MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin held his season-ending news conference Tuesday morning at Miller Park, spending nearly 50 minutes looking back at what went wrong in 2013 and looking ahead to the offseason.
Melvin expressed disappointment in Milwaukee’s 74-88 record and fourth-place finish in the National League Central but did want to draw attention to some of the positives occurring during the lost season.
Signing Carlos Gomez and watching him have a career year, the development of Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy’s impressive season, Scooter Gennett’s emergence and the improvement of the bullpen were a few of the positives he touched on.
“There’s reason to be optimistic about up the middle because that’s one of the toughest things, is building a ballclub up the middle,” Melvin said. “Having guys at that age and performing the way that they have, [including] the encouraging performance that Scooter gave us, also.
“Our pitching improved, and that was an area we did have to improve on. We counted on our pitching early in the year, and it didn’t happen early in the year. Again, it happened more in the second half of the year with (Tyler) Thornburg’s and (Wily) Peralta’s development. The pitching is an area that did improve. Now, like I told the coaches, the thing is we have to maintain that and [make it] stable. We can’t be having the setbacks.”
Here are some of the highlights of Tuesday’s press conference:
The Brewers have developed a pattern of digging themselves an early hole only to play better baseball in the second half of the season. In 2012, Milwaukee needed a late push to get back in the race and eventually finished 83-79. This year’s slow start — 6-22 record in May — buried the team before school was out in the area.
“We have to improve – and I’ve had this conversation with Ron (Roenicke) and the coaches – I said I can’t stand here every year and say we had a great second half,” Melvin said. “That doesn’t work. We’ve done that two years in a row, gotten off to bad starts. … I said we have to do something about having a better spring training. There’s people who say the (World Baseball) Classic hurt us this year. I don’t like having excuses, but that was brought up. Then we also know the other circumstances that took place with Ryan (Braun), the injuries to Corey (Hart, Aramis (Ramirez) not playing.
“For the past two years we’ve relied on younger players, but for us to get better, for us to perform, our star players have to perform. They have to come to the forefront … Our star power wasn’t there this year to help us. I’m not going to be pointing fingers, but it’s just the facts. For us to perform better, we have to get more out of our veteran players from a performance standpoint and a health standpoint, too. That was an issue. You take the 3-4 hitters out of the lineup, as much as we missed them this year, that is going to have an impact on your club.”
Melvin also acknowledged how “going for it” in 2008 and 2011 likely hurt the Brewers this season, as players they gave up to acquire C.C. Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum would have been with the big-league team.
“I look back and say the cost of winning in 2008 and 2011 probably had a little impact on our ballclub this year, but I wouldn’t trade it for the winning in 2008 and 2011,” Melvin said. “We have recovered from the Greinke trade, but Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Odorizzi. Michael Brantley, people forget, was in the CC trade. And Brett Lawrie. We would have had five top-quality, young players come out of our system if we’d have just sat back and not made any trades, and we would have probably got applauded for having a good Minor League system at that point.”
After last season, Melvin singled out the bullpen as his top offseason priority. First base is Milwaukee’s clear weakness, but Melvin is hesitant to call it the top priority and ignore improving in other areas.
Corey Hart is a free agent and said recently he’d like to return to the Brewers. Melvin indicated he will engage in conversations with Hart’s agent in the next couple of weeks, but he also wants to do his homework to make sure the veteran is healthy coming off two knee surgerys.
“Corey will be in the mix,” Melvin said. “It’s just a decision where we’ll have to weigh the risk factor involved with someone coming off an injury that hasn’t played all year. But his name is in the list of names that we’ll consider.”
A lot was made of Hunter Morris, Milwaukee’s minor league player of the year in 2012, not being called up to the big leagues this season, but the 24-year-old hit just .247 in Triple-A.
“It was a different level, Triple-A,” Melvin said of Morris. “The minor leagues are the same way. Every level you move up, there’s going to be challenges. Probably the biggest thing with Hunter was inconsistency. But, overall, he hit .400 over the last three weeks and did swing the bat very well. He did improve defensively. His name will be in there, too. He didn’t have as good a year as he had in Double-A. I talked to Hunter about it; I called him when we didn’t bring him up. He said he had to be more consistent next year. He’ll be on the list.”
Whether incumbent first baseman Juan Francisco will be considered has yet to be determined. Though Francisco struggled to hit anything late in the year, his power potential has earned him some support within the organization.
“Obviously, the power is the big component,” Melvin said. “First base is a position you’d like to have some power. It’s not necessary; you could have a different look of a first baseman. We’ll review him at the end of the year and put his name in there with any of the other names that are available. He’s very streaky. At one point, his first 600 at-bats were as good as Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates. He’s going to be a high-strikeout guy. He’d strike out 180 times a year if he was given those at-bats. But he’d probably hit 25-30 homers. There’s some streakiness to his game but he’s still young. We’ll put our heads together and see how he compares to everyone else.”
Moving over to second base, Melvin said the dilemma on divvying up playing time between Rickie Weeks and Gennett wasn’t a concern and wasn’t something he was going to worry about in the offseason as it will be settled in spring training.
