The state of being for a professional baseball team has become relatively dichotomous. Either a team is in “win now” mode or a team is rebuilding — with few exceptions. The Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and Los Angeles Angels are pushing in all of their chips to win now. The Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres, and Chicago Cubs have recently embarked upon a full-fledged rebuilding project.
As for the Brewers? Since trading away Brett Lawrie, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, and Alcides Escobar for an opportunity to win the NL Central in 2011, Milwaukee has firmly been placed in the “win now” category.
That “win now” distinction implies two separate things:
(1) The team has a legitimate chance to win a division pennant and perhaps a World Series ring.
(2) The window for postseason contention is small — generally just a season or two.
In regards to the first portion of the definition, the Milwaukee Brewers fit like a glove. They won the organization’s first division pennant since 1982 and advanced to the NLCS before falling to the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals. In addition, a 2012 NL Central pennant or Wild Card berth remains within reach, though certainly not guaranteed.
The second point, however, is not so easily granted as true.
Prince Fielder may be gone. Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum may only have one more year in Milwaukee. The cupboards, however, will not necessarily be bare next year. This is not a one-and-done type season for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Doug Melvin did a wonderful job locking up some key contributors to team-friendly contracts that will extend beyond 2012. Rickie Weeks still has at least three years in Milwaukee. Yovani Gallardo is signed through at least 2014 (team option for 2015). Corey Hart will wear a Brewers uniform through 2013. Ryan Braun is essentially here for life.
Statistically, that is +18.8 WAR from 2011 that will remain in Milwaukee through at least the 2013 season. That is +18.8 WAR that will be in the prime of their respective careers during that time frame, as well.
Outside of the contract extensions mentioned above, the Brewers also will have closer John Axford under contract for another five years, and slugging third baseman Aramis Ramirez through 2014. Jonathan Lucroy will likely be behind the plate for the Brew Crew until he hits free agency after the 2016 season.
As you can see, it’s not as if this Brewers club was only built for contention in 2011 and 2012. Significant pieces will be in place beyond that point. Holes will eventually exist — especially in the starting rotation and perhaps first base — but Doug Melvin and the Brewers are hoping that some internal candidates can thrive in the minor league system and eventually provide cost-controlled success at the big league level. The organization is particularly relying upon Wily Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, and Jed Bradley to be the mid-rotation arms that can slot in behind Gallardo during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Just a year ago, many Brewers fans (including myself) were beginning to wonder if the sun had begun to set on the window for success. The club had finished below .500, and the starting rotation was in complete shambles. Trading Prince Fielder had even become a popular opinion to restock the farm system.
Doug Melvin shocked the baseball world, however, trading for Greinke and Marcum in a pair of moves that helped propel the Brewers into the postseason for just the second time since the famous 1982 season. It illustrated the fine line between disappointment and exhilarating success. It illustrated that one or two key trades or acquisitions could transform a fringe-contender into a bona fide division favorite.
Fast forward about nine months to the offseason following the upcoming 2012 season.
The only starting position player that may not return in 2013 is shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and even he has an vesting option for the ‘13 season. A batting order with Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart may not be as potent as one that features Prince Fielder in the clean-up role, but it’s hardly lacking offensive firepower. The Brewers will still likely score runs at an above-average rate.
The bullpen should still continue to be a strength. Closer John Axford was untouchable last season and only seems to be gaining more confidence and improving every month on the mound. Jose Veras, Zach Braddock, and Marco Estrada will all be with the team through at least 2013. The organization also has a stable of hard-throwing relievers nearing the big leagues — including Santo Manzanillo, Cody Scarpetta, Brandon Kintzler, and perhaps even Tyler Thornburg.
The real question mark lies in the starting rotation. Greinke, Marcum, and Randy Wolf will all be pitching elsewhere in 2013 (unless the Brewers exercise Wolf’s ‘13 option or extend Greinke/Marcum). The rotation will be Yovani Gallardo, Chris Narveson, and a myriad of question marks. As mentioned earlier, the organization has some mid-rotation pitchers chugging through the minor leagues, but it’s difficult to rely upon rookies to anchor the rotation during a potential postseason race.
This sounds a bit like the winter before the 2011 season, doesn’t it?
The difference is that the Brewers’ no longer have any premium position prospects to offer up as trade bait for top-flight pitching talent. Doug Melvin desperately values starting pitching depth, so it’s extremely difficult to see him trading someone like Peralta for a one or two year rental for the starting rotation.
Doug Melvin surprised everyone last winter, though. He proved extremely creative — especially if one wants to include the Francisco Rodriguez deal he pulled off in July, too — and built a very good club. He built a 90+ win club during an offseason that many had labeled the beginning of the end for the Brewers’ window to win.
And the best part was that he put the organization in position to contend beyond 2012, as well. Some thrifty moves may have to take place and some internal candidates may have to exceed expectations a bit, but the organization is once again straddling that line between disappointment and success. Doug Melvin proved capable of pushing his team over the top last season, and it seems pessimistic to assume that he cannot do so again.
The Milwaukee Brewers sacrificed a lot to win the NL Central in 2011. After all, we all sat back and watched Brett Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580 for the Toronto Blue Jays as a flippin’ 21-year-old. That division pennant will hang from the rafters forever, though, and this team could add another postseason berth or two during the next couple of years. This is not a “win now” team. This is a team that is built to contend and has a chance to do so for several more years, if Doug Melvin can continue to impress and perhaps get a little lucky, as well.