It could just be the hangover from an exciting, but disappointing finish to the Packers 2015 campaign, or the three times I’ve since driven past Miller Park, but I’m just not terribly excited for this baseball season. Rather, I’m almost ready to count the 2016 Brewers out before the first pitch has even been thrown.
Which isn’t like me.
As my roots continue to grow in the city I’ve called home for nearly five years, my two favorite teams have added a half a decade to the history books of their respective franchises. The results have varied greatly. The “smallest market” in all of professional sports continues to remain competitive in the big-money NFL; while the Brewers have fallen from a Division Championship, to a franchise hitting the reset button, as they remain one of eight organizations without a World Series Championship to their name. I’ve enjoyed both stories, but have seen far less success on the baseball side of things.
It’s tough to top the Packers. They’re the perpetual underdog from a business standpoint, yet they continue to win year after year. It’s Superbowl or bust in Green Bay – the playoffs are a given. My generation has been especially spoiled, watching two Hall of Fame quarterbacks run our team for as long as we can remember. Wisconsinites love it, Vikings and Bears fans hate it, and I’d like to think the rest of the NFL, erm, respects it? The Packers sure play a lot of prime time games, so that must mean people are watching.
But the story of the Milwaukee Brewers has been very different. It has been a story of fighting for every playoff appearance, and winning in very few of them.
In all fairness, I believe the Brewers operate in a league where it is far more difficult to gain an edge. Players actually need the minor league system to develop, while on the major league level the subtle but mathematical differences in player ability have 162 games to play themselves out. It’s a league where money doesn’t just talk- it screams, and small market and smaller money (by comparison, that is) puts a team like the Brewers at the direct mercy of their rich guy’s pockets. Don’t get me wrong, our rich guy is rich, but so are all the other rich guys (and gals) in the world of professional sports. Our team’s baseball hats aren’t seen on the streets of every major city in the world, they’re far more common in dive bars south of downtown Milwaukee. The major money contracts that the big city teams provide to single players often closely resemble the payroll of our entire team.
So while Milwaukee may have a higher percentage of fans as a whole, they will always lose because of the sheer size of their competitors in Chicago, New York, and LA. Even 90% of Milwaukee is smaller than 25% of Chicago. Those cities have more eyes watching their team play, and their fans spend more dollars wearing their team’s logos and going to their team’s games. All of that stuff is tracked. Big money companies with massive marketing budgets spend more money competing for the advertising space for those games, which leads to more lucrative cable deals, and more money for those team’s rich guys. And if you’re lucky enough to get a rich guy that is actually invested in winning, they’ll spend that money on superstars. Many are content to watch their investments grow year after year as the product on the field continues to get better, and the production value on TV is at an all-time high.
The Brewers can’t do that; and our rich guy isn’t rich enough. The Brewers now own the smallest payroll in the MLB. Their hand is forced, and the only model that can work for them is to draft and develop, and get a little lucky along the way. It’s a model that just worked in Kansas City the last two years, and could work here too, but it takes a lot of time and a fair amount of luck. The Brewers have publicly decided to hit the reset button and try to draft and develop from scratch. New manager David Stearns has been very busy this off-season: he’s selling major leaguers for prospects. He’s selling players that can fight their way through a major league season in exchange for young players whose bodies aren’t even done growing yet. The math isn’t there yet for these players; they haven’t had enough experience against capable opponents to make a definitive statement about their future in baseball.
David Stearns is essentially buying scratch offs, but the thought is that if he buys more scratch offs than his friends, he’s more likely to win. There is certainly math here that makes sense too. When you bring the metaphor back to reality, however, you realize that these scratch offs that Stearns is buying can’t be scratched off for two to five years from now, but the Brewers still have to field a team. Two to five-years is a LONG TIME for a millennial fan base who has never seen a World Series. We haven’t even started year one!
I hope my tone does not suggest anything different: I fully support the decision to rebuild, and from what I’ve been able to make sense of, David Stearns is taking us in that direction and he’s doing so very well. He’s going to make the calculated decision to promote players who aren’t ready for major league action; they will play through a season because he’s shipped off any major leaguer who would earn him a scratch off or two. He’s going to lower the payroll to its lowest level in years as a way to soften up his rich guy, in hopes that the money will come when it’s needed to take the Brewers to the next level.
So there you have it, folks: your 2016 Milwaukee Brewers. The good players will fight desperately to try to play their way out while they’re still healthy, and the bad players will be really, really bad, forced too quickly into a role that they weren’t ready to play.
The math will play out over time, and the Brewers will lose a lot of games – which sucks, because it will mean another year of my 20s without the excitement of playoff baseball in my home town. As sad as it is to watch, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only way for our rich guy to look himself in the mirror another half decade from now, and say he did everything he could to get the Milwaukee Brewers to win in a league where they are at a perpetual disadvantage. It’s worth it to me as a fan to go all-in on scratch offs instead of pretending like being above .500 is an accomplishment worth celebrating. I’m excited for the future of the Brewers, but right now it’s the present. The present is filled with the gloom of the day-after playoff loss for one of my teams, and the understanding that next year just won’t be “Our Year” for the other.