Weeks is owed $11 million next season, while Gennett proved he was worthy of at least playing against right-handed pitchers next year.
“Knowing Scooter can play the way he did, he probably has an edge right now,” Melvin said. “Rickie’s got to come back from his injury. Rickie will be in spring training and will be out there to try to get back playing time. Any athlete doesn’t want to give up his position. Rickie won’t want to give it up.”
Segura is undoubtedly the team’s shortstop not only for next season but for years to come. The Brewers are still committed to locking him up long term, and Melvin plans to open the line of communication with Segura’s agent in the near future.
“We had talks last year; they didn’t get to where we wanted them to,” Melvin said. “We met with his agent here in September, our last homestand he was in town and we met with him. We discussed the possibility of getting together, we didn’t discuss terms or length or anything like that. But we had a discussion that we would follow up in the off-season. There is no timetable to it; he’s not an arbitration-eligible player. There’s no timetable to it. It’s probably at some point where we feel we can sit down and have a discussion.”
Melvin acknowledged the team has internal discussions about moving Ryan Braun to right field in order to help Khris Davis get on the field. The team hasn’t approached Braun yet because a decision isn’t close to being reached.
The Brewers will pick up right fielder Norichika Aoki’s $1.5 million option in the coming weeks, leaving Milwaukee with a surplus of outfielders. Melvin feels Davis can drive in 85-90 runs if given enough at-bats, but he is exclusively a right fielder as of now. If Braun is moved to right field, Aoki would be displaced despite having two good years for the team.
“That’s an area we’ll have to discuss and talk about,” Melvin said. “I don’t have that answer now. If we need to add offense – I think we were 130 or 140 runs less this year – Khris Davis can be a part of helping that offense. He’s had some injuries, too, so he needs to stay healthy. In his minor-league career, he’s had some injuries. Just keeping the outfield depth is important. It’s not an area we have to go out and look for someone. I do believe the pieces are there to give us a productive outfield.
“You never have enough (outfielders). Look at the injuries that can happen. Aoki can play left field; he can play right field. Whenever we make those decisions, he’s probably going to be a part of that offense. You’ve got to have depth, too, if you’re not going to get involved in free agency. We don’t know that yet; we don’t know where that market is going. Probably outfield is where we have a trade piece if we want to trade to maybe fill another hole.”
Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta figure to fill three of the five slots in Milwaukee’s rotation next season. Melvin credited part of the team’s 6-22 May to the fact that all three pitchers had awful months, but he felt confident coming to the park when each of them pitched late in the year.
“That’s what you like to have with your starting pitchers,” Melvin said. “You like to go to the ballpark and say, ‘We have a chance to win tonight.’ You’d like to have that with all five starters. If you’re going to be a championship club, you better have it with four of your starters. It’s important for starting pitchers to give you 32-33 starts. Those three guys are quite capable of doing it.”
Finishing strong, Marco Estrada put a good foot forward in his attempt to make the rotation. The Brewers have always loved Estrada’s walk-strikeout ration, but he also has red flags that have popped up throughout his career.
“The issue with Marco has been the home runs,” Melvin said. “But if he’s not walking people, it’s not going to be as bad. The other part with Marco is the durability. He’s never made 30 starts. He gives you 20-some starts. When he’s pitching, he can go out there and pitch some low-hit, low-run games.”
Jim Henderson performed well in his first full season as closer, but Melvin hinted he could acquire another reliever with closing experience to provide the team with insurance at an ever-changing position.
“I think you are going to put your bullpen together and then in June and July you are going to put it together again because a guy blows three saves and everybody will be panicking and jumping off balconies,” Melvin said. “There’s teams that are in the postseason that are worried about their bullpens. That’s why I like to have people that have had experience. Mike Gonzalez had some experience in it. I’d feel comfortable if Brandon Kintzler had to go out and finish a few games. Jim Henderson has done the job there, but we’ll probably look to see if there’s someone out there that has experience.
“If you look at 2008, we didn’t have anyone who saved 30 games. Salomon Torres was 28, and we had a bunch of guys save 8 to 12 to 13. They will go through tough times. It’s one of the toughest jobs in sports.”
Finally, Melvin was asked how far away the current roster was from competing and possibly making a deep run next year.
“You have to have a lot of talent,” Melvin said. “You look over in the other dugout and we were a little short on talent at times. Everything has to go right for you. You can’t afford injuries, you can’t have things happen. That may be next year too, but we’re going to work hard at it, we are going to be smart, we can’t give up wins in May because they come back at the end of the year.
“We have to win games in our division. We have three tough teams in our division. We have to be out there every day when we play those teams. We have to have our best people on the field when we play teams in our division because they mean something. They are like double wins or two games. Are we as talented as we’ve been in the past? Probably not. We aren’t at that point yet.
“We have to get better, and we have to play better. It comes down to the personnel we put on the field and our preparation to play every game as a meaningful game. We have a responsibility for as much talent as we can on the field. Can we win with this roster? Yeah, we can win with the roster we have. Again, a lot of things have to go right, the younger players have to take the next step in development and our best players have to be on the field. I think if our best players are on the field and our young guys take that next step, we can be there.”