A biographical and historical argument for terminating the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers
I’ve been a fan of baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers for most of my life, and particularly fanatical about them for my entire adult life. I suffered through some absolutely wretched seasons of baseball, including a season when the entire team’s payroll hovered around $20 million. I slogged through the end of Sal Bando’s lackluster reign, suffered through the miserable administration of the execrable Dean Taylor (two words: Jeffrey Hammonds) and endured seasons of long-suffering hope when Doug Melvin was brought on in 2003.
Melvin jettisoned the corpse of the aforementioned Hammonds, brought in Ned Yost from the Atlanta bench, traded dreamboat-with-sideburns Richie Sexson to Arizona for six major-league caliber players. It cannot be stressed enough that the club was so bad and organization so moribund that trading Sexson was universally celebrated. The players garnered in that trade–including Chris Capuano, Lyle Overbay, Junior Spivey, Chad Moeller, Craig Counsell and Jorge de la Rosa–finally put a floor underneath the Brewers freefall. Most of those players are still playing or involved somehow in baseball, with Counsell, a Milwaukee native, now in the Brewers front office. Capuano and de la Rosa in particular can be found still in major league rotations. Overbay set the single-season franchise record–since matched and likely will be surpassed by Jonathan Lucroy–for doubles with 53 in 2004, and came back to Milwaukee this season after some time as a reasonably successful journeyman first baseman. Moeller was little more than a back-up catcher, but did hit for the cycle for the Brew Crew. Spivey generally kept the spot between first and second warm for prospect Rickie Weeks.
To say that the Sexson trade was one-sided is to say that Star Wars was a modestly successful movie franchise. Sexson played one injury-shortened season in Arizona before being released into irrelevance in Seattle. Of course, no one could predict injury–Sexson had never had injury issues in three seasons in Milwaukee or in Cleveland before that. Regardless, part of a reclamation project is to jettison deadweight and start with a conservative investment. Melvin had done this in his previous stint in Texas with the Rangers; he’d do it again. And he did it well: the upstart Brewers from ’04-’06 were plucky and, for the first time in years, actually fun to watch. They slowly groped around, beginning to find their way. Melvin would intend to take the team to the next level in acquiring Carlos Lee in 2005 for Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. Podsednik ended up a vital cog in the White Sox championship run. More on Carlos Lee later.
Melvin’s greatest asset wasn’t his uncanny ability to find value in the scrap heap (Doug Davis, Overbay, Capuano, Dan Kolb, Derrick Turnbow, Matt Wise, Podsednik, et al) it was his scouting director, Jack Zduriencik. A good eye for prospects, coupled with years of overwhelming suck, yielded Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, JJ Hardy and others who ended up surfacing at the major league level or ended up getting moved around the minors for other prospects.
The Brewers went from being hapless to hopeful to historic; in 2008, the Brew Crew was playing October baseball for the first time 26 years, which was 1982’s still-beloved, American League pennant-winning Harvey’s Wallbangers Brewers who took St. Louis to seven games. All of this was accomplished in five seasons, and all the credit for the reclamation project belongs to Melvin and his staff. They truly did a remarkable job in making Milwaukee a baseball town again, particularly in exciting a youthful fan base who weren’t around for the glory years in the early- and mid-80s.
This is not to say there weren’t signs of trouble, though. Melvin’s shrewdness with the Sexson trade seemed to have an effect on teams who would deal with him in the future. They learned, he didn’t. So when Brewers needed to make a move to again make a meaningful push toward a pennant run, Lee would have to be traded. The future of the Brewers was drastically altered as a result.
This part of the story demands its own dedicated section, because the story so perfectly intertwined with my life at the time. First, I didn’t think there was a real need to move El Caballo: his salary wasn’t a problem, he played a decent enough left field, supposedly wasn’t a problem in the clubhouse and brought plenty of pop in a pop-heavy lineup along with Fielder, Geoff Jenkins and Bill Hall. The ’06 Brewers hit hard and struck out harder, with Lee being a far better hitter at that point than any of the others mentioned. Braun was still a third base prospect at the time and Hardy was knocking on the door to the show. Between Kolb, Turnbow and Wise, the late innings were adventurous, but manageable, and the offense was always a threat to score. A closer wasn’t necessarily on the list of urgent needs, and Lee wasn’t going to be in the Brewers’ budget when his contract was up, anyway. Let Zduriencik scout and pick up a compensatory sandwich pick.
