When the 2011 season ended at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, there were many questions for the players, fans and management of the Milwaukee Brewers to address.
Prince Fielder would “explore” free agency (has any player stayed with a team after “exploring”) and Francisco Rodriguez would be closing games somewhere else.
Could they resign key playoff contributor Jerry Hairston?
Would they (gulp) give Yuniesky Bettencourt another year at shortstop?
The starting pitching would all be back but how would the team fill the roles of LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito in addition to K-Rod.
Could Mat Gamel finally realize his potential and would Casey McGehee ever return to his 2010-2011 form?
Welcome to the life of a small-market General Manger in the 21st Century!
Doug Melvin has gone on record as saying he pretty much knew Fielder would not be back and began working to resign Hairston, Hawkins and Saito and undoubtedly had many other plans in the works.
All three snubbed the team and all headed West.
Melvin stemmed the tide a bit when he plucked veteran Alex Gonzalez to take over at shortstop; the first step in what was a concerted effort to be better defensively in 2012. That news was quickly tempered by the announcement that K-Rod had accepted arbitration and would be a Brewer in 2012 at a hefty price.
Nobody saw that coming and immediately it was bandied about that the team would be unable to handle this salary hit and still be a real player in the free agent market. The team had no real answers within the organization as the cupboards were bare after the acquisitions of pitchers Shawn Marcum and Zach Greinke and earlier CC Sabathia.
Battered and beleaguered, Melvin addressed the media in the wake of the K-Rod announcement and said all the right things but he had to be at least a little disappointed right? The mild-mannered GM instead appears to have had everyone right where he wanted them.
In a flurry of activity, the team signed Aramis Ramirez to a nice contract. After Fielder and Albert Pujols, Ramirez was probably the best hitter available. Brewer fans know the damage he can do after his stints in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Immediately, the Brewers shipped McGehee to Pittsburgh for reliever Jose Veras and fans had to feel like this was about the best they could hope for heading into 2012.
Another shocker followed closely: The leak of a failed drug test by Ryan Braun became the only topic regarding the Brewers and anything else that had happened really didn’t matter. Braun would miss 50 games and suddenly the team had nothing but memories of the dynamic duo.
The team stood by Braun and ultimately his suspension was of course overturned. The thing is Melvin didn’t know that until the day players reported to Spring Training. He had to operate in that 3-month window “knowing” Braun would be out for 50 games. No player had ever successfully appealed a drug suspension.
This is where Melvin got the help of owner Mark Attanasio and the owner’s decision to let Melvin spend money like never before in Milwaukee.
Despite now pushing payroll towards $100,000,000; the team bought the right to negotiate with Japanese superstar Norichika Aoki for $2.5 million dollars.
The team ultimately signed him and despite the team (sure) and the fans knowing little about him he seemed at least a plausible replacement for 50 games. Not long after the team went ahead and resigned fan favorite and lightning rod Nyjer Morgan.
Melvin also made what appeared to be some camp signings in Travis Ishikawa and Cesar Izturis to fill out the roster.
And when spring came around and Braun was cleared the team suddenly looked little like that sad last day of 2011 and the questions started about how this team would find enough offense to stay in the chase for the elusive World Series appearance.
Still the team had survived all kinds of peril and with that pitching…
No matter how this season turns out there can be very little second guessing about how Melvin handled this offseason. Despite the slow start the team the Brewers sent to the field on opening day is one that Braun called the best he has ever been a part of.
I know he couldn’t say he was about to be a part of a team that would pale in comparison to 2011 and wish for the gold old days but you get the sense that he was being truthful.
Every move Melvin made appears to have “worked”. That doesn’t mean they will all have career years and that Melvin should be named the GM of the year immediately. It means he has put a very competent team on the field and erased most of the what-if’s.
Gamel looks like he belongs and the combination of Morgan, Carlos Gomez and Aoki give the team a ton of options at the beginning and end of every game. Each of them has contributed to victories and each has a unique personality that should make the team fun to watch.
Ishikawa went deep again today with Gamel out and it is hard to imagine he didn’t play a single big league game last season. Even Izturis has had some big moments while Gonzalez was out for the birth of a child.
Gonzalez has been as advertised, Betancourt at the plate and a savior on defense.
Ramirez has had his traditional sluggish April but has been driving in runs and looks to be rounding into form. It was a no brainer signing whether he reaches his potential or not anyway.
Veras could be the 8th or 9th guy for a bunch of teams in this league and fits the mold of a “full inning” pitcher that can go out there 4 – 5 times a week that Roenicke likes.
The synergy between Attanasio, Melvin and Roenicke and the backing as well reminds me a lot of a couple other famous regimes in these parts Harlan/Wolf/Holmgren and Murphy/Thompson/McCarthy.
Those regimes took their teams’ one step short as well before putting it all together and winning a championship. Let’s hope the open pockets; shrewd signings and diligent leadership the current Brewers regime have shown reach that same result.