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Redoing the Dark Ages: 1994 Milwaukee Brewers

The future is coming into clearer focus.

New York Yankees
Melido Perez.
Photo by Focus on Sport/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:

Despite an unsightly 63-99 record in 1993 as our young GM launched a rebuild, there was reason for optimism heading into the 1993-94 offseason. An excited core of hitters started to emerge at the big league level and with little in the way of long-term commitments, the small market Brewers had some financial flexibility to work with while attempting to beef up the pitching staff — the owner mandated an improvement over the 13th-ranked bullpen ERA in the American League.

Shortly after the end of the season, Albert Belle agreed to a one-year, $1.85 mil contract for his final year of arbitration eligibility. Kevin Reimer and Jerry Browne were non-tendered, and Felix Jose left as a free agent. Our young GM went into the winter with an opportunistic mindset, seeking young pitchers who figure to still be on the upswing of their careers in the coming seasons as the club builds toward sustained success. On December 2nd, our executive completed the first major free agent signing of his tenure.

Coming off a season where he threw 244.0 innings of 3.43 ERA baseball for the New York Yankees, 27 year old right-hander Melido Perez was lured to the Cream City with a three-year contract worth $11.75 mil guaranteed that included a $4.5 mil player option for 1997. Milwaukee’s #3 overall draft pick was protected, but the signing did require the surrender of their second-round selection.

A week later, some news that was perhaps less relevant to baseball operations — but just as interesting — was announced by one of the pitchers already on the roster. Ricky Bones released a self-titled rap album that featured him both on vocals and playing accompanying instruments. “It’s something that I’ve been interested in for awhile and this offseason I just decided to make it official and get it done,” Bones said. “I don’t plan on leaving baseball behind just yet, but I’m hoping this album does well.”

“I’ve heard a couple of the songs, it’s not half-bad,” said Jose Valentin. “Some of the guys have ribbed Ricky about his music before, but I don’t think anyone’s laughing now.”

With the third overall pick in the amateur draft on December 15th, the our young GM selected shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Not only was the California native one of the top prospects available, he was also willing to sign for a far lower bonus than the other top selections around him. That allowed our GM to be creative in the later rounds of the draft, landing several pitchers with bonus demands who could contribute in the near future. Garciaparra would go on to hit .320/.390/.479 with 12 home runs and 38 steals in 134 games for the A-ball Beloit Brewers and end the year ranked as the league’s #4 overall prospect.

There wasn’t much excitement for the Brewers during the remained of the offseason. Pitchers Ron Darling, Bruce Hurst, and Pete J. Smith were signed to big league deals as depth, and outfielder Steve Finley inked a one-year contract after getting non-tendered by Houston. Lefty reliever Darren Oliver was chosen in the Rule 5 Draft from the Rangers, and outfielder Robert Perez was claimed off waivers from Toronto.

In January, Steve Carlton (99.7%), Phil Niekro (97.7%), Don Sutton (91.8%), and Reggie Jackson (91.5%) were all elected to the Hall of Fame in their first year on the ballot. No other candidates were very close; Ron Guidry (46.1%) and Ted Simmons (44.6%) were the only others who received more than 40% of the vote. A few weeks later, active players reported to Spring Training camps around the league and the 1994 baseball got started.

The Cream City Nine faced off against the Oakland Athletics at County Stadium on Opening Day, April 5th, 1994, and got the season started off with a 5-3 win thanks to a late home run by Dave Nilsson. Things would go pretty well for Phil Garner’s squad during the first month of the season, actually, as they unexpectedly jumped out to a 13-10 record. But things cratered during the month of May, and it wound up costing Ol’ Scrap Iron his job.

Garner was hired by the previous regime, but our young GM kept him on as manager when he took over baseball operations (due in no small part to his hefty contract through 1995). But the demanding owner was looking for improvement and it became increasingly clear that Garner would not be a part of the equation moving forward. He was relieved of his duties on June 1st and replaced by bench coach Bryan Curtis. Matt Sanangelo was hired to serve as Curtis’ right-hand man in the dugout.

Other personnel changes were taking place, too. Hurst got off to an atrocious start with an 8.41 ERA and was shipped, along with outfielder Jalal Leach, to San Diego for pitchers Jeremy Hernandez and Joey Hamilton. Charles Nagy was given up on after a 9.33 ERA start and flipped to the Mets for catcher Todd Hundley. Pete Smith and his 9.13 ERA was sent to San Francisco for starter Trevor Wilson. Vinny Castilla and his .593 OPS was sent to Pittsburgh along with Paul Gorman and Marshall Boze for pitchers Marc Wilkins, Jason Christiansen, and Dan Miceli as well as outfielder Scott Bullett. Finally, Mike Fetters, owner of an 8.71 ERA, was dealt to Boston for outfielder Jose Malave and pitching prospect Joe Caruso.

Cal Eldred tossed 6 innings of shutout baseball and Albert Belle clubbed a two-run dinger to give Curtis in win against the Angels in his debut game as manager. The up-and-down nature of the season continued with the new skipper, however. An 11-16 record in June effectively ended hopes of contending in 1994, so in July our GM turned his attention to the trade market as a seller. Just before the All-Star break, veteran starter Ron Darling, who was having a slightly below league-average season, and rookie catcher Brian Banks, who had hit .266/.359/.418 while filling in for injured Dave Nilsson (broken hand), were packaged up and sent to the Tigers in exchange for Edgar Martinez (yes, that one) and pitching prospect Brian Moehler. Closer to the deadline, more impactful moves began taking place.

