An era of success began in the middle of epic failure.
The bad baseball played by the Milwaukee Brewers from the late 1990s through the mid 2000s was the cornerstone upon which the team re-built a winner. By finishing near the bottom of the standings year after year, the Brewers were awarded multiple appearances near the top of the First-Year Player Draft. That is when the franchise stockpiled the promising young talent which would lead to success not achieved in a generation.
During that era, no team advanced top prospects from their farm system to the major leagues like the Brewers:
Ben Sheets, drafted in the 1st round in 1999, led the Brewers pitching staff for eight years from 2001-2008.
Corey Hart, drafted in the 11th round in 2000, had one plate appearance in Milwaukee in 2004 and was playing full-time by 2007.
J.J. Hardy, drafted in the 2nd round in 2001, arrived in big leagues in 2005 and played for the Crew for five years.
Prince Fielder, drafted in the 1st round in 2002, played in a handful of games for the Brewers in 2005, then played in nearly every game for which the team took the field from 2006-11.
Rickie Weeks, drafted in the 1st round in 2003, had a cup of coffee in Milwaukee before that year’s season was over, and then arrived to stay in 2005.
Yovani Gallardo, drafted in the 2nd round in 2004, has been a regular at Miller Park since 2007.
Ryan Braun, drafted in the 1st round in 2005, has been the Brewers best player since he arrived in 2007.
These seven players led the Brewers renaissance. Even though a couple were no longer with the organization when it finally happened, each played a role in ending a 25-year playoff drought when the Brewers made the post-season in 2008 and 2011.
The sun also sets
Unfortunately, the optimism so common during the era in which these players were drafted, developed, arrived and succeeded in Milwaukee has been fading recently.
In 2013, the fade became a full-fledged disappearing act.
Of course, Sheets, Hardy and Fielder have been gone for a while, each for a different reason. Sheets’ arm had had enough after 221 starts for the Brewers. Hardy was dealt for Carlos Gomez after the 2009 season and Fielder got paid in by Detroit after 2011.
Still, a core-four of Hart, Weeks, Gallardo and Braun remained. And so did hopes for the team to remain competitive for years to come.
But now the core has come apart.
Corey Hart hasn’t seen the field for even one inning in 2013 after injuring himself last off-season.
Yovani Gallardo’s 2013 has been ordinary (at best). Plus, he was arrested for drunk driving through Milwaukee in April.
Rickie Weeks, who followed up last year’s disastrous performance with an equally ugly effort this year, is now injured and done for the year.
And then there’s Ryan Braun. This season we found out that the team’s best player since he pulled on a Brewer-uniform in 2007, the team’s best pure hitter since Paul Molitor, and the team’s most popular player since Robin Yount, is a drug cheat.
Not just a drug cheat, mind you. We also found out that the face of the franchise, and the player to whom owner Mark Attanasio owes something like $120 million through 2020, conducted himself in a despicable way while denying drug charges leveled against him in 2012.
During his infamous news conference, Braun crushed innocent people and presented himself as a keeper of the moral and ethical flame in Major League Baseball. Knowing what we know now, Braun’s performance at that news conference has to be the most amazing of his baseball career.
Can the wounded, fading core-four of Hart, Gallardo, Weeks and Braun get its act back together in 2014?
Hart’s situation is just plain sad. Knowing his contract with Milwaukee would expire at the end of 2013, Hart began talking in late 2012 about wanting to play in the city for his entire career. His off-season injury ended any chance he would have to perform well enough in his contract year to merit a long-term extension. Now, what to do with him in 2014 may just be the toughest off-season question Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin have to answer.
Gallardo’s troublesome 2013 is puzzling. Is it simply a result of him pitching in the pre-MLB-season World Baseball Classic? Will he return to prominence in 2014 after a winter of rest? Or is he breaking down early, a la Sheets?
Weeks is under contract for the Brewers in 2014, the final year of a 4-year deal. However, he has a vesting option for 2105 that will become guaranteed if he meets certain statistical incentives in 2014. What does he bring to the table at this point? Prior to getting injured, Weeks was suffering through his second straight season as one of the least productive second basemen in baseball. Is he done at 30 years old? Has his injury-prone body eroded his skills?
Juice or not, signs point to Braun returning to the Brewers in 2014. But who will he be? Will he be the perennial MVP candidate? Will he even be an above-average player? And how will he be able to perform in front of the fans, teammates and organization that he played for fools?
A new era dawning
The careers of each of the four Brewers remaining from the group which brought such promise to Milwaukee are at cross-roads. Hart, Weeks, Gallardo and Braun may not be done, but their futures range from uncertain to tragically altered.
It says here that a new era is underway. Brewers’ fans must focus their hopes and optimism on a new Crew down on the farm.
The Brewers short- and long-term fortunes once again rest on their ability to advance a new group of draft picks through the system and turn at least a couple of them into stars.
Can draft picks such as pitchers Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann and Devin Williams, outfielders Tyrone Taylor and Victor Roache, shortstop Orlando Arcia and first baseman Hunter Morris advance through the system like Hardy, Fielder and friends did? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining when post-season baseball returns to Miller Park.
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