Hopefully by now, you’ve read (and liked) the look back at the old Sports Illustrated previews for the 2000 and 2002 Brewers. Sure, it can be depressing at times, but it does help us remember just how far the team has come in the past decade. We’ll continue with the previews this weekend with a look at the 2004 Brewers — another difficult year, although it can probably be seen as the last “bad” year before things really started to turn around.
The SI preview focused on the then-recent trend of Doug Melvin mining for nuggets and striking gold, highlighting on the success stories of Scott Podsednik, Danny Kolb, and Doug Davis. The next reclamation story was supposed to be Ben Grieve, who the Brewers signed as a free agent and expected to start in right field. After three very good years in Oakland (including a Rookie of the Year award in 1998), Grieve was shipped off to Tampa Bay in a three-team deal that sent Johnny Damon from Kansas City to Oakland. Grieve’s years in Tampa Bay weren’t terrible (he still posted a very respectable .364 OBP despite a .254 average), but he wasn’t playing as well as they had hoped — especially as that team’s highest-paid player.
Grieve came to Milwaukee to prove he could still play, and for the most part, he did in 2004 — he was able to hit .261/.364/.415 in 234 at-bats, but was traded to the Cubs before the end of the season for cash and a player that ended up being Andy Pratt. Grieve would only play one more year in the majors.
Grieve wasn’t the only new face at the start of the year, though — this was the first season following the Richie Sexson trade. Chad Moeller was now starting at catcher, Lyle Overbay was at first, Junior Spivey took over at second base, Craig Counsell was at shortstop, and Chris Capuano entered the starting rotation. While the Brewers may not have gotten a can’t-miss prospect in return for Sexson, that’s a total of five new starters. Doug Melvin used that trade to immediately help the big league club, and in that regard, it was clearly a success even that soon after the trade.
Of course, the lineup still suffered without the power threat of Sexson, but leave it to Ned Yost to play off the loss of Sexson as a good thing:
“When we traded Richie, the whole complexion of the team changed. We always seemed to be sitting back and trying to hit the home run. Now we’ve got guys in the lineup who work counts, get on base, and manufacture runs. That’s the kind of baseball we want to play here.”
Yeah, because Sexson never worked the count and got on base. Predictably, without Sexson, the Brewers would drop from 714 runs scored in 2003 to 634 runs scored in 2004 — next-to-last in the National League.
Overbay had a breakout year (.301/.385/.478), but the rest of the lineup was mostly terrible. Moeller (.208/.265/.303) was so bad that the team would end up looking for catching help the next winter. Counsell’s struggles (.241/.330/.315) had the team looking to go younger in the future. Wes Helms (.263/.331/.361) was so bad he still gets booed at Miller Park to this day. Podsednik (.244/.313/.364) stole 70 bases, but was otherwise worthless.
Put all of that together, and you have a lineup that gave Ben Sheets run support that would make Felix Hernandez cry. By the end of the year, Sheets put up what could be argued as the most dominant season ever by a Brewers pitcher — 2.70 ERA, 264 strikeouts, 32 walks, and a 0.983 WHIP in 237 innings…and a 12-14 record. Personally, this was the year that W-L records lost all meaning to me. Sheets got a total of 19 runs of support in his 14 losses. Put him on a team with an average offense, and he probably challenges for the Cy Young Award that season. Instead, he finished in 8th place.
In the end, the 2004 Brewers are mostly likely to be remembered as the team that started the year 41-34, only to go 26-60 after July 1. It was a brutal way to end the year, but at least you can feel comfortable saying that it was an important year in the Brewers rebuilding process — perhaps it finally convinced the club to give the young guys a shot, maybe the first half of the year convinced some people that the club is capable of spurts of success.
I just shudder to think about how bad the team would have been without Ben Sheets. Looking back, the man never got as much credit as he should have for that season, when he pitched all-out for a team that had no prayer of contending. In the end, it may have cost him his long-term health — he hasn’t thrown for 200 innings in a season since, and it took him three years before he would be able to even make 30 starts in a single year.