The Brewers’ Lament

The Brewers recently fired manager Ron Roenicke, using the same logic that primitive villagers employed when tossing virgins into the maw of a nearby volcano: It probably won’t work, but why take chances? As Dave Cameron has pointed out, the Brewers have fallen and they are unlikely to get up any time soon, and as others have pointed out, little of this was Roenicke’s fault. Yes, the team is enjoying a keg of Regression Pilsner under new manager Craig Counsell, who is 6-5 at the helm of the S.S. Benny, winning just one game fewer than Roenicke did in 25 attempts. But the Brewers are not a .500 team, and indeed not very close to being one. They are 23rd in the majors in runs scored, and 29th in runs allowed. Their fielding isn’t very good either.

And help isn’t on the way from the farm, at least not right away. The Brewers began the year as the 21st rated system, according to Baseball America. While Kiley McDaniel liked their 2014 draft, he also still has them in the bottom third of the league. Top prospect Orlando Arcia has put together 142 insane plate appearances at AA, where he’s slashing .354/.404/.496 with a pint-sized 7% K rate. The other young Brewers are probably less talented and/or farther away. Some of them will succeed, but most will not.

The surveyor of this doomed path is, of course, general manager Doug Melvin. Like many valuable things in life, GM jobs are much easier to lose than keep, and the sands are now running out of Melvin’s hourglass. That said, he’s had a long run, having been hired in September, 2002. During his tenure, the Brewers have been mediocre, finishing 17th in runs scored and 21st in runs allowed from 2003-2015. The aggregate mediocrity hides some occasional success: Melvin’s Brewers went to the postseason twice, and in 2011 finished with the most wins (96) in Brewers’ history. But overall the team is 969-1010 over that stretch, and only twice finished within 7 games of first in the not-always-intimidating NL Central.

Suspicion for this generally uninspiring performance immediately falls on the Brewers’ drafts, but here Melvin can claim some success. From 2003-2015, players drafted by Melvin have accumulated more net bWAR than any other NL Central team can claim.

Team                        bWAR from draft

Brewers                            163.3

Cardinals                          156.6

Reds                                  122.0

Pirates                               111.4

Cubs                                  109.3

Note that the drafting team did not always benefit from the bWAR displayed above. The Cubs, for example, get about 24 of their bWAR from Tim Lincecum, who did not sign with them after being drafted in 2003. The Brewers and Reds both get credit for 7.4 bWAR from Jake Arrieta, who the Orioles finally successfully inked in 2007. But in any case, Melvin and his team can’t fairly be accused of simply missing talent.

Melvin had some holes in his draft swing, however. From 2003-2011 Melvin got almost nothing from his first-round pitchers. Of nine first-round pitchers, six have thus far failed to make it to the majors, by far the worst rate in the division. (I’m using the 2011 cutoff to acknowledge that most players drafted since then probably would not have not made it to the majors.)

Team               1st round pitchers drafted     failed to make majors

Brewers                             9                                              6

Cardinals                          10                                            4

Cubs                                   3                                              2

Reds                                   6                                              2

Pirates                               6                                               1

The Brewers first-round pitchers who have made it to the majors have achieved little.

Player                                   bWAR

Jake Odorizzi                    3.3

Mark Rogers                      1.1

Jeremy Jeffress                1.1

Yep, that’s it. And Odorizzi never threw a pitch in anger for the Crew, although he did help Melvin to pry Zack Greinke from the Royals for the Brewers’ playoff season in 2011.

This pitching void has sucked in money – lots of it that a small-market team can ill afford. Only four Brewers are making more than $10 million this year; two of them are Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza. At least Lohse’s contract ends this year. Garza’s goes on through 2017, and will be one of the many puzzles the next Brewers GM will need to solve.

The Brewers’ path to redemption will go through several painful stations. The rotation next year may not be good, but it will be much cheaper. Three of the five starters (Peralta, Nelson, and Fiers) are home grown. FIP and I have yet to catch Peralta Fever, but Nelson and Fiers have good swing ‘n’ miss stuff. Fiers’ upside is limited though; a late bloomer, he will be 30 in June. Aramis Ramirez, the highest paid Brewmaster at $14 million, comes off the books at the end of the season and plans to hang up his cleats. Another $13 million might depart with Adam Lind and Gerardo Parra.

Rather than sign aging free agents to replace the departing aging free agents, the Brewers would be better served to take the bulk of this freed-up cash and pour it into scouting, player development, and perhaps the international market. The Brewers could use a couple of 90-loss seasons to get the high draft picks that they could use to augment a farm that is already on its way to yielding at least a handful of good produce in the next 2-3 years. The economics of tanking are complex, however. The Brewers have a bad local television deal and a small metro area from which to draw fans. They are thus probably more dependent than average for revenue from the occasional fan who attends one or two games a year with the family, and who will find other things to do if the Brewers are putting a replacement-level team on the field. The two most eminently watchable Brewers, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, are also probably the Brewers’ best trade pieces, but trading them will almost certainly lead to lower attendance and an associated revenue loss that reduces the benefit of shedding their salaries.

Ryan Braun has an untradeable contract and a damaged brand. His performance has collapsed since the suspension; before it he had a career OPS of .938, since then it’s been .781. Braun is by default the player around which the Brewers will attempt to market their team during the plague years to come, but that effort will be much less successful than it would have been without the suspension. Mark Attanasio seems like an intelligent and patient owner. He can only hope his next GM is similarly blessed.



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