When Losing Just is Not Enough for the Milwaukee Brewers

Boris YovchevCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 19:  J.J. Hardy #7 of the Milwaukee Brewers in the field against the New York Mets at Citi Field on April 19, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Have you ever opened a sports web site and read something that made you wish you could scream at the top of your lungs so that everyone could hear you?

It happened to me a few days ago when I realized that another bizarre situation was stirred involving my favorite baseball franchise.

Just when Milwaukee Brewers fans thought that things could not possibly get any worse this season the organization decided to prove them wrong.

For those unaware of the situation, the problem stemmed from the public reaction of Milwaukee shortstop JJ Hardy related to the time he had to spend in the minors. The player did not hesitate to express his vocal discontent with the Brewers and the way the club treated him.  

The organization sent Hardy down to the minors after the team suffered a disastrous defeat at Miller Park on August 11. The move was bundled with the firing of pitching coach Bill Castro and the designation for assignment of Bill Hall who was subsequently traded to Seattle.

The explanation given to Hardy was that he needed to work on his swing and to improve his confidence. Knowing that he had hit for a .221 average in the prior months the action taken by the Brewers did not warrant any further defending or explanation.

But it did raise questions related to the timing of such a move. And these questions were begging for answers.

On the day following Hardy's demotion, local reporters revealed that if JJ were to stay in the minors until the rosters expanded at the beginning of September (in other words for a period longer than 20 days) he would lose enough service time with the Brewers this season that the team's right of ownership of the former All-Star shortstop would automatically extend through the 2011 season. 

In other words, Hardy would be locked for an extra season without having personally agreed to such terms. Of course, this is part of the rules in baseball and if someone is to blame for the existence of such back doors it is Major League Baseball, and not the different franchises.

Nevertheless, the Brewers had a decision to make.

They knew that the shortstop had a year bad enough from statistical standpoint that his trading value was significantly affected. They knew that sending him to the minors for longer than 20 days would increase the player's contract period with the club, thus increasing his diminished value in the eyes of clubs that may be interested in trading for him during the offseason.

All of the new information that came out suggested that Melvin and company would indeed keep Hardy down for long enough to make him more tradeable for someone valuable.

After all a decision to keep Hardy down until September would best suit the club. Or at least that is what it looked like at a first glance.

At the time of Hardy's demotion, impeding his situation even further was the fact that the Brewers had a player in the minors ready to take the reins at shortstop. Alcides Escobar has been marketed as not only the top prospect in the Brewers organization, but also as the most well regarded young players in all of baseball.

The move gave the organization the option to test a young player in the big leagues while accumulating additional value in Hardy by having him spend enough time in the minors to extend his contract period.

The Brewers, and Doug Melvin in particular, never bothered concealing the fact that Escobar, and not Hardy, was the future at the shortstop position in Milwaukee.

So after the Brew Crew sent JJ down, and after the player spoke with his agent, it became clear that the relationship between player and club was on the verge of collapse.

As expected, Hardy was recalled on September 1 and even if Doug Melvin declined that the timing of his shortstop's demotion was purposely chosen so he would spend exactly twenty days in Nashville, there were few buyers.

It is great that the Brewers took advantage of a rule created by the league, which gives clubs more leverage in their dealings with players, but one thing Melvin underestimated was the closure of JJ with his major league teammates.

Knowing how close the clubhouse was in the past, and how tight the relationship is among the young Brewers stars, one would logically be concerned that what transpired would provoke consequences beyond losing the trust of Hardy in the organization.

With only Ryan Braun under a long-term contract, one has to wonder if the opinion of some other younger stars changed based on the way the Brewers treated their teammate. Prince Fielder was rumored to be upset with the club prior to last season when the Brewers offered a big contract to Braun, but not to him.

Gallardo, Parra, Hart, and the next wave of players coming through the organization may now be more aware that Melvin and the club might not have their backs.

None of the players would publicly admit to leaving town due to what they just witnessed, but in sports excuses are easy to find. And when a franchise is aiming to create some momentum in a small market, it is essential that there is great respect between the club and its players.

This may no longer be the case.

The reasonable question to ask is whether the Brewers believe they would receive a player in return for Hardy who will be so good as to give the team a pulse in another playoff push next season?

Does one extra year of ownership really provide another franchise with a reason good enough to trade a solid arm that would help the suffering Brewers starting rotation? Was it worth wagering the chances of the organization to retain at least some of its young stars over a move that appears underhanded?

Doug Melvin, I am looking in your direction.

I am far from the thought that Hardy was right to complain about money or contracts at this point. No, he did not agree to having his term with the Brewers increased by a season, but by virtue of playing horrific baseball all season he deserved his fate.

I have always said that players have too much leverage in terms of putting pressure on clubs to sign them to unthinkable long-term deals. And if you are a starting shortstop who just recently made it to the All-star game you should expect to have a short leash in terms of producing at the level Hardy did.

But this is not about contract negotiations and pay. It is about taking advantage of the rules without being direct with your players. Melvin never told Hardy that his plan was to keep him in Nashville for longer than twenty days.

So while the move by itself was completely justified it was the way Melvin went about the matter that could irritate a certain group of players.

The Brewers are not exactly one of the franchises with a fat wallet to afford having a stain next to the team's logo. They are also not geographically located in an area that attracts players to sign with the team all other things alike.

So now, not only are the Brewers the team with the worst ERA and overall pitching in baseball—only 56 starting rotations have finished with a higher ERA than the Brewers currently hold since 1954—but also the club is being labeled as being underhanded in its relationship with players. 

For the Brewers, this season has resembled a movie in which the main character somehow overcomes being eaten by the big and hungry shark early, only to realize that there is no ship coming to the rescue later, leading to an inevitable tragic ending.

Hopefully the tragic ending will not carry over to the next few seasons.


Boris Yovchev is a Milwaukee Brewers Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report and a supporter of the children's story "A Glove of Their Own."

"A Glove of Their Own" is the award winning children's story that teaches Pay It Forward through baseball and is being supported by Louisville Slugger, International Baseball Federation, iFungo, Rawlings, Modells, as well as players and coaches including Jason Grilli, Joe Torre, Luis Tiant, Dick Drago, Ken Griffey, Craig Biggio, and Sean Casey.

Please visit www.agloveoftheirown.com for more information.


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