COMMENTARY | In their 43 year existence, the Milwaukee Brewers have only had three owners -- Bud Selig, Wendy-Selig Prieb and Mark Attanasio. Bud brought the Brewers to Milwaukee from Seattle, where they were known as the Pilots during the 1969 season, and under his ownership, the Brewers saw a relative amount of success. The same can't be said for Wendy, who took over after her father became commissioner, but with Attanasio at the helm, things have changed for the better.
Baseball has also changed dramatically since Attanasio bought the team after the 2004 season. Just a few years before the purchase, the Oakland Athletics altered the way they evaluated players. Traits like speed and hitting for average were deemed to be overrated, while the ability to get on base and hit for a high slugging percentage were what the A's and general manager Billy Beane began to value in players.
Before the revelation of Bill James and sabermetrics, the key to success in baseball was relatively straight forward -- throw a large sum of money at the best players to get them to play for your team. But who were the best players? You could say they were the ones who had the best batting averages, or could hit for power, or drove in the most runs.
That's not how the A's saw it. With a $39 million payroll in 2002 -- the third lowest total in baseball -- Oakland won 103 games by completely changing the way it scouted players.
Teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves were mainstays in the postseason in the late '90s and early 2000s because they shelled out the most money and teams that didn't have the same resources were left in the dust.
The Milwaukee Brewers weren't even in the dust -- they were behind it in the late '90s and early 2000s. But teams began to follow in the footsteps of the Athletics. They started analyzing players differently. They brought in underappreciated players who could accomplish just as much in different ways as players who were perceived to be overpaid. In essence, teams with lower payrolls were closing the gap, and nowadays, teams like the A's, Tampa Bay Rays and even the Brewers have become contenders.
Granted, the Brewers received a bump in finances when Mark Attanasio took over as the new owner, but Milwaukee is still a middle of the pack team when it comes to payrolls. Not only did Oakland change how it signed free agents and decided which players on its roster weren't worth overpaying. The Athletics also changed how they drafted.
High school players -- especially pitchers -- entering the draft were much riskier to select with higher picks, and college athletes could be relied on to have to more success at the next level according to sabermetricians.
Brewer fans know all about building through the draft. Players like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo made up the core of Milwaukee a few years ago, and while Fielder has since departed, all were selected by Milwaukee in the first-year player draft in the past 11 years.
Immediately following the Athletics' magical '02 regular season, the Brewers hired a new general manager by the name of Doug Melvin. In the previous season, Milwaukee had spent roughly $11 million more than Oakland and won 47 fewer games. Clearly, the Brewers weren't doing it right.
Fortunately, in the final draft under GM Dean Taylor in 2002, the Brewers selected Prince Fielder straight out of high school. It's safe to say he was a high school player who turned out to be just fine at the next level, and he provided a step in the right direction for the franchise before Melvin even took over, not to mention the selection of Corey Hart in 2000, also right out of high school.
Melvin's first three No. 1 picks were Rickie Weeks out of Southern University, Mark Rogers out of Mt. Ararat High School and Ryan Braun out of the University of Miami, all three of which have a chance to be on the roster together in 2013. Rogers is the only uncertainty, and he has had his share of ups and downs since being drafted. Still, there is still an opportunity for Rogers to pan out at the big league level, even though he was a pitcher selected out of high school.
Anything prior to the 2008 draft is difficult to judge, but Melvin has managed to draft at least one high school pitcher that became a mainstay with the Brewers -- Yovani Gallardo in the second round of the '04 draft. In that regard, it's been hit or miss for Melvin, as Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi, both of which were involved in the Zack Greinke trade, are still unknowns.
There's no question that building through the draft was almost the sole reason the Brewers turned into a perennial playoff contender just a few years after Melvin took over as GM. Braun, Fielder, Weeks and Hart were all vital cogs in Milwaukee's turnaround, but it was just as much about the players Melvin drafted who weren't a part of the winning ways.
As noted with Jeffress and Odorizzi, they were packaged with other draftees (and signees) in Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain for Greinke. In 2008, the Brewers made one of the most successful trades in franchise history when they dealt former No. 1 pick Matt LaPorta among others for C.C. Sabathia, who they subsequently rode to the postseason.
