Welcome to the final installment of Lessons From Previous 90-Loss Brewer Teams. Thus far, I’ve spent the offseason looking at each instance of Milwaukee Brewers teams that lost at least 90 games, hoping to see whether there are any lessons from those past failures that could help inform the decision-making of the current staff. Part I covered the expansion years, Part II looked at the mid 1970s, and Part III examined the mid 1980s and 1993.
Today, we don’t need to break up the years. Every Brewer team from 2001-2004 lost at least 90 games. This stretch included the worst season in Brewers history, the clouded ownership situation after Bud Selig became Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and the hiring of Doug Melvin, who would pave the way for the exciting Fielder-Braun Brewers.
Team W-L: 69-94
Pythagorean W-L %: .461
While the 2001 Brewers represents the first year in this article, this squad was already in the midst of a down period before that season. The years between Bud Selig assuming full-time Commissioner duties and abdicating ownership, at least officially, was not a great time to be a Brewers fan. Between 1998-2000, the team lost 88, 87 and 89 games, respectively. Unfortunately for fans, the team didn’t really bottom out until the 2002 campaign.
The Brewers actually started off fairly well. On June 24th, they were a surprising 38-24 and only 4.5 games off the division lead. Then, they won only 33 percent of their games over the rest of the season, a stretch that was kicked off by a 2-10 skid, effectively taking them out of the division race.
Discussion of the position players should begin with the middle of the lineup trio of Geoff Jenkins, Richie Sexson, and Jeromy Burnitz — two prime-age players and an aging slugger. Burnitz, the aging power-bat, completed his fourth-consecutive 30-home-run season. Though his .279 TAv and 23.6 VORP were down from his peak (.300+ TAv and 40+ VORP), they still showed that he had something left in the tank at 32 years old. By producing value for a team going nowhere, they were able to offload him on the Mets after the 2002 season. We should credit the team for not keeping around a tenured player just for cosmetically competitive reasons. Of course, his pending expensive salary may have greased the wheels of that deal, as he signed a two-year, $20M deal with the Mets after the trade.
Jenkins and Sexson were both in their age-26 seasons during the 2001 season and theoretically should have been close to their peak performances. Instead, each saw their numbers dip. Jenkins went to the disabled list twice, contributing to his injury-prone label. He ultimately landed on the disabled list six times in four seasons. When healthy, the injuries seemed to sap his power as his ISO fell from .285, a career high, to just .209. Sexson, acquired during the 2000 season, compiled a 20.7 VORP in 158 games in 2001, which paled in comparison to his 17.2 VORP in 58 games in Milwaukee. Of course, this drop in value was hidden by his 45 dingers, which in the crazy offensive context of the 2001 season, only led to 1.8 WARP.
But two slightly disappointing seasons alone don’t produce 94 losses. The team set a then record with 1,399 strikeouts. While strikeouts aren’t necessarily telling of offensive futility, the team combined those whiffs with finishing 14th in the 16 team National League in OBP, 13th in stolen bases and 11th in runs. Clearly, the offensive issues were much deeper than a simple penchant for the strikeout. They couldn’t get on base, they couldn’t put pressure on the defense via the base paths, and couldn’t push across runs.
The starting pitchers weren’t appreciably better. Jamey Wright and Jimmy Haynes provided innings. Allen Levrault made 20 starts and only had 28 innings left in his Major League career. The bright spot: Ben Sheets made his debut and adjusted well to the big leagues before (sigh) his first shoulder injury. Though his numbers weren’t great compared to his subsequent seasons, he still posted a 4.93 DRA, which was tops amongst the nominal Milwaukee rotation.
The Lessons: First and foremost, they used Burnitz as trade bait and did not get attached to an aging hitter in a desperate stab at respectability. Milwaukee was already stuck in a rebuilding cycle and no longer had any use for Burnitz. I also think it was worth taking a shot with him, Sexson and Jenkins to see if they could slug their way into relevance — a la the late 70s and early 80s Brewers — rather than blowing it up before this season.
In addition, I like that they fast-tracked Sheets and put him on the opening day roster. After his minor league and Olympic performance, he clearly had nothing to prove in the minors. Now with service time and monetary considerations, Sheets would have spent at least two weeks, if not longer, on the farm before his call-up. Understanding the outside factors which go into roster building with younger guys, I like when guys are promoted when they’re ready and there’s space for them, with no attendant shenanigans.
