Mark Attanasio made his message loud and clear for the players in his annual team address before the first full-squad spring workout, as Tom Haudricourt of the Journal-Sentinel reported: the Brewers expect to win and put their increased payroll to use in 2014.
“This year, we decided to invest in the team because we decided we had talent. We’ll have the highest payroll in team history,” Attanasio told Haudricourt.
Just six weeks ago, Brewers fans reading that quote would have called into question the team owner’s judgement, knowledge, and overall sanity.
Since then, however, Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin have switched on the “Welp, I guess we’ll give this winning thing a shot” knob, seemingly a recurring theme with the Brewers. A quiet off-season highlighted by the Rule 5 draft selection of 180-pounder Wei-Chung Wang soon gained some steam with the signing of Rob Deer reincarnate, Mark Reynolds. Seeing a window to compete, Attanasio and Melvin went out and made an aggressive move, much like they had with Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse, to hopefully take that next step in signing Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal. To finish things off, they signed Francisco Rodriguez for somehow, like, the fourteenth straight off-season to bolster a new-look bullpen.
Team payroll numbers aren’t yet completely determined, but Brew Crew Ball’s Derek Harvey calculated the team payroll to come to around $96.3 million, a steady incline from the Opening Day figure of $84.3 million last year.
But do those same expectations that Attanasio set forth for the players remain the same for Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke?
One term that Attanasio brought up multiple times in the article was “bad investments”. Spending money just for the sake of spending money doesn’t lead to wins–just ask the Angels, who will be giving $30 million to a player who, in his two seasons with the team, is less valuable than Zack Cozart in 2021 at his ripe age of 41. Sure, Milwaukee can spend enough money to put them in the top half of all major league teams, but it’s meaningless if it’s on poor investments.
The Brewers aren’t pulling a 2013 Blue Jays and wiring money from the Milwaukee Bucks in order to gain some more cash to throw at every available big name on the market. (Disclaimer: The Blue Jays did not illegally take any money from the Toronto Raptors to sign Mark Buehrle. Drake is a Raptors fan. And Canadian. So that would pretty much be accusing the Blue Jays of treason. But you get the point). Once again, however, the front office showed a desire to compete in the present and be assertive enough in acquiring pricier players in order to do so.
More so than in any of the other years since 2011, the Brewers have put together a roster that has a chance at winning. Attanasio, Melvin, Roenicke, and the players all believe this notion.
The Brewers have ditched the early-2000s “small market” moniker that permitted them to finish in or near last place because they were at the bottom of the league in payroll. But simply spending more money won’t improve a depleted farm system, increase television revenue, or stop the lingering reality that winning 81 games is an acceptable benchmark.
With this current team, Melvin and Roenicke may be on a hot seat that they haven’t really faced since arriving in Milwaukee; then again, judging from the events of the past two years, they may not.
Attanasio believes that the team currently assembled can, and should, be a contender in 2014, which should indicate the pressure is now on Melvin and Roenicke, as the two most important front office pieces to the team. Right? Or, if things don’t go as planned and Milwaukee wins 75, 80 games again, will the Brewers shift their focus to 2015 again, just to have this same discussion?
Does a higher payroll actually mean higher expectations? Or, once again, will it mean higher hopes without a clear backup plan?
Melvin is signed through 2015 following an extension to his contract in 2012; Roenicke is inked through 2014 with a club option for 2015. It would be difficult to see the Brewers part ways with the general manager that has led them to two postseason berths in his tenure and Attanasio has never even entertained thoughts about Roenicke’s job being in jeopardy.
But is another fringe-.500 season going to sit well with an owner that is putting forth what he expects to be the highest payroll in franchise history? Is the continued lack of growth in the farm system and struggle to develop young pitching going to be overshadowed by another attempt at “winning now” if 2014 doesn’t go well? Will 81 wins with a roster that is expected to contend be just enough to keep Roenicke around? This uncertainty regarding the state of the Brewers hasn’t sat well with fans for quite some time.
On the field, the Brewers look far different than they did in 2011 when they won 96 games.
But somehow, though, their approach hasn’t seemed to wander too far off the same course. Attanasio projects the highest payroll in franchise history and late-February talks of “winning now” haven’t been quieted since before the 2005 season when the Brewers unexpectedly won 81 games before our eyes.
There have been moments where a rebuilding appeared imminent. Then there were the times the franchise seemed dedicated to keeping its core intact. The theme of winning now has at times felt plausible, yet at others been clouded by Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez playing in the same infield. But, overall, a majority of the past three seasons have been spent in limbo as to what direction the team was really headed.
The 2013 season seemed to be the impending reality check Brewers fans had been attempting to put off. The Brewers were about to wander off that “win now” course. The late-March signing of Lohse didn’t cover up any of the other significant flaws that had the Brewers lingering with the likes of the Marlins and Cubs in the standings at the All Star break. It finally was time to blow things up and rebuild.
But, as we’ve seen multiple times since the post-division champs campaign started off poorly, any hunches that the team was looking to rebuild were thwarted. After losing Prince Fielder to free agency, the Brewers were dedicated to getting back to where they were in 2011 by signing Aramis Ramirez and keeping their starting rotation intact. When that same rotation lost all effectiveness and the bullpen literally ceased to exist, that mentality quickly ended. The July trade of Greinke looked to be the beginning of the end until a late-season rally (#BREWLIEVE) almost saw the Brewers out-Cardinals the Cardinals. Hoping that strong second half would carry over into 2013, the Brewers drudged any notion of rebuilding by offering their first round draft pick as sacrifice for Lohse right before the season started. Those high hopes were dashed by the most depressing month in franchise history, a 6-22 month of May.
The Brewers only real chances at competing in 2014 rested on either a big-name signing or unforeseen rises in production from almost everyone on the roster–especially the pitching staff. The Garza signing puts the Brewers in a “sleeper” position to contend. Ryan Braun is back. Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura are coming off All Star campaigns. Jonathan Lucroy emerged as a leader and backed it up with his glove and bat. Brandon Kintzler is awesome. The starting rotation is excitingly average, with an actual possibility of being above-average after back-to-back rough seasons. Heck, there’s even a guy named Khris on the team.
Right now, the Brewers seem to be competitively rebuilding. If they succeed, the organization looks brilliant. If they don’t, there’s always reason to not make a change and go back at it next season. In today’s game, however, it needs to be one or the other.
I, for one, don’t even want to have to deal with the drama and speculation regarding Melvin and Roenicke’s jobs. The best way to achieve that? Winning. And lots of it. Let’s go for that.