Who Should Take the Bullet for the Brewers Predicament?
As the losers of seven games in a row entering Tuesday, the Milwaukee Brewers seem to be circling the drain. Yes, it is still only the middle of May, but that sort of thinking won’t cut it with fans whose expectations of the club have become sky high in recent years. These days, fans have an entitled attitude about their teams, we demand “accountability” — what we really want is someone to take the weight for a disappointing start, a personification of the frustrations that can be offed to make us feel better, to feel like something is being done to make things better.
But, in truth, I don’t think there is really a bad guy here, someone in the organization who so completely and totally fucked up that he needs to be aced on the jumbotron in front of a full house of angry, blood-thirsty season ticket holders. No, the way I see it is more complex: There were a lot of small decisions, agreed on by all levels of the organization, that played out over the course of many years. These decisions framed a philosophical approach that put the Brewers where they are now.
Here’s how I think it might have played out. Our story has its roots in the fight for Miller Park. Those shenanigans put even more pressure on the club to produce a winner. So when the place opened and the team sucked, something needed to be done as quickly as possible to create hope, fill the place and make good on the promise that Miller Park would cause the team better. Dean Taylor turns to his boy Jack Zduriencik and a plan is hatched–probably in concert with Wendy Selig and her husband–to create a team that will be exciting enough to draw fans to their new park. The team can’t afford high priced free agent talent, so they need to draft young offensively-oriented players who can advance quickly through the system. Pitchers would be nice, too, but they are such a crap shoot and most of them advance slowly through the minors. Besides, more people are going to come to the park to see a team score seven runs (even if they lose) than they will to see a team score two (even if they win).
Sadly, Taylor makes some unfortunate major league decisions (e.g. signing Jeffrey Hammonds) and the team comes off the rails, losing 106 games. There is not enough buzz coming out of the minors at this point to create hope in the locals, so a demonstration must be made: Taylor is capped, Doug Melvin is hired, and he brings in a former Brewer to run the show on the field. Melvin understands the business model and the goal, and takes it to the next logical place, believing that if he can nurse things along until the young hitters blossom, he can fill in with mid-tier veteran pitchers who will suck up enough innings while keeping the team close enough to bludgeon their way to victory.
Things perk up enough that someone is willing to buy the club and that guy inherits a strategy that seems generally acceptable in that it will make his product exciting enough to market and draw fans and do so on a relatively short timeline. He is willing to overpay for mediocre veteran pitching if it is going to be “good enough” to allow the prized young hitters to compensate by out-scoring the opposition. Hence, MKE targets affordable, middle of the road pitchers, so guys like Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf become free agent targets.
So, when those pitchers don’t even live up to the modest expectations, and when the hitters don’t consistently mash like they thought, the plan doesn’t run as smoothly as the rapidly rotating turnstiles at Miller Park, another demonstration must be made. Everyone is complicit, but shit runs downhill…and you can’t fire the players (as the key culprits have expensive, long-term deals)–so Ken Macha is the boy who draws the short straw.
The problem, as I see it, is a management philosophy geared toward a quick fix to appease a fanbase grown bitter and cynical from years of losing, a fanbase that believed the hype that Miller Park would equate to winning baseball, and somehow believed that would happen overnight. I can’t fault the fans for wanting a winner, and I can’t fault management for trying to find the quickest way to get them one. Should Melvin be fired because his execution of the strategy was flawed? Only if one believes that he behaved illogically and bypassed better moves that would have been clear to just about any other GM. Now, certainly there are other baseball executives that would have made different moves given the same circumstances, but would those moves have surely resulted in better outcomes? I think that is open to wide speculation…and there is the rub.
While it would be easy to lay the present circumstances off on one person, the fact is that there were many players in the drama that has brought the Brewers to where they are now. While there might be a White Knight who would have made all the right decisions while executing the combined strategy, chances are most GMs would have had a bag as mixed as Melvin’s–different decisions probably, but uneven results leading us to pretty much the same place we are now.
So before anyone is made to swing for where the Brewers find themselves at the moment, I think the broader picture needs to be examined.