Team W-L: 56-106
Pythagorean W-L %: .379
The 2002 Milwaukee Brewers have the dishonorable distinction of being the worst Brewers team ever in in terms of record or Pythagorean percentage. They are also the only 100-loss team in franchise history.
While I praised the decision to trade Burnitz, the actual haul was not good. In 2001, the BP Annual called Alex Ochoa “a tremendous fourth outfielder.” After a year in Coors Field, the Colorado Rockies deemed him expendable for Benny Agbayani, Todd Zeile, and cash. Lenny Harris was strictly seen as a pinch hitter. Glendon Rusch had the most promise, as the Brewers were buying low off a poor 2001, and he actually produced decent value in 2002. He pitched 210.7 innings worth 2.0 WARP, providing a decent complement to Sheets at the top of the rotation. As a whole though, the rotation finished 15th in runs allowed and strikeouts, while ranking last in the National League in walks. The team simply had no chance.
Not that the offense would have carried the team, if given the opportunity. If you want to look at how not to field a competitive team, this is the ideal lineup to study. Acknowledging that Sexson was good and Jenkins was injured, the remainder of the position players were horrid. Team numbers include last in runs, 14th in hits, 13th in walks, and 14th in OBP. At least they didn’t set a new strikeout record. The catcher position was a mess, between Paul Bako and Robert Machado. Eric Young was 35 years old and the type of unexciting middle infielder that bad and/or cheap teams sign to show they’re doing something. Jeffrey Hammonds finally got to play enough to try and justify his free-agent contract, but he slugged .397 with subpar defense (-16.1 FRAA) for the first negative WARP season of his career.
Special shoutout to Jose Hernandez, though. He made his only All-Star team and compiled an impressive 4.0 WARP. He proved to be competent in the field (7.3 FRAA) and magnificent at the plate. Of course, magnificent means that he either hit the ball far (.478 SLG) or not at all (188 strikeouts). This was the infamous year in which he approached Bobby Bonds’ all-time season strikeout record, yet was benched in the last week of the season to prevent him from getting it. Thus, instead of getting the record, he lives on in our hearts like non-perfect-game pitcher Armando Galarraga.
The Lessons: I understand that the farm system was still fallow and not ready to bear the fruits of Jack Zduriecik’s scouting eye, though J.J. Hardy and Prince Fielder were at least members of the organization. However, the team did not do a good job identifying talent at the Major League level, and it caused them to bottom out. For Burnitz, they only received a single decent year from Rusch. Young never should have been signed. Mark Loretta was traded in September and put up 9.3 WARP in the next two-plus seasons after leaving.
While the performance wasn’t good, perhaps the most important lesson from 2002 is that if the organization is devoid of talent, it’s going to take some serious lumps as it hits the reset button. Although, some craft veteran signings may wallpaper over talent deficiencies, shopping at the bottom of the barrel likely isn’t going to produce much in the way of results.
Team W-L: 68-94
Pythagorean W-L %: .409
Eight-game improvement! The team outperformed their Pythagorean winning percentage! While they finished in last place in the NL Central, they were only 20 games back in 2003, rather than the 41 behind in 2002. In more serious matters, Doug Melvin took over as the team’s General Manager in September 2002, and he would ultimately lead this team back from the abyss, though it would take some time.
Let’s review the 2003 missteps. The team’s main double play combination was Eric Young and Royce Clayton. They produced 0.9 WARP and below-average defense. The team signed Eddie Perez, Greg Maddux’s former personal catcher, and gave him the most playing time of his career, only to see almost exactly average performance (0.1 WARP). John Vander Wal was signed as a free agent and started more than half of the team’s games. And once again, outside of Ben Sheets, the pitching wasn’t particularly good, finishing 14th in runs allowed in the National League.
