Time to look at Doug Melvin

Posted by Steve

Things unofficially hit rock bottom when Ryan Braun ran directly into an out after stealing a base. I must admit, my immediate reaction was hysterical laughter. The Brewers may lose, but at least they lose with creativity.

I did think expectations were too high for  this year’s team, but I didn’t think they’d be terrible. In fact, there’s no way they’re as bad as their record indicates–but does that even matter? If you’re not good, there’s no real benefit to being decent instead of bad (outside of attendance I suppose).

People are already calling for Ken Macha’s head. I thought Dan put it perfectly when he said, “Fire Ken Macha. Or don’t. It won’t really matter.” Macha isn’t the problem with this team (not that he’s part of any solution). The problem is with the team itself that Macha was given. The person ultimately responsible for that is Doug Melvin.

It feels so weird for me to be saying that. For years I’ve loved what Doug Melvin has done. He did an outstanding job taking a team that was god awful and making them relevant for the first time in over a decade. Spearheaded by Melvin and Jack Z, the Brewers drafted a wealth of talent: Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Braun. I remember following Weeks and Fielder as they dominated the minor leagues, all the while buying into the hype that the Brewers’ number one farm system could bring a winner to Milwaukee.

Sadly, the team has not lived up to that hype. Sure they had the great 2009 season, but every other recent season has been disappointing. I considered the team good enough to compete since 2006. Since 2006, the Brewers record is 343-344. A .500 record? Is that really all they could get from all that homegrown talent?

Almost all of Melvin’s best moves as Brewers GM came in the first half of his tenure here. The Richie Sexson trade filled a lot of holes (and Sexson was crap after leaving). His biggest strength were waiver claims. He found useful claims such as Dan Kolb, Scott Podsednik, Derrick Turnbow, Matt Wise, and Brady Clark. Those types of move are very helpful in shortening the time a bad team needs to get things turned around. He also turned Podsednik into Carlos Lee, who anchored the lineup for a season and a half, traded Lyle Overbay for two useful players, and signed Ben Sheets to a good contract extension.

In the last three seasons, really his only great moves were the CC Sabathia trade, the Ryan Braun extension, the Mike Cameron signing, and the Casey McGehee pickup. The Sabathia move looks great now–Matt LaPorta hasn’t done a thing in the majors and he’s 25, and Michael Brantley hasn’t either, although he’s only 23. The only complaint you can make (which I did at the time) is maybe he should have gotten a longer term pitching solution, but the Brewers wouldn’t have made the playoffs without CC, so that’s nitpicking. The Braun extension gets more and more amazing. Braun is a superstar and will be a huge bargain for the duration of his contract.

Those are good moves, but there aren’t enough of them the last three years. The list of bad moves is much longer. Trading Doug Davis for Johnny Estrada and Greg Aquino was a failure. He stuck with Ned Yost two years too long. The Jeff Suppan contract was a huge burden. The Bill Hall contract was bad. Eric Gagne didn’t work at all (for the record, I was happy with the Hall and Gagne signings at the time–GMs don’t have the benefit of hindsight). Trevor Hoffman was good last year, but is clearly done now. Trading J.J. Hardy for an offensive black hole in Carlos Gomez just to make room for another offensive black hole in Alcides Escobar looks pretty terrible also. There was no need for Escobar to be rushed to the big leagues.

Melvin’s main downfall, however, has been his inability to assemble a competitive pitching staff to compliment the Brewers’ dynamic offense. It all stems back to the organization’s failure in developing impact pitchers in their system. Yovani Gallardo is the only impact homegrown pitcher in the last five years. If you aren’t getting it from your minor league system, you need to find it elsewhere. The Brewers have not been able to do that.

Melvin has largely used a band-aid approach the last few years. The 2008 pitching staff, anchored by Sabathia and Sheets, was outstanding. Replacing those two was an extremely challenging task, and he didn’t come close to succeeding. His answer for replacing Sheets and CC was a returning Gallardo along with the signing of Braden Looper. As you recall, Braden Looper was terrible (and is still out of a job). The Brewers wasted a good offense and an MVP caliber season from Prince Fielder because their starting pitching was horrendous.

Melvin used the same band-aid approach this season. With how awful last year’s staff was, he needed to get more creative than signing two starters who are both past their prime. Again, it was a very challenging task, but that doesn’t change the fact that he once again failed to assemble a good pitching staff.

Like I said, I’m not too devastated by the current woes. I didn’t expect them to be good. What does hurt, though, is that their window of opportunity we heard about for years is closing, and hardly anything came of it. A .500 record the last 4+ years is simply not good enough, particularly when you consider the Brewers have really only had one successful season in that time.

For the Packer fans out there, this feels a lot like the decline of their late 90s teams after only winning one Super Bowl. Many felt that team should have been a dynasty. GM Ron Wolf has said he regrets not putting more talent around Brett Favre when he was in his prime, and similarly, Doug Melvin has failed to put more talent around Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun–the best offensive duo in baseball. The biggest difference, of course, is the Brewers didn’t come close to achieving what the “underachieving” Packers did.

In all, I consider Doug Melvin’s run as Brewers GM a success. He took a perennial cellar-dweller and brought them to respectability. But–and this is a big but–you can’t convince me the last few years overall haven’t been a disappointment. Sure, the Brewers did a great job getting all that young talent in their farm system, but a .500 record for the duration of that group’s time here has to be considered a failure.

It’s to the point now that I wonder whether Melvin will ever assemble a good starting rotation again–either due to inability, or to being fired before getting another chance. His last shot looks to be the Prince Fielder trade that will likely occur before this year’s deadline, but does he even deserve the shot to make that trade? Isn’t he a big reason that the Brewers are in the position of having to trade Fielder? Mark Attanasio has shown he’s not afraid to make bold changes–and firing Melvin would certainly be less bold than firing a manager with a few weeks left in a season. If he does get the chance to make the Fielder trade, which I imagine he will, it will likely be the most important move of his career. If he doesn’t hit on this and bring back impact pitching in some way, he’ll be on his way out.

It was a good run, but I’m sure Melvin would admit he had higher hopes five years ago than what we ended up with.

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