Although the offseason has barely begun, the Milwaukee Brewers are already making their plans for this time next year. Rebuilding, retooling, or reloading; call it whatever you like but that's what the Brewers are using the 2010 season to do.
While this may be hard for fans to swallow only a year after making the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, it's a harsh reality of being a small or mid-market team in the current baseball economy. The Brewers simply cannot hope to compete for the playoffs year in and year out.
Critics will say if the Brewers aren't trying to win a championship while they have Prince Fielder that they should just trade him now for the best package. However, the plan is for the Brewers to make their biggest push for a championship in 2011. If they are unable to sign Fielder, then they will at least have a foundation to continue competing after his departure. It's also the right thing for Brewers' GM Doug Melvin to do.
The team will spend 2010 having several members of their roster adjusting to life in the majors. Carlos Gomez, Alcides Escobar, and Jonathan Lucroy will all be 24 or younger next year. They will all be thrown into the fire of playing on a major league roster, each with significant roles.
Gomez and Escobar will take over for Mike Cameron and JJ Hardy at very difficult defensive positions. They will also have the freedom to fail and grow from those failures since they will be counted on as the unquestioned starter at their respective positions. Each will have many stumbles throughout the year, but both are talented enough to overcome any obstacle and become stars for many years to come.
Doug Melvin has come out in the past few days praising the play of prospect Jonathan Lucroy. Melvin is comfortable with giving Lucroy a spot on the big league roster in spring. Jason Kendall's departure is all but a certainty, so Lucroy will make the jump from Double-A Huntsville to the Brewers.
Lucroy had a very good year at Huntsville and has followed that up by playing superbly in the Arizona Fall League. It's not unheard of to have a catcher jump from Double-A to the majors, but he will have his work cut out for him. He may not catch every day, but he will likely see significant time with either Mike Rivera or another veteran back-stop the Brewers sign.
Lucroy may struggle with his bat early on, but it is unlikely he would perform any worse at the plate than Jason Kendall did in 2009. His main objective will be to learn the pitching staff and continue improving behind the plate.
While the Brewers have some cash to spend this winter, they will have a significantly more to spend next year. The contracts of Jeff Suppan and Bill Hall will finally be off the team's books. The team will only need to spend $2 million to buyout the option year on Suppan's deal. Another $250K will get them out from under David Riskie's contract as well.
The team will also face up to a $1 million buyout on Trevor Hoffman's deal. If they Brewers have no internal candidates to take over his role, it's like they would keep Hoffman provide he's healthy and effective for the entire 2010 season.
Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and Yovani Gallardo will all be arbitration eligible, but the team will also be welcoming prospects like Angel Salome and Lorenzo Cain. Others like Brett Lawrie, Jeremy Jeffress, Taylor Green, and Zach Braddock may also be ready for roles on the team by Opening Day 2011.
All of those incoming talents will team with the veterans to provide a relatively inexpensive payroll. Given generous arbitration raises to those eligible, taking into account all the minimum contracts due to the young players, and picking up Hoffman's option, the Brewers could have a payroll of around $60 million needing to round out their roster with two to three pitchers.
The free agent pitching market next winter may be one of the best in the recent memory. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett, Brandon Webb, Jorge de la Rosa, Joe Blanton, Javier Vazquez, and Aaron Harang are all potential free agents at the end of the upcoming season.
Halladay currently stands as the top dog of the market and will easily command a CC Sabathia-like contract. If Milwaukee doesn't make a play on him, they would no doubt be able to match almost any other contract offered to the remaining pitchers on that list.
The Brewers could pair one or two of those pitchers with Yovani Gallardo and have quite a formdable rotation. Their lineup would feature a good balance of speed and power, youth and experience. It is a similar formula that saw Milwaukee win the NL Wild Card in 2008.
Having between $20-25 million to spend on pitching would make the Brewers a major player in the free agent market. That number could drop if the Brewers sign anyone to a multi-year deal this winter, but they would still have a large amount to go after a marquee pitcher.
Giving a pitcher a one-year deal this winter will leave Melvin with a lot of wiggle room throughout the season. If the pitcher performs well, the Brewers would have the inside track of retaining his services in 2011. If the team happens to falter but the pitcher is having a good season, Melvin could trade him to a contender to help restock the organization's farm system.
If the Brewers are indeed taking a similar approach to this, fans shouldn't feel like 2010 will be a wasted year. Any lineup with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of it will score a lot of runs. Trevor Hoffman closing games will make sure Milwaukee doesn't blow many games in the ninth inning. Yovani Gallardo should continue to establish himself as a top young pitcher in the league. His numbers will improve given the team provides him with more run support.
Acquiring a big-name pitcher to team with Gallardo would also shift the foundation of the Brewers franchise long-term. The focus would change from a power-hitting, station-to-station team with mediocre pitching to a balanced hitting team with strong starting pitching. The team will continue to be enhanced in that area for several years into the future with a farm system currently stocked with young power arms.
Fans may feel the Brewers have no chance of ever winning a World Series if Prince Fielder were to eventually leave. There is no doubt that it would be very difficult, but Doug Melvin needs to continue to look at the big picture and plan for every possible scenario. The short-term may see a decline in on-the-field performance in 2010, only to see the team rebound and be a very legitimate contender to bring a World Series title back to Milwaukee.
To read more by Jesse Motiff, click here .