On July 27, my wife and I were enjoying the Olympic opening ceremonies at a neighborhood bar in Cleveland. Preparing for our impending move back to Wisconsin, we were celebrating our year in Ohio. Watching the Olympics seemed like an easy decision; the Brewers were playing the Nationals, but at 44-54, I had long been in the habit of catching up on broadcasts later (thanks, MLB GameDay Audio!). My intuition to turn in the towel was confirmed as my wife learned of the Zack Greinke trade. In the midst of social media updates or analysis about the Olympics and their opening ceremonies, she confirmed that the Brewers had traded their best pitcher for the Angels’ prospects, Jean Segura, John Hellweg, and Ariel Pena. With a pending move from one end of the midwest to the other, there seemed to be no better time to throw in the towel on the Brewers’ season.
One simple hope came to my mind: let’s hope they can rebuild quickly, I thought.
Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin deserves a lot of credit for building a series of win-now ballclubs in Milwaukee. I opposed the initial trades for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, protesting that the potential impact of Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain around the diamond would be greater than Greinke’s impact in the rotation. Furthermore, the future impact of Jake Odorizzi and Brett Lawrie was greater than the impact Marcum and Greinke would have on the ballclub. Thankfully, I was wrong, and Melvin proved to be correct. Neither Marcum nor Greinke proved to be an ace, but they both contributed to one of the most consistent rotations in the 2011 NL — one of the most important elements to their balanced dominance during that season.
It’s important to keep this type of win-now attitude in context. Melvin’s arguable aggression paid off in 2011, undoubtedly allowing the Brewers access to playoffs revenue that easily sets off the potential future value of players such as Odorizzi and Lawrie. This is one of the mistakes of WAR and basic value over replacement states that I learned during 2011: replacement value does not occur in a vacuum. If a team is close to competing for the playoffs (arguably the Brewers weren’t close after 2010, but their front office thought they could make a run during Prince Fielder‘s final contract year), the value of their wins shifts completely; fighting for a chance at extra playoff revenue, wins for the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers definitely meant more than wins for the 2011 Toronto Blue Jays or Kansas City Royals. We can argue forever that Lawrie’s pure statistical value over the next six-or-seven years is worth much more than Marcum’s moderately above average 2011 campaign and average 2012 season; yet, Lawrie’s statistical value is not tied to playoff revenue. Marcum’s value was, in 2011 (so was every other member of the 2011 Brewers). Melvin’s gamble had a real payoff that was greater than the potential future value of Lawrie, Odorizzi, Escobar, or Cain (and that proof is arguably found in the 2012 Brewers’ payroll, the Aramis Ramirez contract, etc.).
Given the payoff for his aggression in 2011, one could probably predict that the Brewers front office would trade for an organizational need at the 2012 deadline. Perhaps Melvin’s greatest move as a GM (seriously) was turning Greinke back into a shortstop for the ballclub. One could argue that the entire issue could have been avoided by keeping Escobar at short, and yet in that scenario we don’t have a clear revenue increase to play with. Melvin’s original gamble turned into playoff revenue, and he turned his club’s best pitcher in 2012 into a shortstop.
With Marcum on the disabled list during the trade deadline, the Brewers recalled Mark Rogers from their Nashville affiliate on July 28, 2012. The rebuilding campaign began in earnest, as Rogers made his first start of the season the next day. Rogers pitched a couple of good starts early in his replacement campaign, but his first two strong outings corresponded with some of the bullpen’s rough outings at the end of July and into early August. When he earned his first win on August 20, Rogers’s streak of three strong outings began, and this replacement arm was suddenly contributing to a surging ballclub. From August 20 through August 31, the Brewers won 9 of 11 ballgames; seven of those wins belonged to Rogers, Fastballer Mike Fiers, and Marco Estrada.
