Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How to Build a Winning Franchise: Part 1, Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers are of course a team that we love to hate, given that Milwaukee stole the Seattle Pilots in order to create this monstrosity. All of the horrible seasons for Milwaukee baseball fans is karmic retribution for their remorseless theft, and they deserve plenty more where that came from.

So we’re not remotely sad that after 28 pathetic seasons in the AL, and then the last 9 plus seasons in the easier NL, the Brew Crew has been able to muster only a single sustained run of winning, in which half of the 12 winning (.500 or better) seasons in franchise history occurred in the early 1980s. This run culminated in winning the AL East in the strike year of 1981, losing the ALDS to the Yankees, and then winning the American League pennant in 1982 by trouncing the California Angels in the ALDS, only to lose to Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis Cardinals in a World Series that was at the same time close and exciting, and yet filled with blowouts. (The Brew Crew won their games 10-0, 13-1, and 7-5, but lost it all in the heartbreaking later innings of Game 7).

That’s it for the Brewers. Outside of 1981-2, they’ve NEVER been to the playoffs. They’re not a model of anything in baseball outside of “how to splash a mascot into a beer stein” or “how to have a mascot race,” which are both the same kind of minor-league that Milwaukee deserves.

Yet it is precisely because of the Brewers’ history of ineptness that Seattle fans, or fans of equally poorly-run organizations, might look to the Brewers for some instruction on how to build a winning team. You may not have noticed, but like the Cleveland Indians in Major League, the Brewers are suddenly a contender. Moreover, as of this writing they possess a 6 ½ game lead over both the Houston Astros and the Chicago €ub$, sporting a 28-17 record. We’re over one-quarter of the way through the 2007 championship season, and the Brewers are for real in the NL Central.

So how have they done it? As a “small market” team (their 2007 payroll is clear up to ~$71M, nearly double what it was just two seasons ago; the 2007 Forbes figures of franchise value mark the Brewers as the fifth-least valuable MLB franchise around, at only $287M), the Brewers under GM Doug Melvin have steadily accumulated the major league roster through the farm system, trades, and limited, minor free agent signings. The Brewers have not had the resources to compete for the stars on the open market, but they have enjoyed good fortune in their prospect development. Let’s look at the various pieces of the team to get a blueprint (a purpleprint?) of how it’s done:

Almost the entire batting order represents shrewd drafting and luck (a combination that is necessary with prospects; they just don’t always pan out, no matter how “can’t miss” they are). Except for the catcher (Johnny Estrada, acquired in a six-player trade last winter) and the third basemen (where it’s a good thing that top prospect Ryan Braun is on the way, because this is the one sucking chest wound for the current offense), all of the everyday starters have been drafted and developed by the Brewers. Even wily veteran left-fielder Geoff Jenkins was a first-round draft pick by Milwaukee in 1995; center-fielder Bill Hall was selected in the sixth round in 1998, and then Corey Hart (2000), J.J. Hardy (2001), Prince Fielder (2002), and Rickie Weeks (2003) came along in the last decade. The last three players mentioned, now the good three-quarters of the infield, were all top-10 overall draft picks. Add in bench player Tony Gwynn, Jr., and it is evident that the Brewers have done a top-notch job of building an offense through the amateur draft.

This, of course, is the result of all those years of sucking. You don’t get back-to-back-to-back top-10 selections unless your team sucks ass for a long, long time. Way to go, Milwaukee! (Seattle’s rapidly approaching that marker, by the way.)

Meanwhile, the pitching staff is almost entirely built out of other teams’ castoffs. The big exception is SP Ben Sheets, who was another top-10 pick, this time in the 1999 draft (quick: name a year in which the Brewers did NOT select in the top 10). Sheets has had injury problems throughout his career, but when healthy he’s an ace atop the starting rotation. Of the other twelve pitchers who have faced batters for Milwaukee in 2007, seven (7!!) were acquired by trade, two more via the waiver wire, and only two signed as free agents.

Indeed, the big deviation from the pattern of building from within was a Tatonka-like signing of free-agent starter Jeff Suppan on Christmas Eve 2006. I thought little of Soup coming into the season, and wouldn’t have wanted to add him to the Mariners roster (although I must admit that I would have preferred him to the guys we DID acquire, but that’s COMPLETELY another story). But that signing (4 years, $42 million, plus club option on 2011) brought in a 12-year veteran with World Series experience and a career of league-average ERA. So far in 2007, he’s posted a shiny 3.49 ERA while facing 280 batters in 10 games. That’s been best on the Brewers’ staff, and he leads the team with 6 wins.

