Milwaukee Brewers Face Decisions After Acquiring Felipe Lopez

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Milwaukee Brewers Face Decisions After Acquiring Felipe Lopez

And so it begins.

Doug Melvin was way too quiet at the tail end of the All-Star break for things to stay put over the weekend.  He was very mysterious and indirect while addressing media questions.  

It was announced yesterday that Felipe Lopez is joining the Brewers after being acquired from Arizona.

The news was already covered by many of the site contributors, so instead of rehashing old news, I would like to examine the choices the Brewers are facing now that they have added a legitimate lead-off hitter in Lopez.

In my opinion, what happens next will likely chart the direction in which the Brewers head for years to come.  Make no mistake about it, Melvin is holding the key to making a very big decision, maybe one of the biggest in the franchise's recent history.  It is a decision that will determine the long-term fortunes of a team that lives in the smallest market in the majors.

One may wonder why I put things in such dramatic fashion, so I ask you to bear with me for a few minutes so I can defend my position.

I would like to go back to the Felipe Lopez trade for a moment and review the significance it carries.  Most experts, including those from the biggest media outlets, regard this trade as a minor improvement for the Brewers.  Most Web sites had the news buried on the MLB page and it rarely made the headlines.

Now, on paper this trade is quite insignificant, but for those who follow the Brewers closely it should be a signal for things to come. Furthermore, it should be a signal that Doug Melvin is thinking long-term and in perspective.

After losing Rickie Weeks for the remainder of the season, the Brewers have been in a position of struggle in terms of finding a true lead-off hitter who possesses speed around the bases.  Ken Macha tested his available options with Hart, Kendall, McGehee, and even Counsell taking turns at batting first.  No one was able to establish themselves enough to be considered the season-long solution.

The fact that the aforementioned players were tested at the top of the order also brought imbalance to the bottom half of the lineup. After Prince Fielder, the Brewers have had a very hard time getting hits consistently.  In fact, I am having difficulty remembering the last time a game was won with the essential help of players from the bottom of the lineup.

Hart has had a very inconsistent season even if there are signs that he may be starting to come around.  Kendall has had a handful of good games, but his overall performance at the plate has been quite bad.  Cameron started the season very hot, then cooled off to the extent that Miller Park's roof had to stay open for him to begin defrosting.  Then there is JJ Hardy.  Well, for him I plan to dedicate an entire paragraph because I consider him to be in the center of the big decision Melvin has on his hands.

So with Lopez now leading the order, Ken Macha will have the opportunity to drop McGehee down in the lineup in hopes that he can maintain his high on-base percentage and create some balance after Fielder. 

Another advantage is the fact that Counsell will not have to play every game as a starter. He can help an atrocious bench that would have likely had a higher batting average if Gallardo had picked up a bat and had started pinch hitting.

And considering the Brewers only gave up two players that never really had starting jobs anyway, the move makes all the more sense.

But there is one other thing this trade is signaling for the Brewers this season. The Brewers do not intend to be sellers.  They may decide that they will not be buyers either, but acquiring Lopez shows the desire of Melvin, Macha, and Attanasio to put a winning product on the field and give the postseason another shot in 2009, if the opportunity arises.

And here is where Melvin needs to make a big decision that will affect the team for years to come.  As most fans know, and as some experts have noted, the Brewers are considered to be in the running for the prime pitcher on the market, Roy Halladay.  Like last season with CC Sabathia, they are looking to land the available ace on the market.

But to bring Halladay to Milwaukee, the Brewers have to trade Alcides Escobar.  There is no way around it.  Toronto needs a shortstop, and Escobar is likely the only player who can make this trade work.  

In fact, if Escobar is included by Melvin, the Brewers become the dark horse to land Halladay, with the only problem being the lack of an established young pitching prospect in the minors to accompany Escobar on his trip to Toronto.   Nonetheless, there have been a number of young pitching prospects drafted by the Brewers over the past two years who can make a deal work.

It is also likely that Toronto will ask for Gamel, and if Melvin is serious about acquiring Halladay he will have to give him up, as well.

Many people talk about offering JJ Hardy instead of Escobar.  That would be great, but no general manager in their right mind would do such a thing.

I keep reading on boards and blogs how unhappy fans are with his performance.  Well, guess what: the remaining teams in Major League Baseball are not blind and see what Brewers fans see.

That is, JJ is in a slump.

If the Brewers traded Hardy today, they would likely have a hard time packaging him as the main trade bait for a player like Doug Davis, much less for Halladay.

The value Hardy possesses is very low at the moment and barring an enormous improvement over the next few weeks, the team will not be able to get more than just an average player.

The same thing goes for Corey Hart.  

Both players are hurting Milwaukee at the moment, depriving the team from being able to package one or both of them for a player of Halladay's caliber and still keep the top prospects available in the farm system.

So what Melvin does in the next few days will determine the direction of the Brewers for years to come.  How so you are still wondering.

Well, let's examine two scenarios independently.

