In Sunday's edition of the St. Petersburg Times, Marc Topkin brought up an interesting comparison between the Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers. It's a comparison I've been making since 2005 when Mark Attanasio revived the franchise after he purchased it from the cold dead hands of the Selig family. The Brewers have done many things right since then, and they have given the Rays many lessons learned on how to turn around a once dormant franchise. But even though the Brewers might just make the playoffs for the first time since 1982, they haven't won anything yet. And the Rays still have a way to go before the warm and fuzzy turnaround stories get printed.
I became a big Attanasio fan in 2005 when he wrangled away the ownership of the Brewers from Bud Selig, although technically it was Selig's daughter Wendy who owned the team. The Brewers were one of the biggest sad sacks of a franchise in the history of the baseball. Out of the playoffs since Journey and Asia dominated the charts, without a winning season since 1992, and sorely missing cult heroes such as Paul Molitor and Robin Yount the Brewers were the second-best example, behind the Devil Rays, of how not to run a ballclub when Attanasio took over.
Then he had a great idea: increase payroll, put a winning team on the field, and give the people of Milwaukee a reason to come to Miller Park other than watching the Cubs come to town. An amazing thing happened... the Brewers started winning and the people started to come. In 2005 the Brewers finished right at .500 for the first time since 1992 and finished in third place in the National League Central for the first time since 2000. Attendance rose from just over 2 million from a dismal 2004 season, to just over 2.2 million, a modest 10% increase. In 2006 the team slipped a bit, thanks mostly to injuries and inconsistent play from young players, but attendance rose some more to 2.3 million. For once, the Packers didn't completely dominate the airwaves in Milwaukee. Following the 2006 season, Milwaukee was abuzz on where the Brewers should go in 2007, and even if manager Ned Yost should go after the bump in the road that was 2006.
Yost is still there, as is general manager Doug Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash, two veterans of baseball front offices. The Brewers, boasting a lineup of some impressive young draft choices from a few years ago, are now in first place with a 25-14 record. With 616,742 people already entering Miller park for 21 home games, the Brewers are on pace to have just over 2.4 million fans in attendance this season. You can bet if the Brewers get closer to a playoff berth, that number will likely end up over 2.5 million for the first time since 2001 when Miller Park opened. Despite the Brewers' success so far, they haven't won the NL Central yet as they still need a couple more key pieces. And despite the good story the Brewers are becoming, just HOPING the Rays can become that good story is not enough.
One of the parallels the Rays have to the Brewers is the youthful exuberance of several top draft picks from past seasons. Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks were first-round picks in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Ben Sheets and Geoff Jenkins were selections in 1999 and 1995, respectively. The team also has a couple of youngsters, Tony Gwynn, Jr., and J.J. Hardy weren't top picks but they were selected in the top few rounds in recent years. Even though some of the star players on the team were early draft picks by the team, not all of the star players came up in the Brewers farm club.
The most interesting fact of this winning Brewers team is four of the five starting pitchers in the rotation came from elsewhere. David Bush came from Toronto in the Corey Koskie trade. Chris Capuano came from Arizona in the Richie Sexson trade. Claudio Vargas also came from a trade with Arizona, and Jeff Suppan was a free agent pickup this winter. The bullpen is also lacking homegrown talent, with no players in the pen coming through the farm system. This group is hardly the Atlanta Braves' staff of the 1990s, but they are the seventh-best in ERA and eighth-best in strikeouts so far this season.
Now I'm not saying young guys who came through the Rays' system can't be successful, and I also know not all of the players who are on the team now came just through the Rays' system. But the idea I'm trying to get across is you can't win entirely on youth, and especially just youth from your system. Sometimes you have to make a major trade for a big name with young players leaving, and sometimes you have to spend a big chunk of change for that influential player, especially when it's a pitcher. That leads me to my next point.
I hate to bring up the fact of payroll, but it is a factor in the comparison. In 2004, the Brewers had the lowest payroll in the majors at $27.5 million. In 2005, the payroll was bumped up to $39.9 million-- an increase of 45%. In 2006, the payroll was bumped up again to $57.5 million-- an increase of 44%. In 2007, the payroll is up 23% to just under $71 million. Do you see a trend here? For the Brewers to finally become a winning team with the right mix of youth and veterans, the payroll has increased about 157% since 2004. The Rays' payroll has gone DOWN 18.3% since 2004, and it is currently the lowest in the majors.
Keeping in line with Stuart Sternberg's plan to "not spend for the sake of spending", the Brewers are a model franchise. When Carlos Lee didn't think the Brewers' massive contract was good enough, the team sent him to Texas for two key elements on the team now in Cordero and Kevin Mench. Free agent Suppan, with a 5-3 record and 3.00 ERA, comes at half the price ($6.25 million) as often-injured ace Sheets. A legitimate closer in Cordero costs $5.4 million. A dependable, but not great, left-handed reliever in Brian Shouse costs a whopping $975,000. It is possible, with some good scouting and a clear drive to fill a team's needs, to find and keep veteran players without overpaying.
The Brewers do have a better stadium, and 35 years of history to back them, but the investment had to be made by Attanasio first. Even though there was no guarantee an increased payroll would pay dividends in 2005, the $12.4 million invested sent the long-suffering fans the message that they wouldn't have to wait for the future to come. The future was now in 2005, and it appears to be delivering in 2007.
The Brewers also have the good fortune of playing in the NL Central, something the Rays do not. The Brewers have a great 17-8 record against division opponents, while no other team in the division has a winning record. Thanks in part to mediocre pitching by the division rivals, and attrocious hitting with exception to the Cubs, the Brewers have feasted on the Central and will likely do so again in the fall when the unbalanced schedule lines up the Brewers with division roadkill again.
While the Rays have no control over which division they play in, and trust me there will be no switch to another division any time soon if ever, they can match up against division rivals with an increased payroll and some free agent acquisitions in weak areas (specifically the pitching staff). With the current plan of going youth-heavy, will the Rays truly fight for a division title in two or three years? Or should they look at how the Brewers built a (so far) winning team, one that actually DID take two to three years to start impressing people?
I suppose in two or three years we'll know.
Other notes from Raysland:
- Stuart Sternberg is a very smart man, and a very shrewd businessman. He also learned a major lesson last week when the whole stadium discussion blew up in the Rays' face. With the instant information from the internet, what is said to a reporter in New York can be read by someone in St. Pete just hours later. Even if Sternberg's comments were taken out of context, it was one of the few times he showed his cards. It will likely be one of the last too.
- Speaking of stadiums, an announced crowd of just over 8,400 at Orlando is hardly anything to get excited about, even if it is slightly higher than what the Rays and Rangers drew at the Trop last year. I like Sternberg's idea of increasing the interest in the team statewide with more televised games in Orlando and elsewhere. But you need to put a winner on the field to draw those fans, whether you play a game elsewhere or stay at home and make the fans come to you. *NOTE* The spelling of Sternberg's name was corrected in this blurb, hence the story edited note at the top of the story.-- Matt
- Is it just me, or did most of the players seem not exactly thrilled about playing outdoors in Orlando?
- I can only hope Rocco Baldelli's stay on the disabled list is short, and also his last of the season. Until he can play a nearly complete season in good health, questions will always surround Baldelli and how good he MIGHT be.
- J.D. Drew is injured. Color me surprised.
- Finally, a cheap plug for another writing venture I'm involved with. Check out www.affariedge.com/blog when you get the chance. Most of it is tech-geek stuff, but there's plenty of discussion of new media and of course I'll chime in on sports. Recently I vented on the poor state of sports talk radio. Can't imagine why I don't like it so much :)