By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Apr 29, 2014 at 1:05 PM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

The Milwaukee Brewers are currently 19-7 – the best record in Major League Baseball – and in first place in the National League Central, thanks to a mix of young talent and veterans. This is the first part in a three-part series on how this team was constructed, and the challenges faced in doing so. Today, takes a look at how the organization has fielded a competitive team despite revenue constraints.

Mark Attanasio couldn’t help but smile backstage at the Wisconsin Center.

On Jan. 26 at Brewers On Deck, the annual kick-off fan fest for his team, the Brewers’ principal owner announced to the crowd that free agent starting pitcher Matt Garza had been signed by the club.

It was a significant acquisition for an organization that was looking to bounce back after a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 campaign that saw the club win less than 81 games for the fourth time in nine years.

Garza’s four-year, $50 million contract was a surprising sum as the largest free agent signing in team history, but it carried little long-term risk for a franchise that, beginning with Attanasio’s approval of ownership in 2005, has conscientiously worked to maintain a balanced budget while remaining competitive on a year-in, year-out basis.

"There’s enough talent there to be competitive, and that’s all you ask for," said Brewers president of baseball operations/general manager Doug Melvin. "We’re not in a rebuilding mode. We’re trying to balance the young players with experienced players and we feel we owe that to the fans who come out here for the last five years, seven years or whatever, drawing 2.5 million people (annually). We feel that we can continue to want to be competitive and continue to try to win each year as long as we can do that."

It’s not the easiest proposition, but the Brewers have been successful at it once the core group of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo were all together in 2007.

From 2007 to 2013, the Milwaukee Brewers went 32 games over .500, and were the fifth best team in the National League in terms of regular season success:

  • Philadelphia: 627-507
  • St. Louis: 616-518
  • Atlanta: 612-522
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: 601-532
  • Milwaukee: 583-551
  • Cincinnati: 581-553
  • San Francisco: 579-555

In that same period, 12 different teams have reached the postseason in the National League. Ten have advanced to the playoffs multiple times, a club in which the Brewers belong with the 2008 wildcard and 2011 Central Division championship teams.

Playoff qualifiers like Pittsburgh and Colorado did not win divisions like the Brewers did in that time, and Cincinnati (three playoff trips), Chicago (two), Washington and Atlanta were not able to win a series, like the Brewers did.

Could this, the success of those players and the team, have been forecast?

"There’s no predictability, I don’t think, to any results," conceded Brewers vice president/assistant general manager Gord Ash.

But, the design by which the team was built was definitely purposeful.

"We can’t wake up in the morning and trade for a player making millions of dollars to solve a problem," Ash said. "We can’t do that. Some clubs can, we can’t. Which, quite frankly, is more interesting anyway.

"We have to look for more economic or more risky moves, I guess you might say, in terms of how to solve some of these dilemmas. I think it can work in the long term. You’re right. We haven’t won yet, but I think we can be positioned to win and then you get to do the whole thing all over again."

To set up the sustained success of the past seven seasons, the Brewers targeted that initial core for contract extensions.

Deals were struck with Braun, Weeks, Gallardo and Hart, but Hardy was traded away in 2009 for an underachieving centerfielder named Carlos Gomez and Fielder left via unrestricted free agency after 2011.

By locking up that core to club-friendly deals, it allowed Melvin to take on the salaries of CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke and sign free agent Aramis Ramirez.

As the years have gone on, the process has repeated itself.

Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy agreed to modest extensions which allowed for the signings of Kyle Lohse and then, Garza.

Now, players like Jean Segura and Wily Peralta could be in the mix for the next round.

"We see the salary structure starting to take off here again," Ash admitted. "We’ve had some internal discussions about looking at some players to continue those trends with, but we haven’t acted on any of it yet."

All of this contributed to Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent "smartest spenders" in sports 2014 list, which rated the Brewers 11th in baseball. Teams were rewarded for championships and playoff games won over the last five seasons – so of the teams that haven’t been to a World Series, Milwaukee ranks behind only Oakland, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Miami and Arizona in efficient spending.

According to, the Brewers have committed only $141.5 million in 12 guaranteed contracts through 2018, which does not include options. Include the various team, mutual and vesting options and the committed payroll is just $198.25 million.

It means the Brewers will continue to be in the market for offseason free agent acquisitions, pricey mid-season additions like Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez, while also being able to offer extensions to young talent.

"One of the benefits of being conservative fiscally all these years is that we always have – we will always make moves in a way that we have flexibility," Attanasio said. "Not the flexibility of the large market teams, but if we are in contention at midseason and we need to add people we will add people. For sure."

