COMMENTARY | The Milwaukee Brewers are off to a less than ideal start to the 2013 season.
It's impossible to deny that injuries -- nine players have either missed time or are currently on the disabled list -- have played a significant role in their early struggles. Their roster as of April 12 included 15 players that weren't on the 2012 opening-day roster.
That's a drastic turnaround in just 365 days, and while some of that turnover is due to minor-league players taking the next step and earning promotions, there were also several free-agent signings during the offseason.
Since Doug Melvin took over as Milwaukee's general manager a decade ago, he has made several hit-or-miss free-agent acquisitions. Having a boss like Mark Attanasio for a majority of his tenure as GM -- Attanasio bought the team in late 2004 -- has been a nice luxury for Melvin because of the owner's deeper pockets. It has given Melvin more freedom to take chances on big-money free agents.
But is there a science to signing free agents? Has Melvin taken unnecessary risks over the years in an attempt to bolster his ballclub?
Obviously, there is a bit of a learning curve that comes with being a general manager. You can learn from your mistakes, see what worked and what didn't from previous years, or even model a blueprint based off of what other successful franchises have done.
You can't really fault Melvin for his aggressive approach. He's realized that the core of this team is worth building around, especially since the arrival of Ryan Braun to the big leagues, and Melvin has acquired big names via trade or free agency to try and improve areas of weakness and keep the Brewers competitive year after year.
Trading for players rather than signing them on the free market is a much more exact science, and it's an area in which Melvin has had far greater success. While prospects can't be counted on to pan out every time (see: Matt LaPorta, Jeremy Jeffress), those prospects are often being traded in return for proven commodities.
He hasn't been afraid to part ways with prospects, evidenced by his deals that brought in CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rodriguez and even Nyjer Morgan. You could argue that bringing in Marcum was a mistake considering what Milwaukee gave up (Brett Lawrie), Marcum's injury problems, and his struggles in the postseason.
But Marcum was 20-11 with a 3.60 ERA in two seasons with Milwaukee and was a big reason the Brewers won the NL Central in 2011. Also, Lawrie has dealt with injuries of his own, but he has shown great promise in his first two seasons as a pro with the Toronto Blue Jays. The point is, Melvin is willing to give up a potential future star in order to win now, and fans have to appreciate that -- to a certain extent.
While Melvin should be commended for some of the deals he's pulled off, free agency is a completely different beast. Every year, bidding wars rise higher and higher, and with the new draft rules that force teams to forfeit high draft picks and shrink the pool of money to spend on picks, the risk becomes even greater to bring in free agents.
In recent years, the Brewers have offered a large lump sum of money to Greinke, Sabathia and Prince Fielder -- well over $100 million in some cases -- to try and retain them, which is quite a sacrifice to make for a small-market team like Milwaukee. If Melvin is unable to obtain someone to fill a need through trade, he usually turns to free agency instead of his farm system, which is rather depleted nowadays.
Take the most recent offseason, for example. There was little doubt that the weakest area of the Brewers last season was their bullpen, judging by the unit's 29 blown saves and 4.66 ERA. Therefore, it seemed convenient that several Milwaukee relievers, like K-Rod, Manny Parra, Jose Veras and Kameron Loe, saw their contracts end at the end of the 2012 season.
Quality relief pitching can be difficult to find, as teams often try to hold on to such pitchers or develop them within their minor-league system. Still, Melvin was able to go out and acquire Burke Badenhop through trade, a long/middle reliever coming off a strong season with the Tampa Bay Rays. It appeared to be a good find and only cost the Brewers a rookie-level player in Raul Mondesi Jr.
Besides that, however, the trade market for relievers was dry, so Melvin went to the free-agent wire to bring in other relievers coming off successful 2012 campaigns, such as lefties Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny. Of the eight pitchers in the bullpen entering the season, only two were on the 2012 opening day roster -- John Axford and Chris Narveson.
Two pitchers whom were called up during the 2012 season, Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler, were carried over to the 2013 roster, and longshot Alfredo Figaro, who hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2010, also made the squad. While half of the 'pen was made up of "original" Brewers, Melvin was still rolling the dice, hoping that four "outsiders" would be able to build off of previous success.
Through eight games -- and, keep in mind, that this is a very small sample size -- these four newcomers have combined for a 4.60 ERA, nearly as poor of a mark as the Brewers' bullpen from a year ago. Overall, the bullpen had blown two saves in three chances and sported a 6.11 ERA, which is largely due to maligned closer John Axford.
In that regard, Melvin's free-agent acquisitions have actually helped, but the bullpen remains a complete mess. The risk that goes into signing a free-agent reliever is high, especially when using a "what have you done for me lately?" philosophy. Even Melvin has stated in the past that relief pitchers alternate good and bad seasons, so what was his train of thought in bringing in three pitchers coming off good seasons?
It's better to sign a reliever who has had more past success coming off a down year than to bring in a one-hit wonder. Melvin's thinking helps explain why Axford was still the closer entering the season, but there isn't one Brewers reliever you can look at and say they have put together more than one, maybe two quality seasons in the past five years.
If this is the case, why not just turn to within the organization? Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg, Jesus Sanchez, Michael Olmsted, Hiram Burgos -- all five have had success in the minor leagues, yet Melvin felt more comfortable taking a chance in free agency. All in all, the Brewers are paying Badenhop, Gonzalez and Gorzelanny nearly $7 million in 2013.
