General Manager Dean Taylor's got his work cut out for him
It's hot stove time again, and the Brewers' General Manager Dean Taylor has some crucial decisions to make once again this winter. A lot of Brewers' fans have criticized Taylor for some of his past moves. Some trades and signings have admittedly not worked out for the best. I personally feel Dean is a very intelligent baseball man who is in what amounts to being close to a no win situation with the Brewers. When Dean took over the GM role in 1999, he inherited a club with huge holes at the major league level and a minor league cupboard which was close to being bare, particularly in the area of position player prospects. The previous General Manager Sal Bando was supposed to assemble a "core" group of players who would take the team into the 21st century and the new Miller Park with a chance at being a competitive team. By the time Bando resigned from the GM position, the Brewers were on their way to their seventh consecutive losing season. He also left the team with almost no quality pitching at the major league level and no catcher with David Nilsson leaving the club after the '99 season. Bando also had plenty of trouble with his scouting and drafting. Many of his high draft picks turned out to be busts, and several high picks were used not to sign the most talented player available, but the player the team thought they could afford to sign. This left the Brewers' farm system barren, with little in the way of major league prospects, especially in the higher levels. Bando did seem to have more luck with some of his later drafts, picking up some solid pitching prospects in particular, but it was a case of too little, too late to save his job.
Into this situation, Dean Taylor was hired to try to right the Brewers' ship. Miller Park was delayed one year due to the tragic crane accident, so the Brewers were looking at one more year in Milwaukee County Stadium in the year 2000. This unexpected delay caused the Brewers to cut their payroll for the 2000 season, so Taylor was given the unenviable assignment of improving the team while cutting payroll at the same time. Considering that, I feel Mr. Taylor did an excellent job. He dealt a major part of the team in Jeff Cirillo, but acquired two starting pitchers who appeared to have some upside in Jamey Wright and Jimmy Haynes and an excellent defensive catcher in Henry Blanco while also managing to include Scott Karl in the deal and removing his salary from the books. He also dealt away Fernando Vina, making room for the younger and less expensive Ronnie Belliard at second base. Although the return for Vina wasn't as high as it might have been since Vina was coming off an injury plagued season, he did manage to add another quality arm to the pitching mix in Juan Acevedo. He also managed to acquire another piece of the puzzle in the summer of 2000 when he traded several pitchers to the Cleveland Indians and received young power hitter Richie Sexson in return. The Brewers' record didn't improve, but the team played well at the end of the season and there was reason to be excited about the Brewers' future.
In the spring of 2001, it was thought the Brewers had a team that was on the upswing. The Brewers had a group of young power hitters and also some pitchers with upside along with a quality bullpen. They were also headed into Miller Park, which would hopefully give the team the revenue to improve the team as needed and keep the quality young players for a long time. However, the 2001 Brewers were bitten heavily by the injury bug and the offense faltered, failing to get on base at an acceptable rate while setting the major league record for strikeouts by a team in a season. The team's record was one of the worst in baseball, and the 2001 season could not be considered anything other than a setback to the organization.
Now, in the offseason between the 2001 and 2002 seasons, the Brewers need to make some tough decisions. Was the poor record in 2001 a result of the many injuries or just a lack of overall talent? Do you tweak what the team has and try to be competitive in 2002, or do you deal away as many veterans as you can and get as many minor league prospects as possible? Therein lies the dilemma that I feel faces Dean Taylor and the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
The Brewers, as a small market team, need to build a team through a strong farm system. It's highly doubtful the current cast of characters is close to competing, even with everyone healthy. The smart move then would seem to be to trade players like Jeromy Burnitz, Jose Hernandez, and relievers like Chad Fox and Mike DeJean to teams that look to be contenders in 2002 and get the most talent you can in minor league prospects. However, the Brewers are already in Miller Park. The team set an attendance record in 2001 with 2.8 million fans coming out to the new ballpark last season. It seems likely the team will have a difficult task meeting that figure in 2002, with a team coming off a 94 loss season. The task of drawing fans would be even much more difficult if the team is seen as "giving up" on 2002 before it even begins. There's the problem. The Brewers feel they must try to compete in 2002, but are also trying to rebuild the organization at the same time. It's tough to do one or the other and be successful at it, even more so when you are a club with limited means. It's almost impossible for a team to do both at the same time, but it's a task that I feel the Brewers are trying to perform. You can see it in trade rumors like the one floating around Jeromy Burnitz. It's rumored that Burnitz would be traded to the Mets for outfielder Matt Lawton and left handed starter Glendon Rusch. With this trade, the Brewers are trying to address their problems for 2002, without much of a concern for what happens after that. Lawton is up for salary arbitration this winter and will be a free agent after 2002. Rusch is also due for arbitration this year. It was also mentioned in the New York area papers that Lawton didn't sound too excited to possibly be coming to Milwaukee. If the Brewers were truly looking toward the future, they would likely target some of the Mets' farmhands, players like Alex Escobar or Pat Strange.
In conclusion, it seems to me the Brewers need to focus on either competing this year or focus on rebuilding and trying to build a competitive team for a few seasons down the road. It's a hard road to try to do both, and in the end, I doubt the Brewers will be successful in the attempt. The Brewers don't have the means to improve this team to a competitive level all in one offseason and can't just throw money at their problems like the big market clubs can. To quote from Toyboy's personal quote: "Build with the big picture in mind. No quick fixes, no low expectations, no worrying about anything but the final goal." That means no trades for guys like Lawton or Rusch, neither of whom figure to be any kind of long term answer for the Brewers.