However, there were some definite bright spots. The club picked up Wes Helms from Atlanta for reliever Ray King. Helms had shown some promise in Atlanta with his bat but lacked a full-time role. Given the starting third base spot, he produced 22.2 VORP with slightly-below-average defense in his age-27 season. Not to say that he was a diamond in the rough, but trading expendable relievers for potentially cheap-and-not-old production was worth the gamble. Scott Podsednik was a waiver wire pickup who wound up finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He took the starting center field spot from Alex Sanchez and seemingly did it all. His TAv was .282 (a career high), and his overall offensive contributions led to a 42.3 VORP (also a career high).
Matt Kinney was another buy-low option. His 2002 was marred by a shoulder injury and poor performance (7.15 DRA), and he was picked up esentially for free. Kinney then posted career highs in games started, innings, and WARP. Danny Kolb also deserves a mention as a highlight. The former Texas Ranger was signed by Milwaukee after several seasons of injuries. Still only 28, Kolb cut his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate while emerging as the Brewers’ closer. For those of you who believe closers are made, not ordained, Kolb is a great example to point towards.
The Lessons: As I tried to illustrate above, good talent can be freely available. While those smaller pickups may not always work out, if your team is going to be bad, it’s better to be bad and place bets on players who have some semblance of upside. Maybe it results in nothing, maybe a good year, maybe you can find a hidden gem. But picking up the Matt Kinneys and Scott Podsedniks of the world. This is a lesson the current brass may already be following with the Garin Cecchini and Will Middlebrooks pickups.
Team W-L: 67-94
Pythagorean W-L %: .420
The 2004 Brewers lineup was much different than the 2003 edition. Geoff Jenkins was still kicking around, and he set a career high in terms of games played. He complied 127 more plate appearances in 2004, yet hit one fewer home run, walked eight fewer times, and racked up 32 more strikeouts — so he actually produced less value in more games (2.7 WARP to 1.7 WARP). Wes Helms also returned to the squad, but spent 40 days on the DL and his ISO dipped .090. Scott Podsednik fell off enough (.066 drop in OBP) that he was deemed expendable in December in the Carlos Lee trade.
The haul from the Richie Sexson made up the majority of the rest of the lineup. Lyle Overbay was the starter at first, and he provided a big on-base percentage boost (.385 OBP). Overbay was known as a non-power hitter in a power position, and while he didn’t hit many home runs, he doubled fifty-three times and contributed 38.5 VORP, both career highs. Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell made up the new double play combo. Spivey got hurt and Counsell played a credible shortstop at the age of 33, producing 0.9 WARP and slightly positive defensive value, no small feat for his first full-time role at the position. Chad Moeller rated as the worst catcher in the National League according to VORP. The Brewers finished 15th in the National League in runs scored as well as home runs.
The pitching actually crawled out of the depths of the National League in 2004. While the staff certainly wasn’t good, it ranked 10th in runs allowed. Ben Sheets had his third-straight healthy season. Unfortunately, all three were wasted on terrible teams. He posted a 3.48 DRA and career best 5.9 WARP, while striking out 10 batters per every nine innings. Doug Davis pitched 207.3 innings had a career high 3.0 WARP by cutting down his hits, walks and home runs per nine innings.
The Lessons: It’s admirable to try and fill most of your lineup with one trade, and if a team can pull that off, it’d be fair to say they got a steal. But Richie Sexson was not the type of transcendent star to return such a package, and the Brewers were lucky this plug-and-play strategy wasn’t a complete disaster. If any team nowadays tried something like the Counsell shortstop experiment, they’d be rightly ridiculed for a ludicrous thought process. Moeller was a stretch to be able to handle everyday duties and Spivey couldn’t stay healthy. There was a lot of low upside in those players.
There are times where quantity over quality makes sense, but I don’t see the purpose in this case. Spivey and Counsell could have been replaced by Keith Ginter and Bill Hall, two interesting players already in the organization. Backup catchers can be found on the scrap heap. The most interesting piece was Jorge de la Rosa, and I can’t help but think that they could have gotten another lottery ticket or two instead of the above lineup trio. Small-market teams need lottery tickets, because those and drafting are the only ways to lure a superstar if your team can’t (or won’t) shop at the top of the free-agent market. Of course, laying out a strategy and executing it are two different things. It will be interesting the watch the plan unfold over the next few years as we see good the new regime is at making a strategy and executing talent. While this current dry spell may add another team or two to this list, it will be worth it if there’s another period of sustained contention.