A couples weeks back, Brewers GM, Doug Melvin, stunned the mainstream sportswriting world by landing the top pitcher in this year's trade market, Zack Greinke (I can't help but point out that I predicted this move a month ago, because it just made so much sense). The Greinke acquisition, combined with an underrated trade for Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays, represents what Melvin hopes will be among the crowning moves of a Championship strategy eight years in the making.
When the 50-year-old Melvin took over the Milwaukee front office in the fall of 2002, the Brewers were coming off a season in which the team had lost 106 games, far and away the most in franchise history. That team was built around young men - Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, and Ben Sheets, particularly -who are now retired (probably, Sheets may still get one more shot). The '02 Brewers were a long, long way from contending. Melvin realized as much and chose to take a longview, building from within through the draft and trading big league talents like Sexson and Eric Young for promising prospects.
Early in his tenure Melvin netted the core of the Brewers current roster - Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Braun - all drafted between '02 and '05. Buoyed by young talent, but never with a payroll above $40 Million, the Brewers slowly made the climb back to .500, reaching that benchmark in '05 for the first time in thirteen seasons. Melvin recognized, however, that the '05 team was still a long way from being a true contender. Rather than trade from his increasingly deep farm system or squander his limited funds on a mid-tier free agent in a desperate, short-sighted run at the pennant, he deconstructed Milwaukee's most popular team in over a decade, allowing Jenkins and Carlos Lee to walk, and trading away Lyle Overbay and Doug Davis.
At the time these were unpopular decisions, in retrospect we see Melvin's prescience. Jenkins was never the same player after leaving Milwaukee and was out of baseball entirely within three years. Carlos Lee also relatively quickly became a shadow of his former self. He remains a tremendous drain on the Astros payroll. Lyle Overbay never matured beyond what Melvin saw from him in '04 and '05. He was a huge disappointment during his five seasons with Toronto. Likewise, Doug Davis' best season remains his '05 campaign, although he has been a decent innings-eater over the past half-decade...when he's been able to stay healthy.
While this minor dismantling meant it would take two more seasons for Milwaukee to get the winning record they'd be looking for since the early 90s, once they got there they were solidified as a team to be reckoned with for several years to come. In 2008 Melvin finally got them to the promised land, as the team led by Fielder, Weeks, Braun, Sheets, and Corey Hart, and buoyed by the midseason acquisition of C. C. Sabathia, won 90 games and the NL Wild Card. It was the Brewers first trip to the postseason since Harvey's Wallbangers took the AL Pennant way back in 1982.
The Sabathia trade marked a change of strategies. Melvin traded away '07 first-rounder, Matt LaPorta, one of the top-rated hitting prospects in all of baseball at the time, in order to rent The Big Sleep, who delivered as much as anybody could've asked of him, going 11-2 for his new team, including several big wins on short rest down the stretch. Melvin may have hoped that his carefully crafted homegrown roster would have enough the challenge the top teams in the league with needing expensive reinforcements, ala the Tampa Bay Rays, but after two mildly disappointing follow-up campaigns, in which starting pitching became a major Achilles heel, he has been forced to put all his chips on the table.
In order to get Greinke and Marcum, Melvin had to give up three more first-round picks - including highly acclaimed prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Brett Lawrie - as well as the young, slick-fielding shortstop, Alcides Escobar. While Milwaukee's farm system is among the deepest in baseball, and the Melvin administration has rarely missed with their draft picks, this still represents a major drain on their talent pool and could have ramifications for the roster in 2012 and beyond. Also, at the end of 2011 Fielder, Weeks, and Hart will all be eligible for free agency. What all this seems to suggest is that this is the year the Brewers have chosen to go for it. Ever since the ascension of Fielder and Braun, Milwaukee has had one of the most potent offenses on the senior circuit. With the addition of a Cy Young winner and a promising young workhorse, now they may have the pitching to match. Buster Olney tentatively predicts that the Brewers will have the third best rotation in the National League, behind only Philadelphia and San Francisco, the NLCS contestants of 2010.
