Complacency, Expectations, and the Milwaukee Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

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.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. L says: February 24, 2014

    Take away the injuries over the last several years and who knows what the Brewers would have, could have accomplished. Hopefully, the whole team manages to stay healthy throughout this year and then we can see just how competitive this team can really be within one of the most (likely) difficult divisions in Baseball this year.

  2. Jeff says: February 24, 2014

    I don’t understand the whole ‘rebuild’ concept. The Brewers are in the business of filling seats and TV slots. If they put together a decent team every year, that COULD win, they will fill more seats, systematically, than if they bomb for three years on purpose and then try again. By then, they have lost a bunch of viewers and seat-buyers, and they have to re-seduce them. Then, the “window” is gone and they go through the cycle again. Keeping a steady, decently competitive team projects, in the long term, to be a more profitable and reliable way to run a sports franchise. It’s also sustainable.

    • L says: February 24, 2014

      Agreed, but that sustainability requires a talented Farm system to which you can rely on for replacement players when they’re needed — especially, when you’re talking about a small market team.

    • Ryan Topp says: February 24, 2014

      Perpetually winning is a laudable goal, but even over a decade or even half of one, it’s pretty hard to do for all but the richest teams in the sport. The reality is that there are some pretty big inequalities in how much revenue teams can generate and that means teams have to adopt different strategies of team building to have success. The Yankees and Dodgers (and Phillies, Red Sox, Angels and someday the Mets and Cubs) just operate on a different plane than basically the rest of the field. They get to do things (like sign elite free agents to monster deals) that the Brewers just cannot and should not do, given their situation. Demographics dictate they get to do that.

      This isn’t to say that winning in smaller markets is hopeless. It’s totally possible. But the strategy has to be different. Baseball’s CBA dictates that players cannot become free agents until they play 6 nearly full seasons in the big leagues, and until that point they have to play for significantly reduced rates, though it grows as they near free agency.

      That gives teams in Milwaukee’s situation the ability to win, but they pretty much need to have quite a few young players making significantly less than market value because they’re yet to reach their 7th season. This is why the Brewers won in 2008 and 2011. They had a pile of young players locked into team control giving them value that well exceeded their paychecks.

      The problem is keeping the pipeline of these players flowing, new cheap ones to replace some of the guys moving into their more expensive ones. There was a day when teams could just throw piles of money at the draft and international free agent market and keep the faucet flowing. But the last CBA severely limited teams ability to spend on amateurs, instead giving all the leverage to the teams with the worst records. MLB made it pay to lose even more than it already did, and that’s why we’ve seen some bigger market teams (Cubs, Astros, even the Mets) basically tank to build their systems up.

      So beyond spending piles of money on free agents, or losing and being given the right to the best amateurs, it’s pretty hard to keep winning. The A’s and Rays are both trying to, in slightly different ways, trade their way to success. The Rays have repeatedly dealt players nearing free agency for younger players, with quite a bit of success. This isn’t something that will work forever, but it’s a good way to extend their window, and they don’t seem likely to fall apart anytime soon. But it does mean swallowing hard and trading away guys in their primes for prospects.

      The Brewers, on the other hand, have often elected to trade their prospects for 1-2 year rentals of players. They did it with CC, and they did it again with Marcum and Greinke. That puts butts in the seats, wins headlines and has gotten them to the playoffs twice, but it’s really hard to sustain it unless you find a way to just keep churning out prospects. They’ve struggled on that front in the last few years.

      Also, don’t forget: it’s quite possible to be profitable while rebuilding. You cut overhead (payroll) and you don’t need people to come in. If you do a good job picking the right guys and making other smart moves, then the winning will come again. Then it’s just on Mark A’s crack PR team to resell people on the idea of coming out to the park.

      I’m not saying they should be rebuilding right now. I was saying that, but this team has me a little interested in trying again. But I do think the day is coming when they’ll need to rip the team apart and start losing hard with the intent of building the next core. There is a chance, if their system really turns around fast and they make some very savvy trades, that they might not need to do it, but that’s something of a longshot, IMO.

      All teams, even the Yankees, eventually have to rebuild. It shouldn’t be something that is feared. When the time comes, it needs to be embraced. Chances are it’s coming soon.

      (sorry Curt for hijacking the comment section. Someday, I need to just write an actual blogpost on this. Someday. When the time is right.

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