Like drafting and the limited free agent purchases, Melvin’s trades have generally worked out, as well. Key players Johnny Estrada, Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, Claudio Vargas, and Francisco Cordero were all acquired by trade, as were lesser players such as Kevin Mench, Tony Graffanino, Gabe Gross, Brian Shouse, Carlos Villanueva, and Greg Aquino. The future was never mortgaged to get these guys—even when trading quality players like Richie Sexson or Lyle Overbay—and as well as Cordero has pitched thus far in 2007, none of these acquisitions are superstars who might be expected to lead a team to a pennant. Yet they’re contributing to a team that suggests, all of a sudden, that Doug Melvin is many, many standard deviations higher than Bill Bavasi in [insert pretty much any baseball- or intellect-related category here].

So how has this team performed on the field? With 218 runs scored and 192 runs allowed, the Brewers are 8th in MLB in offense (3rd in the NL, behind the Mets and Phillies), and 10th in the majors in pitching (7th in the NL). Honestly, that’s a dream outcome for a team built in this fashion. You can never COUNT on even the Delmon Youngs or Alex Gordons of the world to be ready to pound major-league pitching at any particular time. (This is why both Griffey and A-Rod were so special for us: you COULD count on them to be stars right away.) And indeed, it has taken players like Weeks and Hardy some development time and growing pains in the majors before they got to the point they’re at now. Some of the waiting has been offset by the diamond-in-the-rough discovery that is Bill Hall, who was never expected to perform as well as he has. But now that the waiting appears to be over for these players (I’ll say appears: remember how young Jose Lopez was hitting just one year ago?), they are not only carrying the very productive Brewer offense, but are also young and inexpensive to employ, so they have turned into that most valuable commodity in the world of baseball: solid contributors under the team’s control cheaply for their most productive seasons.

Alright, so if this is the model that is the 2007 Milwaukee Brewers, what can the Mariners front office learn here? Our offense differs considerably from Milwaukee’s. Only Jose Lopez was developed from within the organization, while seven of the nine everyday starters were brought in as free agents (two from Japan, one from Cuba, and the rest from the majors). And of course, Turbo was acquired by trade. That unit is scoring runs at a lower rate than Milwaukee’s offense, to the tune of only 4.4 runs per game (compared to the Brewers’ rate of 4.8). Had Seattle played as many games thus far as Milwaukee, we ought to rank in the middle of the pack in offense.

So far, only Kenji Johjima, Ichiro! Suzuki, and Jose Guillen have performed above average (as measured by OPS+; check out Baseball-Reference.com), whereas only two Brewers starters (the two-headed 3B ToCraigNy CounsGraffaellenino, and RF Corey Hart) have performed below average.

League-average offense would probably be acceptable, if only we could offset that with awesome pitching and defense. After all, the Brewers are getting by with slightly above league-average pitching to go with their excellent hitting. But alas, our hitting is the STRENGTH of the team. Like the Brew Crew, every single starter but one was signed as a free agent or acquired in trade. Unlike the Brewers, however, it would have been pretty challenging to construct a worse starting rotation than the one the Mariners are running out there. (Way to go, M’s!) Seattle is coughing up over 5 runs per game, putting us about 5th or 6th worst in the entire major leagues. (We appear to be in the middle of the pack, if you look at runs allowed totals, but that is an artifact of the week of snowouts earlier this season.)

So, if Milwaukee’s success could inspire us to believe in these here Mariners, giving in to that temptation would be a rather foolish mistake. Our team has neither been constructed like the Brewers (our key players are on the wrong side of the aging curve because they’ve been acquired via free agency rather than developed in-house), nor is it really performing anything like Milwuakee’s team. Our drafting over the last decade has been, well, atrocious. Trades have returned less than we’ve given away. Free agents routinely have failed to pan out. Indeed, the one lesson we MIGHT learn from the Brewers, “hire a competent GM and give him the organization’s backing,” is not one that the decision-makers associated with the M’s appear to be willing to learn.

To be sure, no matter how doomed we are, I’ll never root for the Brewers. But we’re doomed.

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