Unfortunately, a few things still stand in the way of the Crew. Foremost, their division. In 2010, another long dormant franchise, the Cincinnati Reds, surged to the front of the NL Central, in much the same fashion the Brewers had in 2008, led by a deep young lineup. There's little reason to believe they'll be any worse in 2011. The St. Louis Cardinals, though aging and lacking depth, still have the fabulous foursome of Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Chris Carpenter. To discount the ability of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan to mix and match around that quartet would be unwise. The Cubs are a bloated mess of mismanagement and underperformance, but bounceback campaigns from Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Carlos Zambrano could easily get them back to between 80 and 85 wins. Even the Astros had a resurgent stretch after they cleaned house in the middle of 2010 and the Pirates have a youthful core that is only a few years away from making their opponents very uncomfortable. Put all this together and you have what may well be the second strongest division in baseball (behind the AL East). The Brewers will need to have a few good breaks in 2011 in order for Melvin's all-in hand to yield another trip to the playoffs from the dogfight in the NL Central.
What once was a weakness, the rotation, is now the Brewers strength. The strong front four of Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum, and Randy Wolf will be aided by a relatively promising group of youngsters, including former first-rounder Mark Rogers, Manny Parra, and Chris Narveson. However, some of the other aspects of the team are not as certain as they were in previous seasons. The bullpen has a little more depth following the signings of Takashi Saito and Sean Green, but they are leaning heavily on second-year closer, John Axford, and 23-year-old setup man, Zach Braddock. We are all well aware of the danger of banking on the consistency of sophomore relievers.
More worrisome, however, is a lineup that is shallower than it has been since early in Melvin's tenure. The Greinke trade also saddled the Brewers with the Royals albatross, Yuneisky Betancourt, arguably the worst everyday player in the major leagues since 2005. I have a hard time imagining Melvin would match Dayton Moore's incompetence by allowing the defensively and offensively challenged Betancourt to be Milwaukee's starter, but as yet there doesn't seem to be a clear replacement in the system. 40-year-old Craig Counsell will return as a primary utilityman, but coming off a season in which he posted the worst OBP of his career, he's not much of an upgrade over Betancourt. Melvin might be tempted to take a long look at mildly promising younsters like Luis Cruz and Zelous Wheeler, or could be entertaining the idea of signing a cheap veteran like Edgar Renteria, Cristian Guzman, or Orlando Cabrera. Another outside the box option may be converting Casey McGehee to shortstop in order to make room for the potent bat of Mat Gamel at third base. This Brewers infield defense, already fairly abyssmal, might suffer even more, but Gamel is among the top hitting prospects in the National League and McGehee scuffled down the stretch in 2010. He wasn't the same player from June onward, posting just a 767 OPS, more than a hundred points off his pace from the first two months. As far as I'm concerned, any of these would be an upgrade over Betancourt, whose WAR since 2008 is -0.7. That's right, according to FanGraphs, there are several players at AAA who almost certainly would've been better than Betancourt the past three seasons.
Centerfield is also cause for concern in Milwaukee. 25-year-old Carlos Gomez, the fruit of the J. J. Hardy trade, is a defensive wizard, but in three full seasons in the majors has yet to look like anything more than an automatic out at the plate. He hasn't been able to break the .300 mark in OBP in any year, which limits his ability to take advantage of his main asset, speed. The best option to replace him, Lorenzo Cain, who showed considerable promise during a brief stint at the end of 2010, was a key piece in the Greinke trade, so Gomez's only competition comes from Brandon Boggs and Chris Dickerson, players cast off by their former franchises...probably for good reason. Gomez's ability to develop into at least a replacement-level major-league hitter is perhaps the underestimated key to the Brewers success in 2011.
Finally, the Brewers have another sizable hole to fill at catcher. Jonathan Lucroy was a hell of a hitter up through AA, but at AAA and in half a season in the bigs his OPS was just 628. Veteran backups like George Kottaras and Wil Nieves would be lucky to manage even that much offense, so the Brewers need Lucroy or Angel Salome to rise to the challenge. If Lucroy can find that combo of power and patience which allowed him to excel in the low minors in '08 and '09, the Crew will be considerably deeper.
On paper, I think it is reasonable to view Milwaukee as a serious threat to the Reds, but if the Brewers can't find at least a couple decent bats to slot into the back half of the lineup, it will be much easier for pitchers to work around the murderers row at the top of the order. If Melvin intends to make a run at not only the division, but a NL Pennant as well, he better not be finished with his wheeling and dealing. As mentioned before, the Brewers have plenty of budget to go after a veteran shortstop, especially considering such players would probably be enticed by Milwaukee's opportunity to contend. At the end of this season the Brewers are likely in for a long rebuilding process, no matter how successful they are. Melvin may consider unloading even more of the farm system to acquire somebody like Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, or Kurt Suzuki, either now or closer to the trade deadline. I don't expect him to be shy, his job may very well be on the line.