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May 29, 2012 at 9:30 AM

The current state of Milwaukee Brewers-style rebuilding

Over the past seven weeks, I’ve listened to and read quite a few people chortling over the state of some of the higher payroll teams in the game. Now, I haven’t taken a scientific survery or anything, but the motivation behind some of these folks pointing out that the Angels, Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees have all struggled seems to be their view that you don’t necessarily need to spend big money in order to compete.
The Tampa Bay Rays are continuously held up as the model franchise for this view, most often espoused by people who grew tired of seeing the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and other big spenders go to the playoffs the past decade.
One thing I’d caution, however. Before getting too gleeful, it’s worth noting that all of the teams just mentioned are still well within playoff striking distance this morning — including an Angels team that stepped back from the brink against Seattle and swept a four-game series over the weekend. The Angels had a choice about what direction they were going to take this season and made a statement by winning all the games they had to against a Mariners club they really should beat most times out.
Still, I’m sure there will be one or two high payroll clubs that disappoint. Just as there will be others previously held up as models for the lesser-money set that do not quite live up to their billing.
The one that concerns me the most is Prince Fielder’s former club, the Milwaukee Brewers. After all, when folks talk Mariners baseball, it’s the Brewers you hear most often mentioned as the model Seattle should be looking at.
Tough not to, when you consider how Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik helped build the Brewers from the ground up as a scouting director. Zduriencik has often mentioned some of his Brewers picks — like Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks — in discussing how he’s trying to construct a lasting contender in Seattle with homegrown talent.
The problem, as I see it, is with that whole “lasting contender” thing. Because the Brewers so far have been anything but.
Photo Credit: AP

We’ve mentioned this previously, but the modern-day Brewers, prior to last year, had one wild-card playoff berth to their credit in 2008. And that came after they essentially “rented” C.C. Sabathia for a little over a half-season and rode his arm into the post-season, where they made a quick exit in four games.
Then came last year, when the Brewers finally won a division title, advanced past the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks in the maximum five games, then were beaten out in the NLCS by St. Louis.
OK, that’s two playoff appearances.
So, where are the Brewers now?
Well, um, they are…ahead of the Chicago Cubs.
That’s about it. Right now, they are a 20-28 team sitting seven games out in the AL Central. They have a losing record at home as well as on the road.
Would they be better had they kept Fielder and taken payroll over $100 million? One would think so. As is, they had to increase payroll to just over $98 million on Opening Day just to keep up with the salaries of the guys they still had in their midst. So much for the “small market” payroll that could.
But the bottom line — removing Fielder from the equation for now — is that this does not look like the perpetual, or perennial , contender it was purported to be. This looks like a one-and-done deal.
Now, I could be wrong, mind you. Just as there is plenty of time left for the Tigers and Angels to right themselves and get to the post-season, the Brew Crew has time to turn their season around.
But if I was a Mariners fan, I’d be more worried about what the Brewers are doing right now than trying to prove that what the Angels have done won’t work. Because in the end, it’s the Brewers who are a lot closer to being the model for what the Mariners are attempting to accomplish.
Fielder made his debut in 2005, Hart in 2004 and Braun in 2006. Over that stretch, the Brewers have one division title and one wild-card berth to their credit. Outside of that, a whole lot of mediocre ball and some flirtation with .500.
As of right now, their playoff odds are at 6.8 percent. The Mariners’ playoff odds this morning are at 7.9 percent. Feel good about Milwaukee’s chances?
In other words, the idea that guys like Fielder, Braun and Hart — a solid, homegrown core — would lead Milwaukee to perennial contention does not appear to be holding up. As of this morning, it has been exposed as a myth.
That’s why I’ve never thought it a good idea to write off entire seasons in the name of rebuilding towards perenial contention. I’ve seen that happen too often in Seattle in recent years, starting in 2007, continuing in 2009 and again last year. In each case, the Mariners were in contention as July began. And in each case, I heard reluctance about taking a shot at acquiring players who might help push Seattle forward in the short-term. Everything kept being about holding off, holding off and building for the long-term.
In each case, the Mariners crashed and burned. In 2007, the M’s led the wild-card race right up into September and still, folks were reluctant to sacrifice pieces like Jeff Clement or Wladimir Balentien for much-needed bullpen help. One of the veteran bullpen arms the Mariners sought that year, Octavio Dotel, is still pitching in the majors. To this day, 2007 remains the closest this franchise has been to the playoffs in 10 seasons since 2003.
This isn’t even about whether one particular trade would have worked or not. It’s about the entire idea of continuing to sacrifice the present for some undefined future. About the very nature of rebuilding and whether it’s OK to write off four, five and six seasons at a time for that one shot at contending.
Of course, it’s never sold to fans as a one-shot deal. That would be suicide and no fan would go for it. Instead, the idea is sold as one in which a team builds towards perpetual, or perennial contention year after year.
Over the past decade, the only perenial contenders have been the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels — teams that are a factor year-in and year-out even when they don’t make the playoffs.
The Rays are hoping to become that this next decade. The Cleveland Indians tried it. Didn’t quite work out.
The Brewers were hoping to get there as well. So far, this year, it looks like that goal has ended.
The Mariners? Might be time to get a new role model.
Or, to stop completely writing off entire seasons in the name of rebuilding. Sign a veteran bat or two for some half-decent money each winter to at least offer a safety net to younger players and keep the team quasi-competitive. With the second wild card out there now, there really is no excuse for teams to not want to at least shoot for a .500 season and hope for a break or two along the way.
Unless, of course, the whole rebuilding thing is about more than the on-field stuff. Unless it’s about off-field rebuilding and rehabilitating a team’s coffers for several years at a time. If that’s the case, this on-field stuff doesn’t really apply.
Where do the Mariners fit? That’s up to them to decide. Right now, they’re sacrificing entire seasons in the name of rebuilding towards perennial contention. And as their main role model, the Brewers, are now showing, it’s an end goal that may not be realistic.



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