In midsummer 2006, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida to [foolhardily] follow my heart and pursue an internship in campus ministry. I was newly engaged, and my brother, whose children were still ranging from small to tiny, and I loaded up my car to make the move from Wisconsin to Florida. It was a last-hurrah kind of trip, the likes of which we couldn’t have again, or at least practically won’t be able to for a very long time. On the first leg of the trip which sent us from Stevens Point to Nashville, somewhere roundabout Satan’s anus of extreme southern Illinois, ESPN Radio broke in reporting that Lee had been traded to Texas. Details were still limited, so the radio would get turned up every time the ESPN radio SportsCenter update came on. The deal ended up being Lee and a player to be named for Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and Francisco Cordero. It sort of made sense, the Brewers got a better closer, the biggest hat size in major league history in a guy who generally sucked and a guy who really sucked and ended up doing nothing for Milwaukee.
And then it made more sense, the Brewers had an OF prospect waiting in the wings who would take Lee’s spot next year. He hit for power and decent enough average, and had a cannon for an arm. I saw him do BP the year prior in Miller Park and couldn’t believe how the ball rocketed off his bat. This was going to be awesome! El Goodbye-o, let’s bring on the new era!
Then I said the words that would forever leave Doug Melvin in my doghouse, and one of the first and major facts against Doug Melvin:
“It’s OK; we still have Nelson Cruz.”
No sooner than the very next update was it reported that Cruz was the player to be named.
I was furious. My brother still laughs about it to this day. I am furious.
The most baseball I ever played, to my everlasting regret, was little league. I don’t pretend to know anything about running a baseball organization. That having been said, I’m not an idiot. YOU DO NOT–I REPEAT, DO NOT–TRADE BOTH YOUR MAJOR LEAGUE POSITION PLAYER AND HIS DIRECT HEIR APPARENT. If you own a Dodge Avenger and have a Challenger in the garage, you don’t sell both to get an ’83 Ford Tempo and a three-speed bike. Melvin sweetened the deal by giving away the entire sugar cane crop, which he not only shouldn’t have done, but didn’t have to: Lee was a rental! He had all the leverage in the trade, and blew it.
At that point, I knew what few others did: Doug Melvin was in over his head. He has been ever since.
This is the thing people need to understand about organizational leadership: Moses is on the Mount Rushmore of Jewish history, but he didn’t bring the Israelites into Canaan. Specific leaders have specific purposes for a specific time. There is nothing wrong with taking a floundering organization and making it respectable: John Chen is doing this right now with BlackBerry as he did with Sybase. Steve Jobs did it with Apple and was able to keep them on top long after he died. Mark Cuban did it with the Dallas Mavericks. Robert Benmosche did it with AIG. Whoever airs out the White House in 2017 is going to have their work cut out for them (if the world hasn’t annihilated itself by then, in no small part thanks to the morons running the show right now.)
There is a place of esteem for those who can stop the bleeding and bring a dying patient back from the brink. The Melvin-Yost years in Milwaukee were exactly that. Not everyone is built to handle that task, just as not every leader is designed to lead at the top of the market. Doug Melvin is the guy you want to resuscitate a baseball organization. He is not the guy who will take a team to the top. If you’re San Diego, Arizona, the Mets or the Astros, a guy like Melvin looks really good right now. If you’re the Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, Giants, Tigers, Nationals or Orioles, you don’t need Melvin because you’re looking for ways to get to the top. Relevance isn’t the issue; success is.
The Brewers seem to be struggling with a little bit of Stockholm syndrome with Melvin: when he showed up, they were a mess on and off the field. Now that they’re mostly relevant, they can’t get rid of the guy who brought them there, even if he’s making counterproductive decisions detrimental to the long-term well-being of the club. Sports business is a two-way street–loyalty might be noble and virtuous, but nobility and virtue will not keep you atop the standings or allow a club to be playing baseball in October (as the Brewers have discovered this season, after 150 days in first place.) The question isn’t ‘hasn’t it been a great ride?’ It’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’
Well, what have you done for us lately, Doug Melvin?
Since the Carlos Lee trade, here are the records and win percentages, courtesy baseball-reference.com:
2006: 81-81 – .500
2007: 83-79 – .512
2008: 90-72 – .556
2009: 80-82 – .494
2010: 77-85 – .475
2011: 96-66 – .593
2012: 83-79 – .512
2013: 74-88 – .457
2014: 79-75 – .513 – through 20 Sept
Two postseason appearances, once backed into the wild card on the last day of the season, one outright National League Central division title and, even then, the record as a whole flirts with mediocrity. Tasting the postseason is not the same as winning. Yost was fired as the Brewers were collapsing down the stretch in ’08, replaced by Dale Sveum and needed mid-season rental CC Sabathia to throw virtually every other day in order to win. Nine seasons after Carlos Lee, the team is not statistically successful under Doug Melvin, with a total 36 wins over .500, or four wins a year. 85 wins a year makes you a flirt, nothing more. Though Melvin doesn’t take the field, throw the ball or swing the bat, this is the bottom line of his legacy: .500 baseball.
