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.
Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio took over in 2005. The club was down, but there was optimism surrounding the organization. The farm system in 2004 had been named the best in baseball by Baseball America and core of young players like Corey Hart, JJ Hardy, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder were beginning to crack the major league roster.
A few years away from breaking the playoff drought, the moves made by the organization were clearly with the intention to compete as soon as possible. Carlos Lee (and throw-in Nelson Cruz) were traded for Major Leaguers Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and Francisco Cordero. Jeff Suppan, fresh off a NLCS MVP and World Series, was signed to bolster the starting rotation.
The signal was clear that this was not the Selig regime and the new boss was in it to win it. Even during the 2008 season when the Brewers were in a strong position to make the postseason, the team was bold and traded for CC Sabathia weeks before the trade deadline.
These moves were taking their toll and starting to chip away at the foundation of producing young talent. There was less of an emphasis on acquiring young, cost-controlled talent and stockpiling draft picks. The owner paid lip service to the theory of a pipeline of talent, but when the team was in need of help, they didn’t hesitate to sign second tier aging vets, or flip what was left in the farm for a short-term fix. Milwaukee was going to be competitive every season.
Now we may be witnessing the breaking point. The original core from the highly rated farm systems is aging a reaching the end of their contracts in Milwaukee, and there isn’t much help sitting in Huntsville and Nashville. The owner was clearly frustrated when he was on the FS Wisconsin broadcast a week ago, claiming that he still believes that this is a team that should be competitive. Attanasio wants the Brewers to be competitive every year, but is that a realistic goal for this small market team?
It’s really tough to do for even the best run organizations. No one has really managed to pull it off in the post TV-money explosion era that started roughly in the early 1990’s. The problem is getting and keeping star players. Teams win with stars and there generally 3 ways for teams to get star players. You have to develop them yourself, you can trade for them or you can buy them on the open market.
Developing stars consistently is really tough to do. The easiest way to acquire a future star is to draft them near the top of the draft. That’s how the Brewers got Fielder, Weeks, and Braun, they were all top 7 picks in their respective drafts. That works for a time, but the whole point is to eventually get enough stars that you start winning, and when you start winning you stop drafting so high. You may occasionally land a star later in the draft, but doing it with the consistency needed is pretty tough. Until recently, the international market offered an alternative for teams in terms of acquiring young future stars without having high draft picks, but MLB closed that avenue in the last CBA all in the name of keeping costs down.
The second avenue to acquire stars is to trade for them. This is generally done in one of two ways. You can either trade your current star for more years of another team’s potential star prospect, or you can trade away years of your potential star prospects for a short time of a current, bonafide star. The former may cost you value in the short term, but if the scouting on the players is good, you should be able to generally create more value in the long term by making well timed “sell” trades. The latter is a very tempting strategy, and it can work from time to time, but it’s definitely no path to sustainable success.
Finally, teams can “buy” stars on the free agent market. This isn’t really an avenue open to the Brewers in most cases because their revenue streams just aren’t big enough to be able to afford paying massive premiums for a few good years of a free agent and then taking on what is generally a bad back end of the contract as well. Not if they want to consistently contend.
If a team in the Brewers situation really wants to contend on a year in, year out basis, they’re going to need to behave differently than they have over the last half decade or so. They needed to plow as much money as possible into amatuer talent aquisition, and the Brewers didn’t do that. They largely punted Latin America and they didn’t routinely go over slot in the draft when it was still allowed. They also have engaged in way more “buy” type trades than “sell” trades over the years and the result has been a couple playoff appearances and a vastly diminished young talent base. They’ve also made the classic mistake of going to the free agent market and trying to buy the best thing they can afford a bunch of times. They have yet to sign a free agent to a 3+ year deal and end up still wanting that player in the final year of the contract, though they do have another couple of shots with Lohse and Ramirez.
Did I miss anything?
Yeah, an answer to the question.
