Brewers face difficult road ahead
When the Brewers have played the Chicago Cubs this season, they have been given a stark reminder as to how far away they are from being competitive in the National League Central Division.
As manager Craig Counsell put it after the Brewers' were swept in their last visit to Wrigley Field, “We got our butts kicked.”
Indeed, they did. In fact, the Brewers were swept by the Cubs in each of the last two series between the teams by a combined score of 35-15 over seven games.
The franchises are in different places right now. But it's not just the vastly improved Cubs. It's the perpetually strong St. Louis Cardinals and the powerful Pittsburgh Pirates that stand in the way of the Brewers' rebuilding plan, now in it's infancy.
If the playoffs began today, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs would be in the field, and there's no reason to expect that to change between now and October. So, it's not just the daunting roster overhaul the Brewers must undertake in the coming years to be competitive again. It's also keeping up with the Joneses in what now is the strongest division in the National League.
“The biggest challenge is our division is better than it's ever been,” Brewers rightfielder Ryan Braun said. “It's the best division in baseball, and it's significantly better than it was just a few years ago.”
The Cardinals seemingly have been good forever. But the Pirates were losers for a record 20 years before breaking through. And the Cubs went through five truly ugly years before returning to respectability this season.
So, there was a time when the Brewers were ahead of the Pirates and Cubs and only had to worry about the Cardinals. Now, they've fallen far, far behind those three teams, which won't make the recovery any easier.
And there's no reason to expect any of those divisional foes to slide back anytime soon. The Cubs should only get better, with young studs such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, and a much improved pitching staff featuring Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and veteran Jon Lester.
The Pirates have perennial most valuable player candidate Andrew McCutchen as well as Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker, Jung Ho Kang and pitching ace Gerrit Cole, not to mention a killer bullpen. They also have developed a crucial intangible under manager Clint Hurdle—a tough, winning attitude.
The Cardinals have, well, does it really matter year to year what players they have? We know they're going to be winners, mainly because they roll out one dominant pitching staff after another. They didn't let a little thing like losing their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, in April stop them from fielding by far the best group of pitchers in the major leagues.
Those three clubs have left the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds far in their rearview mirrors. Both have begun jettisoning veterans to begin what have the makings of long, painful rebuilding programs.
Because major-league teams play unbalanced schedules, with far more games within their division, the Brewers are well aware of the strengths of the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs. Thus far in 2015, they have a combined record of 14-23 against that trio of clubs.
“It is a very strong division right now,” said manager Craig Counsell, who signed a three-year deal to oversee the overhaul of the club when he replaced fired Ron Roenicke at the start of May.
“They are three teams that are in their sweet spot right now. That makes it challenging for sure. But, in another way, it's a good thing because it's so close to us, you see it. You have a better understanding of the challenge in front of you.
“There are three organizations that maybe go about it in a different way. The Pirates were down for a long time. Now they're pretty darn good, and it looks good for them for a couple of years, at least. I think that's a good thing because we have a good idea of how difficult it is. It pushes us to make sure we do it the right way.”
As the Pirates and Cubs can attest, there are no shortcuts in climbing from the abyss and back to the mountaintop. I think we can safely say from what we've seen this year that the Brewers are sorely lacking in winning players.
So, what's it going to take to put together a competitive roster, you ask?
“You're looking for foundational players, a group you can build with,” Counsell said. “And you've got to get a big group to build with.
“I'm not worried about the timeline. You're going to shoot to do it as fast as you can, there's no question. You should. But in baseball, to say what's going to happen three years out, we've been around long enough to know it's tough to say.”
This is the challenge facing the new general manager when he comes on board, likely some time before the postseason has concluded. The Brewers, with the aid of search firm Korn Ferry, are in the process of setting up interviews they promise will be thorough and expansive.
The Brewers will take a hard look at the “hot” assistant GMs in the majors, such as Tampa Bay's Chaim Bloom, Cleveland's Mike Chernoff, Atlanta's John Coppolella, the Yankees' Billy Eppler, the Angels' Matt Klentak, Texas' Thad Levine and Boston's Mike Hazen.
Former Angels GM Jerry DiPoto also is believed to interest the Brewers. In Arizona, he worked with Brewers amateur scouting director Ray Montgomery, the primary internal candidate. The Brewers want a GM with both scouting and analytic chops. DiPoto was formerly a scouting director in Colorado and Arizona, and it was his emphasis on analytics that led to a conflict with manager Mike Scioscia and his departure from L.A.
DiPoto recently took an advisory role with Boston, but now that Dave Dombrowski has been hired to run the show, DiPoto likely would be allowed to leave should the Brewers come calling. Another possible candidate surfaced in Boston when Ben Cherington left his GM post after Dombrowski came on board.
Because they've fallen so far behind, the Brewers have to get this GM thing right. They can't afford the totally lost year the San Diego Padres have experienced under new GM A.J. Preller. They need to start moving forward ASAP or this could be a much longer rebuild than they have suggested.
In making trades before the July 31 deadline, outgoing GM Doug Melvin focused on getting prospects at the Class AAA and AA levels in hopes of shortening the length of time it will take to return to respectability. That caught the attention of Braun, who next year begins a five-year, $105-million contract extension.
“It's not a bunch of guys who are in rookie ball and you're looking at a four- or five-year projection,” Braun said. “These are guys who have had success at a pretty high level. So there's a lot of reasons for optimism, and a lot of things to be encouraged about.
“But again, the biggest challenge remains the division we're in.”
Tom Haudricourt covers the Brewers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at [email protected]