Originally posted May 23, 2013
Earlier on, we looked at the 10 best moves in the tenure of Brewers’ president and general manager Doug Melvin. Before delving into the negative side, it’s worth looking back at those. Some of the items on this list are going to spark some disagreement. I’ve tried to spell out my reasoning as clearly as possible, especially on the deals that may not seem so bad on the surface or in the apparent results. Some of these things come down to philosophical differences, and those sorts of differences are always going to spark the most heated debate. Once again, I look forward to seeing what people think in the comments section. Alright, ready for the bad stuff?
10) CC Sabathia trade
OK, put down the pitchforks and torches and let me explain why this wasn’t Doug Melvin’s finest moment. This isn’t about CC, he was obviously amazing for the Brewers, and a key component of the franchise’s first playoff run in over a quarter century. It’s also not about the players that were traded turning into stars, as clearly Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Rob Bryson, and Zach Jackson didn’t become the kind of stars that you regret trading. The problem is more philosophical. The fact of the matter is that Melvin used a big chunk of his most valuable minor league trade pieces to rent a player for three month’s time. Make no mistake, those players traded away had considerable trade value, even if they didn’t turn out as was expected. The mistake isn’t so much trading them away, but rather putting all of those assets towards one, and one only, playoff run. The team did happen to scrape in, but they paid the price for this (and other moves) over the next two seasons as they found no way to build a playoff caliber rotation despite having a fine young offense to work with. Context is also important here, because if the Brewers had more pitching coming up through the farm system at the time maybe this makes more sense. They didn’t, and thus long-term needs of the franchise were only temporarily met, and then the club was once again left searching for pitching.
9) Hiring Ken Macha as manager.
One of the hardest things any general manager has to do is to hire a field manager and obviously Melvin hasn’t hit a home run with any of his three managerial hires. Still, at least Ned Yost accomplished the successful “breaking-in” of those 2000-05 draftees and Ron Roenicke has a career 197-172 record. The Ken Macha hire was basically a disaster from start to finish. Yes, it’s true he wasn’t given much in the way of a starting rotation to work with, and he was tactically more in line with my thinking than either of the other two, but his inability to run a functional clubhouse ultimately kept him from being given the chance with a good rotation in 2011. What makes the hire worse was that he came to Milwaukee with a reputation for being hard to get along with, but that didn’t seem to matter. At the end of the day, 2009 and 2010 represent tremendously blown opportunities for contention and Ken Macha was at the helm for those two debacles.
8) Signing David Riske.
This is what happens so often when teams invest money in relievers, especially those without much in the way of velocity and already on the wrong side of 30. The Brewers gave Riske 12 million over three years and were rewarded with 66 2/3 innings of 5.40 ERA (77 ERA+) pitching. This was also a very poorly timed move, in that the team was committing to paying him four-plus million a year through the key 2009 and 2010 seasons, but more on that later. Fortunately, Melvin seems to have somewhat learned from this mistake since then, having given out no more than a two year contract to any reliever since then.
7) Allowing the first rounds of the 2009 and 2011 drafts to happen.
Neither list has included much about the draft to this point, other than Melvin choosing to retain Jack Z, and that is completely by design. General managers don’t run the drafts of their teams in baseball the way that they do in other sports. That is left to scouting directors who spend all year evaluating amateur baseball talent through their network of scouts and cross-checkers. Still, the responsibility for these decisions ultimately falls to the general manager, and Melvin has never been shy about taking responsibility for his involvement with first-round picks. It really appears as though the Brewers, in a perpetual quest for starting pitching, took three college starters with limited upside but who could theoretically help the team sooner rather than later. 2009 first-rounder Eric Arnett has been a bust basically since the word go. 2011 15th overall pick Jed Bradley has struggled mightily and has scouts questioning if the Brewers will ever get anything out of him. Only 2011 12th overall pick Taylor Jungmann appears to be on a clear path to the big leagues, but he has struggled to miss bats and seems destined more for the back end than the front end of a big league rotation at this point. Getting that little out of three first round picks, especially when two of them were in the top 15 of a loaded 2011 draft, isn’t something that a team in a small TV market can do and sustain success for long.
6) Trading Doug Davis for Johnny Estrada.
Yes, Doug Davis was frustrating to watch at times. He walked too many batters and didn’t strike many guys out. He took forever to get the ball to the plate and every start seemed like a trip to the dentist. He also ate a ton of innings from 2007 to 2009 (542 IP) and did so with solidly above average run prevention (4.22 ERA and a 109 ERA+). He did so with the Diamondbacks, and for the cost of 22 million dollars. In return, the Brewers primarily got back Johnny Estrada, whose one year of occasional power, quick and numerous outs and painfully inept defense couldn’t end fast enough. The team also got back Claudio Vargas and Greg Aquino, but any value gained there was basically wiped out by giving up Dana Eveland, who did post one useful year for the A’s when he still would have been under Brewers’ control. Perhaps the worst thing about this deal is it then left a hole in the Brewers’ rotation for an inning eater….but more on that later.
