Playing With A Stacked Deck | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Playing With A Stacked Deck

By on February 13, 2012

With recent departure of Prince Fielder, it’s only natural to look backwards at what he meant to the team over the past 6 plus seasons. Much has already been written about what he individually meant to the team. From his prodigious power to his leadership, it’s well covered ground. In another sense, though, his departure marks a significant milestone in the collective story of the group of players that has formed the backbone of the Brewers for the last 5 years.

From 2000 to 2005, former scouting director Jack Zduriencik drafted a future all-star in 6 straight drafts. In 2000, it was Corey Hart in the 11th round. The next year he took shortstop JJ Hardy in the second. In 2002, it was Fielder in the first round after he fell down to the 7th pick. Despite a change at the top in the Brewers organization that saw Doug Melvin replace Dean Taylor, Zduriencik was retained and the hits kept right on coming with Rickie Weeks, taken second overall in 2003. In 2004,  they finally hit on a pitcher, taking Yovani Gallardo in the second round. The group was completed with Ryan Braun who was taken 5th overall in 2005. It was a remarkable run, and one that eventually landed Zduriencik the general manager position with the Mariners.

There are lots of ways we can attempt to measure the contributions of these 6 players. Though none of the 6 has yet to turn 30, they have already combined for 12 all-star appearances between them, a number that hardly seems final. In just the last 5 years, they have combined for a total of 112.5 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. Year to year, the WAR provided to the team breaks down like this:

Year MKE Core WAR NL Central Winner WAR
2007 23.1 44.0 (CHC)
2008 15.7 55.7 (CHC)
2009 19.5 45.4 (STL)
2010 22.6 54.6 (Cin)
2011 24.3 51.0 (MKE)

Compare the wins above replacement that Milwaukee was getting from just their core 6 (later 5) players to what the NL Central Champions entire team WAR was. It’s interesting that the lowest year for core WAR was the Brewers first playoff appearance in recent memory. That just goes to show how much CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets did for that 2008 team, and also how big an advantage the core provided in other years where the pitching wasn’t able to carry anything like it’s weight towards a winner.

It’s also worth mentioning here that, although the gap between the Brewers core and the NL Central champions is something of a yardstick with which to measure the rest of the roster, it’s not a definitive number. In other words, the Brewers didn’t just need to assemble 20.9 WAR beyond the core 6 players in 2007 to tie the Cubs. The Brewers actually beat the Cubs in WAR that year by a bit, and ended up two games behind in the standings regardless. There are limits to what WAR can tell us, and in this context it’s more of a guide rather than a hard and fast fact.

Getting back to the numbers themselves, the advantage starts to become even more clear when you look at how much the core players were making. These 6 players made roughly 93 million dollars over those 5 seasons. That’s a bit more than $800,000 per win above replacement. Considering the going rate for wins above replacement 2 years ago was right around 3.5 million per win, they’ve been a monumental bargain:

Year MKE Core WAR MKE Core Salary (millions) MKE Cost Per Win
2007 23.1 3.315* 144K
2008 15.7 5.679 362K
2009 19.5 18.796 964K
2010 22.6 # 20.2875 # 898K #
2011 24.3 # 34.6208 # 1.425M #
2012 30.500 ^
2013 36.25 ^

* approximation due to partial big league seasons played at league minimum
# totals do not include JJ Hardy’s play or salary for other teams
^ Base salary of remaining core players without Fielder

It’s almost staggering to think about just how big an advantage that 2007 team had in it’s core. Paying $144,000 per win for 6 players, it’s the sort of thing you only see rarely, from teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland and Minnesota in the first half of last decade. Of course, this sort of thing can’t last forever. The cost of the players has gone up annually, and it’s going to get more and more expensive to keep fewer players. Thus far, it’s stayed well below the market cost per win, but it’s going to keep getting closer to that number as time goes on. The players will hit their performance peaks and start their inevitable declines. This is all just an unavoidable consequence of baseball’s economic system and it highlights the importance of maintaining a steady stream of cost controlled young, impact performers. If the Brewers are going to have success in the coming years, they’ll almost certainly need to “hit” on a good number of players currently in the farm system and in their upcoming drafts.

