Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. You can follow @RyanTopp and @SteveGarczynski on Twitter.
OK, so yesterday I posted two lists that generated considerable discussion both on the blog and on twitter, dealing with what I thought were the best and the worst of Brewers president and GM Doug Melvin. When a guy is on the job for over a decade, he’s going to build up quite a track record, both positive and negative. With the Brewers currently floundering in last place in the NL Central, I think now is a fair time to ask: how good a job has Melvin done at the helm of the Brewers?
Considering the state of the Milwaukee Brewers when Doug Melvin took over, he’s done a really good job.
Considering the amount of talent that the Milwaukee Brewers were able to graduate through their farm system in the 2000’s, two playoff appearances is really disappointing.
The Brewers were clearly in a bad place when Melvin took over. Miller Park opened in 2001 and the fans were promised a competitive team by that time. Dean Taylor made significant strides rebuilding the farm system, but was overmatched when it came to making moves at the major league level that could move the team forward. Melvin wasn’t afraid to flip assets and moved Richie Sexson, adding a core of talent that started to make the team competitive in the middle of the decade. Things were starting to look up, and combined with the talent that had been assembled in the minors, Doug Melvin looked like the guy who would lead the Brewers out of the dark ages.
Melvin hired Ned Yost as manager to lead the young team and that was a decent hire for two reasons, 1) Ned stubbornly stuck with struggling young players, and 2) Ned was antagonistic with the media and that put all of the heat squarely on his shoulders. He was definitely a players’ manager, and the organization was going to stick with the young guys to put a winner on the field.
It didn’t take long for the front office to get a little jumpy and try to put a winner on the field as soon as possible. Where Melvin flipped Sexson for some young guys like Chris Capuano and Jorge De La Rosa, he had an asset in Carlos Lee that he wasn’t willing to part with earlier and then moved for low-ceiling vets like Francisco Cordero, Laynce Nix and centerpiece Kevin Mench. Then of course, the infamous Jeff Suppan deal happened in the offseason.
Things were still looking up though. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy were getting significant time in the majors and looked poised breakout in the next year or two, and Ryan Braun and Corey Hart were making their case in the minors to move up to the big squad. This pre-arbitration group didn’t have the legs to make the playoffs in 2007, so the team put pressure on themselves to make 2008 THE YEAR.
To make sure 2008 wasn’t a disappointment, Melvin made the historic trade for CC Sabathia, and the Brewers rode the big lefty into a Wild Card spot where a gassed squad that lost Yovani Gallardo early in the season and Ben Sheets late couldn’t hang with the Phillies. But the playoff drought was over, so that’s all that really mattered, right? The Brewers used to be awful and now they made the playoffs.
Those bad decisions early really piled up and 2009-2011 should have been the years the Brewers were a perennial playoff team. Instead the rotation was bare with the exception of Gallardo. Milwaukee wasn’t even a .500 team in 2009 or 2010 when the talent the farm system had produced was seasoned, but still young and cheap. What was once a promising start soon turned into a wasted opportunity.
That’s an interesting way of answering the question, and I really can’t disagree with too much of that history. I think it’s worth emphasizing just how down the team was by the end of the Sal Bando era in terms of overall talent in the system, and I really think Taylor did about as good a job as anyone could have in that time. He made bold moves at the major league level, and most blew up in his face, but he really wasn’t dealing away a bunch of superstars. He was trying to get what he could with what he had and I don’t know if there was a true path to success for him here.
I agree with you on Yost and the general praise for his early years at the helm. As we’ve discussed, those first years of the rebuilding effort are in some ways the most free a GM will ever be to just find any value wherever it exists and try and leverage it into more where possible. When a team isn’t worried about having to field a competitive roster, things are easier and Melvin handled it relatively well.