5) Trading Brett Lawrie to get Shaun Marcum.
Yes, Marcum was a key piece in the 2011 playoff run and Lawrie has been hurt and intermittently awful with only flashes of brilliance. This one, like the Sabathia trade, really comes down to a philosophical difference on the best way to run a small market franchise. Trading away high-upside, talented prospects for limited control of players is a dangerous game, and not one that financially strapped teams cannot afford to play very often. Even if the Brewers were dissatisfied with Lawrie’s attitude and wanted to trade him, targeting an often hurt pitcher with modest fastball velocity hardly seems like the best possible use of a consensus top 50 prospect. When panning this deal in the past the common response has often been “well, without making this trade they don’t get Greinke.” Even if that is true, that speaks more to the failure over the years on Melvin’s part to acquire enough pitching through other means than it justifies a course of action like this. If we want to be most charitable to Melvin, we could perhaps say that the sin wasn’t making the trade so much as it was being in the position to feel the need to make the trade. Of course, Melvin had already been at the helm at that point for eight seasons, so the position they were in was mostly his doing to begin with.
4) Bill Hall‘s contract extension.
In 2005 and 2006 combined, Bill Hall hit .280/.344/.525 over the course of over 1,154 plate appearances and showed enough defensive utility that giving him a four year deal for roughly 25 million seemed like a slam dunk. Unfortunately, Hall would never again hit like anything close to that again, and the contract would become something that had to be worked around from that time forward. There were rumors (most notably the now infamous ESPN “Player X” column in 2010) that Hall became a party animal after getting paid, something he denied. If that was the case, then it’s hard to really fault Melvin for making the deal, since no one can know for sure what another person is going to do in a situation like that. If not, then the failure is primarily a scouting one, and scouting is more of an art than a science and mistakes are inevitable. Either way, it hurt the team and Melvin did it, so it belongs on this list.
3) Ryan Braun‘s second contract extension.
Again, with the pitchforks and torches. This one gets really tricky and could still work out reasonably well for the Brewers if Braun can sustain something like his current level of performance for the next five or six seasons. Like the Greinke for Segura trade being on the good moves list, this one involves a good deal of projection since it doesn’t even begin for almost three more years. The main issue is that the Brewers simply didn’t have to do this deal. They already had Braun under a fantastically team friendly deal through his age 31 season. Getting the years that comprise most players’ “prime” years at such a massive discount was a huge coup, but then they went out and paid an additional 100 million to get his age 32-36 seasons. To be sure, some players are highly productive through those years, but others see significant decline. Many start dealing with chronic injuries that keep them off the field or hamper their ability to be the player they once were. The best thing that can be said about this deal is the Brewers didn’t have to pay anything like the premium that other teams paid for their starts, but if Braun can’t justify the contract on its own merits, how it compares to other deals won’t matter.
2) The Carlos Lee trade with Texas.
As much as acquiring Lee goes to Melvin’s credit, the way in which he handled Lee’s departure was flawed on a number of levels. First off, Melvin failed to deal him after the successful 2005 campaign, when he could have conceivably gotten more for a full year than for two months of Lee. He also then made the mistake of including Nelson Cruz in the deal, just because Texas didn’t want to be left empty handed when Lee walked. While it did take Cruz a couple more years (and a trip through waivers) to produce, and he probably never gets that long of a leash in Milwaukee, it still was an odd decision to include him just to get back what they did. Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and Francisco Cordero all plugged holes for the team, and allowed the team to claim that they weren’t “giving up” on the season, but they simply were not very valuable. Cordero was the best of the bunch, but he was merely a solid relief pitcher made out to be more because he had the Proven Closer Seal of Approval. Perhaps most glaringly, Melvin did not acquire any starting pitching in this deal. We can’t know what sorts of guys were offered for Lee, but considering the mediocre return that did come back, taking a chance on an upside arm or two wouldn’t have kept them from achieving anything they did achieve and could have possibly led to much more.
1) Signing Jeff Suppan.
Was there really any other way to go with #1 on this list? Suppan was really the wrong player, at the wrong time on the wrong contract and it was pretty apparent from the get go that it wasn’t a good idea. Suppan was an aging pitcher who relied heavily on the outstanding Cardinals’ defense to turn his ground balls into outs. His stuff was showing steady decline and it was never realistic to think that he would hold his value through the contract. Despite that, the Brewers decided to backload the deal and pay him almost 2/3 of the contract’s 42 million price tag over the last two years when he predictably became a sub replacement level pitcher. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the club, as 2009 and 2010 became prime years for the young offensive core put together by Jack Z through the draft. Each of those years, the Brewers began the season with essentially 20 million-plus in “dead money” between the Suppan, Hall and Riske contracts that could have been used on pitching but instead went largely to waste. This was an epic miscalculation and it played the biggest role in costing the team two prime years of contention.
Moves that just missed the top 10: Signing Wes Helms, trading Jorge De La Rosa for Tony Grafanino, signing Eric Gagne, the Derrick Turnbow extension, bringing Trevor Hoffman for a second season in 2010.