While the pitching surged with a general gang of replacements and swingmen, the offense suddenly re-emerged, scoring runs with ease. The Brewers’ strong middle order of extra-base hit machine Aramis Ramirez and MVP candidate Ryan Braun suddenly gained able re-enforcements from all sides of the diamond. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy returned from injury and didn’t miss a beat. Defensive wizard Carlos Gomez overtook the everyday job in centerfield, completely shifting the dynamic from that platoon that retained none of its 2011 magic. Patiently slumping Rickie Weeks put together several solid months of production, and questionable-call-up Segura emerged a productive contact hitter in September. As the Brewers moved into 2013, they had several question marks, even at their recently re-enforced shortstop; that Gomez, Weeks, Segura, and Lucroy joined the club’s strongest bats after the trade deadline provided a resounding picture of what a healthy 2013 club could accomplish. After the trade deadline, the bats scored 5.16 runs per game.
The rebuilding effort added additional layers as the season progressed and the Brewers maintained their hot play. Despite a potential playoff push (moving from “impossible” to “improbable” in the odds department), the front office shut down Rogers to hopefully maintain his health for 2013. Wily Peralta stepped to the big leagues with a chance to continue his mid-season correction and create a positive spin for his difficult 2012 journey. Peralta pitched so well that the Brewers’ pitching depth suddenly looked wondrous for 2013. At the trade deadline, the club’s future rotation looked young and unproven; while they remain young, they are slightly less unproven, and at the very least, several arms put together convincing campaigns for 2013 rotation spots. Between Peralta’s first and fourth starts, the Brewers kicked into another gear, winning 12 of 15 between September 5 and 21.
Yet rebuilding remains. The Brewers’ improbable playoff run resulted in the club skipping ahead of their competitors, right up to their rival St. Louis Cardinals. As the Cardinals suddenly started winning, the Brewers hit their current road trip. Peralta’s fourth start brought the club to a simple reality: they were the 2012 upstarts in the National League, a club that hardly had the same identity as the second half opened. Peralta had a rough day with his command in Washington, and the wild card upstarts simply fell to a division leader contending for the Senior Circuit’s best record.
Estrada received a similar fate yesterday, riding his alleged mechanical adjustment and post-injury success to a tough luck outing in our nation’s capitol. I recall the Brewers Radio Network noting that Estrada made a mechanical adjustment while recovering from his midseason injury, and the righty returned with a fastball release point slightly higher and closer to his body than earlier in the season. After Greinke left Milwaukee, Estrada joined the fun in stepping into the rotation’s battle-for-ace, allowing 20 runs in 58.7 IP between July 30 and September 23; on the 24th, he pitched one of his few rough outings in recent memory, but that hardly erases what he gained over his hot stretch.
Here we are, 3.5 games out of the Wild Card on September 25, 2012. 79-74 after yesterday’s loss, a far cry from 44-54 on the eve before Greinke’s trade. Our Brewers treated us to 100-win baseball, even if it was for two months. Those two months remain extremely important because of their impact on the franchise’s future. Faced with an opportunity to fold things up, the Brewers’ youngsters fought for open jobs while winning ballgames, and they competed with a remarkably crisp style of baseball that recalled the 2011 Brewers’ ability to do whatever was necessary for a victory. Furthermore, the stretch of hot play vindicated Melvin’s plan, and perhaps added a few unforeseen benefits for the 2013 club while speeding the rebuilding process alone. The front office can turn the MLB’s increasing television revenue, revenue sharing, and their own television contract increase into yet another win-now campaign in 2013. Which gives us one of the shortest, most enjoyable rebuilding stretches in recent memory.
Thank you, Brewers! I can’t wait to watch you play your final games, in the hopes that you simply keep winning. Yet, I know that the most important lessons of 2012 are not tied to your winning the 2012 wild card; rather, those lessons are tied to 2013 roster spots.
Estrada Release Points: TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2012.
Estrada Pitching: AP. http://televisadeportes.esmas.com/beisbol/503623/nationals-maltrata-marco-estrada/