As the Milwaukee Brewers got further away from the glory days of the early 1980s, new faces emerged from the pack as great players.
Starting in 1994, the Brewers put together new uniforms and a bunch of talented younger players, and soon enough they looked like they were headed in the right direction. By 2000, the Brewers had jettisoned most of these players, as well as the uniforms, and were on their way to Miller Park.
Nothing had changed, and the Brewers were still bad and getting worse. Based on the talent on those rosters of the mid to late 1990s, one would think that the Brewers would have been in the playoffs at least once. However, this was not the case, and there are a few reasons why.
Scott Karl and Cal Eldred were mainstays in the rotation for most of the 1990s, but neither was a top of the rotation starter, as they were relied upon to be. Eldred was a health risk, only making 25 starts 2 times from 1994-1999. Karl made 30 starts per season from 1996-1999, but never had an E.R.A. better than 4.40. Despite this, the 2 combined for 85 wins from in the last 6 seasons of the 1990s. The fact that they were the top of the rotation shows how bad the rotations were. Even the good seasons put up by starters never lasted. Ricky Bones had a 3.43 E.R.A in 1994, but went just 17-26 in 2 seasons after. Ben McDonald had a 3.90 E.R.A. in 1996, but made just 21 starts in 1997. Jose Mercedes' 3.79 E.R.A. in 1997 was followed by just 5 starts and a 6.75 E.R.A. in 1998. Only 5 pitchers got to 200 innings in those 6 seasons, despite 12 10-win seasons among the starters in that span, and 21 different pitchers had at least 10 starts in a season in those 6 years.
The bullpen was better, but not by much. Mike Fetters had a sub-4.00 E.R.A. from 1994-1997, but only reached 30 saves once. Bullpen relievers are counted on for great pitching to help boost a ballclub, but only in 1997 and 1998 did the Brewers have at least 4 relievers pitch 25 games with an E.R.A. under 4.00. For every good season by a reliever, there were some stinkers put up: Jaime Navarro's 6.62 E.R.A. in 1994, 5 relievers with over 5.00 E.R.A. in 1995, or Ramon Garcia's 6.66 and Marshall Boze's 7.79 E.R.A. in 1996. Doug Jones, Eric Plunk, Mike Myers, and David Weathers all had their E.R.A. jump at least a run and a half from one season to the next. 3 seasons had a closer reach 30 saves, but that was about the high point during this run.
There were good players on these teams, but health was a big problem. Cal Eldred got to 30 starts once in 6 years, Jeff D'Amico missed 2 full seasons, while Paul Wagner, Teddy Higuera, and Chad Fox among others were injury-plagued in this span, The injuries weren't just limited to the pitching staff. Injuries among the position players really hurt the team. Starting 1st baseman John Jaha played 90 games once from 1994-1998, which sapped the Brewers of a power bat. Starting 2nd baseman Fernando Vina missed half the season in 1997 and 1999, the same years that starting shortstop Jose Valentin missed significant time. Power hitting Dave Nilsson played more than 125 games once in 6 seasons, and shortstop Pat Listach missed 235 games in his 3 seasons. These injuries forced guys like Turner Ward, Matt Mieske, Ronnie Belliard, and Alex Ochoa to see major playing time, and production suffered.
Errors give the other team extra outs to work with, and are usually very costly. Part of the problem with these Brewer teams was too many errors. From 1994-1999, the Brewers were at or above the league average in errors. 1996 was especially bad, as Fernando Vina, Jose Valentin, Jeff Cirillo, and Ben McDonald led their positions in fielding errors, with Valentin having 15 more errors than any other American League player. Jeromy Burnitz, Scott Karl, Sid Roberson, John Jaha, and Ronnie Belliard spent seasons in the top 5 in errors at their given positions. Jose Valentin had 5 out of 6 seasons with at least 20 errors, and never had a fielding percentage higher than .971. Jeff Cirillo had 5 seasons with at least 10 errors, while Fernando Vina, Mark Loretta, and Kevin Seitzer each had 2 seasons with 10 errors.
Management can take some of the blame for the lack of success in the 90s. Although there were some good moves made, including trading for Jeromy Burnitz, Marquis Grissom, Bob Wickman, Alex Ochoa, and signing Doug Jones and David Weathers, there were just as many missteps. Seasons were hurt by Bryan Harper, who played just 64 games in 1994, David Hulse, who hit .243 in 2 seasons, Rob Dibble, who had an 8.25 E.R.A. in 1995, Mike Potts and his 7.15 E.R.A. in 1996, Jack Voigt, who hit .245, Jeff Huson, who hit .203, Chuck Carr, who hit .130, Julio Franco, who hit .241, Mark Davis and his 5.51 E.R.A., all in 1997, Bob Hamelin, who hit .219 in 1998, and Sean Berry, who hit .228 in 1999.
In the process the Brewers traded away cleanup hitter Greg Vaughn, solid reliever Graeme Lloyd, third baseman Kevin Seitzer, closer Mike Fetters, and starting catcher Mike Matheny, followed by the mass exodus after 1999 that included hitters Fernando Vina, Jose Valentin, Dave Nilsson, Jeff Cirillo, Alex Ochoa, and Brian Banks, and pitchers Cal Eldred, Scott Karl, Bill Pulsipher, Mike Myers, Al Reyes, and Hideo Nomo.
Management tried for years to fix the starting pitching problem, blowing through Brian Givens, Paul Wagner, Jeff Juden, Jim Abbott, Hideo Nomo, Jason Bere, Bill Pulsipher, Brad Woodall, Ben McDonald, Joel Adamson, Bryce Florie, Pete Harnisch, and Tim VanEgmond without much success.
All it takes is a couple of losing streaks to ruin a once-promising season. Unfortunately, the Phil Garner Brewers experienced awful play after the all-star break in almost every season, and it tanked good yet inconsistent play from the team. The 1994 team sandwiched 33-26 play between a 14-game losing streak, and a 3-8 August before the strike. 1995 saw the team in 2nd place at 58-54 on August 27th, before tanking the last month at 7-25. In 1996, the team was 55-57 on August 5, before losing 9 in a row, then finished at 80-82. 1997 was the closest the team came to the playoffs, at 70-67, 2 1/2 games back of the Indians on September 2nd, then stumbled to 8-16 in September to finish in 3rd place. Then, after playing to the tune of 57-55 in 1998, the Brewers went 17-33 down the stretch. Finally, 1999 saw the Brewers 47-47 on July 22nd, before sliding to the tune of 27-40 and the firing of Phil Garner.