September in a pennant race is the best time to be a baseball fan, but it's a weird time to analyze baseball. Other than day-to-day lineup and strategy decisions and arguing about awards, for better or for worse, the team is assembled. So it's worth taking a quick detour towards how we got here and how much we should appreciate the job Doug Melvin did in July and August of this year.
On July 1st, in my midseason review, one of the questions the whole BCB staff answered was "What is the biggest weakness of the team?" My answer was the bench. Here's a sample of what I said about it:
...the biggest problem really is offensive depth. The team can handle a pitcher, or even two, going down without having things fall apart. But an injury to basically any position player that's not a second baseman or catcher and it's replacement level from here on out. A left-handed hitter with some pop that can play the corners is the top item on the wish list.
Later in that piece I specifically mentioned insurance against a Braun injury and a guy to spell Davis against tough righties as further reason to go get a corner outfielder. I also said in my guess about any deadline trades that the Brewers would probably get a "reasonable reliever" and a "fringe starter/bench player".
A few weeks later I wrote about the Huston Street trade to the Angels, which was the first major relief pitcher trade to go down this year, and tried to remind everyone clamoring for a righty reliever about how much those guys can cost. I thought that the Brewers would have needed their best 2 or 3 non-Jimmy Nelson prospects to get a guy like Huston Street. There was some debate at the time about if the Brewers should have been trying to make a big splash and land a big-name reliever. Here were my thoughts on the subject:
I really, really don't like the idea of giving up the entire top end of the system for one of those back end guys. If Melvin can pull off a sneaky deal for few assets (like the K-Rod one) to solidify the back end of the bullpen, I'm all for it. But something like the Angels/Padres Street trade doesn't make sense for this team at this time. And if the Brewers are willing to package essentially all of their minor league talent that wasn't drafted this June for a rental? Then let's gun for David Price. And if not, fix the bench and ride with the team as currently assembled.
Essentially, I wanted a good reliever who had some sort of flaw that made his current team want to give him to the Brewers for nothing of real value. I also wanted a solid backup corner outfielder who could provide some sort of pinch hitting help, cover right in case Braun (or others) had to miss time, and play left against tough righthanders and let Khris Davis come off the bench. This was basically an ideal wish list. And Melvin somehow managed to both make both types of trades I was looking for while giving up no impact minor league talent.
Last night, Gerardo Parra started in left against Lance Lynn and made several game-changing defensive plays to go along with a solo home run. Jonathan Broxton put up a 0 in the bottom of the 9th inning working through the 3-4-5 hitters in the Cardinals order. Neither of those players was a Brewer when I wrote the two passages above.
Melvin also deserves credit for a few other things that have broken right this year; in fact it's hard to point to a big roster move that didn't work out. He managed to hide Wei-Chung Wang on the DL all summer. He called up Jimmy Nelson and moved Marco Estrada to the pen as many of us (me) had been pushing for. He made minor league free agent signings of Jeremy Jeffress and Matt Clark that have improved the big league club. And he hung on to Mike Fiers, and made the call to bring him up to fill in as a starter instead of trotting Estrada back out there.
The Brewers may or may not make the playoffs this year. That has a lot to do with the overall team construction, which is Doug Melvin's responsibility. But to give credit where credit is due, this year Doug Melvin consistently made the moves that we were hoping that he would make. He parted with very little in trades and found a way to improve the team beyond what any of us could have expected, and on top of that managed to acquire 2 players that the Brewers retain the rights for next year as well. He put the team in the best position possible to make the playoffs given the resources available around the trade deadline. Now he just has to hope that the collection of talent assembled can complete the turnaround and make a run at the Wild Card.