In 2005 the Brewers finally reached .500 after 12 consecutive losing seasons.
Given the context, an 81-81 season felt like a real accomplishment. The farm system, highly regarded in the early 2000s, was proving to be a gift as advertised, as 2005 saw the first extended action for Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy, a breakout season for super-infield-utility-man Bill Hall, and good tidings from Prince "But Will Soon Be King" Fielder. Brewers fans rejoiced as their young'uns awoke and rose from their mangers, becoming helpers in Doug Melvin's workshop (stay with me).
Unfortunately, 2006 was a step backwards. Ben Sheets made only 17 starts. Derrick Turnbow imploded. There were some sterling individual efforts; a career year for Hall (who was then a shortstop), nice offensive seasons from Weeks and Fielder, and even a handful of notable part-time efforts from wise men Russell Branyan, Jeff Cirillo and Wes Helms.
However, the mediocrity in the starting rotation and the bullpen's awe-inspiring collapse kept the Brewers from seriously contending and they parted with Carlos Lee mid-season (also due to Carlos Lee being a real Scrooge in contract negotiations), acquiring a trio of white-hot talent in return: Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, and Laynce Nix.
The Brewers plummeted in late August and finished the season at a wintry, frozen 75-87. The problem was very clear: pitching.
On Christmas Eve 2006 the Milwaukee Brewers made some noise. They signed NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan to a 4 year, $42 million dollar contract. Hark! The Herald Angels sang! Silver bells rang!
There was tremendous optimism. The rotation was perceived as close to formidable when healthy (Sheets, Chris Capuano, Dave Bush, near-MLB-ready Yovani Gallardo). Francisco Cordero proved to be stability at the back end of the bullpen, with competent middle relievers Matt Wise, Brian Shouse, and Carlos Villanueva. Derrick Turnbow's miserable 2005 could have been an aberration. The offense was a burgeoning force which would soon see the addition of phenom third baseman Ryan Braun. They were close.
A stocking stuffer like Jeff Suppan was a huge boost to the competitive morale of the organization. It was an aggressive financial investment for a small-market team (4 years, 42 million was worth much more than it is today) that was ready to fight with the big boys. From the article linked above:
"He gives us a big-game pitcher. He's shown that last year," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said during a telephone conference call.
Melvin said Suppan's durability was an attraction for the Brewers, who struggled last season when Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka got hurt. Suppan has made 31 or more starts in eight straight seasons, throwing 180 or more innings each time.
"This obviously will be the largest improvement, adding a pitcher of this stature," Melvin said.
It's easy to scoff in hindsight, but there's no doubt Suppan's stock was high following his performance in the 2006 playoffs. Doug Melvin certainly wasn't the only one drinking the eggnog (I'll stop eventually):
In the NLCS, Suppan pitched eight shutout innings for the victory in Game 3, then allowed one run over seven innings in Game 7, which the Cardinals went on to win 3-1 on Yadier Molina's two-run homer in the ninth. St. Louis then went on to beat Detroit in five games for the World Series title.
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said that kind of performance was important to him as he tries to make the Brewers a "perennially competitive" team.
"What you want to do is add a winner," Attanasio said.
With the announcement of the deal coming on Christmas Eve, there was a small metaphysical boost accompanying the legitimate shift in consciousness for an otherwise stagnant Brewers franchise.
Not surprisingly, the booming Brewers' bats kept them interesting in 2007 and beyond, but no future success would be due to the presence of Jeff Suppan, who was undoubtedly a spectacular bust, posting three and a half miserable seasons with the Brewers before being cut in June 2010. His chronological contribution to the Brewers is a shockingly consistent regression into his mid-30s:
His then-richest contract in franchise history combined with miserable production made Jeff Suppan one of the least valuable players in all of baseball for four seasons. The Brewers' injection into the free agent market turned heads, but the risk ended up catastrophically subtracting from a baseball team on the verge of a significant ascendance. Thanks to a few shrewd trades and some nifty bullpen finds, the Brewers made playoff appearances in 2008 and 2011. It was't easy considering the circumstances, and Doug Melvin will most certainly be defined by (and deservedly credited for) the long-term sacrifices he made to bring winning back to Milwaukee, if only for a short time.
The 2014 Brewers are in a very different position. They are not a team on the rise. They are a team that appears to be clinging desperately to pseudo-contention with few rosy prospects (double meaning there) ahead. They have not yet recovered from the gutting of the farm system that helped bring short-term success in recent years. When success is very unlikely, sacrificing anything - whether it be present and future payroll or current prospects - for a possibility of a slight improvement in the short-term does really doesn't make sense.
The Brewers' glaring weakness in 2006 was in the pitching staff. This year, it's the gaping chasm at first base. In 2006 the Brewers made a reactionary move and bought high on Jeff Suppan.
The good news is that it doesn't appear the current Brewers are on the verge of handing out a payroll-crippling contract to any current free agent, as the ship has sailed on James Loney and after seeing no great benefit from sacrificing a high draft pick for Kyle Lohse last March, it's hard to believe the Brewers get into talks with Kendrys Morales. Michael Young is a possibility, but his presence would hardly shift the needle. A trade for Ike Davis has been discussed extensively, but the idea of the Brewers giving up any current assets for a wild card like Davis could be too much risk for too little reward.
Now I'm not saying the potential fallout of acquiring any of these players would come close to rivaling the Jeff Suppan debacle. However, there is a distinct possibility it leads to a bust and a sunk cost, inconsequential improvement, or a missed opportunity on a player already on the payroll.
I look at it this way: If Hunter Morris, Juan Francisco, and Sean Halton clones adopted new names and were spread amongst other organizations, I think many of us would be suggesting to buy low on one of them, because the cost is little and the Brewers can't do any better.
There's my incredibly wordy way of explaining why I hope to find nothing in the Brewers' stocking come Christmas morning. Take a load off, Santa. Because if there's nothing new, there's nothing new to disappoint us.
And that's a nice holiday message for us all.
...but seriously, have a happy/merry holiday/Christmas/Kwanzaa/Chanukah.