The always excellent Adam McCalvy had this wonderful nugget of a quote from Brewers’ manager Ron Roenicke over at Brewers.com this morning:
“It’s a good division,” Roenicke said. “We know what we’re up against. We know everything has to go right. We certainly can’t have any injuries we had last year. But that’s OK. It’s fun when you’re not picked to win something and you end up having a great year. That’s really nice to do.”
OK, I know he doesn’t mean “we know everything has to go right,” literally. Pitchers won’t strike out every batter they face and hitters won’t hit home runs every time they come to the plate. He’s obviously talking about things going about as well as can be reasonably expected over the course of the season. No major injuries or massive performance collapses from key players. Young guys take steps forward rather than backward. None of the other teams in the division pull a 2001 Mariners. Things along those lines.
The problem here, of course, is that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen much in reality. The MLB season forces teams to play 162 games in about 180 days, and that is meant to test a team’s depth and ability to get production from a number of different players. Injuries will happen. Someone, probably multiple players, will have an unexpectedly bad season. Age will catch up to someone and they’ll face both injuries and decline.
Take, for instance, the best team the Milwaukee Brewers have put on the field in the last 30 odd years, the 2011 squad. For all that went right with that team to win 96 games, they still faced their share of hurdles. Zack Greinke, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, Takashi Saito and Carlos Gomez all missed a significant number of games due to injury that year. Perhaps most glaringly, they got less than nothing from the left side of their infield of Yuni Betancourt and Casey McGehee. Yet, they managed to win 96 games because they got enough from their star players to offset those losses.
Going into a season saying “we know everything has to go right” is essentially conceding that the team isn’t a contender. Roenicke has been around the game long enough to know that even the best teams in the league generally have a laundry list of things that have gone wrong for them, they just are able to get past those hurdles. Counting on no hurdles to emerge isn’t a plan for success, it’s a dream people tells themselves so they can get up and go to work in the morning with some hope for the ultimate payoff.
This line of thinking doesn’t stop with Roenicke, either. This was from general manager Doug Melvin‘s season ending press conference:
“Can we win with this roster? Yeah, we can win with the roster we have,” Melvin said. “Again, a lot of things have to go right, the younger players have to take the next step in development and our best players have to be on the field. I think if our best players are on the field and our young guys take that next step, we can be there. Last year, we got eliminated in the last week of the season. If you look at some of the teams that are out there, it takes a lot of talent to win. We’ll keep working at it.”
Melvin isn’t saying that “everything has to go right” for the team to win here, but he’s coming fairly close. He, too, has been around long enough to know that counting on “a lot of things to go right” generally doesn’t end in success for a baseball team. It can, and he probably can squint at this roster and imagine scenarios where the team ends up in the playoffs. If you gave him truth serum, though, what would he really say about the team’s chances for 2014?
One of my least favorite things to do when talking about sports is to try and parse the intended meaning of a quote from a coach or manager. They so often fall into cliched “coach speak” because it’s the best way to avoid saying something foolish when speaking off the cuff that it’s rare any real, clear value can be gained. This seems to be the rare exception, where leadership figures give an honest answer to a question and it provides a real glimpse into the mindsets of people in power.
All of this begs the question what the man ultimately responsible for the direction of the franchise, primary owner Mark Attanasio, thinks of this mindset? Does he agree with them that winning in 2014 is going to take a lot of things going right while relatively few things go wrong? On one hand, if he disagrees, what does that say about his confidence in the ability of the men he’s entrusted his investment to? On the other hand, if he does agree, then why isn’t he demanding that the focus shift towards winning in future rather than trying to win now?
The Milwaukee Brewers appear to be stuck somewhere between contending and rebuilding, and on some level the upper management of the team seems to realize this. The club is almost certainly headed towards some sort of reckoning down the road where it will be obvious that the “middle road” is no longer possible or practical. The only questions really left are how long it will take to get there, and if they can possibly manage to sneak in a true contending season or two along the way.