Milwaukee Brewers remain quiet on free-agent front
Contrary to the belief of some members of Brewer Nation, Doug Melvin has not spent his days this winter working on crossword puzzles or wading through the complete video library of “Breaking Bad.”
Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers general manager has been inactive on the personnel front, but he quickly notes that was the internal expectation from the outset.
“I said this was probably going to be one of our quietest offseasons,” Melvin said.
Accordingly, the Hot Stove League evolved into the Cold Plate Special for Melvin and his staff. The Brewers did trade outfielder Norichika Aoki to Kansas City for left-hander Will Smith in early December, but that move was coaxed primarily by Aoki's agent to assure more playing time.
Since that swap, it has been mostly the sound of crickets at Miller Park, much to the frustration of fans who hoped to see moves to improve a club that finished 74-88 in 2013, 23 games behind first-place St. Louis in the National League Central. But the Brewers' brain trust views last season through a different prism, in large part because of impressive debuts of young players pressed into duty by injuries.
“We've sort of been on the sidelines watching these other teams signing free agents, but it's more the result of what we did in August and September,” Melvin said. “That's what our offseason has been about.
“Scooter (Gennett) came up and played, and Khris Davis came up and played. (Caleb) Gindl and some of those guys came up. Tyler Thornburg came up and pitched well. I took a step back and said that's what we needed to find out about those guys. Then we made the decision on are we OK with them as opposed to going on the free-agent market?
“I keep saying that we can't just base the season on a few good months, but they did show enough to at least have some level of confidence in them. We had the fourth-best pitching in the major leagues over the last four months.”
Melvin expects considerable improvement merely with the return of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez to health and everyday status. Braun played in only 61 games in 2013 because of an ailing thumb and a season-ending, 65-game suspension for his PED involvement in the Biogenesis investigation. Ramirez was limited to 92 games by ongoing knee issues, and his effectiveness was compromised when he did play.
With Braun and Ramirez missing much of the season and since-departed first baseman Corey Hart out completely after undergoing two knee surgeries, the Brewers' offense went from scoring a league-high 776 runs in 2012 to 640 last season.
“We're banking on the return of Braun and Ramirez for 500-plus at-bats each,” Melvin said. “That makes a big difference. Last year, they had just over 500 at-bats combined. Getting 500 more at-bats is like acquiring a major player.”
Melvin has had no luck replacing Hart's potential at-bats. Concerned about Hart's health risks after two major knee procedures, the Brewers made a modest free-agent offer and he accepted a much larger deal with Seattle.
Melvin said he took a run at free agent James Loney, who instead signed a three-year, $21 million contract to return to Tampa Bay.
“We knew if he had the same deal he was probably going to go back to Tampa,” Melvin said. “Justin Morneau had already signed with Colorado. Other than that, the list wasn't very good. It's one of those years where the position we needed, there were fewer opportunities to get someone.”
Despite the pleas of some fans, Melvin isn't interested in free agent Kendrys Morales, who is seeking a mega-deal, would cost a first-round draft pick and has played a total of only 59 games at first base the past two years. Melvin had ongoing discussions with the New York Mets about available Ike Davis but considered the asking price (initially Thornburg) too high.
At this point, that leaves internal options such as strikeout-prone, defensively challenged Juan Francisco and prospect Hunter Morris, whose 2013 season at Class AAA Nashville was considered so uninspiring by Melvin and Co. that he didn't even get a September call-up.
“We did get 21 homers and knocked in 86 runs from that position (in 2013),” said Melvin, well aware that the .629 OPS of his first basemen was historically low. “But the defense has to improve and you'd like to see a better on-base percentage (than .259).
“We've gone through the list. There just aren't available guys. Texas, at this point, is not willing to talk about (Mitch) Moreland. Seattle is not interested in moving their guys. So there aren't a lot of choices.
“The Packers went 20 years between Bart Starr and finding Brett Favre. Hopefully, we don't go 20 years trying to find a replacement for Prince Fielder (who left after the 2011 season as a free agent). It might be a situation where we mix and match, or trial and error.”
Though the starting pitching blew up the Brewers' 2013 season in the early stages, Melvin appears comfortable with what he has on hand after seeing marked improvement in the second half. At this stage, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta are entrenched as the top three, Marco Estrada has a foot in the door at No. 4 and Thornburg will get a chance in the spring to show he can handle the fifth spot.
“I like our pitching,” Melvin said. “You're always looking to get better, but we're not going to get involved with (Japanese free agent Masahiro) Tanaka or any of these free agents at this point.
“We had two awful months with our pitching in April and May. After that, our pitching was pretty good. Three of the last four months, our pitching was better than the Cardinals. I use that as an evaluation point. You always need to get better, but you look at all of that stuff.
“We had the development of Peralta, which was a huge step for us. I'm hoping that the development of Thornburg will take place as well. He's deserving of having that opportunity. We have to do that with our younger players and be patient. Sometimes it's tough to be patient.”
Melvin would like to pick up a veteran or two for his bullpen before spring camp starts in mid-February. Asked if his lack of spending signifies a budget crunch from ownership, Melvin noted there are restrictions when nearly $68 million already was obligated to only eight players for 2014.
“We haven't increased it that much, but if the right player was there I would go to (team owner) Mark (Attanasio) and say it's the right player,” Melvin said.
“When it comes to payroll, we're always guarded to make sure that we don't put ourselves in a hole or a bind that we can't get out of two years from now or three years from now. Our payroll will be in a much better position next year in that regard.”
Asked if he sensed frustration from Brewers fans over the quiet winter, Melvin said, “Not a whole lot. Maybe once in a while you get it. If they know the situation, we weren't going to sign Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo. We're not going to give $60 million to starting pitchers. Some of those starting pitchers are still out there and they cost a draft pick.
“Teams that make the most moves don't always win. You try to create a foundation that sustains success without having a complete rebuild. We have lost players, no doubt. We are turning the page a little bit to give the next group of younger players opportunities.”
As for those tempted to send 1,000-piece puzzles to Melvin's office to keep him busy, Melvin made it clear he's not sitting at his desk twiddling his thumbs.
“We go over our roster all the time,” he said. “We're in the 'war room' every day at the ballpark. We review every player and who's out there—free agents or any trade possibilities that could help the club. We have meetings with our scouting and player development staffs. You look at the whole picture.
“We still have the first-base situation, but I don't know where else we could have added a player. We like what we have at the other positions.”