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Redoing the Dark Ages: 1997 Milwaukee Brewers

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Can the Brewers successfully defend their first World Series title?

Rangers v A’s
Rusty Greer and Alex Rodriguez.

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:

There is a euphoria hanging around Milwaukee after the Brewers defeated the Braves to win the 1996 World Series. But while the players and their fans can allow their focus to linger on celebrating what was accomplished that October, our young GM and his front office are not afforded that luxury. Owner Bryan Mikolajczak has been “delighted” with the executive’s performance so far and rewards him with a two-year contract extension worth $340K per season. But he’s also a bit concerned about the 400K drop in attendance (from 2.9 mil to 2.5 mil) that occurred during the championship-winning season, resulting in a less-than-anticipated budget increase of just $2 mil. That would not be enough to cover the projected salary increases for the players under contract in 1997, meaning that the general manager had to get to work figuring out how to shed payroll while attempting to defend the World Series crown.

Most of the bloodletting came from the pitching staff. Rather than exercise the $2.6 mil option on Stan Belinda after he posted a 3.31 ERA across 58 regular season appearances, he was dealt to St. Louis (along with outfield prospect Mike Dumas) in exchange for utility infielder Sharnol Adriana and pitching prospect Mike Walter. Cal Eldred, who had one year plus an option remaining on his previous extension, was sent to the Giants with minor league catcher Rob Campillo and relief prospect Brian Hancock, a package that fetched outfielder Marvin Bernard and pitching prospects Mark Redman, Alex Noria, and Victor Zambrano. Veteran relievers Mark Davis, Jim Poole, Greg Harris, setup man Randy Myers, and closer Bryan Harvey were all allowed to depart the organization via free agency. Lastly, backup infielder/pinch-hitter extraordinaire Jose Offerman was dealt to the Royals, who exercised his $1.2 mil contract option. Lefty Thad Rowland, who had pitched out of the bullpen for Kansas City in 1996, was the return.

Our GM continued to seek out some savings through the arbitration process. Graeme Lloyd, Scott Karl, Mark Loretta, and Rusty Greer all agreed to one-year deals at slightly discounted rates over what was projected to avoid hearings for their 1997 salaries. Two star players, meanwhile, were locked up to longer-term extensions. Coming off a three-year stretch of 16.2 WAR, second baseman Jose Valentin inked a three-year deal with a club option for 2000 that guarantees him $7.23 mil and could be worth up to $11.5 mil if the option is exercised. He’ll bring home a cool $1 mil in 1997. In addition, batting champ and MVP-contender Dave Nilsson agreed to a two-year pact with a club option, buying out his final two years of arbitration eligibility as well as giving the team control of his first free agent season. Nilsson will earn at least $7.8 mil during the deal and the contract could neat him a total of $12.75 mil if the contract option is picked up. He’ll have a $3 mil base salary in 1997.

Following the execution of all those moves, the budget projections have gone from around $5 mil over the owner-imposed cap to about $1.5 mil under. That gives our GM a little bit of breathing room heading into free agency, but not much flexibility to make any real significant moves. Fortunately, the team is returning the entire starting lineup from their World Series winning squad, possesses young pitching in spades, and doesn’t have any obvious holes in need of shoring up.

Award season comes and goes with Alex Rodriguez earning AL Rookie of the Year honors for his 125 OPS+, 5.6 WAR debut season with Milwaukee in 1996. Old friend Gary Sheffield takes home MVP honors for the Junior Circuit after batting .341, hitting 50 home runs, and driving in 155 for the Yankees, while batting champ Dave Nilsson comes in third behind Sheffield and Ken Griffey, Jr. of the Mariners.

As the dominoes fall in free agency — Steve Avery back to the Braves, David Justice to the Yankees, Barry Bonds to the Mets — the Brewers and our young exec are sitting mostly on the sidelines. During the December amateur draft, Milwaukee selects left-hander Ricardo Rincon with the 23rd overall selection. Other notable picks include Pablo Ozuna (round 5), Shawn Camp (round 13), and David Riske (round 16). Infielder Jay Canizaro is plucked away from the Giants during the Rule 5 Draft at the end of the Winter Meetings.

