Melvin can maintain as well as rebuild

MILWAUKEE — When Brewers general manager Doug Melvin took over in late September 2002, after another disappointing season in Milwaukee, the city had meager expectations for its baseball team. A decade straight of losing seasons will do that.

So when Melvin set out to rebuild the Brewers, he started with a seemingly simple goal in winning back the city of Milwaukee.

“When I first took this job,” Melvin said, “I said my goal was to have a team that was more popular than the sausage race.”

Nine years later, Melvin’s team was dripping head to toe in champagne, having won an NL Central title and earned its second trip to the playoffs in four seasons. Melvin’s rebuilding plan paid off.

In a small market, having inherited a team that was known for its history of losing, Melvin’s push to make Milwaukee a contender was an inspired one. And on Tuesday, he and manager Ron Roenicke were justly rewarded for their efforts, signing extensions that could keep both of them here through 2015. In Melvin’s case especially, that extension could make a big difference in the future of the Brewers organization.

Last year was an especially interesting segment of Melvin’s plan to construct a franchise that can compete year in and year out. He traded away top prospects Alcides Escobar and Brett Lawrie, somewhat controversially, to bolster the pitching staff with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum — moves that paid off in the short term for a team that decided it wanted to win now. Although both of those players might become big-time contributors in the majors, the moves finally put the Brewers over the hump. They were the right — albeit tough — moves to make.

And now, over the hump with an extension through at least 2015, comes the hardest part of building a franchise from the ground up: staying there.

“Everybody gets challenged when you have success,” Melvin said Tuesday. “That’s why there’s never any dynasties in sports anymore. There’s very few in all four major sports.”

This season, with a record that has put the team in the NL Central cellar for the time being, those challenges have already started to roll in.

Three season-ending injuries have decimated the Brewers’ regulars, as the team is now forced to use fill-ins at shortstop and first base and a long reliever in the fifth-starter spot. Early losses like that can doom a team before the summer months even begin. But Melvin is rightly apprehensive to make drastic moves too quickly.

That’s the kind of approach principal owner Mark Attanasio has grown to appreciate in his general manager as well as in Roenicke.

“With both of them,” Attanasio said, “the demeanor is not a lot different whether we win or lose, and you need that in this sport, both because you have so much failure and because it’s a day-to-day grind. Neither guy gets too high or too low, and that’s important now because this is a time to be low.”

How the Brewers respond to this latest low could be the most important move Melvin has made yet. Trades or free-agent signings this early in the season are unlikely, but near the halfway point, if the Brewers trail by single-digit games in the NL Central, you can count on some kind of deal being made to bolster the lineup. Such a move could put the team over the hump again and push it into the playoffs. Or, as always, it could have the opposite effect.

That’s how thin the line is between contender and pretender in the major leagues. One or two decisions can quickly change everything.

“It’s an ongoing challenge to manage it to the point that you don’t put your team at risk,” Attanasio said.

Now, with the expectations of an up-and-coming franchise and a baseball team more popular than its own sausage race — the Brewers are at a crucial point in their existence as a franchise. Being on the cusp as a major league baseball team is an awfully fickle position to be in.

But in his nearly 10 years in Milwaukee, Melvin has shown that he’s the right man to navigate a team in that spot, especially one that he built up from rock bottom.

And if this year and the three remaining years of Melvin’s contract go as planned, the Brewers may never have to see what rock bottom looks like again.

Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.