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Redoing the Dark Ages: 1995 Milwaukee Brewers

The rebuild is over!

Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs waves to the crowd Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

In the absence of real baseball during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are using OOTP Baseball 21 to redo the dark ages of the Milwaukee Brewers, when the team failed to post a winning season for 14 years from 1993-2006. Here is how we’ve gotten to this point so far:

After improving by 12 wins and finishing off the last two months with a 32-28 record in 1994, optimism reigned supreme as the Milwaukee Brewers headed into the offseason. None of the early moves pulled off by our young GM did anything to tamp down that positivity, either. Cal Eldred (three years plus team option), John Jaha (three years plus team option), and Jose Offerman (two years plus team option) all agreed to multiyear contracts that bought all their remaining arbitration eligibility, added addition team control, and provided cost certainty (and likely some future savings) to the ledger going forward. The team’s patrons were particularly pleased with the extension for Jaha, as fan interest rose as a result of his extension. Fans were also endeared to third baseman Jeff Cirillo after he approached the team and asked to start a local charity.

Backup players Chris Jones and Todd Hundley inked one-year deals to avoid arbitration, and outfielder Steve Finley was shipped along with pitching prospect Jim Cole to Kansas City for right-hander John Gross and first base prospect Larry Sutton. Ricky Bones was non-tendered along with Jeremy Hernandez, and Trevor Wilson departed via free agency. With the house cleaning moves complete, the Brewers were ready for an aggressive offseason.

Things started off slowly. Reliever Greg Hibbard was signed to a big league deal on December 3rd. The entry draft came on December 15th, and with the 14th overall selection, Milwaukee grabbed shortstop Alex Rodriguez (who signed for well below slot). Other notable picks in the top-10 rounds were Mike Grace (2), Rodrigo Lopez (3), Kerry Wood (4), Kyle Farnsworth (6), and Matt Kinney (7).

On December 19th, the first strike occurred. With a center field upgrade on the list of tasks for Milwaukee’s executive, 27 year old Deion Sanders was signed to a one-year contract with a team option for 1996. Fresh off a 13 home run, 31 steal campaign with the Braves that came out to a 101 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR, Sanders’ deal will pay him $900K guaranteed in the form of an $800K base salary for 1995 and $100K buyout of his $900K option year. Fans weren’t immediately sold on the pact, but Prime Time’s outstanding speed and defense in center field should help improve over production at the position in 1994.

A day later, infielder John Finn, first baseman Scott Talanoa, and outfielder Michael Harris were lost in the Rule 5 Draft. Finn and Harris were both returned before the start of the regular season, but Talanoa spent the whole year in the major. He was chosen by the Rangers but traded to the Cardinals on July 1st, and hit .200/.328/.444 with 13 home runs in 192 plate appearances for a 100 OPS+. The Brewers did add some talent to the org in the form of center fielder Alex Ochoa, who wound up sticking on the big league team for the whole year while posting a 119 OPS+ in a bench role.

Bob Wishnevski was lost on waivers to Boston after getting DFA’d to make room for Deion, and then shortly after the new year, our young GM made his next big move. Talks between the Brewers and outfielder Sammy Sosa began back in December during the Winter Meetings, but even after adding Sanders to the outfield mix, the team remained in hot pursuit of the 26 year old. A year after mashing 36 home runs and swiping 29 bags for the Cubs, Slammin’ Sammy was lured 90 miles to the north by Milwaukee’s four-year, $12.4 mil guarantee. The contract included a fifth-year option for 1999 at $4 mil with a $400K buyout.

Just days later, Milwaukee tied the bow on another significant free agent contract, this time for a proven starting pitcher. Tom Gordon had just finished up a seven-year stretch with the Kansas City Royals and even though he led the league with 17 losing decisions in 1994, he was still a hot free agent commodity coming off a 5.3 WAR season and heading into his age-27 campaign. We know that our executive has an affinity for young free agent pitching and he couldn’t resist a courtship that ended with a three-year, $10,180,000 deal with a $4.25 mil option and $430K buyout for 1998. With Melido Perez set to begin the year on the DL after shoulder surgery, the addition of Gordon helped soften the blow in the starting rotation and gave the team another proven veteran arm alongside Eldred and Ramon Martinez.

Lefty Angel Miranda and outfield Matt Mieske were lost on waivers to make room for these two major additions, and with the budget just about maxed out, that figured to bring a close to the offseason shopping for the Brewers. Mike Schmidt (99.1%), Pete Rose (88.9%), and Jim Kaat (78.9%) were inducted into the Hall of Fame and a little over a week later, the league’s preseason began as teams began to gear up to report to Spring Training. Apparently pleased with how the offseason had gone to this point, owner Bryan Mikolajczak bumped up the budget by another $2.4 mil to $30 mil, giving our GM a little breathing room to make one final move.

Despite coming off a year which saw him save 26 games and post a 1.50 ERA in 60.0 innings for the Red Sox, ace reliever Bryan Harvey remained on the free agent market deep into the winter. With his newfound resources, Milwaukee’s head man approached Harvey’s camp and found that they were amenable to talking about a deal. Three days after negotiations began, Harvey inked with the Brewers on a one-year agreement that paid him $2.25 mil in 1995 and included a $2.25 mil team option ($250K buyout) for 1996. Fans were ecstatic when the news broke.

The Cream City Nine began their regular season on the road in Anaheim with a 5-1 loss against the Angels, getting four-hit by Mark Langston. The Brewers were mostly treading water during the first month of the season, finishing 13-11 in April, but they did get some welcome news that Melido Perez was ahead of schedule in his rehab and slated to return by mid-May.

