Yesterday, Milwaukee General Manager Doug Melvin resigned, opting to take an advisory position in the Brewers organization. The club announced that, rather than promote from within as other teams have done recently, they would go after young executives well versed in analytics. It's almost certainly the right move to make for a franchise that has serious financial restrictions and who needs to gain a competitive advantage.
That isn't to criticize Melvin, who served as the general manager from 2002 until yesterday, and who previously ran the Texas Rangers for seven seasons in that franchise's first successful stretch. In fact, Melvin's continued presence and input in the Milwaukee front office is going to be a good thing.
Melvin clearly had a handle on drafting and scouting. His picks included Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, Michael Brantley, Jonathan Lucroy, Brett Lawrie, Jake Odorizzi, Khris Davis, Taylor Jungmann, and Jimmy Nelson. He got a quality Major League player in almost every draft.
Even though he didn't make many of them, he rarely got beat in trades. Indeed, while Melvin gave up four quality major league players to get Zack Greinke prior to 2011, the Brewers rode him to their second-greatest season in franchise history, winning 96 games and reaching the NLCS. In 2008, he went out and got CC Sabathia from the Indians well before the trade deadline. And while he had to part with Michael Brantley in the deal, Sabahia went 11-2 in 17 starts for the Brewers with a 1.65 ERA. He led the National League with seven complete games and three shutouts and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. He absolutely made the difference in helping the Brewers to 90 wins and a one-game advantage over the Mets for the wild card that year, putting Milwaukee in the postseason for the first time in 26 years.
But Melvin's problem was what had always been Milwaukee's problem: money. Or rather, the lack of it. Milwaukee ranks dead last in Major League Baseball host-cities in population by almost 200,000 people. Its metropolitan area is almost a half million smaller than Kansas City. While the Brewers boast a robust attendance, especially given the realities of that market and their performance over the years, their payroll ranks 22nd among MLB teams, more than $25 million below the median. And that's actually pretty reasonable considering where they probably are revenue-wise.
At the direction of owner Mark Attanasio, Melvin tried to put off a full rebuild. He patched holes with free agents, and for a while was relatively successful at it. Aramis Ramirez gave the Brewers a monster year before age caught up to him. Kyle Lohse was solid for two years before the wheels came off. Matt Garza too was effective last year, but injury-plagued in 2015. Francisco Rodriguez has been fantastic, and has revitalized his career in Milwaukee. But it's not enough when the rest of the supporting cast is not up to the challenge or is eroding away because the Brewers can't afford them.
It's hard to build a consistent winner, and to subvert the traditional success cycle with a payroll of that size. It takes some creativity on the order of the Tampa Bay Rays, who managed to stay competitive for six years before having to really retool in earnest. That's the model that the Brewers need to follow.
Not that they need to become the Rays, necessarily, but they need to become smarter. They need not to just be plugging holes (and Doug Melvin was a master hole-plugger), but constructing a brand new hull. And to do that, they need someone new who can help them start to think differently.
It's not Melvin's fault that he's not that person, of course, and I'm glad he's not being made the fall guy for the Brewers' decline. He's not the man to lead going forward, but the Brewers will be better for keeping him around once they find the person who is.