The “original sin” of Melvin, I think, took place in about a six month period at the end of the 2006 season. In that time, he:
1) Traded Lee and Cruz for a handful of spare parts
2) Traded away Jorge De La Rosa for Tony Graffanino
3) Traded away Doug Davis and Dana Eveland for Johnny Estrada and Claudio Vargas
4) Signed Jeff Suppan
That seriously unfortunate series of moves was obviously a reaction to the Brewers rotation falling apart over the first half of that year and it really hurt their long-term outlook. Instead of using the assets he had to bolster the starting pitching, he actively cut into the depth and left the team heavily reliant on an already breaking down ace, a bunch of number four and five starters and Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra as the only real future, pitching wise.
At that point the die was basically cast and they were going to have to settle in for a future of either selling off major assets to rent an impact arm or two or just not having the depth of starting pitching to make it work. So they go for it all in 2008, but have no bullets left in the chamber for 2009 and 2010. The GM’s contract was coming up in 2012, so 2011 became another “all in” year where the team cashed in lots of controllable young talent for some rentals. Now, the Brewers are left sitting here without the pitching needed to contend yet again and at a certain point I think one just throws up their arms and says: when is this team going to actually produce or trade for young pitchers who can stick around and produce more than a one year window to contend?
Was the Greinke trade worth the one year window? That probably isn’t fair since he was on the team for two seasons, but again, some poor roster decisions undercut his second season in Milwaukee.
When is this team going to produce young pitching? I don’t know, when is the farm system going to produce young talent? Braun and Gallardo were drafted early in Melvin’s tenure. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of talent to end up contributing at the major league level. Is there anyone drafted and developed besides Jonathan Lucroy? That’s bad news for a small market team like Milwaukee and calls into question a good portion of Melvin’s time here.
Overall, I think my view on Melvin is mixed. He set the organization in the right direction at the major league level. He believed in the talent that the farm system was producing and stuck with young players through the growing pains. He’s also been savvy about adding cheap veteran talent and rounding out the squad.
But the farm system has fallen into disarray under his watch. It’s hard to produce impact talent, but Milwaukee doesn’t even have guys with the potential to be first division players, and the guys who did have those profiles like Brett Lawrie and Alcides Escobar were traded away for short-term pitching solutions. It’s as if the mantra of building through the draft and grooming young talent was set aside once the Major League team was competitive. The organization was run like you could do one or the other, but you couldn’t build a competitive team while also stockpiling talented and cost effective players in the minors. That’s a major failure for a GM that’s trying to field a playoff contender year in and year out in a small market.
I’d also like to take a moment and point my long, boney finger at Pittsburgh and Kansas City fans, and tell them to be careful what you wish for. You may want that splashy move right now that might get you into the playoffs, but it can do a lot more damage down the road.
I was about to jump all over you for leaving out Lawrie, Escobar and also Lorenzo Cain and Jake Odorizzi, so I’m glad you came back and mentioned them… Add Lucroy to that group and while it’s hardly the 2000 to 2005 draft bumper crop, it’s also not bad for a team that stopped drafting consistently in the top 10 after 2005.
The problem with the drafting has been more recent, as I mentioned in the “10 worst” post, but even then I’m not entirely sold that the future is completely bleak. Guys like Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann, Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg all seem very likely to pitch in the big leagues, though none profile as the sorts of guys you would like pitching in game one, two or maybe even three of a playoff series at the moment. Mike Fiers and Hiram Burgos have struggled early, but a spot at the back of a successful big league rotation isn’t out of the question for either.
Also, the team does have an extremely interesting group of young hitters who have played this year at class A Wisconsin, headlined by last year’s first rounders. There are others as well, and some hitters that are closer who could potentially play meaningful roles in the big leagues on the not too distant future. They’re not devoid of talent, they just lack obvious stars at the moment.
So the key at the moment seems to be sorting through who is likely to pan out and who isn’t, supplementing it through the draft and the international market and hope for some luck. It also really wouldn’t hurt if they were able to pull off a couple of trades of some of their aging talent and bringing back some sort of young starting pitching with control years left if they are unable to get back into contention this year at some point. The group of Braun, Segura, Gomez and Lucroy looks a lot better to build around than it did two months ago, and it is strong up the middle of the diamond. There are teams in worse shape than the Brewers, they just need to get a little more creative and aggressive in how they deal with starting pitching.