The Brewers appear to be trending downward after a long uphill climb to respectability. The team has followed their first trip to the postseason in 26 years by winning the National League wild card in 2008 with 80-82 and 77-85 seasons.
However, the situation is not as bleak as the record would indicate. The Brewers finished this season without anyone older than 28 in a lineup that featured five who hit 23 or more home runs.
Being the general manager of the Brewers is not as daunting as it might seem on the surface. With that in mind, here is what I would do in the upcoming offseason if I were Doug Melvin.
The first order of business is finding a new manager after the Brewers decided not to pick up Ken Macha's 2011 club option. However, that is not the most important item on the winter docket. The highest priority is finding help for the starting rotation. It is also second on the priority list because the Brewers need more than one starter if they want to leverage their young lineup and make a run at getting back to the postseason.
The Brewers were 14th in the NL and 27th in the major leagues in runs allowed this season with an average of 4.96 a game. Yovani Gallardo led the rotation with 4.3 SNLVAR, but that ranked just 48th among major-league pitchers. The only other starters to provide at least two victories over a replacement-level pitcher were left-handers Randy Wolf (3.6) and Chris Narveson (2.3).
Those three pitchers are good enough to stay in the rotation for 2011 and Gallardo has the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter. However, the Brewers need another starter who can pitch toward the top of the rotation and another to help prop up the bottom.
Even though Mark Attanasio is willing to spend more than other small-market owners, the Brewers' resources aren't unlimited. Thus, only one of the two starters can be bought through free agency. The other one would have to be acquired by a trade.
The player to trade in order to land a top-flight starting pitcher is first baseman Prince Fielder. The slugger is a free agent at the end of next season and there is no way he is returning to the Brewers as agent Scott Boras doesn't offer hometown discounts.
Furthermore, Fielder seemed disconnected in the clubhouse this year and was not on speaking terms with Macha. It's a classic case of a player needing a change of scenery and a team needing a likely distraction in 2011 to go away.
I would make it be known to all the other 29 GMs that Fielder could be had but would focus on five teams: the Braves, Red Sox, Athletics, Giants, and Dodgers. All could use Fielder in their lineup and all would have to least consider the idea of giving up a frontline starting pitcher as part of a package to land the big man. I would ask for the Braves' Tommy Hanson or Jair Jurrjens, the Red Sox' Clay Buchholz, the Athletics' Brett Anderson, the Giants' Jonathan Sanchez, and the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley.
Acquiring one of those six pitchers would give Gallardo some much needed help. Wolf is a solid third starter and you could do worse than Narveson at fifth, meaning that a fourth starter or better would need to be purchased on the free-agent market.
To that end, I would try to right a Melvin wrong by targeting Jorge De La Rosa, the left-hander traded by the Brewers to the Royals during the 2006 season for infielder Tony Graffanino. De La Rosa was a hard thrower who lacked control back in his younger days but he's a much better pitcher now. He would slot in nicely behind Gallardo and whatever pitcher would be acquired in the Fielder trade while pushing Wolf down a spot in the rotation, where he would be one of the better fourth starters in the game.
The Brewers' pitching woes weren't completely contained to the rotation. However, the bullpen would figure to improve just from having to absorb less innings if the starting pitching improved. Furthermore, there are some pieces in place to put together a decent relief corps.
When all-times saves leader Trevor Hoffman imploded early in the season, rookie John Axford stepped into the breach and proved he could be a solid closer. Left-hander Manny Parra and right-handers Todd Coffey, Kameron Loe, and Carlos Villanueva are all eligible for arbitration and I would be willing to bring back all but Coffey without flinching. Parra and Villanueva's strikeout rates suggest there is room for growth.
In Coffey's case, I would offer him a one-year contract with a slight raise over his 2010 salary of $2.025 million because despite his 4.76 ERA last season he still has struck out 8.1 batters per nine innings since being acquired from the Reds in 2008. If he did not accept, I would put him on the trading block and then non-tender him if I found no takers.
The Brewers were fourth in runs scored in the NL with 4.64 per game and would still have a good lineup without Fielder. Second baseman Ricky Weeks, left fielder Ryan Braun, and right fielder Corey Hart form the nucleus of the offense, third baseman Casey McGehee proved in 2010 that his rookie season was not a fluke, and the three rookies who finished the season as regulars—catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain—all should improve. As far as a first baseman, Mat Gamel, who has yet to get his footing in the major leagues, could be moved across the diamond from third base.
The Brewers hold 2011 options on the contracts of Hoffman, left-handed starter Dave Bush, and catcher Gregg Zaun, and declining those options on all three is an easy decision. I would also bid adieu to free-agent lefty Doug Davis but make offers to retain lefty Chris Capuano, who would provide starting depth and serve as a long reliever, and utility infielder Craig Counsell.
Center fielder Carlos Gomez and utility infielder Joe Inglett are also arbitration-eligible. I would try to find someone willing to gamble on Gomez's raw talent and flip him for some pitching depth, but keep him as a bench player if I couldn't trade him. Inglett has his uses but at or near the minimum salary. Thus, he would be non-tendered.
As far as the manager, it would be important to find someone who can communicate with the players, especially in light of Macha admitting that he rarely talked with Fielder or Braun. Former Mariners and Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin fits that mold and is just three years removed from being the National League Manager of the Year. He would be the ideal guy to take over a team that isn't that far from being a contender despite the declining record the last two seasons.