You laid out the different ways that the team is going to acquire talent, and for a small market team to remain competitive, they’ll need the right balance of developing, trading and strategic signings. Right now the Mark Attanasio era is out of whack, favoring short-term trades and signing older veterans instead of slowly building controllable talent. It’s paid off with mixed results so far. The Brewers have made two playoff appearances in the last five seasons, and that seemed like an impossible dream when Miller Park first opened. Once the team looked like they might put a contender on the field, fans routinely bought 2.75 to 3 million tickets, which is also a positive accomplishment.
On the flip side, the shortsighted moves neutered the team and wasted some of the prime years for Braun, Fielder, Weeks, Hart and Gallardo. The Brewers should have won 90+ games in each of those seasons, which would have put them in line either win the division or the wild card spot. Instead they were struggling to win 77-80 games. A lot of that blame falls on Attanasio who pushed too hard too early to field a playoff team. It’s almost as if the businessman saw that the best way to cash in was to just make a guaranteed postseason instead of trying sustain success over a longer period of time. There was an instant gratification attitude.
Attanasio has been cheered as a great owner following the Selig’s, but I’m not so sure that will continue when the win totals get routinely leaner. Does Attanasio really have what it takes to run a small market team?
It’s difficult to be measured and reasonable at the moment when it comes to any aspect of this team, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. There are plenty of positive things to be said about Attanasio. His staff has done an absolutely tremendous job of selling the team to fans during his tenure. Sure, he lucked into some of that in that he inherited a team built to win relatively soon and, of course, the not-a-Selig factor. They were bound to help whoever bought the team. He’s also made reasonable financial commitments to winning, which is always appreciated.
That being said, I just cannot imagine him allowing his team to be perceived as having “given up” heading into a season. Just look at how off-the-table even the notion of moving Corey Hart or Aramis Ramirez was during the 2012 swoon. Attanasio and Melvin wouldn’t even seriously consider trading away either player, despite the fact that the team was quite obviously heading into another of it’s now standard “too little starting pitching” phases. Instead, they held on to both and now Hart probably won’t get much more than a month in before the trading deadline of his walk year and Ramirez value is severely hampered both by his nagging knee injury and the large amount of money owed to him next year.
That “never say quit” attitude is one of the big reasons Attanasio is so popular around town. People seem to genuinely believe that all he cares about is winning and that he’s willing to put his money behind that effort. At some point, and I think that time is coming rather soon, Markis going to need to cash in some of that goodwill in an effort to actually do some real rebuilding. This current path they’re on is not only unsustainable, but it’s not even getting them anywhere in the short term anymore. They can either continue to keep trading off the ever-more-meager long term assets for increasingly long shots at contention, or they can decide enough is enough and commit to building something real for the future.
That won’t be pleasant, but like I said, this is an owner with some cred with the fans right now. He’s trusted. Do you think he can stand to lose some of those good feelings to move the team forward?
Not as long as Ryan Braun is around. Attanasio firmly believes that Braun is a franchise player, and as long as you have a franchise player on the team, you should never rebuild.
The odd thing is that if the Brewers committed to rebuilding and did it right, the fans is Milwaukee would respond in a positive way. I remember attending a Beloit Snappers game at Miller Park when Fielder, Weeks, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Manny Parra were all on the team, and the game drew over 10,000 fans. It was more than the Brewers were drawing to many of their games. If there is true talent moving it’s way through the system, there are enough savvy fans in Milwaukee to understand what’s going on. They may not be as patient as they were waiting for the group from the mid-2000’s. Plus, prospect coverage is a lot more accessible now than it was a decade ago, so it wouldn’t be a secret if they were stockpiling talent.
Mark Attanasio isn’t a bad owner. He’s definitely not the Jeffrey Loria type down in Miami. But he does have a weakness in really seeing the big picture and understanding that if you keeping trying to be splashy, at some point the bubble is going to burst and you’ll need to start over. Maybe he’s going to learn the hard way real soon. Brewers fans can only hope he can adjust on the fly when things are clearly going south.