Re-Branding the Brewers

By - Nov 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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By John Shivers

Twelve years ago, I wrote a column for the local weekly that asked a simple question: can we build the park and lose the Seligs? Needless to say, it didn’t exactly make me a favored member of the Milwaukee Brewer press corps. Still, I believed that the then-heated issue of a new Miller Park was really two separate issues – did Milwaukee need to build a new baseball park (arguably, yes) and did the state of Wisconsin have to bail out Bud Selig for his financial losses (arguably, no).

Yet, a dozen years later, the Brewers and their long-suffering fans are looking at a brave new world – major league baseball without the Seligs. What will it look like? Will it be better? Will the new ownership spend to build a winner?

You’d have to think that the new guy in charge will increase the payroll from its present $27.5 million status, currently the lowest in the National League. Commish Selig likes to trot out so-called “small market” teams like Oakland and Minnesota as proof that it’s not all about the money. Still, the A’s were defeated in the American League West by the free-spending Anaheim Angels, and those plucky Twins have been dispatched by the New York Yankees (a.k.a. The Best Team Money Can Buy) in each of the last two playoff seasons.

In the case of the Brewers, it can certainly be argued that they got what they paid for – a miserable offensive club that finished last in the league in batting average (.248), slugging percentage (.387) and tied for last in home runs (135). Manager Ned Yost did a superlative job in the first half of the 2004 season, but the team’s subsequent slide after the All-Star break was one of the worst in major league history.

Who should stay and who should go?

The Brewers’ best offensive player was first baseman Lyle Overbay, but he may be merely filling the position until Prince Fielder makes it to Milwaukee. All of the highly prized farm talent is still a year or so away, so the Brewers are not looking at seriously contending for a 2005 playoff berth.

A key question is which Scott Podsednik will show up next season – the sparkplug who emerged from minor league obscurity two years ago or the slumping sophomore who couldn’t make adjustments last season? The answer might be somewhere in between, which would make finding a new leadoff man/center fielder a top priority.

Off the top of my head, I see three positions where the Brewers need immediate help: third base, right field and catcher – if not in that particular order. Wes Helms played his way out of consideration at the hot corner, and his replacement Russell Branyan is a strikeout machine – another in a long line of Brewer mascots from Gorman Thomas to Rob Deer.

While the top free agents will likely be out of Milwaukee’s price range, a couple of middle-tier stars could make a big splash in the Brewer lineup next season. Anaheim’s Troy Glaus might be too expensive, but the Twins’ Corey Koskie could solve the lack of production at third base. Similarly, the A’s Jermaine Dye would be a substantial improvement in right field. Maybe Brewer fans can take heart from last year’s off-season where big name free agents like Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada signed with smaller market teams.

With two more big boppers in the lineup, the offensive struggles of catcher Chad Moeller would be easier to take. Yes, the Brewers could use a better bat at the position, but Manager Yost and pitching coach Mike Maddux love the way Moeller handles the pitching staff. And there aren’t that many good hitting catchers available, anyway.

Elsewhere in the lineup.

It appears that J.J. Hardy will be given every opportunity to win the everyday job at shortstop with Craig Counsell being held over, in case the kid struggles in spring training. The Brewers’ top prospect, Rickie Weeks, should be up in the Milwaukee lineup by mid-season. Keep an eye on Weeks, playing in the Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Junior Spivey will likely be dangled in the off-season for more pitching, while the likable Bill Hall is probably little more than a utility player in the Brewers’ future plans.

Geoff Jenkins is the incumbent left fielder, but his production tailed off markedly after signing a big contract last spring. Moreover, 20 of Jenkins’ 27 homers came with the bases empty. If No. 5 wants to stick around for the team’s turnaround, he’ll have to prove he’s worth the big bucks.

When it comes down to where new owner Mark Attanasio wants the biggest bang for his buck, he could make a big statement to Milwaukee fans by signing ace pitcher Ben Sheets to a new contract. Yes, he is the team’s best player and keeping him in a Brewers uniform would tell the fans that the bad old days of cheap baseball decisions are over. The improvements to the batting order would certainly help Sheets – the team scored a total of 19 runs in 14 of his losses.

Dan Kolb was a find and a great closer for the Brewers, but he’s eligible for arbitration and represented by uber-agent Scott Boras. A cheaper replacement might be found in Mike Adams.

And in the back office.

Doug Melvin has done a marvelous job as General Manager of making a meal out of other teams’ table scraps. He seems to have an eye for picking through discarded players and resurrecting their careers. Who know what he could do with a little more money?

Manager Ned Yost is a tougher call. He is well-liked, commands the clubhouse without being a tyrant and has that former catcher’s sense of how to handle a pitching staff. Still, Yost hasn’t been under much pressure to succeed in Milwaukee, where the bar has been set so low. Now that a new owner is in place and if more revenues are found, Yost could become a victim of those suddenly raised expectations. A slow start could find Yost on the hot seat.

So, what will the Brewers look like?

Sure, a new owner, a few choice free-agent pickups and a resigned Ben Sheets would make the team a lot more watchable next season. Why not take the opportunity to reconnect with the fans by bringing back the old Brewers logo? It’s been done successfully elsewhere – the Braves went back to their old colors and the tomahawk logo, and the Chicago White Sox shrugged off two decades of hideous uniforms to return to an update of their 1950’s pinstripes.

These days, it’s all about re-branding: taking an existing product and pumping up what people love about it. There are kids all over town wearing the old Brewer logo in retro-styled clothes. Everything old is new again. Bring it back.

And while you’re at it, Mr Attanasio, bring Molly and Robin, too. Winning ball clubs find a way to bring back their former stars in some capacity – witness Willie Mays and the Giants. Robin Yount and Paul Molitor are the Brewers for a good share of your fan base, Sir.

An Opening Day with Nos. 4 and 19 in Brewer pinstripes, an improved offense, Ben Sheets on the mound…sigh. How many days until pitchers and catchers report? VS

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