Are the Brewers for real

added 5/19/2007 by Scott Barzilla

Teams like the Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs are scuffling along (no one takes the Bucs or Reds seriously) while the Brewers seem to run away and hide. When you are in mid May these things usually take two courses. Supposedly, Tom Seaver discounted the Astros fast start in 1979. He ended up being right. So, will the Brewers be the Detroit Tigers of 2006 or the Angels of Terry Collins infamy?

The first thing we should do is trace back where the Brewers were. The Brewers haven't had a winning season since Phil Garner was a new manager in 1992. Pat Listach was winning the Rookie of the Year award then. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were decent players, but no one considered them to be all-stars then. What a difference fifteen years makes.

As everyone knows, Bud Selig was the owner of the Brewers before he ran MLB. For a long time, he owned the Brewers AND ran MLB. There are definitely two camps on Selig and count me as part of the camp that thinks he's been close to a disaster as a commissioner. Seemingly, every major issue has been mishandled from steroids, to the economics of the game, to even the all-star game mishap of 2004. The infamous Selig shrug should be his monikor in Cooperstown.

I bring this up because few people remember how Selig used his power to benefit the Brewers. First, he instituted revenue sharing and made sure his Brewers got the highest amount back. Then, he tried contraction and put the Twins on the chopping block. Of course, the Twins owner (Carl Pohland) had given Selig a business loan before. The contraction price was worth more than Twins value on the open market. This conflict of interest was overlooked.

The important part of this discussion is the revenue sharing dollars. Instead of sinking it into free agency, the Brewers put it into revamping their farm system. These moves rarely pay off anything shy of a decade. In the case of the Brewers, it took about that long from the time when they started the commitment. Just looking at the lineup, you can see a collection of great homegrown talent.

                    OPS    HR    Runs    RBI
Prince Fielder     .948    12     27      33
J.J. Hardy         .959    13     28      39
Ricky Weeks        .771     5     31      13
Geoff Jenkins      .907     8     14      19
Bill Hall          .771     5     20      18

I don't need to tell you how many Astros regulars have an OPS higher than 900. If you're counting Hunter Pence then he becomes an important illustration of the discussion. The Brewers are where they are because they've assembled a team of impressive young players. Hardy and Fielder were high draft picks and they've paid off. Meanwhile, when guys like Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks get going it will be very difficult to beat the Brewers. Homegrown talent always sneaks up on you.

If you're just tuning in, I'll bet you're wondering what this has to do with Houston. The answer is simple. In 1992, the Brewers were where the Astros are now. They had a collection of aging veterans that were on there way out. 1992 ended up being a last hurray for Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. 1992 was Molitor's last season in Milwaukee and Yount was quickly losing his effectiveness. Replace those names with names like Biggio, Bagwell, and Ausmus and you see the immediate parallel.

Rent a players like Roger Clemens aren't the answer. Young guns like Hunter Pence are the answer. I don't know whether Pence will stick long term. We've seen players like him shoot up like a comet and fall back down to Earth just as quickly. Yet, it is fun to watch whichever way he goes. To say the Astros are devoid of homegrown talent is a bit of an exaggeration. Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt are both perennial all-star performers. They are also being paid like it.

The beauty of the Brewers situation is that their all-stars are under club control. Only Ben Sheets is getting significant money and he isn't even the best pitcher on the club anymore. Therefore, they could go out and sign a Jeff Suppan for big bucks. Normally, that wouldn't be a good signing, but they clearly knew what they had on the rest of the squad.

It hasn't always been this easy for the Brewers. Many prospects came through and failed. The Astros have had their fair share of that too. Tim Redding had the look of being even better than Oswalt, but he is still looking to get back in the majors. Oswalt is marching towards a Cy Young award he should have won last season. Still, if the Astros are to continue their contender status beyond this season they must continue to bring along exciting young players like Pence. They can afford a free agent or two beyond this year, but they need more than that to win consistently.