"In Billy We Trust." Over at Athletics Nation, this is the defining phrase of the site. Across the Internet, Billy Beane is lauded for his talents as a General Manager -- with admirers pointing to the team's performance over the last several years within the constraints of a tight budget.
For one reason or another, I've never been a diehard fan of Beane's. Maybe the constant praise is to blame or maybe the glorification that was Moneyball. I respect the great work he does annually, but often his praise clouds good work throughout the rest of MLB.
One of those people -- ever so quietly -- and my choice for the Majors' most underrated GM is Doug Melvin. While Milwaukee has been less than impressive since Melvin took the reigns in October of 2002, I find that to be more telling of the train wreck he inherited than anything else. While Director of Scouting Jake Zduriencik stockpiles talent beneath the surface, Melvin has proven to be both cunning and innovative.
With the Selig family giving way to Mark Attanasio atop the organization, hope has sprung that the payroll will rise in coming years. If you combine an increased budget with Zduriencik's top-heavy farm system and Melvin's ability to acquire free talent, it is easy to see that the future looks bright in Milwaukee.
First and foremost atop that list is Melvin, who has had an impressive start in his second GM stint. A look into his two seasons of work provides much of his thinking on how to run an organization:
1. Scour the waiver wire, minor league free agency, and other organizations for cheap, undervalued talent.
2. As age old as capitalism: Buy low, sell high.
3. Use contenders' needs/desires as leverage while trading veterans.
4. Stockpile youth.
5. Hire good teachers for organization.
When rebuilding a franchise, I think it's safe to say those are some good principles to have. With limited pocketbooks comes smaller room for error and Melvin has not proven to be a risktaker. Not yet has he signed a free agent to a deal that pays anything more than $2.35M a year, and only once has he inked a multi-year contract with a free agent. There will be time for that, but seeing limited upside, Melvin knew that time was not 2003-2005.
Instead, Melvin spent time looking at all inexpensive options, looking to find those diamonds in the rough. He has succeeded in doing so, as I account 64 Win Shares in 2003 and 78 in 2004 to the Milwaukee front office's watchful eye. Twenty-two players played in two seasons in Milwaukee after being acquired via the waiver wire, minor league free agency, Rule 5 draft or through trade for cash/meaningless minor leaguers. Extraordinary.
In his first offseason, some of Melvin's first moves were landing who would later be his 2004 and now 2005 starting centerfielders. In his first official transaction, Melvin claimed 27-year-old Scott Podsednik off waivers from the Mariners. Once with Melvin in Texas, a recurring theme here, Poddy would go on to compile 37 Win Shares in two years. Replacing him will be Brady Clark, claimed off waivers from the Mets (1/03) when Melvin saw a player with versatility and discipline. After seven and thirteen Win Share seasons, Clark will open the 2005 season atop the Brew Crew lineup.
During that same winter, Melvin signed two pitchers who would later become his first and last man in the bullpen. Another ex-Ranger, Dan Kolb, was signed and would be influential as a reliever in his two seasons. Brooks Kieschnick was given the opportunity by Milwaukee to play both ways, becoming the most unique 25th man in the Majors. Baseball Prospectus 2005 amusingly points out that in 2003 Brooks excelled in his PH role, while in 2004 his strength was his arm. A great way to spend a few hundred thousand, that's for sure.
Melvin's first trade came a week after the Kieschnik signing, as he attempted to shore up two roster spots with two low-A pitchers. Seeing depth in Minnesota's catching and pitching, Melvin deemed Matt Kinney and Javier Valentin undervalued commodities. Of course, later that spring Melvin needed more outfield depth, and subsequently traded Valentin to Tampa for Jason Conti. Sure, neither turned out particularly well, but six Win Shares is better than Matt Yeatman and Gerry Oakes have amassed.
Not all of his discount signing, however, came that winter. Since then, he acquired (to name a few) two starters and two key relievers. Doug Davis was released by the Blue Jays in July of 2003, allowing Melvin to sign the southpaw as a minor league free agent. Yet another player from his regime in Texas, Davis has turned it around this season, as Baseball Prospectus tabbed him as one of the Majors 20 best pitchers last year. While Victor Santos, Dave Burba, and Jeff Bennett (Rule 5) have not contributed to Davis' level, their contributions were well worth their price.
When success happens to these players, gradually their price -- or the perception of it -- rises. And then, you sell. This has been a philosophy that has most recently been used on Melvin's cell phone, and the type that has benefitted the Brewers the most for the future.
Dean Taylor's stay in Milwaukee isn't one to brag about. Like Chuck LaMar, longevity was about the nicest thing you can reflect on. His best move, in my opinion, was the acquisition of Richie Sexson at the trade deadline in 2000. It didn't take long for Sexson to become a hero in Milwaukee, his power and personality made him an immediate fan favorite. But his salary made him a burden and caused Melvin to trade him last winter. With home run numbers galore you can imagine that there were suitors, but would anyone guess he acquired six players in return?
While there was no way to know this before the trade, Melvin was "helped" by the fact that Richie Sexson went down with injury. Lyle Overbay hit 53 doubles as Sexson's replacement, and his emergence allowed the team the good fortune of not rushing Prince Fielder. Junior Spivey's presence would allow for another trade, Craig Counsell was the "veteran leader," Chad Moeller the fill-in catcher, and there is hope for Chris Capuano and Jorge De La Rosa. Nothing fantastic, but this group totaled forty Win Shares last year, and Sexson has already left Arizona. Two thumbs up.
