Brewers owner: 'We have a lot of talent this year'
PHOENIX—Mark Attanasio is not fielding the highest payroll in club history merely to say he did it.
The Milwaukee Brewers principal owner made it clear Saturday that his group boosted payroll this year with the expectation of winning in 2014.
“We have a lot of talent this year,” said Attanasio, who made his annual address to the players before the first full-squad workout at Maryvale Baseball Park. “One of the things I talked to the players about—a bunch of the guys know me and a bunch don't—was that my career was in investing and we got to own a baseball team by not making too many bad investment decisions.
“This year, we decided to invest in the team because we decided we had talent. We'll have the highest payroll in team history.”
The Brewers' previous high opening-day payroll was $101.2 million in 2012, the year after they won their only National League Central Division crown. Last year, they dropped the payroll to $84.3 million after several high-priced players came off the payroll.
Whether the Brewers top the 2012 total in actual player salaries remains to be seen. The recent signings of free agents Matt Garza and Francisco Rodriguez put them at about $86 million for 12 players, leaving 13 to fill out the 25-man roster. If both Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay make the roster at first base, that would be another $3.5 million in guaranteed salary.
The Brewers calculate their projected payroll with more than just player salaries, however. They figure in a certain figure for minor-league call-ups as well as pro-rated signing bonuses and incentives they feel are easily attainable. Including those figures, they certainly would exceed $101 million.
Rather than setting a budget and then signing players to reach that level, Attanasio takes each year on a case-by-case basis. If he feels he has a competitive team that is a piece or two short of going for it, he'll make an aggressive move, as he did this year with the late-winter signing of Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal.
“We do try not to set a budget,” said Attanasio. “There's nothing quite like the business of baseball. At first in the business of baseball was setting a budget. Then I realized it wasn't susceptible to it because it led to bad investment decisions. We made some pitching decisions, for example one year, and we just had a lot of average players. I'd rather spend more dollars on fewer players.
“This year, we looked at where we finished up the year (in 2013) and where we needed to get. We had a lot of really good observable metrics on our pitching. Not just the second-half finish. We had more pitchers throw over 94 mph, one of the top five teams in baseball. So the idea was to add to strength, and when Matt Garza was available, he's a difference maker. That was something we decided we'd, quote, break the budget for.
“We're at the point now where we're well into the top half of payrolls in the major leagues. We have more pitching depth than we've had, really, in 10 years. As I've explained to everybody, as investors you wouldn't make that decision to lose. The ownership group felt like this was the year to invest (more) in the team. I think we're going to surprise people this year.”
Asked if that put pressure to generate enough revenue to support a nine-figure payroll, Attanasio said, “This is a good kind of pressure. Our fans have always risen to the occasion, all the way back to the first year. I remember when (you) were asking us if we were going to get to a $30 million payroll. The first thing we did was sign Carlos Lee and then the fans came out.
“The idea has always been with our team and our fans is if we put the resources behind the team, Milwaukee fans have always supported the team. I completely expect they will this year, too.”
Attanasio is well aware that in a division that fielded three 90-game winners in 2013, the Brewers aren't getting much preseason love from the prognosticators after a 74-88 campaign. He said the team is fully embracing that underdog role.
“That's what makes for a race, right?” he said. “It's a better position to be in that we're kind of underdogs. That doesn't bother me at all. Our overall perception is that other teams in the division got weaker and we got stronger. We'll see if that's true. But we clearly got stronger.
“We have young players who performed last year, Doug (Melvin) mentioned in the clubhouse that according to the rating service FanGraphs, our young players gave the most value to their team than any other team in baseball, even more than the Cardinals.
“MLB Network did their own Top 10 at every position and we have five players that are Top 10—Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Jean Segura. Only three teams in baseball had five in the Top 10 and we're one. You don't hear about this anywhere. So be it. I think the fans in Milwaukee will understand we have a good team and support the team.”
Attanasio was asked about the investment he has in Braun, who was tainted by PED use last year with a 65-game suspension. Braun has seven years and some $127 million remaining on his contract, but Attanasio took exception with a “face of the franchise” designation for the troubled star.
“Face of the franchise is something that has become a moniker in our sport,” said Attanasio. “If you look back at our media covers, I don't know if we've ever had a media cover with just Ryan on it. Maybe the year he got the MVP we would have done that. Last year, without knowing what was going to happen, we had four or five guys on the cover. We've always looked at it as a team sport.
“When we decided to do the contract with Ryan it wasn't something about being face of the franchise. It was about being a very high-caliber player. Ryan does take his responsibilities seriously, both to the team and the community. I think he has taken steps to win back everybody's support and he knows he's got to continue to take those steps.
“Just like the baseball season is a marathon, his winning back the trust and support of the community is something that's going to take some time. I think he's up to the task.”