Milwaukee announced over the summer that Doug Melvin planned to step down after the regular season and that an extensive search for a new general manager had been put in motion. Some names on the organization’s short list have begun trickling out into the media. Mike Hazen, assistant GM in Boston, is reportedly in the mix for the head gig, along with Tyrone Brooks (Pittsburgh) and Dan Kantrovitz (Oakland), assuredly among others. Current Brewers’ scouting director Ray Montgomery remains a possibility, with Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs hearing that Montgomery could be poised to step into some kind of co-GM role.
It’s long been speculated that Milwaukee has planned on going with a young, analytic-minded candidate without prior experience as a general manager. Doug Melvin will remain on the staff in an advisory role, so it’s not paramount that the Brewers’ new general manager has danced his way through the day-to-day operations in the past. What does appear to be important, though, is what I would call the freshness of the move. In other words, the incoming general manager must represent a fundamental shift in the history of the organization — a fresh, cutting-edge individual with big ideas to push the Brewers to a promising future.
A lingering notion, though, has somewhat clouded the public perception of the club’s GM search. Milwaukee is still seen as a cultural backwater with little to offer outside of beer, brats and cheese. It’s seen as a low-market afterthought in professional sports. At the very least, the Brewers’ general manager position generates little industry buzz and is certainly not portrayed to be a desirable job.
That’s mistaken. While not one of the top-5 GM positions in Major League Baseball, it’s in the top half this offseason and should bring a competitive applicant pool.
PAYROLL & ATTENDANCE
Too much focus is placed on the Brewers’ tiny market size. The organization should upgrade its television contract, when possible, but any perspective GM should focus on how much money Mark Attanasio allocates to the major-league payroll and how many fans pack the stadium. The former represents the end result, while the latter is a key driver of revenue for the club.
The Brewers had the 12th-highest payroll ($109M) in 2014 — higher than Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Seattle. Critics may point to the opening-day payroll in 2015, which was only $85M, but the 2014 number is more important to this discussion. Any perspective GM needs to know that Mark Attanasio and his ownership group are willing to open the checkbook and fund a competitive roster. It’s not about dishing out record contracts on the free-agent market. Instead, ownership will not tighten the purse strings and prevent opportunities for contention. That’s not just major-league spending, either, as evidenced by the signing of 16-year-old Gilbert Lara for over $3 million a year ago.
Any general manager wants to avoid situations like Arizona, Cincinnati, Atlanta or Miami — places in which front offices are transparently pressured to clear payroll space in an effort to save money and drive profitability. Mark Attanasio has shown numerous times that he’s willing to push the limits of his budget to bring a winning club to Milwaukee. As a prospective general manager, that’s all one can possibly ask from an owner.
To alleviate payroll anxieties even further, the Brewers continue to boast top-half attendance numbers on an annual basis.
Whether the Milwaukee Brewers are competing for an NL Central crown or slowly sliding down into the cellar, the fans have shown up. Miller Park remains one of the key attractions in the state of Wisconsin. The unique tailgating atmosphere and retractable roof at the ballpark ensure that Brewers’ supporters have an enjoyable experience, no matter the product on the field. In a market that will always play second-fiddle to the Green Bay Packers, the Brewers have carved out an enviable niche within the state. It’s perhaps not guaranteed to flourish in the future; however, over the past decade, attendance levels have helped sustain a payroll that punches above its market weight. That should also encourage any candidate for the general manager role.
FARM SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT
This has been covered ad nauseum on the site. Thanks to quality drafts in recent years, increased emphasis on the international market, larger investment in low-minors coaching, and numerous trades, the Brewers’ minor-league system has jumped from laughingstock to a fringe top-10 system. The only player to make Baseball Prospectus’ top-1o1 prospects was Orlando Arcia, and he only checked in at #93. Just over a half-year later, Milwaukee should have at least four — Arcia, Brett Phillips, Trent Clark and Jorge Lopez — in next year’s list. Almost everything has gone right for the Brewers in the minors this season.
This is to say two things:
(1) The cupboards are not bare in Milwaukee. Any incoming general manager will benefit from an improving farm system and a major-league system that isn’t devoid of young talent. More work must be done — via the trade market and free agency — but the new Brewers GM will be in a much better five-year situation than in Seattle or (arguably) Anaheim, not to mention places like Miami.
(2) The improving minor-league system isn’t stuck in the rookie leagues or the Dominican complex. Through trades and breakout performances, much of the Brewers’ minor-league talent is located in Double-A and above. That should help shortcut the club’s rebuilding project, as it won’t be four or five years until the homegrown players make their way to Milwaukee. Guys like Zach Davies and Domingo Santana area already arriving.
- It’s perhaps unpopular to say, but any incoming general manager will benefit from a more lenient market in terms of pressure and scrutiny. Doug Melvin had his ups and downs, his successes and failures; however, the dimmed lights of Milwaukee prevented him from being unduly criticized or pushed out by intense media pressure. Big markets like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles will always demand immediate success. Any general manager who doesn’t achieve an immediate winner only gets a couple years before ESPN and MLB Network begin calling for heads to roll. The pressure doesn’t subside after that, either, as sustainability is then demanded and required. Bob Melvin received a contract extension in Oakland, despite a disappointing year. It’s hard to imagine that happening in any big media market. Oakland is insulated from the bright lights of network talking heads. Milwaukee enjoys the same benign neglect. Any new general manager should have an extended opportunity to find success. It won’t be limited to a two- or three-year shot.
- Negative factors do exist in Milwaukee that will prevent it from ever being a top-tier job. That largely has to do with market size, brand recognition, and television money. The seemingly permanent position behind the Green Bay Packers in the Wisconsin sports culture is also a negative, though I suspect many other baseball teams have to deal with football overshadowing them in August and September. Finally, the concerns about the true level of autonomy from ownership in Milwaukee will perhaps give a few people pause when applying for the position.
Overall, the 2016 general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers will be in a better position than is generally assumed in the baseball community. It’s a place with an aggressive owner, a strong attendance record, an improving farm system, and less-intense media scrutiny. It’s not without its warts; however, any assumption that a large swath of potential GM candidates will somehow not pursue the position seems mistaken. It should be an attractive position, especially for a young and up-and-coming baseball mind who’s looking to “arrive” on the broader baseball scene.