"I PRESENT TO YOU ROY HALLADAY"

Yes, those are likely Melvin's words after spending four prospects—Alcides Escobar and Mat Gamel likely included—on the highly touted Blue Jays ace.  The Brewers immediately become a favorite in the National League with a one-two of Halladay and Gallardo and as of a few days ago an offense that finally found a lead-off hitter.

Halladay has okayed the trade seeing that the Brewers are trying to improve by bringing in Lopez and noticing that Attanasio and Melvin are ready to go for it this and next year with a core of players that has gained invaluable postseason experience a year ago.

At the end of the year, if the Brewers get deep enough into the playoffs, Halladay may decide that he wants to stay for the last year of his contract.  But if the Brewers do not get to the World Series, he may ask to be traded.

Now, wait a minute.  "Wouldn't he be tied up with the club through the end of next season?" you might ask.

Yes, he still would have one year left on his contract, but a little rule written in small font at the bottom of one of the pages in the MLB rules book specifies that he has the right to ask to be traded.  Even Melvin admitted that, which gives away how serious the Brewers are looking into the possibility of acquiring the Toronto ace.

But what is more important is what happens after this trade goes through.  And I will break this into long-term and short-term consequences.

Short-term Consequences:

The Brewers make the playoffs for a second straight year.  Both the attendance and merchandise records fall and the number of season tickets for next year spikes up. Attanasio now has more cash to make moves with the hope of establishing the Brewers as a perennial contender and generating even more fans around the country.

The core of current players stays put through next year in search for a title.

Long-term Consequences:

Halladay does not resign with the Brewers and is picked up by the Yankees or one of the other rich clubs that can afford to outbid Milwaukee for the ace. The Brewers get two early compensatory draft picks for losing a class A player. Melvin also tries to go after Prince Fielder but Boras does not allow it and the Prince of Milwaukee becomes the Prince of some other town.

Gallardo signs a contract extension topping that of Ryan Braun's and the likes of Parra and likely Rickie Weeks—barring a successful recovery—also agree to terms with the Brewers. JJ Hardy is also kept as the team struggles to find another established SS in the absence of Escobar.

Free agents become the primary source of new roster additions due to the void left in the minors.  Escobar, Gamel, and two more prospects are already gone, and there is no prepared next wave of players to replace the departing stars.

The Brewers struggle on and off the field with many season ticket holders from previous years giving up their passes as they do not anticipate the team to remain competitive.  If the Brewers win a title with Halladay, the tide effect will likely be less severe but how can anyone guarantee this when the Red Sox and Yankees can afford to have three players like Halladay on their rosters and still have financial flexibility?

This is one scenario that brings short-term rewards that help the team establish its brand, but it is also a move that wagers the future of the clubs in the long-run.

"WE ARE STICKING WITH WHAT WE HAVE AND BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE"

Here the difference between the short-term and long-term status of the team is not as drastic as it would be if the Brewers are to trade for Halladay, hence no separation is necessary.  The predictions are also my personal ones, and nothing is guaranteed or certain but they are what common wisdom and historical data suggests will happen.

The above quote is once again attributed to Doug Melvin, but this time while answering questions from the Milwaukee media regarding why the Brewers did not go for an ace pitcher after the trade deadline passes.  This scenario does not eliminate the possibility of the Brewers acquiring a good arm in, say, Davis or Garland, but it does eliminate the possibility of trading Escobar and Gamel to get them.

Milwaukee likely does not make the playoffs this year, and in the midst of an economic downturn a major portion of the season ticketholders either do not return or simply buy smaller packages for the following season.  The Brewers offload a number of players in the offseason and promote both Gamel and Escobar to start the year.  

With the contracts of Suppan and Hall expiring at the end of the 2010 season the Brewers are able to plan for the future as they make a legitimate offer to Prince Fielder, which he likely turns down.  The Brewers focus on rebuilding and putting together a new wave of players who they hope will follow the current core in the footsteps.  

Ryan Braun, Alcides Escobar, Mat Gamel, Angel Salome, Lorenzo Cain, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Manny Parra form the new core and with a few experienced players added to the mix stay competitive in the division for a number of years.

Any specific predictions are off limits as no one can predict exactly what will happen with players like Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy and Corey Hart and what the Brewers will be able to get in exchange should they decide to trade them.  But if the aforementioned rotation is what the Brewers have in hand, with the likely addition of top prospects through the above mentioned trades, the Brewers should be in good shape to compete again in a few years.  

The big question is whether the fan base will remain loyal in the meantime and how that will affect the desire of Mark Attanasio to further invest in the team.  

I can all but guarantee one thing, however.  If fans continue filling the seats at Miller Park the way they have been over the past couple of seasons, the team has a very bright future ahead of it regardless of the direction chosen by Doug Melvin.

Milwaukee fans need to prove they are ready to be loyal and not withdraw after the first pains suffered by the team occur.  You may consider this to be a one-sided statement considering the financial situation in the country and the state of the economy in Wisconsin, but the Milwaukee Brewers are here for the ride, and they hope their fans are, too.  

If things go as hoped the price fans will be paying at the gates will not be too high for the type of entertainment the Brewers will be able to offer.

 

 

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