While I’m thinking of CC Sabathia, here are the unofficial rotation pitchers who have started for Milwaukee since 2006 in semi-chronological order: Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, Davis, Capuano, Tomo Ohka, Jeff Suppan, Claudio Vargas, Gallardo, Manny Parra, Sabathia, Braden Looper, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke, Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza.
Sheets was given no time to develop, the guy mutated into a two-pitch spudgun cursed with injuries and an organization that couldn’t afford to let him develop in the minors. Bush, Parra and Estrada were all mid-relievers who couldn’t be counted on for more than five innings. Capuano dominated hitters with great precision pitching in 2005 and part of 2006, but started noticeably losing velocity and aiming pitches in ’06 and throughout 2007. It was manifestly obvious that something was wrong mechanically, but no one stopped him or bothered to check his arm. He ended up needing Tommy John surgery and was out of baseball until 2010. He hasn’t been the same pitcher since. Suppan was a flat-out four-year, $40 million mistake free agent signing during the 2006-07 offseason after coming out of nowhere to lead the division rival Cardinals to a World Series title. Marcum, too, was a mistake, snake-bitten by injuries and ineffectiveness against a beastly offensive division. Parra, a talented lefty, couldn’t get over the hump when it came to the majors.
Save for Greinke, Sabathia, Lohse and Garza, and the verdict still out on Peralta and Fiers, this is a pretty frustrating list, and a good reason why the club hasn’t been able to be a meaningful player in baseball’s postseason.
Another factor comes into play in the post-Carlos Lee era: Jack Zduriencik left the Brewers to become the GM of the Seattle Mariners after the 2008 campaign. Without Zduriencik’s guidance over the farm system, and having promoted scouting director Bruce Seid from within, organizational development stalled. To obtain Sabathia, the Brewers parted with Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson, Matt LaPorta and a player to be named who ended up being Michael Brantley. At the time LaPorta was the centerpiece of the trade. Brantley, the afterthought, is a foundational piece of the Cleveland Indians turnaround project and is one of the best young outfielders in baseball.
To obtain Shaun Marcum, the Brewers parted with Brett Lawrie, a still-ascendant everyday big leaguer in Toronto.
To obtain Zack Greinke, the Brewers sent Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar to Kansas City. Jeffress managed to find his way back to Milwaukee, while Odorizzi is in the starting rotation in Tampa and Cain and Escobar are starting up the middle in KC.
To obtain set-up man Will Smith, the Brewers dealt again with Kansas City, sending Nori Aoki. Aoki, who enjoyed a fine campaign as the everyday leadoff hitter in Milwaukee in 2013 was jettisoned for a guy who 1) doesn’t play everyday; 2) doesn’t start and 3) isn’t a regular, default late-inning guy. They had to hedge their bet on Smith this season by trading for Jonathan Broxton, who has put out this season’s late-summer Hindenburg disaster with gasoline.
Brantley didn’t have to go, neither did Escobar (a mistake Melvin tried rectifying by landing Jean Segura in sending Greinke to Los Angeles). Aoki was the first real table setter the Brewers had since Podsednik. Carlos Gomez is equal parts frustrating and amazing, but ultimately, in an outfield that should have been Braun-Cain-Cruz, why are we stuck on a guy who still hasn’t figured out the mental part of the game? Perhaps Gomez is the perfect example of being a fan in the Doug Melvin era: equal parts exhilarating, heartbreaking and stupid.
Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio made his millions making smart moves for investors. I am certain he wouldn’t let a $200 million investment languish for a client. After all, his success is directly correlative to the success of his clients. In no small way, the Brewers are a $200 million investment Attanasio made into Milwaukee. The Milwaukee metropolitan area and the state of Wisconsin are his clients. He is accountable for the product on the field by virtue of the stewardship of his baseball executives.
Regardless of the low expectations going into this season–I had this squad pegged at 75 wins, so I’m already wrong–the reality of the matter is that, in 2014, the National League Central was the Brewers’ to lose. And they have lost it. The postseason was theirs to lose. They are losing it. Those who would apologize for Melvin point to those same expectations, which is the flimsiest of straw men: reality trumps expectation every time.
Now Attanasio is presented with a rare confluence of events: Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has lost control of this team: this collapse serves as both an exclamation point and an underscore to that fact. Doug Melvin has not made this franchise appreciably better in several years now. Bruce Seid, sadly and unexpectedly, passed away earlier this summer. Minor league development has struggled with turning prospects into major league professionals, particularly on the pitching side. Attanasio can clean house and bring in new people who can take good and begin working toward great, giving this franchise a clear sense of direction it has been lacking.
For a franchise that only three years ago was a pennant contender, the Brewers find themselves at a crossroads. Who will–and won’t–be held accountable for this season’s complete failure will go a long way in determining the direction in which the Brewers are headed. We are and should be thankful for what Melvin has done in righting the ship, but that righting was done some time ago. Moses didn’t get to the promised land, and neither will this current administration.
Fire Doug Melvin.