Apparently, Mark Attanasio is taking a few austerity lessons from Washington. After finishing 2012 in the red with a payroll approaching $100 million, Tom Haudricourt reported on Sunday that the Brewers plan to scale back in 2013. The decrease is not insignificant, either. Doug Melvin anticipates a budget of around $80 million.
The team can get away with this thanks to the departures of Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf, Francisco Rodriguez, Shaun Marcum, Alex Gonzalez, and Nyjer Morgan, who collectively earned about $45 million last year. Although the team was widely expected to spend big, Mark Attanasio has decided to take a more conservative approach.
I know this is crushing to those of you expecting a Josh Hamilton signing or Zack Greinke reunion. The winter meetings are fun, but I am not impressed by reports about "so-and-so" team speaking with "so-and-so's" agent. Frankly, every agent and manager is doing their due diligence; they're speaking with one another because that is their job. So of course Doug Melvin checked in with Michael Moye and Casey Close and probably fifteen other agents; we don't need confirmation of these things because they're so blatantly obvious. The fact is, even if the Brewers returned to their (unsustainable) 2012 spending level next year, neither Hamilton or Greinke made a whole lot of financial sense in the long run given the Brewers' current roster composition and future contract obligations. So the fact that the team isn't going to land a premier free agent isn't much of a surprise.
What is somewhat surprising, though, is that this pretty well takes the Brewers out of contention for even a mid-level starting pitching candidate. As of now, the Brewers have approximately $65 million tied up in next year's roster, after taking into account projected arbitration salaries. That leaves a paltry $15 million to spend for 2013 if you believe Doug Melvin has been allocated an $80 million budget. I tend to think he can bust on that a bit, but have no doubt that Attanasio has directing spending to return to 2008-09 levels. Given the team's needs in the bullpen and on the bench, this probably means Ryan Dempster and others of his ilk are off the table (although, as I outline on Cream City Cables, that might not be a bad thing with respect to Dempster).
On the one hand, I despise Attanasio's newfound budgetary consciousness. I'm generally inclined to give Attanasio a pretty long leash for returning winning baseball to Milwaukee, but the timing of the spending reduction doesn't make a ton of sense. The Brewers can still be competitive next year, but the bullpen was basically blown apart after Melvin gave walking papers to Jose Veras, K-Rod, Manny Parra, and Kameron Loe. There's also plenty of question marks in the rotation, which now features Yovani Gallardo as the lone established starter. If you believe, as I do, that a few key offseason acquisitions in those areas would greatly enhance the Brewers' chances of a postseason berth, it's reasonable to question the timing and scale of the owner's fiscal handcuffs. It's not as if players are getting cheaper, as evidenced by Shane Victorino's 3-year, $38 million deal; Greinke is slated to push pitcher contracts to new heights. A more modest reduction in payroll, say to $85 or $90 million, might have been more appropriate, and could help the team address both needs.
On the other hand, I love this move. Irresponsible owners have caused player costs to spiral out of control. This is not the fault of the players; they're justifiably taking what they're given. Owners handing out 10-year, $200+ million contracts do a disservice to baseball by escalating player costs beyond what the market can bear. These owners must know that players like Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols will not be worth their annual salary late in the contract. For them, the entire transaction is "buy now, pay later;" or, perhaps more appropriately, "win now, pay later." The trickle-down effect is an explosion of player costs that marginalizes mid- to small-market teams. The only way to stop this, it seems to me, is for smart owners to tighten the grip on the purse strings. The trick is to do so while still fielding a competitive roster; in other words, yes, we can still dislike Marlins' owner Jeffrey Loria. While I applaud Attanasio for adopting austerity measures, as a small-market owner, it's not as if he was really responsible for the outlandish contracts in the first place. Those will still come, and the usual suspects will be at fault.
In short, Attanasio's artificial spending restraint may wind up nixing the Brewers' chances of contending in 2013, without a significant impact on player values as a whole. That's a lose-lose in my book, and may very well leave the team looking for answers again at this time next year.