In the wake of the Ned Yost firing--a move that Doug Melvin clearly objected to--the next natural subject is the fate of our GM. 2008 was supposed to be "the year" (of course, it might still be), and if the Brewers miss the playoffs, Melvin might not survive the offseason.
Melvin isn't perfect, and this season may have exposed some of his weaknesses. But to me, he still looks like a good GM, and if he learns a couple of semi-obvious lessons from the experience this year, he could become a great one.
Since Yost is still on everyone's mind, that seems to be a good place to start. Melvin has been extremely loyal to Yost, perhaps well past the point of rationality. How you feel about this is probably tied to how you feel about Yost--if you like the manager, it isn't much of a slam to criticize Melvin for liking him, too.
Now that Yost is gone, it has become open season on the GM--I've seen him criticized for:
- an insufficient focus on defense
- poor bullpen construction (G-A-G-N-E doesn't spell relief)
- signing Mike Cameron
- trading away too much talent for Sabathia
- letting Vargas go
- sticking with Weeks/Hall/whoever
- and plenty of other things I can't think of at the moment.
Some of those are legitimate complaints; others are just piling on with the benefit of hindsight.
The Track Record
Before looking at some of those moves as they relate to the 2008 season, it's worth remembering that Melvin was almost universally supported until this past offseason. I'm sure all of us have disagreed with a move now and then, but he has generally made quality trades, proven himself an excellent acquirer of free/cheap talent, and before Suppan came along, has never blown the bank on mediocrity.
I think most of us would agree that Melvin is an excellent GM for a small-market/rebuilding team. The question isn't whether he has the tools, the question is whether those same tools apply to the mid-market, contending Brewers.
I'm going to try to break down the decisions that have so far affected the 2008 season and determine to what extent credit or blame is due to the GM:
The Bullpen: Melvin made it his goal to upgrade the pen, and was at it all winter. That meant acquiring Mota, Riske, Torres, and Gagne. This, clearly, is a mixed bag. Torres was a fantastic deal--one of the best transactions for any team in the offseason. The jury is still out on Riske--Yost never seemed to know how to use him, and it's impossible to know what to expect from him once he's healthy, since it's not clear when he actually was healthy this year.
Mota looked like an awful deal for a while--certainly we overspent. (Remember we could've dumped Johnny Estrada and been on the hook for $0, not $4MM.) But he's given up exactly one earned run since July 9, and his ERA is now under 4. If he had been evenly mediocre rather than ugly-for-three-months/great-for-two, we wouldn't be talking about him.
And then there's Gagne. I tried to find the good in it at the time, but this was really just Melvin afraid of his own strengths. $10MM was an awfully big bet for that much uncertainty, and in retrospect, it was clearly a mistake. It isn't completely indefensible, but even without the benefit of hindsight, a lot of us felt that there must have been a better way.
Cameron and the position switches: The other offseason priority was defense. Given the evidence at hand, he undoubtedly made the right move, bringing in Cameron and moving Hall and Braun. Hall was a total bust (as much on offense as defense, so that's not entirely relevant), while Braun took nicely to his new position.
For the first time in months, though, I've seen criticism of Melvin for signing a guy with a 25-game suspension. This really irritates me. Yes, fine, Cameron has a .238 batting average. But he also has an 800+ OPS, which is better than league average. Even if you think his defense has slipped back to league average, he is a steal this year at $5MM. Seriously--we only spent a little more for him than we did for Mota. Along with the Torres trade, the Cameron signing was one of the best moves of the offseason by any team. It was clear at the time, and it's still clear now.
The Sabathia Trade: This one really confuses me. Until this disastrous month, few people questioned the wisdom of this move. We gave up a lot, but we got a lot. Not only that, but Doug was proactive in a way that GMs rarely are--he knew CC would be the best talent available, so he not only forced Mark Shapiro to make a decision, but he also made the trade a month early. If the Brewers don't make the playoffs, we'll wish we still had LaPorta, but the blame is on the offense, not on Melvin for making a blockbuster deal.
Keeping Weeks and Hall Around: It's easy to get excited about Weeks's potential--he had a stellar second half last year, and that was reason enough to expect something decent from him this year. Hall is a tougher nut to crack. I don't think anybody expected him to be so awful on defense; Counsell was a bit of an insurance policy, though it would've been nice to see Doug pick up someone along the lines of Dallas McPherson as a higher-ceiling AAA plug-in than Branyan.
Branyan, of course, worked out great, and Doug may deserve some of the credit for giving Russell his chance. (Issues like that make this sort of analysis tough--we may never know how much to attribute to Ned, Doug, and others.) There were some reasons to be optimistic about Hall coming into the season, but perhaps he (not to mention some of us, including myself) was too positive.
Ignoring defense: A year ago, this would have been a good criticism. But to the extent Doug may not sufficiently prioritize defense, it's more clear in 2008 that it's a conscious trade-off. Obviously Prince is a below-average defender, but it's hardly stupid to keep him around. The Cameron/Braun moves in the offseason showed that Melvin recognized defense as a problem--one worth spending money and taking moderate gambles on.
As you can probably tell from the title and what I've written so far: I like Melvin, I think he's a very good GM, and he should stick around. It's easy to point fingers when your team sucks, but when it comes to front office guys, you have to take the longer view.
I suggested earlier that Doug may need to better recognize his own strengths. This year's payroll included well over $20MM for relief pitchers. Some of that, maybe even half, was necessary. But some of the best performing relievers on this club have been Shouse (acquired in trade for nothing), Villanueva (acquired as a very low-ceiling prospect), and hell, even Mark DiFelice. McClung has been solid, as has Balfour (though not for us, of course).
It's not at all clear how Melvin should've known to spend the money better (starting pitching? you want another Suppan? was there a FA third baseman worth getting even if he had foreseen the need for one?), and that might mitigate this criticism a bit, but the bullpen does stand out as a mistake that this particular GM shouldn't make again.
As for everything else, I just don't see it. Melvin has consistently made the moves necessary to put this team in a position to win. Yost worked against him at times, the Gallardo injury sure didn't help, and even the foreseeable bullpen mess could've easily been less of a disaster. (Back to Yost again...)
If Mark Attanasio wants to make a change, I suggest he gather outside advice (Hi Mark! email link down below...) on next year's manager, and make sure that Doug has a plan for 2009 that doesn't involve spending nearly one-third of the payroll on free agent relievers.
Apart from that, he should continue to give Melvin free reign to do his job. If he can avoid repeating those two missteps, the Brewers will continue to have one of the better GMs in the game.