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June 29, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Melvin Making Moves

by Marc Carig

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NEW YORK—Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin cut his teeth as an executive years ago with the Baltimore Orioles, where he served as an assistant under former GM Roland Hemond. Melvin still considers the longtime executive a mentor who has taught him valuable lessons, including the one that has allowed him to pull off his most daring trades.

“Roland always taught me to always be ready and available to do anything and to adjust,” Melvin said. “You have to have a game plan. But the game plan's not as important. Your ‘A’ game plan isn't as important as the ability to adjust from your game plan if you have to, to go to Plan B or Plan C.”

And that's how Melvin says he managed to trade for a pair of Cy Young Award winners in CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke. In both cases, Melvin showed himself to be an agile executive, understanding the sense of urgency that led to the moves. And in both cases, the Brewers were rewarded handsomely, procuring the rarest of commodities: true top-end pitchers who would front virtually any rotation.

“We were ready to respond quickly,” Melvin said. “It's no different than a hitter who's in a slump. You've got to make adjustments. Pitchers adjust. They start getting hit on a certain pitch, they talk about adjustments. It's no different in the front office. You've got to be prepared to make adjustments, off-season and in-season.”

Of course, everybody knows how things turned out in the first case study. To land Sabathia three years ago, Melvin pushed all of his chips to the center of the table to pry the difference-maker from the Cleveland Indians. Then he watched as Sabathia “put us on his back.” Behind a dominant second half, during which he answered the bell even on short rest, Sabathia helped the Brewers withstand a near collapse to earn the franchise's first playoff berth since 1982.

Though Sabathia's heroics couldn't rescue the Brewers from a first-round meeting with the eventual champion Philadelphia Phillies, the trade had worked out perfectly. The addition gave the Brewers a ticket to the postseason, where they at least had a chance to do something special.

Three years later, Melvin finds himself in a similar spot, hoping that his latest bold move translates into a return to the postseason. This time, Greinke is the pitcher on whom Melvin has pinned his hopes. So far, he's been given every reason to believe he has struck gold again.

During the season, when he scans the standings, Melvin's eyes go directly to the column that reads “L10,” which shows his team's record over its last 10 games. He looks hoping to see 9-1, 8-2 or 7-3, and at various points this season, the Brewers have delivered exactly that. Even after a 12-2 thumping against the New York Yankees last night, the Brewers lead the St. Louis Cardinals by two games in the National League Central.

It's a lead that can be traced back to the heavy lifting in the winter done by Melvin and his staff, first by acquiring Shaun Marcum, then by snagging Greinke. He believes that one move wouldn't have happened without the other.

“[Greinke] saw that we were keeping Prince [Fielder] and he saw that we traded for Marcum,” Melvin said. “So he decided that maybe this was a good opportunity for him.”

Through Monday's games, Greinke had posted a team-best WARP of 2.2. Marcum's WARP of 1.7 wasn't far behind. Despite missing all of April with a broken rib sustained while playing basketball—not exactly the smoothest way to transition to a new club—Greinke has produced enough to put him in the same neighborhood, value-wise, as statistical standouts like Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander and his own teammate Yovani Gallardo. Greinke's 4.77 ERA—which climbed to 5.63 when the Yankees chased him after just two innings last night—was made much more palatable by his 1.98 SIERA.

Meanwhile, the Brewers have hit, which has never seemed to be the issue. If this is indeed Prince Fielder's last hurrah, he's making it count. Fielder (.348) and Ryan Braun (.329) give the Brewers two hitters in the Top 15 in True Average (minimum 150 plate appearances).

Of course, not all is perfect. For all the work that Melvin has done to improve his team's pitching, his efforts have been undermined somewhat by his club's defensive shortcomings. The Brewers rank 24th in defensive efficiency (.706). Characteristically crummy defense helped key last night's blowout loss.

Third baseman Casey McGehee has been a detriment both with the bat and in the field. Ditto for shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

Still, Melvin's aggressiveness in landing both Greinke and Marcum has been enough to help the Brewers overcome their shortcomings. The acquisitions might begin to look even smarter in the days leading up to the deadline, when teams in search of pitching help will be forced to wade into a lackluster trade pool.

This summer's crop of trade-eligible pitchers is shaping up to be an unimpressive collection featuring options that won't be nearly as good as the pitchers the Brewers snagged in the offseason. By leveraging his prospects to shop for high-end pitching, Melvin spared the Brewers from having to dive into those murky waters.

Of course, plenty can happen between now and October. But the Brewers have so far proven themselves to be worthy contenders because Melvin was proactive last winter. As Hemond taught him years ago, Melvin was ready to roll with the punches, and now he's being rewarded for it.

“There's a lot of games left,” he said. “Things can change from series to series, from week to week. But we're sitting here in a nice position right now.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

Marc Carig is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Marc's other articles. You can contact Marc by clicking here

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