Melvin talks Crew's bright spots, offseason plans
GM confident club can win with current roster, intends to add to first-base depth
MILWAUKEE -- Two days after the end of a season that saw the Brewers win 12 of their final 18 games but finish 14 games under .500, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said he wanted more than an annual strong finish.
"I can't stand here every year and say we had a great second half," Melvin said. "That doesn't work. … It doesn't win championships, it doesn't get to the postseason.
"But it's encouraging. There's still work to be done from our point of view."
In a wide-ranging press conference at Miller Park, Melvin recapped the Brewers' disappointing season and provided a framework for some of that work ahead. He arrived with a cheat sheet, listing some of the reasons for his optimism -- including improved pitching after the All-Star break, the performances of callups like second baseman Scooter Gennett and outfielder Khris Davis, and young, cost-controlled talent through the middle of the field, with All-Stars Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez coming off career years.
But Melvin also spoke of the need to figure out first base, to help young pitchers including Wily Peralta and Johnny Hellweg take the next step in their development and more generally about the team's challenges in a competitive National League Central that produced half of the NL's six winning records and three of its five postseason participants.
"Can we win with this roster? Yeah, we can win with the roster we have," Melvin said. "Again, a lot of things have to go right, the younger players have to take the next step in development and our best players have to be on the field. I think if our best players are on the field and our young guys take that next step, we can be there. Last year, we got eliminated in the last week of the season. If you look at some of the teams that are out there, it takes a lot of talent to win. We'll keep working at it."
He tied the team's shortcomings to its devastating losses in the middle of the batting order. First baseman Corey Hart and third baseman Aramis Ramirez saw their seasons ruined by knee injuries, left fielder Ryan Braun played through a power-sapping hand injury before he was suspended and second baseman Rickie Weeks got off to another terribly slow start before his season-ending hamstring injury. That quartet combined for 119 home runs in 2012 -- and 31 homers in 2013.
It remains to be seen whether Hart, a free agent, and Weeks, who could lose his starting job to the upstart Gennett, are part of the plan for 2014, but Melvin said the Brewers will rely on getting more from their core contributors.
"For the past two years we've relied on younger players, but for us to get better, for us to perform, our star players have to perform," Melvin said. "They have to come to the forefront. You look at the game last night with Tampa, and [Evan] Longoria and [David] Price come to the forefront. Our star power wasn't there this year to help us. I'm not going to be pointing fingers, but it's just the facts. For us to perform better, we have to get more out of our veteran players from a performance standpoint and a health standpoint, too."
He argued that the Brewers may be paying a price in the past two seasons for their postseason clubs of 2008 and 2011. Indians outfielder Michael Brantley was part of the package that landed CC Sabathia in '08, and the Brewers traded away up-and-coming third baseman Brett Lawrie, shortstop Alcides Escobar, pitcher Jake Odorizzi and outfielder Lorenzo Cain to get Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum for '11.
"We would have had five top-quality young players come out of our system if we'd have just sat back and not made any trades, and we would have probably got applauded for having a good Minor League system at that point," Melvin said. "But we made the trades. We don't look back on it. The winning was fun, the winning was important to this organization, and now we're at that next step where we have a new breed of younger players coming along, and I look forward to the challenge.
"I think it's going to be a fun offseason, and I look forward to the challenge to try to get this team back into postseason. There is a lot of work to be done amongst our baseball staff, but I think we can do it."
Melvin always comes armed with at least one intriguing statistic, and on Tuesday it was this:
"If we would have scored 776 runs -- the reason I use that is because that's what we used in 2012 -- we would have had a 90-run differential if we had the same offense in 2013 as in 2012. Our pitching improved that much," he said. "We would have had a 90-run differential, which the analytics people say is somewhere between 8-10 games over .500. Looking at all of that, I think our biggest problem was the difference of not scoring runs this year compared to last year."
Among the individual positions covered on Tuesday:
• After setting out to improve the bullpen last winter -- and succeeding -- Melvin spoke of broader goals for this winter but said first base is certainly on his list. Without Hart, the Brewers were last in the Majors with a .629 OPS from seven different first basemen, none of whom had ever started a Major League game at that position before this season.
"Setting out a priority means you might go after one [area], but you can't neglect something that needs to be improved on," Melvin said. "First base is probably the biggest area if we can improve on some of the production there."
Hart has already expressed a desire to return at a discount, but the Brewers will wait a few more weeks for reports on his surgically repaired knees.
"Corey will be in the mix," Melvin said. "It's just a decision where we'll have to weigh the risk factor involved with someone coming off an injury that hasn't played all year. But his name is in the list of names that we'll consider."
Juan Francisco and prospect Hunter Morris will also garner consideration, Melvin said, but Francisco would need to produce more quality at-bats and Morris would need to bounce back from a disappointing season at Triple-A.
• Melvin is in no hurry to settle second base, where Weeks will earn $11 million in the final guaranteed year of his contract but was out-played by Gennett.
"I don't think that's a concern," Melvin said. "It's not something we're going to worry about. Knowing Scooter can play the way he did, he probably has an edge right now. Rickie's got to come back from his injury. Rickie will be in Spring Training and will be out there to try to get back playing time. Any athlete doesn't want to give up his position. Rickie won't want to give it up, but that decision will be made in Spring Training. There's nothing in the offseason for us to determine that."
• An outfield shakeup could be in store.
The Brewers have discussed internally the merits of asking Braun to move to right field to open playing time for Davis, who hit 11 home runs in only 136 at-bats but possesses a left fielder's throwing arm. That would raise questions about right fielder Norichika Aoki, whose club option is sure to be exercised by the Brewers after another solid season. Aoki will be a free agent after 2014.
"Those things are like pitching. You never have enough," Melvin said of the Brewers' outfield depth. "Look at the injuries that can happen. Aoki can play left field; he can play right field. Whenever we make those decisions, he's probably going to be a part of that offense. You've got to have depth, too, if you're not going to get involved in free agency. We don't know that yet; we don't know where that market is going. Probably outfield is where we have a trade piece if we want to trade to maybe fill another hole."
Melvin may visit Braun in Los Angeles over the winter to lay the groundwork for Braun's return from suspension.
"I think he'll be accepted [by teammates] when he comes back, because I think everybody knows we need Ryan to come back and perform," Melvin said. "He was punished for what he did. I don't know the details and there's no need in getting into them -- he served his penalty, so beyond that I don't think there's anything else to discuss from that standpoint."
Will Braun be a distraction to the ballclub?
"I don't think internally," Melvin said. "He's going to have some tough times, probably, when you go into visiting ballparks. He's going to have to handle that. He knows that."