On December 21st, the Brewers signed their first Major League free agent of the winter. Outfielder Derek Bell had just posted a 124 OPS+ with 25 home runs and 2.8 WAR in 150 games during his final season in San Diego, but interest in the 28 year old outfielder was tepid. Sensing a possible bargain, our GM swooped in and inked him to a one-year deal for $225K. At that price, what could the downside be? Infielders Dean Palmer, Jose Vizcaino, and Terry Shumpert were all added on minor league contracts to provide some upper level depth, but that was it as far as outside additions went before the team reported to Spring Training.

For the second year in a row, there were no new inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tommy John fell one agonizing percentage point short, garnering support on 74% of ballots. Ted Simmons (58.9%), Ron Guidry (56.7%), Luis Tiant (55.6%), and Dwight Evans (50.3%) were the only other candidates to get more than 50% of the votes.

With the team reporting to camp, owner Bryan Mikolajczak reached out to express his satisfaction with the team’s financial and competitive state after the offseason. He decided to reward our GM’s cost-cutting measures by...increasing the budget by $4 mil. A bit confused and frustrated by the now-loosened purse strings, our young executive began considering ways to use this newfound financial flexibility. The free agent market had been largely picked over by this time, but one notable name did remain — old friend Bryan Harvey had yet to find a home as the calendar turned to February. The familiarity between both sides made it easy to work out a deal, and Harvey agreed to return to for a third season in Milwaukee one a one-year deal with a base rate of $2.25 mil. The contract included a $2.5 mil option for 1998 along with a $250K buyout. John Gross was DFA’d to make room on the roster, and he was subsequently claimed by Seattle.

A couple of starters were felled with minor injuries towards the end of camp. Alex Ochoa strained his oblique and was out of commission for a couple of weeks, while Mark Loretta strained a back muscle and was missed about the same amount of time. Everyone else was healthy for Opening Day on the road against the Rangers, however, with John Burkett facing off against former Brewer Pete J. Smith. Much like his brief time in Milwaukee, Smith struggled, allowing six runs in 6.0 innings. Marty Cordova and Jose Valentin each hit three-run homers as the Brewers went on to win 11-6.

It was another up-and-down April for the Brewers after that win, however. The team endured a 1-8 stretch from the 12th-20th, including a five-game losing streak, and finished the first month of the season with a losing 12-14 record. John Jaha’s notoriously slow starts seem to be an annual thing now, and Sammy Sosa — now playing center field regularly — struggles to do much of anything at the plate besides hit for power. Reigning ROY Alex Rodriguez is struggling, too, enduring the all-too-common “sophomore slump.” Perhaps a bit of a World Series hangover is to blame, but early on tensions start to simmer in the clubhouse.

The front office decided to give Bell an internal suspension that lasted five games, and he was contrite upon his return. “I was in the wrong, no matter what was said or done, it wasn’t my place to get aggressive. Jaha is probably right too, I should be playing a bit harder. I apologize to my teammates.” But Bell, who was relegated to coming off the bench upon his return to the active roster, continued to cause problems in the clubhouse. Despite his meager salary and status as newcomer to the reigning champions, Bell made it known he was not happy about his role.

At this point, Bell was hitting .125/.250/.292 with a pair of homers in 16 games, so this represented the proverbial last straw. Our young GM began calling around the league shopping his unhappy player, and found a willing taker in the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bell was packaged up with infield prospect Zachary Hines and sent to Hollywood in exchange for outfielder Jay Payton and teenage relief prospect Carlos Alvarado. The deal worked out for both parties — Milwaukee subtracted a clubhouse distraction and received two solid young players who put up strong numbers in the minors over the rest of 1997. Bell found a starting role in LA and hit .335/.384/.519 with nine homers in 87 games to finish out the year.

The tide began to turn after the team put that issue behind them, and the Brewers managed a winning record in May (14-13) before turning the jets on as summer hit. John Jaha got his stuff figured out, A-Rod started to hit again, Rule 5 pick Jay Canizaro was returned to the Giants and replaced on the bench with Sharnol Adriana. Dave Nilsson took a bit of a step back from his MVP-level but was still playing at All-Star form, and so too was Rusty Greer (who run up another hit streak of over 20 games). John Burkett, Tom Gordon, and Ramon Martinez kept the team in ballgames as the top-3 members of the rotation, and Bryan Harvey and Graeme Lloyd were relief aces out of the bullpen. The Brewers went 18-10 in June and but were still four games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central by the time the trade deadline rolled around.