The team started to heat up with the weather. May began with a seven-game winning streak, and John Jaha ran a hit streak up to 22 games. Neon Deion also enjoyed a 20-game hit streak during the month. Sosa lived up to his nickname by slamming 17 home runs during the first two months of the season. But on May 17th, the team was dealt a significant blow when Flash Gordon was lost for the season after being felled by bone chips in his throwing elbow. The right-hander was off to a 4.24 ERA (120 ERA+) start through nine outings but required surgery that will take 7-8 months to recover from. Perez had returned earlier that week, but he was not the same pitcher coming back from his torn labrum as he was when he got hurt the year before. At least, not at first; he did get better as the season went on.

The Brewers started June with a 30-23 record and Jeff Cirillo had started a hot streak of his own. His hitting streak got up to 30 games before it was snapped on June 14th against the Rangers. But even that lengthy string was overshadowed by teammate John Jaha, who was named the AL’s Batter of the Month during June while hitting .449 with 12 home runs. When All-Star Game rosters were announced on July 5th, it came as no surprise that those two were named to the Midsummer Classic. They were joined on the squad by teammates Bryan Harvey and Dave Nilsson. Sammy Sosa and Jose Valentin were selected to play in the Home Run Derby and ended up meeting each other in the final, with Sosa coming away victorious 15 dingers to 14. A day later, Nilsson was named All-Star Game MVP after hitting a three-run homer in the 7th inning of a 10-8 AL victory.

With the Brewers sitting at 62-43 on July 31st, our GM turned to the trade block to try and find another capable arm to shore up the team’s weakness — the 10th-ranked ERA on the Junior Circuit. He came away with a pair of hurlers in a deal with the Angels — veteran lefty-hander John Smiley and bullpen prospect Troy Percival. Unfortunately Smiley wasn’t able to deliver on his reputation, turning in a 6.79 ERA across 11 starts to close out the year. He did register a 4.37 FIP, though. In the end, it was the young arms already in the system that wound up boosting the staff in the second half.

Former 10th-round pick Shigeki Noguchi shot up through the minors and wound up posting a 3.35 ERA (152 ERA+) in 48.1 innings out of the bullpen. Scott Karl eventually moved into the rotation and turned in a 114 ERA+ in 120.2 frames. Mike Grace came up less than a year after getting drafted and authored a 104 ERA+ in 102.1 innings. Paul Byrd was a stabilizer at a 96 ERA+ in 140.2 innings pitched. Oh yeah, and Melido Perez bounced back to the tune of a 3.43 ERA during his final 12 starts.

Make no mistake about it, though, it was the offense that powered these Milwaukee Brewers. After an uneven August (14-15), the team went on a hot streak like no one had seen in the Menomonee Valley since 1987. The Brewers lost on the road in Minnesota on September 2nd, dropped game one of a double-header versus the Rangers on September 9th, and dropped a road contest against the Red Sox on September 20th. That Wednesday evening loss turned out to be the final one for the Brewers in the regular season. The club posted an astounding 25-3 record during the final month, including closing out the campaign on a 10-game winning streak. The end result was a 101-61 record, although they fell one game short of catching the Indians for the AL Central division crown and had to settle for the Wild Card berth into the postseason.

With 1,019 runs scored, the Brewers finished with the second-most prolific offense in the league. They led the AL with 578 extra-base hits and were second with 234 home runs. Here’s a look at how the team’s everyday offensive players fared:

Cirillo won the AL batting title and led the league in hits; Sosa and Jaha finished second and third in the American League in RBI. Some reinforcments from the minors got involved in a positive way, too. Top prospect Nomar Garciaparra came up in August and started 30 games at DH down the stretch, batting .376/.393/.571 with 3 home runs. And when Sanders went down for three weeks in September, Lyle Mouton slid into the starting lineup and launched five home runs in 10 games started.

Only one team in the American League finished with more victories than the Brew Crew in 1995, and those Indians met up with our local nine in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. With his back against the wall and his team trailing 2-1 in the best-of-five series, Melido Perez turned in perhaps the finest performance of his career, tossing 8.0 shutout frames on 110 pitches as the Brewers won 5-0. The next day, Milwaukee pushed past Cleveland into the ALCS thanks to a four-RBI day by Jeff Cirillo.

Next up were the Angels, and they put up little fight as the Brewers swept them in four games. On the back of series MVP Sammy Sosa, Milwaukee won the pennant! They would take on the 120-win juggernaut Braves with a chance to win their first World Series title in franchise history.

The series started off well for the Brewers. After Steve Avery shut Milwaukee down in Game 1, the Brewers captured the second game thanks to four hits from Sanders and won Game 3 thanks to six strong innings from Cal Eldred and a pair of hits from Mark Loretta. That would be where things turned sour, however. Ryan Klesko drove in five runs during an 11-7 victory for the Braves in Game 4, then Atlanta captured one-run victories in games five and six to end the series at 4 games to 2.

The 1995 season may have ended in disappointment, but it still represented a major step forward for the franchise after a two-year rebuilding process that started with the installment of the current regime. The team is flush with offensive talent, has the number one farm system in baseball, drew nearly three million fans, and after receiving a one-year contract extension for $250K, the owner granted our young GM an additional $10 mil in payroll space to work with heading into the 1996 season. Mr. Mikolajczak is hopeful that Bryan Harvey can get inked to an extension with some of that flexibility, that the pitching can continue to be improved and that 1996 is finally the year that a World Series trophy comes to his franchise.

Here is the end-of-season roster (not including the injured Tom Gordon):

1995 Real-Life Milwaukee Brewers: 65-79
1995 Redo Milwaukee Brewers: 101-61 || AL Pennant