Not only have the Brewers traded prospects for big name players, but they have also done the exact opposite. Milwaukee traded Greinke for three prospects at the trade deadline last season when making the playoffs appeared to be unfeasible.
So it's safe to say that when it comes to the draft and the way he's willing to parts ways with prospects, Melvin doesn't exactly do it the Athletic way. The Brewers don't shy away from drafting high school pitchers and position players in the early rounds, and that has actually turned out to be more beneficial than hurtful in the long term.
That's a testament to Melvin and the scouts around him, but just because the Brewers go in a different direction than advanced thinking when it comes to the draft doesn't mean they don't use sabermetrics to build a roster. It helps to have some of the key pieces in place thanks to the draft, but filling in some of the cracks by using advanced metrics and looking for a bargain is also crucial.
Unfortunately, the Brewers have also put their future in a bind by overpaying both players brought up through the organization and brought in through free agency. Names like Bill Hall, Jeff Suppan Randy Wolf and even Weeks come to mind as players who have drastically underperformed in comparison to their contracts.
That's the exact opposite of what sabermetrics is supposed to accomplish. Yes, the Brewers had more money thanks to Attanasio beginning in '05, but that doesn't mean a spending spree is acceptable or necessary. After Beane turned down a job with the Boston Red Sox, they turned around and hired Theo Epstein, who is now the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.
Two years later, Epstein and the Red Sox were World Series champions. Epstein had tens of millions more at his disposal than Beane at Oakland, but he analyzed players in the same light, and when combining that with a large sum of cash, it was enough to get the Red Sox over the hump -- something Beane has yet to do.
It's also something the Brewers have yet to do, but for a franchise not all that familiar with winning, Melvin and Attanasio had to go through their own growing pains when trying to figure out the best formula for building a contender. The Brewers payroll was over $100 million on opening day last season, and all that accomplished was a third place finish in the NL Central and an absence from October baseball.
More than ever under Melvin, the Brewers will trust the minor league players they developed this season. Milwaukee will see an estimated payroll decrease of nearly 25 percent, falling around the $76 million mark, and it will allow inexperienced arms like Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers battle for spots in the starting rotation.
In a strange way, though, the Brewers might be better off than last season, the first year since '05 the team was without Prince Fielder. That's because the bullpen was retooled after a disastrous season in which the Brewers had the worst bullpen in baseball. They also parted ways with underperformers and injury prone pitchers like Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Francisco Rodriguez.
Instead, the bullpen will feature names like Michael Gonzalez ($2.25 million), Burke Badenhop ($1.55 million) and Tom Gorzelanny ($2.9 million), players who might not have the name recognition, but will almost undoubtedly be better, and cheaper, than last year's group. It's a much more sabermetric-like approach, not overpaying for free agents and allowing your drafted players to contribute.
And Milwaukee got some bang for its buck considering how much it will be paying these three new acquisitions. Badenhop had a 3.03 ERA in 66 games with the Tampa Bay Rays last season and was acquired via trade while Gorzelanny (72 IP, 2.88 ERA) and Gonzalez (47 games, 3.03 ERA) each had successful 2012 campaigns with the Washington Nationals.
Will Melvin continue to look for in-season deals that put the Brewers over the top? That philosophy will likely remain, and it has paid off for Milwaukee in the past, but perhaps refusing to splurge on some top-tier free agent pitchers that not only have the potential to be busts, but to also bind future spending will now be the norm in Milwaukee.
Having faith in their young arms, spending wisely in free agency and developing players through the draft are all things the Brewers need to continue to do as a small market franchise to have success. Milwaukee doesn't exactly do it by the book when it comes to sabermetrics, but that doesn't mean it can't be a winning ball club year after year, or even win a World Series.
Last season, the Brewers ranked in the top three in all of baseball in runs scored and slugging percentage while coming in ninth in on-base percentage, three of the most valued categories in sabermetrics. It's not the offense that's the issue -- it's the pitching, and Melvin appears to be taking a different, and possibly more successful, approach at fixing it.
With more money and a smarter method to building a team, the Brewers may have finally found the winning formula, but now that spring training is here, forget number crunching -- it's time to get it done on the field.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.