Without many enticing candidates on the trade market, our GM decided that an “addition by subtraction” strategy would be the best course of action. That brings us to right-hander Melido Perez. Who could forget the day that the Brewers inked Perez to a four-year contract? It was the first major move of our executive’s tenure, but a labrum injury at the end of year one of the deal changed the trajectory of Perez’s career. He managed to post roughly league-average results in 1995 and 1996 despite seeing his walk rate soar to near 6.0 BB/9, but all those free baserunners caught up with Perez in 1997. He was a replacement-level contributor (74.2 IP, 91 ERA+, -0.1 WAR) for the Brewers but his status and salary ($4.5 mil) kept him in the starting rotation. That is, until Detroit expressed interest in a bad-contract swap. Outfielder Phil Plantier was making $2.76 mil for the Tigers on a one-year deal, but was hitting .174/.273/.313 for a 53 OPS+ through 166 plate appearances. With an opening for a backup outfielder after the Derek Bell debacle, Milwaukee’s main decisionmaker pulled the trigger on the one-for-one swap. Perez finished out the year with a 6.11 ERA in 66.1 innings for Detroit, while Plantier fit in well with Milwaukee, putting together a .280/.364/.448 slash (110 OPS+) with five home runs in 143 plate appearances as the fourth outfielder to finish out the year.

Without Perez, lefties Thad Rowland and Shigeki Noguchi as well as right-hander Scott Karl got most of the available opportunities in the rotation down the stretch. Eventually, Rowland (116 ERA+) and Noguchi (110 ERA+) ended up nailing down those final two spots in the rotation. The team surged in the second half, going a combined 37-18 across August and September to finish the year with a 92-70 record and capture the AL Central crown over the Royals (88-74) and Indians (84-78). It was only the second time in franchise history that the club won back-to-back division titles (1981-82). This club was decidedly less dominant in this regular season as they were the previous campaign, however.

The offense was still strong, no doubt. They finished with a collective .279/.349/.454 slash line, adding up to the league’s second-best OPS. Milwaukee also finished 2nd in the league with 871 runs scored. But those impressive numbers were still a far cry from the .878 OPS and 1,084 runs scored in 1996. The pitching staff finished with a 4.48 ERA, which was close to last season (4.45) as a bottom-line total, but the hurlers fell from 4th to 10th in team ERA. The starters (4.50) and relievers (4.43) both finished in close proximity in terms of results. Several key players took steps back on the offensive side of the ball, while a young pitching staff struggled to provide consistent results.

The Brewers met the Angels in the ALDS, with John Burkett tossing 6.1 shutout innings to outduel Frank Viola (7.0 IP, 3 ER) on the way to a 3-0 Game 1 victory. Tom Gordon followed with a strong outing himself in Game 2, throwing seven innings and allowing three runs while the Cream City Nine defeated Javier Vazquez and Anaheim by a score of 9-3. But the Angels surged back from their 2-0 series deficit. Miguel Batista beat his old team in Game 3 thanks to a Tim Salmon home run, and Darin Erstad hit a walk-off against Bryan Harvey to lead Anaheim to a 6-5 win. The Brewers prevailed in the deciding Game 5, however, with John Burkett providing a quality start backed by RBI from Marty Cordova, Dave Nilsson, Phil Plantier, Alex Rodriguez, and Jose Valentin.

Next up in the ALCS was the 99-win Yankees, the top team in the American League in 1997. If you recall, this was a reprisal of the previous year’s Championship Series, with the Brewers moving on along the way to the World Series trophy. This time, however, the Yankees jumped out to a quick 2-0 series lead by winning both the beginning matchups by a score of 6-3. Both starters got knocked out of Game 3 by the third inning, but John Jaha and Phil Plantier each recorded 5 RBI for the Brewers before the end of a wild 17-11 affair. The Yanks came back to win Game 4 by a score of 5-4, and then closed out the series in an 11-4 Game 5 victory that was never particularly competitive. Unable to successfully defend their World Series title, our Brewers headed home.

It was a Subway Series for the Commissioner’s Trophy, with the Yankees dispatching the crosstown New York Mets in five games to conclude the 1997 season. Shortly after the playoffs ended it was announced that the league would expand by two teams and realign; the Brewers are taking this thing National! They’ll compete in the NL Central for the first time in 1998. Before that, however, our young GM has to decide which direction his team will go after three straight playoff appearances and a World Championship, and how he’ll adjust the roster to the Senior Circuit style of play without a designated hitter.

Here is the end of season roster:

1997 Real-Life Milwaukee Brewers: 78-83
1997 Redo Milwaukee Brewers: 90-72 || ALCS