hitter. Miller's no Johnny Bench, but he immediately put an end to the long string of Paul Bakos and Chad Moellers the Brewers had been trotting out. Melvin also grabbed the live-armed Turnbow for nothing and watched him become one of the 2005 National League's best relievers. And he swindled the White Sox out of a real power hitter in Carlos Lee.

The most significant aspect of the deal wasn't what a ripoff it was, but rather the fact that the Brewers took on salary to acquire a star. They also signed Sheets to a four-year, $38.5 million extension that offseason. Here's Brewers owner Mark Attanasio on why they raised the payroll:

"When I took over, the payroll was $27.8 million," said Attanasio, who bought the team after the 2004 season. "That first off-season, we traded for Carlos Lee and signed Ben Sheets (to a four-year, $38.5 million extension), and it went up to (approximately) $42 million.

"The reason we went over $40 million was because of the Carlos trade. It wasn't just to get to $40 million. It's opportunistic. You have to do things because they make sense. That's what we did with the Jeff Suppan signing. We felt the time was right to make that kind of commitment."

Attanasio was right. It did make sense. By the time he arrived, the Brewers were close to having a competitive team, and they still had several top prospects who had yet to make their mark in the majors. And sure enough, the Brewers took a big step forward in 2005, scoring about 100 more runs, allowing about 50 fewer, and winning 81 games. Weeks and Hardy took over at second and short and had respectable debuts; Hall took a huge step forward; and the outfield of Lee, Clark and Jenkins was excellent. Sheets, Capuano and Davis all posted sub-4 ERAs in the rotation (although Sheets spent some time on the DL). The team actually had a Pythagorean record of 84-78, suggesting that they were even better than their record indicated. Also, Fielder was banging on the door in Class AAA, Ryan Braun was chosen with the fifth overall pick in the June draft, and the Brewers traded the now-superfluous Spivey for another functional starter in Tomo Ohka. Things were looking up.

Melvin's first order of business in the 2005-2006 offseason had to be to trade Overbay in order to open a spot in the lineup for Fielder. After that, though, there was no reason for the Brewers to do anything major. The pieces were in place. Here are the Melvin's major moves:

December 7, 2005: Traded Overbay and Taubenheim to the Jays for Dave Bush, Gabe Gross and Zach Jackson.

December 7, 2005: Traded Wes Obermuller to the Braves for Kolb.

January 6, 2006: Traded Brian Wolfe to the Jays for Corey Koskie.

In theory, this was a very good offseason. The trade for Koskie, a good defender and solid hitter who allowed the Brewers to keep Hall in a utility role, only cost the Brewers a marginal relief prospect and a couple million dollars. Koskie was fragile, but he was always good when he played, and if he got hurt, no problem - the Brewers could just put Hall there. And it's not likely that anyone would have given up an impact prospect for Overbay, a solid but unspectacular player, so the Brewers settled for a decent young starter (Bush), a fourth outfielder, and a pretty good pitching prospect.

Sometimes strange things happen, though - even when these rebuilding projects are executed well, they don't always turn out the way their architects would hope. The Brewers won only 71 games in 2006, mostly because their bullpen was a disaster - Turnbow completely fell apart, and the rest of their relievers were so bad the Brewers had to rely on never-weres like Geremi Gonzalez and Jared Fernandez to soak up innings.

Perhaps partly in response to the collapse of their bullpen, Melvin made an odd trade in July, sending Lee and Cruz to the Rangers for Francisco Cordero, Laynce Nix, Kevin Mench and a minor leaguer. Why the Brewers wanted Mench, who never showed an ability to hit much outside Arlington, is beyond me. Nix was close to worthless. Basically, the Brewers dealt Lee for Cordero, a very good reliever who would be eligible for free agency after the 2007 season. So the trade could be seen as a calculated gamble that the Brewers could win a weak division in 2007 by patching up their bullpen. Despite their disappointing 2006 season, this was a defensible idea: Fielder had played well in his rookie season, Hall had broken out in a big way, and Hart had gotten his first extended taste and showed he might well be able to replicate Lee's production in an outfield corner. And Braun and Gallardo were flying through the minors and looking like they were close to being able to help.

Here were Melvin's main moves in the 2006-2007 offseason:

October 29, 2006: Granted free agency to Ohka.

November 25, 2006: Traded Davis, Dana Eveland, and Dave Krynzel to the Diamondbacks for Greg Aquino, Claudio Vargas and Johnny Estrada.

December 24, 2006:  Signed Jeff Suppan to a big contract.

March 26, 2007: Traded Clark to the Dodgers for Elmer Dessens.

In spite of the big splash the Brewers made in signing Suppan, this wasn't a huge offseason. To the extent that Suppan had looked at all exciting in St. Louis, so Suppan wasn't likely to help them much. The Davis-Vargas-Estrada trade was an interesting one, though - I'd always liked Eveland, but Davis' pixie dust had been starting to wear off, and Vargas had posted peripherals in Arizona that suggested he could be a good starter if he just kept the ball down a bit more. And Estrada solidified the Brewers' catching situation - Miller was becoming increasingly fragile, and the Brewers probably didn't want to depend on Mike Rivera or J.D. Closser if he went down.

Whatever the case, though, this offseason suggested that the Brewers believed their rebuilding work was basically done. They were simply trying to fix a few broken parts, and seemed confident that the things that had gone wrong for them in 2006 wouldn't happen again.