Albert Belle was not interested in discussing an extension during the offseason, nor was he interested in talking about one in July. Both times, he cited personality differences with the manager — first Phil Garner and then Bryan Curtis. So with his free agency upcoming, he was sent, along with first base prospect Mike Boyzuick, to the Minnesota Twins on July 28th. In return, our young GM was able to bring back rookie outfielder Marty Cordova and pitching prospect Shane Bowers. Cordova was immediately inserted into the lineup and went on to hit .294/.371/.476 with 10 HR in 248 plate appearances down the stretch, ostensibly replacing everything that was lost on the field and at the plate with Belle.

Also sent packing was Edgar Martinez after a short and unmemorable stint in the Menomonee Valley. Martinez originally began the year with Detroit after inking a one-year contract, but accrued only 44 plate appearances before coming to Milwaukee. In his two-and-a-half weeks with the Brewers, manager Bryan Curtis only gave him two starts and he garnered just 11 plate appearances. He finally found regular playing time with the Orioles, where he was sent along with veteran minor league shortstop Kevin Castleberry. In return came OF/1B Sherman Obando (who hit .371/.455/.733 for Double-A El Paso after the trade) as well as another outfield prospect, Curtis Goodwin.

A funny thing happened for the post-deadline Brewers — they started winning. Well, at least at a higher clip than they were losing. Bryan Curtis guided the Crew to a 16-15 record in August and then a 16-13 September/October to close out the season. It all added up to a 75-87 record, which was last place in the AL Central division, but was a 12 game improvement over the previous season.

Melido Perez looked well worth the investment during the first year of his contract; that is, until September 16th. During what would be his final start of the year, Perez was pulled with an injury during the first inning against Cleveland. He was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff and was slated to miss between 10-11 months. Perez’s 8-16 win-loss record might not have been well thought of at that time, but his 4.41 ERA translated to a 115 ERA+ and with 196.0 innings pitched across 32 starts, he accrued 3.1 WAR to lead the pitching staff.

In more positive news that doesn’t involve long-term injury, several players had standout seasons as optimism builds towards what could be in 1995. After missing eight weeks at the start of the season with injury, Dave Nilsson returned to hit .353/.425/.580 with 20 HR in 87 games for a 163 wRC+. He was worth 5.1 WAR and looks like a potential superstar if he can stay healthy. John Jaha built on his terrific 1993, launching 32 homers with a 146 wRC+ while earning 5.1 WAR. Jose Valentin posted a 5.0 WAR campaign. Mark Loretta was a 3 WAR shortstop. Jeff Cirillo bounced back from a slow start and brief demotion to post a 113 wRC+. First-year outfielders Marty Cordova (129 wRC+) and Troy O’Leary (142 wRC+ and September’s AL rookie of the month) gave themselves inside tracks on jobs next spring.

Not quite as much positivity on the pitching side, but the top three starters — Perez, Eldred (3.0 WAR, 136 ERA+), and Ramon Martinez (104 ERA+, 2.9 WAR) all pulled their weight in the starting rotation. Graham Lloyd continued to establish himself as one of the league’s top relievers (154 ERA+, 25 saves). Scott Karl got rocked to start the year before a demotion, but he returned as a September call-up and turned in a 2.45 ERA across his final 25.2 innings, sneaking into a rotation spot and finishing with a 99 ERA+ for the year. Rookies like Paul Byrd (37.1 IP, 117 ERA+), Robb Nen (38.0 IP, 102 ERA+), and Bobby Gamez (34.0 IP, 128 ERA+) got their feet wet with some success.

The Brewers were much more competitive relative to the rest of the league in 1994 than they were the year prior. A whole 10 teams in MLB finished with worse record than the Milwaukee Nine, including a Rockies club that came close to matching the 1962 Mets’ record for futility. There was a ton of disparity in terms of competitiveness during this year’s iteration of MLB, with four teams winning 100+ games (including the Braves at 112) while a whopping nine clubs lost at least 90 games.

A Cinderella story emerged in the postseason. The Padres and Indians were the first-ever Wild Card entrants to the playoffs in MLB history, and while the Tribe was dispatched by rival Chicago, the Padres took down the Goliath Braves in the first round on the Senior Circuit side of the bracket. Division rival San Francisco wasn’t much of an obstacle in the NLCS, and then San Diego swept the White Sox in four straight games to claim their World Series title in franchise history. Left fielder Derek Bell was the Series MVP after batting .368 with a home run in the four games.

In other notable events from 1994, Jim Thome set a new record for most home runs in a season. He broke Roger Maris’ record by mashing 62 taters for the Indians (after hitting 57 the year before) and finished with a .318/.440/.694 slash line, 177 RBI, and 10.8 WAR. He’s the favorite to win AL MVP.

After two consecutive losing seasons, owner Bryan Mikolajczak is worried. Our GM failed to improve on the bullpen ERA and the boss is not convinced that the Brewers are on the path towards building a championship squad by 1996. He expects the team to get to at least .500 next season, bolstered by an improved pitching staff by runs allowed and an upgrade in center field (where Steve Finley posted a 65 wRC+ before getting demoted and ceding the position to rookie Lyle Mouton, who finished with a 76 wRC+). The exec did get a slight bump up in the budget to work with and will be allowed to spend $20 mil on payroll in 1995, giving him about $5.4 mil in available space to spend. The farm system also checks in at #5 in baseball, with a whopping 11 players who ranked in the top-100 prospects during 1994. So there should be plenty of young, controllable help coming from the minor league ranks soon, too.

Here is the end-of-year roster (not including Perez on the 60-day DL):

1994 Real-Life Milwaukee Brewers: 53-62 (strike shortened season)
1994 Redo Milwaukee Brewers: 75-87 (no strike in OOTP!)