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Last Friday, I was on air with Dave Cokin of ESPN Radio 920 in Las Vegas, talking about some of the transaction action we expect to see this week. Dave’s co-host, Brian Blessing, brought up the Milwaukee Brewers as a team with a playoff shot that should be looking to trade prospects for major-league help. I disagreed, and we got into a pretty good discussion about the Brewers and the decisions Doug Melvin faces, most notable involving what to do with Carlos Lee. I think the Brewers’ situation is the most fascinating in the game, as complicated as any we’ve seen in the past few years.

Understand, we were talking about them a week ago, before they dropped four of six to the Reds and Pirates to slip six games back in the wild-card race. At the time, they were four back of the Reds and heading into a three-game series with the leaders.

It’s not hard to see the Brewers as a contender. They’re not far from a postseason spot, none of the other NL wild-card contenders are better than 84- or 85-win teams, and the Brewers just got 40% of their Opening Day rotation back from the disabled list in Tomo Ohka and Ben Sheets, more added value than any team will acquire at the trade deadline. On the other hand, the Playoff Odds Report pegs them as having just a 3.8% shot at the postseason, tied for seventh among the teams in the wild-card chase, and it’s hard to fudge that number.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s do it anyway. Let’s say that the Playoff Odds Report is way off, and that the Brewers have a 20% chance to make the playoffs, five times what the report gives them. Let’s also go crazy and say that they could add talent in the next couple of days that would increase their shot at the postseason by 19%, which is the maximum any team gained in Nate Silver’s exercise Thursday. That very generous reading of the tea leaves would give the Brewers a 39% chance of winning the wild card come Tuesday morning. To do that, they’d have to hold on to Carlos Lee and also trade some combination of Corey Hart, Nelson Cruz, Yovani Gallardo or other top prospects from one of the game’s deepest farm systems. All of that would give them a 2-in-5 shot at the playoffs, and the 1-in-8 shot every team gets from there of becoming World Champions.

Or.

Or the Brewers could acknowledge that they don’t currently have a championship-caliber team, but they will in the very near future. They could hold on to Mark Rogers and Ryan Braun and Dana Eveland, fairly secure in the knowledge that no team in the NL Central has their talent base, and that they may well be able to win three or four division titles-and be a legitimate title contender-from 2007 onward.

From an on-field standpoint, the path for the Brewers should be clear. They should not trade prospects to add relief help, an extra starter or a right fielder who can out-hit Geoff Jenkins. They, in fact, should take advantage of the seller’s market-more than 2/3 of MLB teams can tell themselves they have a playoff shot-and swap the last two months of Carlos Lee’s season for more players who will contribute to that 2007-2010 run.

Acquiring Lee is one of the top major-league moves that Melvin has made. The left fielder has given the team two strong seasons at below-market cost, and was a legitimate All-Star this season. He’s popular in Milwaukee, and will probably continue to be a credible hitter for the next couple of seasons. However, any contract to retain his services is going to run at least four years, probably five, and cost upwards of $10 million a year. Paul Konerko is a reasonable comp for Lee in terms of expectation, and he got a five-year deal for $60 million.

Paying more than $10 million a year to have the late peak and early decline phase of a corner outfielder who’s losing defensive value and who hasn’t been a superstar at his peak-just one season above five WARP-is a bad use of resources for a team whose payrolls are likely to be in the $60 millioin range the next few years, and which has an assortment of corner options banging at the door of Miller Park. PECOTA just slightly underprojected Lee’s ’06 season, and shows him declining slowly but steadily over the next four years, no better than a four-win player in any year. As with the Brewers’ shot at the playoffs, you can inflate Lee’s projection by quite a bit and still not turn him into a good bet.

Now, this is one of those decisions that is a lot easier to make from a laptop in Rosemead, California than it is when you’re in the room. The right decision for the team on the field, and most likely for the team’s coffers, is to abandon the idea of re-signing Lee and, having done that, trade him this weekend. I don’t want to be the one to hold that particular press conference, though. The Brewers made a late run in September last year to at least sniff a wild-card spot, but this is as close as they’ve been to contending in July in the three-division era. This is the first time in Miller Park’s history that the Brewers have had this kind of decision to make at the trade deadline. Given that Wisconsin’s citizenry is paying a kajillion dollars that it never really wanted to pay for the park, telling the baseball fans in that group that, no, even though we’re close, we’re not going to add payroll and not going to sign our best player beyond this year… well, that’d be one to farm out to an intern, I’d think.

This is an extreme example of a decision that teams have been facing for a decade now, as the three-division, wild-card format lowers the standard for regular-season success. Teams no longer need to build great teams to have a chance at a title. The goal has often become putting together a team good enough to be in contention right about now, and make a move or two that will get the squad to 89-91 wins and the Elite Eight.

In fact, if you want to find a real reason for any gap between the two leagues, I’d look at this phenomenon. Whereas AL teams have been dealing with the AL East powers and the AL West’s stretch of being the best division in baseball for a few years, forcing teams to shoot for 94 wins to make the playoffs, the NL has not had those kind of teams setting the tone. This season isn’t that much different than most recent ones in the NL, with one good team-this year the Mets, recently the Cardinals or Braves-being pursued by a field of mediocrity. The wild card has caused too many teams to chase an 86th or 87th win, at a cost of many wins in subsequent seasons.

The Brewers have a chance to rise above that, to put the long-term chance of a mini-dynasty-and make no mistake about it, when I look at the major-league roster, the organizational depth and the management team, that’s a realistic possibility-ahead of the small short-term potential payoff. The external factors-the taxpayer-funded park, the lack of recent success, the new owner-complicate the process, but they don’t change what the right decision is. I don’t envy Doug Melvin… well, okay, I do a little, because he’s got one of the few jobs better than mine… but he’s paid a good amount of money to make hard decisions like this one. The Brewers aren’t going to make the playoffs this year, and they shouldn’t even try to win the Carlos Lee sweepstakes this winter. As hard a sell as this will be to the ticketholders, the right thing to do, if greatness is the goal, is to deal him.

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