It worked, or nearly worked, as the Brewers won 83 games and kept the division race alive until the last week of the season. Fielder hit 50 home runs, Braun won the Rookie of the Year award, and Hardy and Weeks took steps forward. Gallardo was excellent in his debut. Capuano, Bush and Vargas were all disappointing, however.

This offseason the Brewers have focused on acquiring veterans who they only have under contract for one year, and it appears that they're trying to take one more shot at a division title before deciding what to do about Sheets, who becomes a free agent after the season. Even if Sheets leaves, though, the Brewers have an excellent core in place for the next several years, and they should continue to be contenders in a weak division. For all intents and purposes, they've arrived - no one doubts that they're competitive.

There are many things Pirates fans can learn from what Melvin has done.

1. The Xavier Nadys and Salomon Torreses of the world just don't matter much, and we shouldn't really worry about them unless they get in the way of a more promising player. (STEVE PEARCE cough.) It's the 21st century, and most GMs know what their prospects are worth. Occasionally you can get a Carlos Villanueva for a Wayne Franklin, but usually not. And if a GM does give up what seems to be a good prospect for a role player, it will often be the case that the prospect wasn't so good after all - as it turned out, the Braves understood Jose Capellan's value as well as anyone did when they dealt him for Danny Kolb. And, to use an example from a previous writeup in this series, it's also likely that the Dodgers understood what they were doing when they dealt Joel Guzman to the Rays for Julio Lugo.

This doesn't mean that the Pirates and the Rays and other rebuilding teams shouldn't be trading for the Joel Guzmans, because sometimes rival GMs do dumb things (as Rays fans learned when they managed to get Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano), or just turn out to be wrong. The Pirates of the world need to take chances on prospects other teams are willing to trade. It's just that, if and when we do trade Xavier Nady, we shouldn't expect much in return. And now that Nady's blocking a younger and probably better player, it's probably a good idea to just sell him to the highest bidder.

A few days ago, Pat asked an interesting question: what would've happened if, as rumored, the Bucs had non-tendered Nady? The entire fanbase would've gone nuts and yelled about Huntington being the devil. But Pat's right: it actually might not have been a bad move. For a team in the Pirates' position, the Nadys and Chacons and Torreses are totally fungible, and if the franchise overvalues them, it holds itself back. Many times, Melvin got a disappointing return or no return at all for his role players - Ray King, Jose Hernandez, Eric Young, Mike DeJean, and so on. It didn't matter. Those things rarely, if ever, came back to bite him from a baseball perspective. Getting rid of guys like that just made his team cheaper and more flexible, because even when he didn't have a real prospect to play, he could just dig up a Brady Clark or a Keith Ginter to replace them.

2. It's all about the draft. It's depressing, but the Brewers are where they are because of first-round picks, especially Fielder, Weeks, Braun and Sheets. The fact that these guys were all chosen in the first few picks in the first round is important, too. One side effect of Dave Littlefield's Drive for 75 was that it prevented us from really stinking and thus getting the really good draft picks that teams like the Brewers need to get things going. For example, the 2004 Pirates won 72 games and, as a result, they got the 11th pick in the draft, which they used to pick Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen's a good prospect, but if the Pirates had just stopped trying to have their 19th 72-win season in a row, they could've drafted first and picked Justin Upton, who's potentially a franchise-changing player. Or they could have chosen Alex Gordon, or Ryan Zimmerman, or Braun.

It's the same thing with draft bonuses - being willing to pay draft bonuses is just incredibly important. If the 2006 Pirates hadn't been so busy signing paychecks for Jeromy Burnitz and Sean Casey, they could've taken Andrew Miller instead of Brad Lincoln. The Brewers and Rays are in much better shape than the Pirates, and the main reason why is that they've gotten very high draft picks and used them well. This is so much more important than whomever the Pirates trade Xavier Nady for, or, really, whether they trade him at all.

(Relatedly, the price a team pays for screwing up a top draft pick is just enormous - Bryan Bullington alone probably set the Pirates back an entire year.)

3. Even well-executed plans don't always go the way they're supposed to. The Brewers looked like they were in great shape going into the 2006 season, but a bad bullpen ruined them. That's okay - they're still in great shape, because their team is built for the long term. Contrast that with, for example, the 2003 Pirates, who might well have snagged a division title if their bullpen hadn't gone kaboom on them. Well, the '03 Pirates weren't built for the future, they were built around Brian Giles, Kip Wells and a bunch of one-year rentals who were much better than expected and freakishly cheap because of a massive inefficiency in the free agent market. And after the season, Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton and Matt Stairs and Suppan were all gone and Aramis Ramirez was gone too, and we had to watch the Simon-Stynes-Wigginton '04 Pirates, who were one of the most offensively mediocre Pirates teams I've ever had the displeasure of watching.

4. Don't be afraid to spend money. Taking on salary to acquire Carlos Lee was a great move for the Brewers, and it propelled them to their first .500 season in over a decade. If Huntington can build the franchise with a few good drafts, then the Bucs should raise the payroll, because if they do, the fans will come. The Brewers have raised their attendance by at least 100,000 every year since 2003, and in 2007 they attracted 2.9 million fans, up from 1.7 million in 2003. Attanasio's investment in the franchise is paying off.