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Doug Melvin Made All The Right Moves

“Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” — Frederick B. Wilcox

Prior to the 2011 season, the Milwaukee Brewers were largely viewed as a team in flux.

Prince Fielder was rumored to be on the trading block for the right price. The starting rotation was coming off a collective 4.65 ERA in 2010, and the free agent market provided little hope for a small-market team like the Brewers.

Many folks favored a quasi-rebuilding season. Trade a couple impending free agents and acquire some valuable, cost-controlled pitching to build for 2013 and beyond.Fortunately, Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin had an ace or two up his sleeve that nobody in the baseball world saw coming.

He transformed the second-worst starting rotation in the National League into a legitimate strength after he traded top-prospect Brett Lawrie to Toronto for right-hander Shaun Marcum and a package of four prospects to Kansas City for former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke (and, unfortunately, Yuniesky Betancourt).

Marcum compiled a 3.54 ERA and 3.73 FIP during the regular season, which translated to a +2.7 WAR season. One could easily argue that the Brewers surrendered too much to acquire Marcum – Brett Lawrie is terrific, but scouts were not 100% agreed upon Lawrie’s ultimate usefulness in the big leagues. And certainly, no one saw him bursting onto the scene with a .293/.373/.580 triple-slash line as a rookie.

You must give something significant up to acquire quality starting pitching in this league, and the early return for both sides is positive. Obviously, six years of cost-controlled production from Lawrie would be a benefit to Milwaukee, but Marcum has been instrumental in changing the quality of pitching in Milwaukee. It’s easy to forget that he had a 2.21 ERA in April while Greinke was injured and Yovani Gallardo struggled.

Greinke has been the best pitcher of the bunch, even if his ERA was fourth-best on the team. His 2.98 FIP and 2.56 xFIP, along with his ridiculous 10.54 K/9 strikeout rate, illustrate just how talented and productive he is for Milwaukee.

The best part of the Marcum and Greinke acquisitions for the Brewers is that both will return for the 2012 season. Neither are rentals, which should help the club sustain postseason contention past this year.

Those two moves were the high-profile ones for Doug Melvin, but the Brewers’ GM has hit home runs across the board.

Prior to the season, he acquired the much-maligned Nyjer Morgan for Class-A utility man Cutter Dykstra. Morgan’s big personality meshed with the Milwaukee clubhouse right away. The production was better than expected, too. The 31-year-old “Tony Plush” hit .304/.357/.421 with plus-defense in center field.

In short, Melvin picked up a +4.0 WAR player for a throwaway piece in the minors. That cannot be seen as anything other than an unequivocal “win.”

The final big trade that Melvin made did not come prior to the season, but it also shocked the baseball world. The New York Mets have struggled with their finances all season and needed to unload Francisco Rodriguez and his troublesome contract. No one was talking about the Brewers because they already possessed a fantastic closer in John Axford, but Melvin slipped in and acquired K-Rod for peanuts to lock down the set-up role in Milwaukee.

Rodriguez has a 1.86 ERA and 2.23 FIP since joining the Brewers. He stabilized the bullpen and allowed Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins to move to the middle innings, where they have thrived.

Aside from the high-profile trades, Melvin has also acquired other quality talent that largely goes unnoticed:

RHP Takashi Saito: 2.03 ERA
INF Jerry Hairston Jr.: .274/.348/.379 — and now starting at third base during the playoffs

In a baseball culture that is ultimately judged after-the-fact, Doug Melvin has done a tremendous job transforming the Milwaukee Brewers from a 77-win club to a 96-win club that won the NL Central pennant.

It was not without considerable risk, though. The Brewers traded away quality talent in Brett Lawire, Jake Odorizzi, and Alcides Escobar (amongst others). It is talent that should spent plenty of time in the major leagues.

But, as the Brewers sit in the NLDS ahead 2-0 over the Diamondbacks, Doug Melvin appears to have won the jackpot for now.