While Melvin has made sure to run a tight fiscal ship, one of the reasons the Brewers have been able to spend on payroll is the league’s revenue sharing policy. And while that will change going forward, the Brewers will remain a beneficiary in the immediate future.

"They’ve done a terrific job and fortunately, and they had the economic wherewithal because of revenue sharing to do that," Major League Baseball commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig said. "People often don’t understand that. But that’s what it supposed to be."

What has also helped has been the boom in revenue generated from the league’s national television broadcast rights. According to, "each team will receive $25 million more in national TV revenue in 2014 through 2021 than they did in 2013."

This especially helps the Brewers, who play in the country’s 34th largest television market and are currently receiving $20 million annually from its contract with Fox Sports Wisconsin.

Since the Brewers extended that contract in 2009 however (it went into effect last season), the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros and New York Yankees have struck television deals of their own that have stretched into the billions.

Even the Cleveland Indians struck a deal pumping in an additional $400 million over the next decade.

Unfortunately for the Brewers, the lack of competition that is created by having multiple cable carriers in the market and the game’s geography will not allow the team to grow its television revenue like others.

"Will we seek it? Sure," Attanasio said with a smile. "Our contract runs through 2020 on our broadcast and we’ll tend to it at that point. But we’re never going to have the economics of the broadcast of some of the big market clubs, both because of the size of the demographic area and because we can’t extend over to other states. We’re somewhat of landlocked. Minnesota and Illinois and Michigan (have teams). What we do have is a passionate fan base and very high viewership."

It is the one element of the game that could greatly affect the Brewers current on-field model.

For instance, in 2008 Braun signed a 7-year, $45 million extension. That same year, Hanley Ramirez signed a six-year, $70 million extension. Both were 24.

This winter, the Angels extended 22-year-old Mark Trout with $144.5 million over six years. The Braves extended 24-year-old Freddie Freeman with an eight-year, $135 million deal. The Dodgers extended 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw for $215 million over seven years. Detroit inked Miguel Cabrera, 30, for an additional $248 million over an additional eight years.

"I don’t think the owners worry about growth in salaries; I think there’s some focus on competitive balance," Attanasio said. "And up through last year, we’ve maintained terrific competitive balance and we’ll see looking forward if we can do that."

Selig sidestepped the issue on Opening Day, too.

"Well, we’ll work that all out in the future," he said. "You have to continue to make adjustments. No system is perfect. So I’m satisfied."

And, Attanasio feels that these deals could wind up benefiting his team down the line – depending on how they play out.

"Some of these large contracts, paying, no doubt superstar athletes, to the age of 40, if they turn out to bad contracts, that actually helps competitive balance," he said. "Now, it’s a free market, and so I look at it much the same way you look at it like a high tech stock, a Twitter stock, or a Facebook stock. I’m not going to make any comments here about either of those companies, but the fact is you can look at companies that are new technology companies. They traded a huge multiple, an enormous multiple of earnings, and old-school companies that trade at a low multiple. And likewise you look at teams with very, very high payrolls. We’ll see if they succeed or not. Over time, it has proven to not be successful, simply paying for talent."

Which is why the Brewers, which Sports Illustrated counts as having the 16th highest payroll in the league at $103.8 million ("We always count higher because we look at incentives and call ups and things like that," Attanasio said), has fielded a team that has 20 players on its 40-man roster making less than $4 million, 16 of which are making less than $3 million.

That list includes two All-Stars (Segura, Rodriguez), one potential All-Star (Lucroy), the starting left fielder (Khris Davis), 2/5 of the starting rotation (Peralta, Marco Estrada) and the entirety of the league’s best bullpen.

"We have to embrace our young players," Melvin said. "We’re an organization – if you look at the salaries and where they’re going for some of these players at $20 million and $25 million, we’re always going to be an organization that has to embrace young players."

"Doug and his group have found ways to put talent on the field and keep them," Attanasio added. "All these guys have a lot of, I guess whatever, not only tenure with us but they will be with us for years. They’re all under contract or arbitration eligible. And at the same time we only have three or four guys on the 40-man roster over the age of 32. So, we have a young team. We have control of the players under terms of contract, and we have top players at their positions."

For the foreseeable future, the Brewers should be able to maintain this level of fiscal consistency. Forbes rated the team as the 25th most valuable in baseball at $565 million, but that is more than double what Attanasio and his group paid for it a decade ago.

"It’s on great footing, as a lot of our franchises are," Selig said of the club he and his family once owned. "A lot of things (contribute to that). Mark’s done a wonderful job. This ownership group is terrific. But we’ve had revenue sharing. It’s a whole different world. It’s a different world than existed before."

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

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.