The Milwaukee Brewers are 72 hours away from starting the 2015 Major League Baseball season, and one could argue there hasn’t been a bigger campaign in recent team history.
Since Doug Melvin took over at the end of the 2002 season and principal owner Mark Attanasio assumed control of the team in 2005, the pair have worked in concert to refurbish the organization’s image locally and to free agents, push the payroll north of $100 million, make blockbuster signings and trades, and turn the franchise into a consistent contender – or at least a team with an expectation to do so.
You can safely say this has been the case since 2007, even if there have been disappointments along the way.
It’s no small feat. Not in Milwaukee.
But through it all, even after Ned Yost, Dale Sveum and Ken Macha, there was Melvin.
The now 62-year-old has overseen pro personnel and amateur scouting departments that have allowed the Brewers to make shrewd free agent signings and incredible trades for All-Star caliber talent while maintaining a strong developmental pipeline up from the minor leagues.
But here, at the start of the 2015 campaign, Melvin is a "lame duck" – at least in the sense of his contract status.
He signed a three-year contract extension in May of 2012, and was given a vote of confidence at the end of last season’s collapse by Attanasio. But that vote has only gone so far.
The same can be said of manager Ron Roenicke, whose club options for 2015 and 2016 were picked up in late March in each of the last two years, but no extension has been proffered.
It makes sense.
After the run to the 2011 National League Championship Series, the Brewers have not returned to the playoffs, even with the addition of a second wildcard.
In the last three years, the St. Louis Cardinals (three trips), Pittsburgh Pirates (two trips) and the Cincinnati Reds (two trips) have all experienced postseason baseball. And now, the Chicago Cubs are starting to bear the fruit of, essentially, four years of tanking.
This is a critical juncture for the Brewers.
Yes, they made a bold move by trading veteran ace Yovani Gallardo for prospects, but they feel ready to win with a rotation led by Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza and Wily Peralta. Aramis Ramirez returned for his final season at third base for $14 million. Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are in their prime and coming off All-Star campaigns.
Ryan Braun underwent surgery to repair a bum thumb, and the team added $12.5 million in payroll for the back end of the bullpen with last year’s trade for Jonathan Broxton and this year’s re-signing of Francisco Rodriguez. They also traded for first baseman Adam Lind and his $7.5 million salary for needed power at first.
It’s not quite "all in," like 2011 was in keeping Prince Fielder despite knowing he would walk in free agency, but it’s about as close as this team will get.
And what if it fails again?
Well, then it gets interesting.
Attanasio may decide that it would be time for Melvin and Roenicke may depart, leading to an organizational makeover. But, Melvin has given his owner the flexibility to do just that.
Ramirez ($14 million), Lohse ($11 million), Gerardo Parra ($6.24 million) and Neal Cotts ($3 million) can all come off the books as free agents.
Broxton can be sent away for $2 million and Lind for $500,000. That pair have options, however, that can be picked up in 2016.
Now, Braun’s second extension kicks in and he will make $20 million over the next three seasons, but Garza ($12.5 million) is locked up for major dollars in 2016 and 2017.
Carlos Gomez is owed just $9 million in 2016 and would be a prime trade candidate entering his walk year.
Jonathan Lucroy will be in line for an extension, but other than that other key players like Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Mike Fiers, Jean Segura, Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis are cheap and under team control for years.
If Attanasio decides on a total rebuild, they have trade pieces like Gomez and perhaps Garza. If they choose to retool through free agency, they will have money, and prospects, to do so.
And, if it works, if the team makes the playoffs and is in the mix for a trip to the World Series, they are in position to retain some of these key veteran pieces with only a major hole at third base to fill.
Big changes may be coming down the line for the Brewers, but the men in charge of making this year work have also set the organization up to work – one way or the other – in the future.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.