In case it hasn't already become clear, you can expect to see a lot of Brewers coverage this season. The Crew, who have been among my favorite franchises ever since Doug Melvin took over as GM, have an especially high Narrative Likability Factor in 2011. As I discussed this offseason, with the free agency of Prince Fielder imminent, the Brewers are "going for it," as was clearly evidenced by the mortgaging of the farm system for the short-term services of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
One of the reasons to root for Milwaukee in 2011 is that, led by Melvin, the Brewers are among the franchises who have been "doing it right" according to the conventional wisdom regarding success in smaller markets. The core of the team is homegrown. With the exception of the ill-timed signing of Jeff Suppan, Milwaukee has avoided buying up free agents at a premium, instead extending young players from their own system at discount rates (Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, etc.) and handing out low-risk deals to veteran role players (Randy Wolf, Trevor Hoffman, Nyjer Morgan, etc.).
As a result, the Brewers not only have an impressive cast of talent, but they have an identity, as most of the core players have been together since they were minor-leaguers. That identity isn't only good for clubhouse camaraderie, but is also appealing to the fan base, which has quietly become one of the most supportive in the National League. Since Melvin took over in 2003, Brewers attendance has gone from 50% of capacity to over 80% of capacity, an increase of nearly 15,000 fans per game.
As was revealed by the Opening Day payroll numbers released earlier this week, Melvin's strategy for building a contender in Milwaukee has emphasized commitments from ownership, as well as deft drafting and player development, timely acquisitions, and improved marketing. The 2011 Brewers represent the largest percentage increase in payroll of any team in baseball since 2004, which happens to be Melvin's second year on the job. Unlike ownership in many other markets, the Brewers owners met improved support from the community with a deeper investment in the long term competitiveness in the team. Milwaukee's $85.5 Million Opening Day payroll puts them in the middle of the pack (#17) among all MLB franchises, but it represents a 211% increase since '04. Melvin grew this payroll gradually (in step with attendance) until he reached the plateau he's maintained pretty consistently since 2008.
Pundits like myself can commend Melvin all we want for his personnel decisions and his deft economizing, but the fact remains, he is nearing the point where he will be judged by his results. As fun as this collection of Brewers players are to watch, they've got only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance during Melvin's tenure. With the face of the franchise in his final season, it's imperative the Brewers improve upon that record. During the Opening Weekend against the reigning NL Central champs, the Cincinnati Reds, you could see that the pressure was on. The Brewers hit just .223 against the Reds, with an abysmal 26/5 K/BB ratio. Their bullpen got roughed up, including a painful three-run walkoff homer against closer John Axford on Opening Day.
But the Brewers bounced back in a major way this week, taking three in a row from Atlanta, another presumed NL powerhouse. Gallardo asserted his Ace status by stopping the losing streak with a dominant complete-game two-hitter and Axford netted saves in back-to-back appearances. The Brewers need to carry this momentum forward, as their performance in the season's first two months will say a lot about this team. They will have to face Atlanta and Cincinnati again, as well as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Los Angeles before Greinke's anticipated return. If they can stay above .500 during this opening stretch, Greinke's comeback could provide them with a little confidence going into interleague play.
(Greinke is due back sometime around the middle of May. Considering his injury is similar to that which delayed the start of Cliff Lee's season in 2010, I don't worry too much about his ability to stay on the field and pitch well once he returns. Lee, after all, was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball last year, despite his late start.)
The biggest challenge for the Brewers comes in June, when they open a 15-game tussle with some of the best teams in the American League. The schedule-makers did not do Milwaukee any favors. They will face the Yankees and the Red Sox on the road, as well as the Rays at home, and their "interleague rival," the AL Central Champion Twins, home and away. Four AL teams, all of which won 85 or more games in 2010 and all of whom are expected to perform at close to that level, if not better, in 2011. Compare that to Cincinnati, who gets the Yankees at home, skips the Red Sox entirely, and gets to play their rivalry series against the lowly Indians. Or the Cardinals, who somehow manage to avoid both New York and Boston, plus get six games against arguably the worst team in all of baseball, the Royals. It would be a substantial accomplishment for the Brewers to get near .500 against their AL opponents, while their primary rivals will have a significantly easier time of it.
It's important to note that, even when the Brewers lose Fielder to free agency this coming offseason, they will not be going back to the drawing board. Somewhat ingeniously, Melvin has gotten Braun, Weeks, and Gallardo under team control through 2015. Greinke, Marcum, and Corey Hart remain under contract through at least 2012. As such, it would be a mistake to argue that if they miss the playoffs in 2011 their window will absolutely be closed. However, their is no reason to believe the Reds will be getting any worse, while 2012 will bring the Cubs some much-needed salary relief, they could be major players in the free agent market this coming winter. While the NL Central is already a rather deep, competitive division, it could get even tougher in coming years. Yet another reason Milwaukee's management clearly feels their time is now.