Another Taylor move -- months before his exit -- was a deadline veteran dump of Mark Loretta to the Astros. We can look at this now and find another thing to make fun of Taylor for, but one of the acquisitions was Keith Ginter, a good player. I've sung Ginter's praises for awhile, and even though I still think he is a better player than Spivey, Junior has definitely allowed for his exit. Melvin, seeing Beane drooling at Ginter, acquired Justin Lehr and Nelson Cruz for him. Early reports say the trade will be good for the Brew Crew, who may have found something to be proud of in Cruz.
Finally, with respect to the true "buy low, sell high" moves, Podsednik's waiver claim now looks a lot better after this winter. Knowing the Sox wanted to trade power for speed, Melvin used the most efficient basestealer as bait and landed a big fish. Carlos Lee. Milwaukee once again has another big right-handed bat to complement Geoff Jenkins, and put a little more punch to the middle of the lineup. Don't you mind that Luis Vizcaino, this was one of Melvin's best moves to date.
Another good move was selling Kolb high. While his revival these past two seasons has been fantastic, the strikeout rate is beyond concerning. So, with John Smoltz moving to the rotation, the Brewers were able to get value for Kolb. Good value. Top fifty prospect value. I've already labeled Jose Capellan my most talked about player, and I'll say if he doesn't succeed as a power starter (remember, think Bartolo Colon) he'll succeed Kolb in short time. Great, great acquisition.
But, I would be remiss in talking about Melvin's skillset without mentioning his weakness. Deadline deals. Dumping veterans. For some reason or another, those two have not mixed well, and the returns have not panned out. While trading veterans is not an easy thing, especially fringe players, you hope that every once in awhile something you get back will help out.
Nine veterans: Paul Bako, Ray King, Alex Sanchez, Curt Leskanic, Eric Young, Mike Dejean, Dave Burba, Ben Grieve, Manny Alexander. Not a fantastic group by any means, but certainly something worthy of more Major League return than Wes Helms (16 WS as Brewer), Wes Obermueller (9), John Foster (1), and some cash. I would hardly say this trait is essential in a General Manager -- I mean when they get good he won't need it -- but it certainly helps when rebuilding.
What has helped is good teaching, something Melvin seems very intent on giving his Major League players. Ned Yost has been a good manager, an ex-catcher and then third base coach for the Braves, I've always been impressed while watching him. Butch Wynegar has some solid reclimation projects as hitting coach, maybe dampening the blow of never fulfilling his promise as a catcher. And in my mind, Mike Maddux is one of the game's three best pitching coaches. The help he has given players (especially Kolb, Davis and Ben Sheets) has aided in making Melvin look good.
The newest addition to this coaching staff, if you will, is Damian Miller. This was Melvin's first major free agent splash, and it's hard to call it that when the total sum doesn't reach ten million. But still, Miller has had an excellent history of catching good pitchers, and that should only help this young staff. His offense will always be serviceable, but the combination of low cost, good defense, and hometown hero more than justifies this deal.
Overall, Doug Melvin is a very good General Manager. His stint in Texas was very good, and while it's going to take a bit to get things going in Milwaukee, time will tell that he should stay in his position a long time.
The final question I want to answer today is the following: How long will this winningless drought last? When will Milwaukee get some playoff games? My answer: not long.
This year should be a bit of a struggle for the Brew, the last season of finding cheap options and, most importantly, further developing their youth. J.J. Hardy will get a ton of at-bats up the middle, as will Dave Krynzel. Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder will call their own shots, but I would guess both will be more than ready in 2006. Jose Capellan is very similar and should have 10-15 Major League starts under his belt at this time next year. Those are the big five, the group that should determine whether this rebound happens.
And what they do, I think, is give Melvin a very defined route to take in the next twelve months. Fielder, Weeks and Krynzel will allow for Overbay, Spivey and Clark to become expendable. Along with Hardy, they give the club four starters for under $2M. Throw in the Branyan/Helms combo coming in cheap at the hot corner, and 62.5% of the lineup will be about $5M.
Geoff Jenkins is signed to an extension already, one that will pay him $7.5M in 2006, and then $7M in 2007. Damian Miller will be making $2.35M and $2.25M in those respective seasons. That's just fifteen million dollars, leaving one outfield spot open. Think they have room to lock up Carlos Lee? I think so. Carlos would have a hard time turning down a midseason extension, a move Melvin has proved willing to make in the past.
Melvin also needs to sign Ben Sheets to an extension. A four-year deal for about $50M would in line with the recent signings of Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Kerry Wood. Sheets is fast becoming one of the game's best, and the club would be seriously mistaken to not tie him up. And with Doug Davis, Chris Capuano, Jose Capellan and Ben Hendrickson filling the rotation for about $3M, the club can afford to pay up for its ace.
All of the above is before the haul that Melvin is likely to get for Overbay, Spivey and Clark. He will have about $10M on the open market to spend judiciously. Really, the only thing stopping this team now is one of the big five failing, which I don't see happening. The combination of these youngsters and a solid core of Sheets, Jenkins, and Lee could be enough to win one or more division titles in the not too distant future.
Then, Melvin will finally get his due.