Looking back, there is one more big question begged by the numbers. Namely, did the Brewers get enough out of cheap, control years of their 2000 to 2005 draft-built core? It’s by no means a simple question, but let’s at least attempt to look at how it breaks down:

Year MKE Core WAR MKE Core Salary (millions) MKE Opening Day Payroll (millions) MKE Core % of Payroll
2007 23.1 3.315* 70.9 4.7%
2008 15.7 5.679 80.9 7.0%
2009 19.5 18.796 80.1 23.0%
2010 22.6 # 20.2875 # 90.4 # 22.4%
2011 24.3 # 34.6208 # 83.6 # 41.4%

In 2007,  the core made less than 5% of the total payroll. Remembering back to the first table, that year those 6 players produced more than half of the eventual champion Cubs total WAR all by themselves. Talk about an advantage. In 2009 and 2010, the numbers aren’t quite as stark, but still  distressing in retrospect. In both cases the Brewers core was making less than a quarter of the total payroll and producing well over a third of the eventual division champions WAR as a group. Clearly, they were more than pulling their weight  and it was the other 19 or 20  roster spots that were failing miserably to take advantage of the head start.

As a result, it’s very hard to look back at 2007, 2009 and 2010 and not wonder what could have been if the rest of the roster could have been assembled just a bit better. Each year, the team was starting with the incredible advantage of having such a large number of wins coming from a small, relatively cheap group of players. It’s no coincidence that the two seasons they made the playoffs in that era that Melvin went out and acquired pitching by trading prospects and in the other 3 years the pitching staff was the downfall. The core players were, after all, mostly hitters and there was little they could do about the lack of pitching.

Some allowances need to be made for the Brewers’ failure despite their advantages those years. First off, in 2007, Melvin had been with the franchise less than 5 years. Considering how bad the major league club was when he took over, it’s hard to expect him to have completely turned it around in that time. Secondly, Milwaukee certainly wasn’t, and in many ways still is not, the sort of place that veteran free agents think “If I sign there for cheap, I can win a ring.” Let’s face it, it’s just an advantage that a team like the Cardinals has over Milwaukee. They can acquire a player of  Carlos Beltran’s quality for a bargain basement price compared to what other teams would have to pay. Same often goes for the Yankees, Red Sox and other tradition rich clubs. The Brewers are going to have a harder time landing true bargains on the open market than some of their competitors.

That being said, there were some pretty big missteps made along the way. In 2009 and 2010, the Brewers were paying close to 20 million dollars per year for Bill Hall and Jeff Suppan and getting combined below replacement level performance. Essentially flushing somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of a teams’ payroll down the toilet from the get-go is a hard way to win, and it gave back a good portion of the positive return on investment of the core. A good long debate can also be had about the franchise’s inability to draft and develop starting pitching while Zduriencik was running things. Though part of that was the team’s preference for drafting position players early on, something they did quite successfully, it still left major holes to fill down the road as the Brewers were seldom able to trade for or acquire on waivers the starting pitching they needed. When a team puts itself in the position to need to go on the free agent market to build it’s rotation, signings like Suppan and Braden Looper are going to happen more often than realtive successes like Randy Wolf. It’s just a really hard way to build a team.

At the end of the day, the Milwaukee Brewers have made the playoffs in 2 of the last 4 seasons, matching the total playoff trips in the entire franchise history to that point. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and a lot of credit needs to be given all around for the success. From Zduriencik drafting the corner stones, to Melvin going out and making the big trades needed and finally to ownership for being willing to increase payroll in an effort to win. Any management group is going to make their share of mistakes, and those mistakes will keep their organization from reaching full potential. That is certainly what has happened here.  If the Brewers had won a World Series in one of their trips to the playoffs, there really wouldn’t be much to complain about. Unfortunately for Brewer fans, though, they didn’t and thus 2007, 2009 and 2010 will stand out as opportunities lost, at least until a championship can finally be brought to Milwaukee.

(H/T to @BrewCrewBall for engaging in the conversation that promoted this post)

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