MILWAUKEE—By Doug Melvin’s own admission, many of the moves he made prior to the 2010 season did not pan out.
But that’s the great thing about baseball. The next year, every move you make might click, and that’s exactly what happened for the Brewers’ venerable general manager before and during the 2011 campaign.
Those moves by Melvin were the key to the Brewers winning a franchise-record 96 games, claiming their first National League Central crown and advancing within two victories of the World Series. And also why he was selected as the Baseball America Major League Executive of the Year.
After the Brewers’ disappointing 77-win season in 2010 led to the firing of manager Ken Macha, Melvin knew he had two important tasks ahead of him. First, he had to find a manager capable of piloting a team to the postseason and establishing a rapport with players. Even more important, he had to fix the team’s pitching. Though Macha proved to be a poor fit during his two years at the helm, he also never had a chance with the woeful array of arms placed at his disposal.
As it turned out, it would take bold moves to accomplish both missions.
Opting not to take the well-traveled path of choosing a manager with big league experience, the Brewers settled on Ron Roenicke—a longtime coach with the Angels.
Melvin knew the hire was a bit of a gamble. If Roenicke was not up to the task of leading a contending team, it wouldn’t matter what Melvin did to improve the pitching staff.
“Shortly after we hired him, I saw somebody write that you don’t have success with first-year guys,” Melvin said. “Most of them are brought in with a bad club or a rebuilding mode. When you’re hiring a manager, you’re not only doing it for now but for the long haul, too. You’d like to not have to change managers. You want some stability.”
In his search for starting pitching help, Melvin first gauged the market for first baseman Prince Fielder, who was expected to leave the club after the 2011 season as a free agent. Because clubs viewed Fielder as a one-year rental, no offers came the Brewers’ way that Melvin considered acceptable.
Melvin and his staff agreed to offer top minor league prospects in their quest to acquire established starting pitchers. They realized it would mortgage some of their future, but the time had come to go all-in if the combination of Ryan Braun and Fielder would be together only one more season.
Just as the Winter Meetings were set to begin in Orlando, Melvin asked Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos what it would take to acquire righthander Shaun Marcum, a promising changeup specialist one year removed from Tommy John surgery. Anthopoulos coveted second baseman Brett Lawrie, a Canadian coming off a big season in Double-A. When Melvin agreed to part with Lawrie, a somewhat risky move, a deal quickly came together.
Melvin knew he needed one more starter to give the Brewers a playoff-caliber rotation. Before leaving Orlando, he had a private meeting with Royals GM Dayton Moore about righthander Zack Greinke, considered the best available arm on the trade market.
“I told Dayton, ‘If Zack will come here, I think I can give you the best deal that’s out there,’ ” Melvin recalled.
As it turns out, Moore struck a tentative deal with the Nationals, but Greinke exercised his no-trade clause because he didn’t think Washington would win anytime soon and he had grown tired of losing in Kansas City. Given that opening, Melvin swooped in and made a blockbuster proposal.
The Brewers sent Alcides Escobar, their shortstop of the present and future; righthanders Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi and center fielder Lorenzo Cain to the Royals for Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. Fans became frustrated with Betancourt’s erratic play, but there was no denying the impact of Greinke (16-6, 3.83), once he recovered from a cracked rib suffered while playing basketball at the start of spring camp.
The additions of Marcum and Greinke transformed the Brewers rotation from one of the worst in the NL to one of the best. Yovani Gallardo put together another big year, Randy Wolf stepped up his game from 2010 and Chris Narveson acquitted himself well as the No. 5 starter.
Each starter reached double-figures in wins, a feat the Brewers hadn’t accomplished since 1982.
Before spring training began, Melvin made a couple of other moves for veteran free agents who made key contributions. He picked up outfielder Mark Kotsay to strengthen his bench and added reliever Takashi Saito to deepen the bullpen.
Just before the end of camp, Melvin made another trade that flew under the radar at the time. With right fielder Corey Hart sidelined with an oblique injury and little protection for underachieving center fielder Carlos Gomez, Melvin dealt for troubled Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan. The flamboyant Morgan quickly took over from Gomez as the No. 1 center fielder and became a fan favorite with his alternate persona “Tony Plush.”
“When you have those kinds of years you hope to have, most of your moves have to work,” Melvin said. “And you have to have surprises from people you don’t even count on. If Corey Hart wouldn’t have gotten hurt, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Nyjer.”
Melvin still had a major and somewhat stunning move up his sleeve. Though closer John Axford was in the midst of a banner season, Melvin swooped in at the all-star break and acquired Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, who had become a financial liability in New York because of a $17.5 million vesting option in his contract.
K-Rod was used in front of Axford to lock down leads for the final two innings, dooming opponents who fell behind in the late going. Rodriguez later expressed dismay over not getting chances to close games, but his addition to the bullpen was the final piece to the Brewers’ playoff push.
Discussions for the Rodriguez trade began and culminated within hours on the day of the All-Star Game. Melvin was in Chicago, heading out for a cup of coffee when Mets GM Sandy Alderson called.
“Sandy called and asked if we were interested,” said Melvin, who later sent lefty Danny Ray Herrera and righthander Adrian Rosario to the Mets to complete the deal. “He said he would help out with the money and work it out. I said, ‘I’d rather do it now then. We’ll work at it and get it done.’
“I’m not one to call 30 clubs and talk to them. It’s our job to look at other clubs and find out what they want and look at our club and find out what we need. The big thing was it didn’t cost us top prospects.”
A late-season injury forced Melvin’s hand one more time, and again he made a move that hit the spot. When second baseman Rickie Weeks badly sprained his ankle in late July and was lost for six weeks, Melvin traded Double-A outfielder Erik Komatsu to Washington for veteran Jerry Hairston Jr.
Hairston not only proved invaluable filling in for Weeks, but he also took over for slump-ridden Casey McGehee at third base in the postseason and was an offensive spark, batting .385 with six doubles, eight runs and four RBIs.
Overall, it was difficult to imagine a general manager having a better year when it came to making moves that turned a club from a pretender to a contender.
“Our club is always going to be made up of our farm system and trades,” Melvin said. “Our professional scouting staff has done a good job. We have some homegrown guys. We have to know our own talent, too. We have to know what we’re giving up.”
Not to mention what you’re getting, which in 2011 made all the difference.