(Image: Paul Tenpenny / BorchertField.com)
Going into the offseason, Brewers fans probably feared another quiet winter for GM Doug Melvin and company. Last winter was a painful one due to the seemingly endless uneventful days passing by while other teams made moves to get better (or at least change). I’m not advocating change for the sake of change, but it’s difficult to imagine that the Brewers need to stand pat with what they’ve got unless they plan on having another miserable season next year. They need depth, and then depth beyond that.
Yes, the NL Central division is very tough. It’s gotten monumentally tougher over the last year or two with the Pittsburgh Pirates joining the party for reals. But I think the Brewers owe it to their fans to make at least a passable effort to improve the team for the 2014 season, rather than (metaphorically) saying “Gee, we’re just the Brewers, so it’s difficult”. The team has survived on the goodwill of its fans for many years, and while the Brewers have given a lot back to the fans in the last six to eight years, it still feels like Milwaukee is getting screwed out of a winning baseball team. Milwaukee is a formidable baseball town (though few people nationally will give it credit as such) and it deserves a successful team year in and year out. Or, at least two out of three ain’t bad. We’ve seen the club make strides but then stub its toe and fall back a few steps when the going gets tough. The tough get going at that point, and this front office has shown a lack of deft thinking when it comes to making the hard but necessary choices on who to put on the field.
It takes a certain canniness to figure out who shouldn’t be on the field, as well. Sometimes it seems they should pull the plug a little sooner.
As this Fanpost over at Royals Review notes, there’s a pitfall in thinking that the team will simply improve because it’s getting older or gaining experience. The writer points out the potential dangers of players who continue “to stay on the roster despite poor performances”. His examples include pitcher Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar along with infielder Chris Getz, among others. For the Brewers, one only has to look back to the recently disbanded 2013 squad, which included such meteoric flashes in the pan as Yuniesky Betancourt, Juan Francisco and to a lesser and more expensive extent, Rickie Weeks.
Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke have exhibited a similar pattern of stubborn refusal as that of Royals GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost when it comes to realizing that players are outright failing to produce up to snuff at the big league level. I know the Brewers want to see what Francisco might reveal to them, but they already gave him quite a lot of time to do it and it didn’t work. Now we’re all set to hear about his exploits to harness his power across the entire winter season. Hopefully Yuni is in our rearview mirror for good this time, but one can never tell with Melvin. As for Rickie Weeks, perhaps a team will come calling in the spring, or perhaps he can be packaged in a winter trade. But if he does end up back with the Brewers in 2014 and continues to show that he can’t get his act together, the team should cut ties with him one way or another.
Granted, a lot of times teams show the most patience, faith and ‘confidence’ in players to whom they owe large sums of money, hence the long rope for Rickie Weeks. The aforementioned Luke Hochevar was the first pick in the first round by the Royals in 2006, and he has rewarded them by being unable to post an ERA under 4.6 from 2008-2012. During that span the team gave him 127 starts in the big leagues. In 2013 he was relegated to the bullpen, pitching 70 innings and posting a brilliant 1.92 ERA. Nevertheless, Hochevar made a bountiful $4.5MM in 2013 and his salary will only continue to escalate as a ‘Super 2’ player.
I’m fully in support of Rickie Weeks, the person, but as for Weeks, the player, his contract is like a dark cloud (one of many) hanging over the franchise as it desperately tries to hold on to a piece of the momentum that had the Brewers two wins from the 2011 World Series. As for Juan Francisco, his tenure with the Brewers represents the gloom that has fallen over the team since the Cardinals ousted them from the playoffs two years ago. Does the team really need to play this guy? I would rather have seen Sean Halton or Hunter Morris playing there rather than a guy who makes very little sense for the Brewers other than as a bench bat. I don’t quite understand what Melvin is doing with Francisco, unless: 1) Melvin believes he can flip Francisco to an AL team this winter, or 2) Melvin thinks Francisco will be a moderately successful bench player who can learn to play a good third base before the beginning of the 2014 season, or at least by the start of 2015. In the latter case, he would theoretically replace Aramis Ramirez. Otherwise, there’s no place on the roster for Francisco. First base is a position the team can fill more easily than most via free agency, trade, or just re-signing their own Corey Hart. Maybe the Brewers just want to keep Juan around until they fill the first base position, as there are other interested teams like the Red Sox, Rays and Rockies reportedly interested in Hart as well. Who knows how Hart will feel about returning or ‘discounts’ once he drifts a little ways off from the Brewers ship.
But, I’m sure Melvin and Roenicke have their reasons. I’m sure they have the best interests of the club in mind but my faith and confidence in their decision-making is starting to crumble pretty badly. All of my aired concerns here are not to point toward absolutes in any sense but only to question the validity of trying to groom players who are already at the major league level. In my mind, there’s a thin blue-and-gold line between the benefits of giving a player meaningful experience in Milwaukee and simply holding out hope that a player will figure it out while with Milwaukee, as opposed to in the minor leagues or with some other organization. Francisco is out of options so he can’t be sent down outright but please don’t tell me they plan to give him another 200-400 plate appearances just to ‘see what happens’. It’s not like Milwaukee just needs to dump these guys to become competitive but their presence on the roster is a troubling sign for a fan base that would rather see the team move on from the Francisco’s and Weeks’s if they can’t hack it up in the big leagues anymore. At least Weeks has some real resonance with the fan base as he was part of the young core that turned this franchise around from depths none of us want to think about anymore. Francisco is just some guy they found who swings big and misses a lot. Doug Melvin’s done some good things for this team but you have to take it with a pound of salt. If Yuni Betancourt is re-signed, fans will know what to expect for 2014.
All of this leads me belatedly to the point that I wanted to make after randomly coming across that Royals Review Fanpost. The writer’s impactful title is an aspect of the behavior of the Brewers front office too: “expecting improvement across the board”. That’s what they did last year when thinking that the team could float on an unproven and inexperienced rotation of Fiers, Estrada, Peralta, Rogers, etc. There seems to be already some steam toward the same kind of mirage for 2014: that the Brewers are fine in the rotation. A fallacy that says: “The pitching staff performed well over the last couple months, so we’re probably good with Estrada and maybe Thornburg or Nelson after Gallardo, Lohse, and Peralta”. I would be delighted to be wrong about this. However, I just don’t think it’s realistic to go into 2014 with a life raft of Estrada and maybe Thornburg or Nelson. Assuming the top three in the rotation can stay healthy and effective, which is a BIG if, the Brewers are still short the crucial impact arms in their rotation for next year. Counting on Estrada and Thornburg/Nelson/Hellweg to provide 160-180 innings of 3.50-4.00 ERA ball is like expecting the Brewers to keep the roof open even if it’s chilly out: it ain’t going to happen. Good luck, Doug, and goodnight.