But that's not even the average yearly salary of Milwaukee's most recent free-agent signing, Kyle Lohse. Lohse was signed to a three-year, $33 million deal just days before the start of the regular season. The original plan was to allow inexperienced arms like Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers prove themselves in the starting rotation.
Rogers' trip to the disabled list and concerns with Chris Narveson's durability led to the signing, and Milwaukee placed Fiers and Peralta in the rotation. The Brewers have had nightmare free-agent starting pitcher signings in the past, so the acquisition of Lohse was met with some apprehension.
That string of pitching failures infamously began prior to the 2007 season. The Brewers had seemingly received an early Christmas gift when they inked free agent Jeff Suppan, who was fresh off an NLCS MVP performance with the St. Louis Cardinals, to a four-year, $42 million deal. Suppan was excellent in the NLCS, earning a miniscule 0.60 ERA in 15 innings, but he wasn't coming off a notable season by any means as he went 12-7 with a 4.12 ERA in '06.
In his three-plus years with Milwaukee before being released during the 2010 season, Suppan went 29-36 with a 5.08 ERA. In other words, he drastically failed to meet expectations in a Brewers uniform. Just two years after signing Suppan, Milwaukee picked up another former Cardinals starting pitcher, Braden Looper, signing him to a one-year, $4.75 million contract with a mutual option for '10. Even though Looper managed to go 14-7 in '09, he had an astronomical ERA of 5.22, and his option wasn't picked up.
The most recent disappointment came when Melvin brought in Randy Wolf -- not a former Cardinals pitcher -- for three years and $29.75 million. Wolf put up respectable numbers in '10 and '11, most notably going 13-10 with a 3.69 ERA in '11 when the Brewers reached the NLCS. But, like Suppan, he was unable to last the duration of his contract and was released in 2012.
Milwaukee hopes that the third time is the charm as far as acquiring former Cardinal pitchers, but Lohse's overall body of work, his age (34), and the money he's committed are all concerns moving forward. It's money that the Brewers didn't plan on spending and that could put them in a financial bind in the future. Instead of keeping the payroll around $80 million like Attanasio and Melvin had planned, they are spending just over $91 million, good for No. 16 in the MLB.
We've noted how the science of trading is more precise and proven to work "right now," but, in free agency, unless it's a top-tier player, there is that unknown factor. Why is the player a free agent in the first place? It comes down to three factors: his previous team doesn't have the funds to re-sign him, doesn't think he is worth what he is asking for, or doesn't feel he will benefit the team moving forward.
With Lohse, the St. Louis Cardinals didn't believe he was worth the $12-15 million per year (for four years) he was asking for, and with other starting pitchers on the roster ready to fill in didn't see the benefit of bringing back a 34-year-old who doesn't throw hard.
Being a small-market franchise, the Brewers have to pick their spots wisely in free agency while trying to improve their team. Their formula for the past seven or eight years in free agency has been to do what it takes to compete for a playoff berth, which means improving areas of weakness from the prior season.
Has this hurt the Brewers' future? Probably. Is it the right strategy to utilize? It depends. What Milwaukee has done in free agency has never been what helped launch the team into contention. It's been what Melvin has been able to do through trade. These trades have exhausted the Brewers' farm system, and without any legitimate talent to deal in return for proven commodities, that forces Melvin to either trust his young, developing players or sign free agents.
It's a questionable strategy, considering how much money must be devoted to free agents in today's MLB. That's not to say Melvin hasn't struck gold here and there, especially with Aramis Ramirez based on his performance last season, and Kyle Lohse could be his next successful signing. A couple of very good recent seasons suggests Lohse has turned a corner, and having a sinker as a go-to pitch is crucial when pitching in hitter-friendly Miller Park.
But striking gold in free agency here and there isn't good enough. Because Melvin has shipped off so many of his young minor-league players, it's difficult for him to trust those that remain to contribute at the big-league level. We mentioned names like Hellweg, Burgos and Sanchez -- players who are, yes, young and unproven, but products of Milwaukee's system. Those players are there because of Melvin and the scouts around him, because he believes they can play.
How long do you wait to give these players a chance? If you're letting it ride with inexperienced starting pitchers, why not do the same in the bullpen, where finding good relievers is such an inexact science?
Then again, Melvin wound up doing the same thing with the rotation as he did with the bullpen -- look elsewhere for help. It cost the Brewers a draft pick -- to their division rival -- and spending money in the draft, perhaps setting them back even further down the road. There will likely be some dim years ahead, which is unfortunate considering how that would waste some of Ryan Braun's prime.
The Lohse signing felt like a move out of desperation but also out of necessity. Judging by his first outing, it could wind up being a nice pickup for Milwaukee, but it doesn't help to completely cancel out the weaknesses on the roster.
A win-now strategy sounds great to the Brewers' fan base, but whether or not the Brewers have the pieces in place to win now is another question. Melvin clearly believed the answer to that question was "yes" when he signed Lohse, but if the season begins to spiral out of control Melvin needs to reevaluate that belief.
Otherwise, it could set the Brewers back even further.
Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who contains an unhealthy amount of knowledge about Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_ .
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