It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Milwaukee Brewers.
A team building from the cellar will invariably encounter three hurdles on its way to success. First, a team must draft and develop well to create a young core. Next, a team with a good young core will have to find players to complement the core, either by trading, opening the wallet or dumpster diving for castoffs. Finally, when a team’s young core becomes old enough to reach free agency, the team must determine which players to let walk, which to re-sign for long term deals worth lots of money, and how to replace the lost production from the free agents who depart for more cash. A team that fails the first phase looks like the Pirates of last decade, drafting players like Bryan Bullington and throwing players on the field who shouldn’t have ever been playing baseball with a major league team. A team that fails the second looks like the early 2000’s Royals, constantly selling off their very few stars (like Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran) to set the table for a never-arriving next wave of young players. A team that fails the third ends up looking like the current Phillies, saddled with long term deals to unproductive former stars. (A team that succeeds in all three phases looks like the current Cardinals.)
Milwaukee is currently stalled out in phase 3 of this development rubric. The 2008 and 2011 Brewers were a triumph of smart drafting, smart dumpster diving and a smart trade for C.C. Sabathia (the Brewers gave up quite a bit to get C.C., but they got a guy with an ERA near 1). The first-half-of-2014 Brewers seemed to indicate that phase 3 was off to a solid start; failing to sign Prince Fielder was a good move that freed up a whole bunch of money, the extension of Ryan Braun gave the offense a star to build around, and the acquisitions of Matt Garza and Aramis Ramirez appeared to shore up both the offense and the pitching staff.
Then, in the summer of 2014, everything crumbled. Ryan Braun struggled with a nagging thumb injury and couldn’t hit. Matt Garza stopped striking people out. Aramis Ramirez grew old overnight and lost all of his power. Overperforming young players like Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett came back to earth. The bullpen ERA ballooned to almost 5 for the summer. In short, everything that could have gone wrong did, and over the course of about two months, the Brewers went from having the best record in baseball to barely being above .500.
This year, the Brewers picked up where they left off during their second-half collapse. Milwaukee stumbled out of the gate, going 7-18 and forcing manager Ron Roenicke to find new employment less than a month into the season. Replacement manager Craig Counsell has managed to improve the team from “awful” to “bad,” but there’s only so much excitement you can generate around a team that’s basically been eliminated since Cinco de Mayo. The current Brewers team doesn’t do anything well; they’re in the bottom six in the NL in both OPS+ and ERA+, and their defense is worse than everyone in the senior circuit except the Padres (per Fangraphs’ UZR/150). Most of the players who looked lost at the end of last year (Garza, Ramirez, Gennett and Segura) look just as lost this year, and while Braun has successfully bounced back from his thumb injury, he and Adam Lind provide the only offensive firepower on an old and increasingly untalented team. Worse, the bullpen’s improvement has been completely offset by an implosion in the starting rotation; Milwaukee’s 4.71 starter ERA is better than just two NL teams, and one of those teams plays half of their games at 5,000 feet above sea level.
The most stunning revelation of the the Brewers’ 2014 collapse was that the Brew Crew doesn’t have a plan B. The Brewers’ front office hollowed out their system to acquire the pieces for the 2008, 2011 and 2014 runs, and the few minor league pieces that they have left are buried in the low levels of the system. Of course, the front office was certainly justified in selling the farm when they did – the goal of any GM is to win the World Series, and at some point, you have to push your chips to the center of the table and hope for the best. (As a wise SoSHer once said, the object of sports fandom is to win as many titles as possible before you die.) Now, though, the Brewers are suffering through a GFIN hangover, stuck with no present and little discernible future. GM Doug Melvin was dismissed in August, so Milwaukee will see some new stewardship this offseason, but the next GM will certainly have a whole lot of work to do if the Brewers want to compete in an increasingly competitive NL Central.
The Brewers have never won a World Series. Their last playoff appearance was in 2011.
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