To avoid sounding repetitive, I’m not going to talk about how bad the 2015 Milwaukee Brewers are this week. I’ve got another four months of dismal baseball to cover, and after six losses this week, quite frankly I just don’t feel like it. Not even today’s epic 17th inning walk off win could turn my spirits around. Instead of talking about dreadful starting pitching, a never ending string of injuries, and a clubhouse full of misfit toys, I’m going to cover a different topic this week.
One of the most common arguments for parting ways with GM Doug Melvin is that the Brewers farm season is, to quote, “depleted”. This week, I want to explore the accuracy of this statement and whether or not Melvin is to blame. Don’t worry, the Brewers will still be bad next week- we’ve got plenty of weeks left to talk about it.
Let’s go back to 2008. The Milwaukee Brewers were riding a 26-year postseason drought when Melvin brought CC Sabathia into town from the Cleveland Indians, and began an epic stretch of three months that most Brewers fans will never forget. Sabathia was the definition of an ace, but garnered four players in return for his services in Milwaukee. This “all-in” buying mentality is typically carried out at the expense of a team’s top minor league prospects; sacrificing future success for immediate improvement.
Of the four players the Brewers sent to Cleveland for Sabathia, the biggest loss was that of then-prospect / now-All Star shortstop Michael Brantley. Brantley finished 3rd in the AL MVP voting last year and is currently batting .308 with 17 doubles for the Indians; that’s consistency the Brewers could desperately use right now. It took Brantley six years after the Sabathia trade to develop into an All Star. While it’s tough to swallow the fact that Brantley could be in a Brewers uniform today, the Brewers got 130 innings out of Sabathia in just three months. He went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. To close the season, he threw three starts on only three days rest, allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work. Sabathia single-handedly carried the Brewers to the playoffs when the franchise so desperately needed it. There are few players currently in the league whose presence could match the results that the Brewers saw from Sabathia’s short stay in Milwaukee.
The second “all-in” trade came prior to the historic 2011 season, when the Brewers again traded away four players, this time to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Zach Greinke in a move that drastically changed the future of the organization. On one hand, Greinke was outstanding for the Brewers, going 25-9 with an ERA below 3.60 over two years. He was the leading man in the rotation that got the Brewers two wins away from their first World Series since 1982. On the other hand, there are a couple of players that the Brewers lost that ended up playing key pieces for the Royals during their world series run last season.
Former Brewer Alcides Escobar played in all 162 games for the Royals last year, batting .285 during the regular season and .292 in the postseason (including .302 in the World Series). Also sent away in the Greinke deal was Lorenzo Cain, who one upped his fellow former Brewer by hitting .301 last year with 28 stolen bases, including a .333 postseason average. In addition to Escobar and Cain, the Brewers sent a starting pitching prospect by the name of Jake Ordorizzi to the Royals, who today is riding a 2.31 ERA through 10 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays. Wouldn’t that ERA look good in the major leauge’s worst starting rotation right now?
So the Brewers were buyers in 2008 and 2011, and had to send some promising young talent out of town in order to be playoff contenders. Just two years after 2011, the Brewers were on the other side of the table, when they shipped Zach Greinke to the Angels in exchange for some familiar names. The Brewers received Jean Segura, Johnny Helwig, and Ariel Pena in return for the last three months of Greinke’s contract with the Brewers. Segura was an All Star during his first full season in the majors, and Helwig, although fresh off Tommy John surgery, has the high up side potential that could make him a future mainstay in the starting rotation.
So did Doug Melvin really doom the Brewers future chances for success when he went “all in” in 2008 and 2011? Sure, it’s tough to see so many former Brewers starting for playoff teams, but consider the alternative. What if we were sitting here in 2015 and the Brewers hadn’t made the postseason in 2008 and 2011? Would we be in the 33rd year of baseball’s longest playoff drought? Or would players like Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar be the face of a franchise built for long term success? It’s tough to say. Actually, it’s impossible to say. What can be said, however, is that the Brewers organization and fan base desperately needed the 2011 NLCS run. That was the first time in my life that I got a taste of what competitive October baseball felt like, and it’s a feeling unlike any other. It’s something I will never forget, and will hopefully experience again before I die (these days, I’m not so confident I will).
It’s worth noting that the Brewer’s minor league system is improving. After being ranked dead last in Baseball America’s minor league system rankings in 2011, the Brewers have slowly climbed up the rankings to 19. The AAA roster is weak, but there is some serious talent developing in the lower ranks. I like the 2014 draft class, and the Brewers were able to sign their first 15 picks, which is no easy task (just ask the Houston Astros, who weren’t able to sign the number one pick overall).
The Brewers are likely going to be sitting on some very low draft picks the next couple of years as they begin the rebuilding process. They will also be looking for an influx of minor league talent as they sell anyone with value before the July deadline this year. While it’s a far cry from perfect, I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Brewer’s system “depleted,” and even though it cost the organization some future All Stars, I wouldn’t trade the 2008 and 2011 runs for anything. Now that Milwaukee has gotten a taste of the postseason, it’s time for the Brewers to start building the organization for long term success so that they aren’t faced with an “all in” or nothing decision in the middle of a winning season. It can be done, it’s just going to take a while.