Melvin, Brewers Weren’t Wrong To Buy

In a sobering interview two weeks ago, Jonathan Lucroy offered a brutally honest assessment of his future with the Brewers. He stressed the importance of winning and that he understood the inherent difficulties of consistently winning in a small-market like Milwaukee. When pressed to give his thoughts on the current team, Lucroy mentioned the lack of top prospects in the Brewers’ system over the past few years and how the CC Sabathia, Shaun Marcum, and Zack Greinke trades particularly gutted the system. He connected the dots and suggested that those trades have directly contributed to the team’s poor performance in 2015.

In a sense, Lucroy said two important truths: (1) the Milwaukee Brewers must rely on a consistently excellent minor-league system to overcome the barriers presented by a small-market revenue stream; and (2) he’s unlikely to re-sign with the Brewers and will explore his options in free agency. Hell, it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines and understand that he’d welcome a trade to a contending club. Lucroy emphasized that he and his family love the Brewers, the city of Milwaukee, and the fans; however, winning is paramount for the Brewers’ catcher. Nothing wrong with that, either.

This article doesn’t seek to explore Lucroy’s motivations for prioritizing winning over remaining with a single organization. That hardly seems necessary. Instead, this article is more interested in unraveling his comments about the big trades in 2008 and 2011 that hollowed out the system and has resulted in a paucity of talent in Milwaukee. It seems to me that this assessment is mistaken in several aspects.

First and foremost, it’s a fallacy to assume that a player’s developmental path would have happened in an identical fashion in Milwaukee, as it did in another organization. Coaches change. Circumstances change. Environments change. Teammates change. Roster priorities change. Assuming that a player’s development is somehow foreordained and would’ve happened whether that player came up in the Brewers organization or another organization is making a dangerous mistake. And it’s not about the Brewers’ coaching staff or developmental staff being lesser. It’s about recognizing that context matters and different people react to the same person in divergent ways. For example, if Jake Odorizzi didn’t join the Tampa Bay Rays, he wouldn’t have learned his split-changeup from Alex Cobb, which transformed his career. Sure, there’s a small, random chance that someone in the Brewers’ organization could’ve taught Odorizzi the same split-change, but one has to desperately reach for that argument.

More examples could be cited—such as how Brett Lawrie didn’t get along with the Brewers’ minor-league staff and once refused to go to the Arizona Fall League—but the overarching point should be clear. Player development is not independent of environment. Lamenting over a former prospect’s success and how it could’ve been in Milwaukee is only natural, but mostly an exercise in wishful thinking.

Secondly, the Brewers’ weak farm system is primarily a function of poor drafts between 2006-2011 (save 2008) and a lack of international activity until the past couple years. Here are the organization’s first-round picks since 2006:

  • 2006 – RHP Jeremy Jeffress
  • 2007 — 1B Matt LaPorta
  • 2008 — 3B Brett Lawrie
  • 2008 — RHP Jake Odorizzi
  • 2008 — LHP Evan Frederickson
  • 2009 — RHP Eric Arnett
  • 2009 — OF Kentrail Davis
  • 2009 — RHP Kyle Heckathorn
  • 2010 — RHP Dylan Covey
  • 2011 — RHP Taylor Jungmann
  • 2011 — LHP Jed Bradley

A small-market team cannot afford to miss that many times in the first round. Jeffress and Jungmann are in the big leagues, but it’s not really a “win” when one’s first-round picks become middle relievers and fifth starters. Zero impact came from these drafts. One could perhaps argue that 2007 was a success because LaPorta helped net CC Sabathia, but if we’re talking about trades gutting the farm system, it seems somewhat hypocritical to cherry-pick which players to approve of being traded because they ultimately flamed out.

The Brewers must be able to trade prospects for elite players from time to time, as waiting for a magical run where all a team’s prospects develop in unison for a long-term window of contention is fool’s gold. That doesn’t happen. Even when the Brewers hit on many draft picks in the early-2000s, they still needed to go out and acquire CC Sabathia. The key, though, is that the team’s draft-and-develop processes must be quality enough to fill in the gaps left by the trades. As one can easily see by the above list, the Brewers did not hit the mark between 2006-2011. Things have improved in recent years; however, that doesn’t cover the missteps from previous scouting regimes.

One of the least discussed factors in the Brewers’ weak farm system is the team’s lack of commitment to the international market in the same time frame. The Brewers didn’t even re-open a Dominican training complex until late-November. Even then, their Dominican Summer League team didn’t have enough players and needed to be split with the Orioles organization. While other teams heavily invested in the Latin American market and capitalized on acquiring talent outside the MLB Draft, the Brewers rarely spent money, and when they did, they were forced to send them to their AZL club, which then added a myriad of “culture-shock” challenges to the normal player-development ones. Again, the Brewers have rectified their previous missteps in the international market in recent years, but it doesn’t make up for the gaps created by previous regimes.

Finally, and what I think is the most important argument when addressing the trades made in 2008 and 2011, if the Brewers wouldn’t have made those key moves, the organization would likely still be waiting to make their first postseason appearance since 1982. The 2008 Brewers wouldn’t have made the postseason without CC Sabathia, and I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. Similarly, the 2011 Brewers would’ve been extremely hard-pressed to grab a 2011 postseason berth without Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum headlining their rotation, especially given the injury to Yovani Gallardo early in the year. I even wrote a piece for the Baseball Prospectus 2015 Annual that explained how Doug Melvin has done a great job replacing the production that left in those trades.

And, no, the current crop of former prospects wouldn’t have made a difference. Brett Lawrie hadn’t played above Double-A at that point. Michael Brantley was a one-win player for the Cleveland Indians that year, even if we erroneously assume that his developmental path would’ve been the same. Jake Odorizzi was still in High-A. Lorenzo Cain had barely tasted Triple-A. I think one could make a convincing argument that Alcides Escobar would have positively affected the Brewers’ postseason hopes in 2011, but the massive holes in the rotation would have still existed and he’s not a good enough player to overcome those problems.

If we pretend, for a moment, that the above five players would have developed in the same way for the Brewers, they’d perhaps be hitting their stride right now or maybe 2014, if one wants to be kind to Odorizzi. That would have meant two things: (1) essentially wasting the production of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Yovani Gallardo, etc. to wait for the magical 2015 season in which they all started to hit their potential at the same time; and (2) willingly passing on chances to make the postseason for the first time 26-plus years for a potentially cheap winning club in 2014/2015. I’m one for patience, but that’s a hard sell for any supporter.

In essence, this isn’t an effort to suggest Doug Melvin and his regime were perfect from 2008-2011, as they certainly were not. They failed in multiple places even prior to that postseason stretch, the Carlos Lee trade comes immediately to mind. The point, however, is that the current state of the farm system is primarily due to the terrible early-round drafts from 2006 through 2011, as well as general neglect for the international market at a time when elite talent could be purchased for the highest dollar with no restrictions. The organization has learned from their mistakes—which is why the lower levels of the minor-league system are promising—but that can’t hide the missteps in acquiring amateur talent in the first half-dozen(ish) years after Mark Attanasio purchased the club in September 2004. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle that has come to haunt the Brewers in 2015, not the trades to acquire Sabathia, Marcum, and Greinke.

Lead photo courtesy of Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

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