Thursday, October 31, 2013

Building The 25 - Advice for Doug Melvin heading into 2014

Expectations were high for the Milwaukee Brewers going into 2013 but the season ended up being the most trying season in the last decade.  The 65-game suspension of left fielder Ryan Braun, the face of the franchise, exacerbated an already hopeless season.  I have to admit that even before Braun's suspension, my interest in following the team on a daily basis waned.  I did my best to keep up but the product that Brewers general manager Doug Melvin put on the field was less than stellar despite having huge seasons from shortstop Jean Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez.  All of that meant I couldn't wait for the 2013 World Series to finish so that we can look towards 2014.

The 2013 World Series pitted the Boston Red Sox against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Going into the 2013 World Series, each team won two World Series titles in the last nine years.  I know New England sports fans have become downright intolerable given that they've won a championship in each of the four major sports in the last decade but at least the Red Sox are not a divisional opponent like the Cardinals.  From a Cheesehead perspective, if the Cardinals would have won the 2013 World Series, it would have been their third World Series in eight years.  The Brewers have only made the playoffs twice over that time-frame without even coming close to winning a World Series so that meant I actually wanted to see the Red Sox win their third World Series title in the last decade.

Thankfully the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in six games to win the 2013 World Series.  I am sure you will read glowing takes on the 2013 World Series but I was quite underwhelmed with the play on the field even though all the games besides the first and last of the series were close.  That may sound like sour grapes given what a nightmare last season was for the Brewers or it may be that my interest in baseball in general is decreasing.  Either way, the one thing I know for sure is that with the 2013 World Series in the books, we can finally look towards the 2014 season.

Here are five general rules for how Melvin should approach the off-season to build The 25 for 2014.  When Melvin starts making moves, I will review those decisions through the lenses of my five general rules.  Without further adu, here are my five general rules for Melvin.

#1) Do NOT hand out any long-term, expensive contracts this off-seasons.  Fan always clamor for general managers to sign the biggest free agents thinking that will be a long-term solution. Unfortunately in baseball, given that players are under team control for seven major league seasons, most free agents are already in decline when they are available for the other 29 MLB teams to sign.  Before the start of last season Brewers owner Mark Attanasio apparently went behind Melvin's back to sign former Cardinals starting pitcher Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract that also cost the Brewers their first round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.  Although the Lohse signing will most likely not turn out as bad as the four-year, $42 million contract the Brewers gave former Cardinals starting pitcher Jeff Suppan, both show how much the Brewers have to overpay in the free agent market for starting pitchers on the decline.  Even when the Brewers proactively lock in players long-term like they did with Braun twice, having those guaranteed deals on the books are always a risk too.  The way MLB's revenue structure is so dependent on local revenue, small market teams like the Brewers can barely afford expensive, long-term deals.  When those deals go bad like they did in Suppan's case, it hampers the franchise for a number of seasons, which is why they are not worth the risk for the Brewers.

#2) Give young players every chance to start, within reason.  As mentioned above, there are varying reports on whether Attansio signed Lohse without consulting Melvin.  Even if that is not true, Attanasio clearly did not believe in the starting pitchers that Melvin assembled going into 2013.  In 2014 the Brewers need to see if Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta or Tyler Thornburg can finally give the Brewers a legitimate starting pitcher out of their farm system for the first time since Yovanni Gallardo.  In terms of positional players, the Brewers are high on outfielder Khris Davis, second baseman Scooter Gennett, and shortstop Jean Segura.  Of all the players just discussed, after just one season, Segura looks like a superstar in the making.  The Brewers need to approach Segura soon about an extension because he is about to price himself out of any kind of Evan Longoria-eque six-year, $17.5 million contract that contained three expensive club options at the end of the six-year deal ($7.5 million in 2014 with $3 million buyout, $11 million in 2015, and 11.5 million in 2016).  If that's the case, the Brewers might as well go year-to-yea with Segura knowing he will leave a free agent following the 2018 season.

#3) Hoard all cheap contracts.  The Brewers have a couple of great contracts with right fielder Norichika Aoki signed to a two-year, $2.5 million contract with a club option for 2014 and catcher Jonathan Lucroy signed to five-year, $11 million through 2016 with a club option for 2017.  The Brewers picked up what turned out to be a little less than $2 million option (thanks to some performance bonuses) on Aoki for 2014.  That gives the Brewers a leadoff hitter and starting right fielder on the cheap.  Although the Brewers like Davis and Aoki is in his early 30's, they should approach Aoki about signing a two or three year contract extension that averages around $2 million a season since he will be a free agent after 2014.  In my previous general rule I said to give young players every chance to start so even if Davis is effective in the outfield in 2014, the Brewers could use Aoki as a 4th outfielder for the next couples seasons if they pay him $2 million or less a year.  Moving to Lucroy, the Brewers have him under control for a manageable number though at least 2016.  Even if injuries prevent Lucroy from catching through 2016, for how much they are paying him, they could move him to first base while having him serve as a backup catcher.

#4) Sign cheap, short-term deals to reload the bullpen. Almost every season Melvin remakes the bullpen with a combination of resurrecting careers of players that were left for dead like John Axford or signing somewhat cost-effective free agents like left-hander Tom Gorzelanny (two-years, $5.7 million).  Part of why Melvin has to remake the bullpen is that the lack of quality starting pitching taxes the bullpen so by the end of the season, the bullpen arms are maxed out.  I know it is fairly simplistic to say a bad starting rotation leads to a bad bullpen but it is true, which is why the Brewers need to see if they can actually build a starting rotation through their farm system to help them from burning out and rebuilding their bullpen on an annual basis.

#5) If you decide to ignore #1, at least sign players to front-end loaded deals. The Brewers signed third-baseman Aramis Ramirez to a three-year, $36 million contract.  As a part of that deal Ramirez earned $6 million in 2012, $10 million in 2013, and is scheduled to earn $16 million in 2014 with $6 million of his 2014 compensation deferred into the future.  Ramirez and the Brewers hold an expensive mutual option with a $4 million buyout for 2015.  Sadly, Ramirez doesn't have the worst contract on the books for next season since often injured second basemen Rickie Weeks is hopefully finishing the four-year, $38.5 million deal he signed in February of 2011.  Weeks earned $3.5 million in 2011, $10 million in 2012, $10 million in 2013, and is scheduled to earn $11 million in 2014.  There is an $11.5 million vesting option for 2015 with a $1 million buyout that the Brewers will make sure does not vest.  That means the Brewers will pay Ramirez and Weeks $5 million in 2015 to play elsewhere.  I understand the time value of money but that runs completely contrary to the value players as they age.  Although I still think baseball players will find a way to skirt MLB's testing and use performance enhancing drugs, long gone are the days of players in their mid-30's having "career" years.  The Brewers need to stop getting stuck on the back end of horrible contracts like they are right now with Ramirez and Weeks.  If those deals were front-end loaded, they could flip either of those guys to an American League team looking for a designated hitter in the midst of a playoff run for a pretty good minor league prospect.  Instead the Brewers are mostly stuck with both guys unless they eat almost the entire contract in a trade that nets them a low-level minor league prospect.

Make sure to check back as the off-season unfolds for my full thoughts on each move made by Attanasio and/or Melvin viewed through the prism of the five general rules provided above.

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